The Administration

Defining Trumpism: Making sense of the first 100 days

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The shock and awe with which the Trump administration initially took office has given way to an apparent lull, a period of seeming disorientation and grasping for direction.

There are reports of a palace coup against Stephen Bannon and of an assertion of control by steadier hands.

But make no mistake: this is a dangerous moment with a White House occupied by a president whose only qualification for election was a charismatic connection with a strategically located base swayed by nostalgic images of a once-and-future “great” America. 

{mosads}It is dangerous because the president’s only real political capital is his charisma, and charismatic leaders must deliver heroic feats. With the morass on the domestic side, Trump has turned his limited attention span to international affairs, where the risks of miscalculation and violent death are much greater.


Many have struggled to find a label for Trumpism, and this is important as a means of reducing the entropy generated by the administration and as a guide to how to respond to whatever policy initiatives might emerge.

The problem is that it is difficult to give a name to lack of direction, psychological emptiness, and familial self-dealing. Let me suggest “capitalist neo-traditionalism.” The term is meant to capture several features of the Trump White House.

First, President Trump seems intent upon restoring a model of capitalism and of American life with decidedly traditional features, taken straight from the set of “Mad Men.”

Women are meant to be demure, sexy, and measured chiefly by their physical attractiveness. Business is to be run by tough-guy entrepreneurs and families headed by a patriarch, not by callow non-owner managers.

The chief qualification for employment is loyalty, not competence.

The economy should consist primarily of resource extraction and of building things, not of services and high-tech innovation. There should be few constraints on those who produce wealth. As with all of Trump’s images of a desirable world, his ideal is the Wild West-style of capitalism that preceded the modern regulatory state, although Social Security can stay.

Next, the United States is to be run chiefly by white, Judeo-Christian men. The United States is a country that should dominate everyone else, because it is Donald Trump’s country and the one that made his father wealthy. 

These white men are to get the best possible deal for the United States when it comes to trade and national security; we can ignore cultural differences that may lead the representatives of other countries to view their interests in other than transactional terms.

Or at least we can do so until one of them that is sufficiently powerful tells us that that is the not case; hence China forced President Trump to kowtow to it and to accept the one-China policy before it would conduct any further negotiations.

Finally, the United States should not serve as the world’s policeman unless there are “bad hombres” out there who we think it might be satisfying to punish for their fiendishness.

From this perspective, Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-un are appealing targets; many people would (and do) regard measures to put them in their place as appropriate and necessary.

Ultimately, however, the President believes that the security of the United States is best served by a policy of unpredictability; if others, such as our partners in NATO, find this unnerving, so much the worse for them.

The vacillation between isolationism and moralistic interventionism is a traditional hallmark of American foreign policy, but usually one or the other is characteristic of an administration – not both within the first 100 days.

It should be obvious that this neo-traditional orientation to the world is profoundly backward-looking and has little to do with the world in which we actually live today. The “West Wing Democrats,” including Gary Cohn, Jared Kushner, and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump appear to be moving to the fore and insisting on some competence in regard to the economy.

The generals, previously thought to be a source of stability in an administration with little foreign policy or military experience, have sustained a black eye with the confusion about the Navy fleet that was said to be, but was not, headed for the Korean peninsula to intimidate the North.

Over and over again, since the collapse of the health insurance reform effort, it looks like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

Worse, however, is the fact that the administration increasingly seems to combine the kleptocratic rule of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi with the nuclear-tipped unpredictability of Kim Jong Un. The most-discussed policy initiative at the moment seems to be around tax reform, which appears likely to be a grand giveaway to the wealthy.

Meanwhile, at least some of Trump’s supporters are beginning to wonder whether they voted for the right guy; the promises of jobs, jobs, jobs have not materialized and are not likely to do so without the elusive plan for big infrastructure expenditures and with the main targets of administration support being such labor-shedding industries as coal mining and manufacturing.

Given all the obstacles to achievement on the domestic front and the need for charismatic leaders to “win” big and visibly, President Trump may look to score what he thinks are easy victories on the international scene.

We now know that Xi Jinping seems to have persuaded him in Florida that things with North Korea are more complicated than he had thought. Yet the man’s ignorance is frightening, and we know that he has a tendency to listen to the last person who advised him.

If he talks to the wrong person, therefore, he may go looking for trouble that is bad for us and for the world. We must therefore worry that the president will go off in search of dragons to slay simply in order to maintain his heroic stature among his base.

This may all go in a very bad direction; behind the attacks on Syria may lurk a larger objective, namely Iran. Notwithstanding Xi’s counsel, putting the North Korean threat to rest may look to Trump like an appealing prize.

We should not believe that the current lull is the last we have heard of the shock and awe. Capitalist neo-traditionalism may look good from the gilded halls of Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago, but the pressure on the charismatic entrepreneur-patriarch to “produce” may lead us down a very dangerous path.

John Torpey is Presidential Professor of Sociology and History and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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