Is there a future for ‘Trumpism’?

PETER B. GEMMA says ‘Trumpism’ was always more about attitude than ideas

The future of “Trumpism,” (geez, I hate that term on so many levels as you will find out), is really a two-part question: American politics with or without Donald Trump. The quick answer is of course, President Donald Trump (he still is as I write; and, no, after January I will not be saying “Biden? He’s not my President”, as the Clintonites have done for four years) will long have an impact on politics.

This writer has never had a legitimate job; political campaigns and issue advocacy is all I know. I read every word of political junk mail, hold my breath when campaign commercials come on, and I ingest the writings of commentators, no matter what the axe they may be grinding. One of my favorites is Andrew Sullivan, the British-born American author, blogger, and former editor of The New Republic. He is a left-wing pundit full of common sense. In his essay, “Trump Is Gone. Trumpism Just Arrived,”[1] Sullivan says it best:

His impact, however, is undeniable. Neoconservatism is over; globalization as some kind of conservative principle is over; a conservatism that allows for or looks away from unrestrained mass immigration is over. What was cemented in place this week is a new GOP, not unlike the new Tories in the UK. They’re nationalist, culturally conservative, geared toward the losers of capitalism as well as its winners, and mildly protectionist and isolationist. It is a natural response to the unintended consequences of neoliberalism’s success under a conservative banner. And it speaks in a language that working class Americans understand, devoid of the woke neologisms of the educated elite. It seems to me that this formula is a far more settled and electorally potent coalition than what we now see among the deeply divided Democrats.

Barry Goldwater on the campaign trail

A quick glance back: I do not have time to tell the story of 1964, when the conservative icon Barry Goldwater was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in a landslide, and whose most ardent supporters rallied to the cry, “26,000,000 Americans can’t be wrong!” They went on to create the Reagan era. Goldwater’s movement ain’t got nothin’ on what the Trump loyalists could do if they believe 74,000,000 Americans can’t be wrong.

Of course, it’s not that easy an equation, given the political/philosophical/social mish-mash of followers Trump attracted and the current wailing and gnashing of teeth about a ‘stolen’ election, but you get the drift: if we take our loses, learn some lessons, we can lurch forward.

Before we look at what might be next in politics, it’s time to address the what the current election fuss is all about. Did Trump really lose? After all, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to call into question Biden’s winning margin in swing states. In the final months of the campaign, the ground rules of the election changed in a way that helped Democrats and stymied Republicans. In Pennsylvania, where ballots received after the election were counted (not kosher in any previous election), 63% of the mail-in ballot requests came from Democrats, and 25% from Republicans. In North Carolina, 46 % of mail-in ballots were from Democrats, and just 20% were from Republicans. In a contest with an historic turnout, President-elect Joe Biden apparently topped President Donald Trump by nearly seven million votes, and 74 votes in the Electoral College, but his victory really was stitched together with narrow margins in a handful of states with . As National Public Radio pointed out,

just 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin separated Biden and Trump from a tie in the Electoral College. Of course, Trump is no stranger to narrow victories. He won the 2016 election thanks to just under 80,000 combined votes in three of six key states [2]

Does the American democratic election process work? Yes. Is there a factor of fraud and honest mistakes in every count? Yes. Is a stolen election easy to prove? Not very often, and most likely in local races. Will the entire 2020 election results be overthrown? Nope.

The election-was-stolen-and-all-is-lost hysteria among some conservatives reminds this writer of the Obama birth certificate hoopla. Sure, there may have been some reasons to doubt Barack Hussein Obama was born in the United States, thus making him ineligible to serve, but time marched on. There certainly wasn’t enough solid legal evidence, so reality had to be faced. Once conservatives got out of the mode of ‘he’s not my President’ and hunkered down for guerilla warfare against the Democrats, Donald Trump sensed there was a movement to lead and he triumphed.

“Donald Trump sensed there was a movement to lead…”

What the hell happened?

Again, I turn to Andrew Sullivan:

This was far from the Biden landslide I had been dreaming about a few weeks back. It was rather the moment that the American people surgically removed an unhinged leader and re-endorsed the gist of his politics. It was the moment that Trump’s core message was seared into one of our major political parties for the foreseeable future, and realigned American politics.

Trump was deliberately bellicose and belligerent, eliciting cheers from his supporters for his chutzpah and gasps from everyone else, including swing voters.

NBC political analysts described the election happened this way:

Heading into the election, Democrats dreamed it would go something like Star Wars, with rebel forces blowing up the Death Star and celebrating in the streets as a blue wave swept them into power in Washington and state capitals across the country, but President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory ended up looking more like the horror movie Alien, with the last bedraggled survivor kicking the monster out the airlock and then drifting off to an uncertain fate in deep dark space. And wherever they ended up, there would probably be another alien…the results were brutal down the ballot for Democrats in ways that could haunt them for years [3]

So, what really happened? Trump lost. He pushed the envelope of civility and consistency off the edge. As conservative commentator Tucker Carlson tells it,

Donald Trump is a talker, a boaster, a booster, a compulsive self-promoter. At times, he’s a full-blown BS artist

The appearance of boldness and defiance was a two-edged sword, with one side, explainable as a self-made New York tough guy, but the other was a bit sharper: inconsistent, incompetent, and uncaring.

Trump did instigate a (nascent) movement, which is hard to assess this early, but something is shaking the ground. In an amazing showing, Trump supporters squared off against powerful special interests, from the media to Wall Street moguls, and they are still standing. About 98% of political contributions from internet companies this cycle went to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The CEOs of Asana, Twilio, and Netflix were among the biggest contributors, and they all targeted Democratic groups and candidates.

One interesting sidebar: the media’s censorship of negative stories about Joe Biden may have cost Trump the election, according to a poll published by the Media Research Center (MRC). Among those surveyed, one in six Biden voters said they would not have voted for the president-elect if they had been aware of one or more of negative news stories presented to them, the poll found. MRC’s poll, conducted by The Polling Company, asked voters about eight news stories that “the liberal news media had failed to cover properly,” a press release from MRC stated. “A shift of this magnitude would have changed the outcome in all six of the swing states won by Joe Biden,” the MRC determined.[4]

New York Post columnist Karol Marcowicz noted,

The big takeaway from the Trump years for conservatives should be that the era of politeness when dealing with an impossibly biased, and agenda-driven, legacy media has ended and should never return. Republicans in general, and conservatives in particular, had come to expect that they would never be treated fairly by the news media. To the legacy media, Republicans fell into two categories: Hitler or worse than Hitler. Republicans considered avoidance better than confrontation. Donald Trump didn’t. Supporters made Trump’s willingness to fight a key refrain. He does not take things in stride. He punches back. Even for conservatives who opposed him, such as me, it was fun to watch. He called out everything and everyone [5]

The Democrats were caught by surprise in November. After four long years of demonizing Donald Trump (and he made it soooo easy), they reached deep into their pockets to fund a blue wave: states were targeted to flip local legislatures; overturning the Republican majority in the Senate was a glorious crusade, and strengthening the edge Democrats held in the Congress was an easy win. Democrats ran the first billion-dollar presidential campaign, outraising Trump by about 60%. However …

  • In key U.S. Senate races, Democrats outspent Republicans: in Maine, it was $70 million to $24 million, but they lost by nine points; Republican majority leader Senator Mitch McConnell was re-elected in a landslide despite falling $40 million short of what his opponent raised; Republicans won the Alaska Senate seat although the Democrats spent twice as much money; and in North Carolina, the Democrat vs. Republican spending ratio was nearly three-to-one but they were defeated. The two Senate seats in Georgia are still in play in a run-off, however, historically Republicans are favored there.
  • Democrats now have the narrowest margin in the House of Representatives since World War II – not a single Republican incumbent, all tightly tied by their opponents to President Trump, was defeated. With their dramatic gains this year, the House is, by historical political measure, headed for a party flip in 2022.
  • The blue wave of 2018 left Democrats just a few seats away from a majority in a dozen state chambers. They lost across the board, with Republicans actually flipping control of two state legislatures in states that Biden won. Republicans will have control next year of 20 state governments that will collectively draw 188 new congressional districts, while the Democrats will control 73 districts; the number of Republican governors increased to a 27-23 margin.

The governing implications for Joe Biden and the Democrats are stark: getting any sort of partisan measure through the House will require near-unanimity inside their party, forcing negotiations with various factions of lawmakers resulting in fewer aspirational “messaging” bills and radical legislation. Meanwhile, an emboldened Republican minority will look to wreak havoc and magnify internal disputes ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

Trump lost, but did Trumpism win?

I don’t really know, but some people think so. Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s take:

This mass secret vote revealed that the New York Times’ woke narrative of America – the centuries-long suffocating oppression of minorities and women by cis white straight men – is simply a niche elite belief, invented in a bubble academy, and imposed by bullying, shaming and if possible, firing dissenters. Some of us who refused to cower can gain real satisfaction from knowing we were not mad, not evil, not bigots, and that a huge swathe of our fellow citizens agrees

J.D. Scholten, a promising but losing Democratic congressional candidate in Iowa, put it this way: “There’s something culturally that is working for Republicans and it’s definitely not for Democrats,” noting that his campaign message faulting Trump’s handling of the coronavirus didn’t resonate with voters. He called the election a “Trump tidal wave” in rural areas, places where Democrats had made some progress in the state in the 2018 midterm election: “We got smoked. There’s no sugarcoating it.”[6]

A Democrat campaign manager for a local candidate in Pennsylvania said,

There’s a significant difference between a referendum on a clown show, which is what we had at the top of the ticket, and embracing the values of the Democratic ticket…People bought into Joe Biden to stop the insanity in the White House. They did not suddenly become Democrats

So, the Democrats lost, Republicans did far better than expected, but did Trumpism as a movement win?

Peering through the smoke that follows the 2020 election battle, there seems to be a new coalition forging so perhaps it is true that there is a Trump movement, but it looks like people, not an “ism.”

Biden and Trump represent starkly different Americas, according to the Associated Press VoteCast survey of more than 110,000 voters in all 50 states. Trump voters in the survey were overwhelmingly white—about 86% nationally—compared with 62% of Biden voters. Only a fourth of Biden supporters come from small towns or rural areas. Nearly half of Trump voters live in those areas. More white women voted for President Donald Trump in 2020 (55%) compared to the 52% who voted for him in 2016, according to a New York Times exit poll. Trump solidified his base; he even pulled out more voters in New York City, where he cut his home ties and moved to Florida, than he did four years ago.

Biden was the beneficiary of a anyone-but-Trump constituency. Among Trump voters, 90% say they voted for the president, while just eight percent said they were voting against Biden. Among Democrats, only 56% said they were voting for Biden. Twenty-nine percent revealed they were voting against Trump, while a surprisingly high 15% were not sure.[7]

Andrew Sullivan dug into other statistics:

For the past five years, Democrats have been telling us that Trump and his supporters were white supremacists, that he was indeed the “First White President,” that all minorities were under assault by the modern day equivalent of the KKK. And yet, the GOP got the highest proportion of the minority vote since 1960!

Sullivan goes on to use another exclamation point:

Twenty-eight percent of the gay, lesbian and transgender population also went for Trump. The gay vote for Trump may have doubled! White women still voted for Trump by 55%. Among white women with no college education, arguably those most vulnerable to the predations of men [like Trump] gave him 60% support.

Sullivan could use another exclamation point: Trump increased support from Black voters by 50%, the largest share of that constituency any Republican has garnered in a half century! (He also carried a majority of the Native American vote.) The Democrats’ rejection among white, working-class voters (not poor people), particularly in rural areas and small towns, helped lead to their disappointments and a demographic description of a Trump movement.

Democrats have largely abandoned the working and middle class. Trump won three-quarters of the white working-class vote, down only slightly from 2016. He did best with those who work with their hands, in factories, the logistics industry and energy, notes a recent study by CityLab. Some 10,000 small businesses have closed because of Draconian edicts overwhelmingly put in place by Democrats. The residual effect, politically, has just begun.

Let me be clear at this point: Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump. The Democrats identified, motivated, and got out a record-breaking number of supporters, albeit on what seems to be an anti-Trump message. Indeed, Biden (according to exit polls) still won nearly three-quarters of nonwhite voters, a majority of union members, and a majority of those making under $100,000.

In politics and public policy debates, change happens mainly on the margin. Small riders – issue ornaments – to big bills, can make or break whole legislative agendas. Slight shifts in demographics and small inroads into key constituencies can change the outcome of an election and help define a movement. 

A postcard from the Spanish-American War, when Americans helped Cubans throw off Spanish rule

Currently, the face of Trumpism is not quite in focus. Donald Trump lost the presidency but showed Republicans a way to win the culture wars with working-class Hispanics by not talking to them as Hispanics. Trump earned 28% of Latino votes in 2016 and approximately 32% in 2020. Despite four years of being defined as a racist for his rhetoric and immigration policies, Trump improved his margins in 78 of the nation’s 100 majority-Hispanic counties.

“We can’t even fathom that there are a lot of Mexicans who love Donald Trump,” said Chuck Rocha, a Texas-raised Democratic strategist who runs Nuestro PAC, a super PAC focused on Latino outreach. “Biden won, and that’s great, but everything underneath Biden was a huge catastrophe.” Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX) explained the phenomenon this way: “What Trump did is understand the basic values of Hispanics.”

As Biden forces ran the usual Spanish-language ads, Donald Trump, Jr. visited a Hispanic Pentecostal church to campaign for his father – far more visible. A 2017 Pew Research study concluded,

Most Latinos see religion as a moral compass to guide their own political thinking, and they expect the same of their political leader [and] most Latinos view the pulpit as an appropriate place to address social and political issues. Latinos who are evangelicals are twice as likely as those who are Catholics to identify with the Republican Party [8]

The President launched “Evangelicals for Trump” in January by visiting El Rey Jesús Global, a megachurch in Miami led by Pastor Guillermo Maldonado.

Miami-Dade is Florida’s largest county with the largest Latino population. Trump lost there by almost 30 %age points in 2016. He lost it by just seven points in November. Florida Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who was defeated in her re-election bid, said the Democratic Party “thinks racial identity is how we vote.”

For years, Democrats expressed confidence that the country’s increasingly diverse, less-white electorate would give them an edge long-term over Republicans. Identity politics of the Democrats, “what’s in it for us,” lost. Trump’s version “it’s us versus them,” won.

“What’s in it for us” even took a beating in California where there is a majority-minority population: voters defeated an attempt to revoke a 1996 binding referendum that banned the use of race, national origin, or sex by state universities and other agencies. The left has spent almost a quarter-century trying to reverse that policy, but its latest attempt lost handily despite a 14-to-one margin in campaign spending.

There was a discernible (even remarkable) shift on the margins according to election results data, and the media elite are noticing. Axios CEO Jim VandeHei conceded,

The media remains fairly clueless about the America that exists outside of the big cities, where most political writers and editors live. The coverage missed badly the surge in Trump voters in places obvious (rural America) and less obvious (Hispanic-heavy border towns in Texas)

He chides his fellow elites too:

Let’s be honest: Many of us under-appreciated the appeal of Trump’s anti-socialism message and the backlash against the defund-the-police rhetoric on the left. The media (and many Democrats) are clueless about the needs, wants and trends of Hispanic voters. Top Latinos warned about overlooking and misreading the fastest-growing population in America, but most didn’t listen. Hispanics will shape huge chunks of America’s political future

The future of something called Trumpism is in the hands of grass roots Trump supporters, and they may have momentum as fissures between traditional liberal Democrats and far-left progressives are cracking. Writer and left-wing activist Lauren Martinchek notes,

There is no Donald Trump the boogeyman for them [mainstream Democrats] to hide behind anymore. Whether they like it or not, especially with Trump out of the way, the left is not through with the Democratic party. While the liberals go back to brunch, we’ll gladly be getting ready for primaries. We don’t have the time, nor the patience to sit here and listen while loyal liberal voters inevitably tell us to pipe down because midterms are on the way. You had 2020. We’ll take it from here [9]

The Democrats seem likely to give Trump (as a shadow President who doesn’t know how to whisper) the opportunity to represent a large portion of the American middle and working classes over the next four years. He will embolden his supporters to be active and, frankly, a pain in the ass for Democrats and Republicans. The Biden agenda will be tweaked, stymied, compromised, and come under fire by the left and right in Congress.[10] David Shor, a Democratic polling and data expert who advised liberal political action committees this cycle, observed,

It is mathematically almost impossible for our current coalition to wield electoral power…There’s a lot of people in the party who are uncomfortable with the implications of the idea that we really have to adopt a maximalist attempt to appeal to (white) working-class voters

These conditions look very promising for a Trumpism movement. Save for one thing: Donald Trump.

The real question is, what is Trumpism?

If you string together all the data and observations above, the answer looks like there is a movement afoot, a new coalition of voters that have the political elites worried. However, movements, especially those led by charismatic leaders, come and go.

Congressman Ron Paul’s Republican presidential crusades of 1992 and 1996 raised buckets of money, attracted thousands to rallies, and scored far better than pollsters predicted. Without Ron Paul as the active figurehead, they have become one influence within the Republican Party (I was a paid consultant for the Paul campaign in those races). Senator Bernie Sanders, Paul’s mirror image in the Democrat Party, started a movement via his campaigns of 2016 and 2020 which is having great impact on the political process – that movement may last beyond Sanders himself as new socialist firebrands arise, namely Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

It’s hard to define Trump’s following as a movement because there is no ideological definition of “Trumpism.” Trump wrote red-ink annual budgets. He’s no fiscal conservative but he converted the formerly tightwad Republicans into supporting more national debt. He is a progressive when it comes to gay rights and inclusion, something that doesn’t mix well with his ardent pro-life and Evangelical base. Trump tends to shy away from international military excursions, angst for the heart and soul of traditional Republican war hawks and their moneyed arms industry friends. What unites the wide variety of constituencies that was hammered together over the past four years is Donald Trump himself. His machismo attitude, anti-establishment rhetoric, and something for everyone agenda (ill-defined populism) added up to a remarkable political statement in 2020, albeit he lost the presidency. At any given time, Trump was a moderate, conservative, populist, nationalist, or almost any combination thereof.

The famous ‘King-Emperor’ meme

Donald Trump is Donald Trump. Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, whose names one can associate with a particular world vision, the thought of Donald Trump brings his style to mind: authoritarian, pugnacious, and contrarian, which in turn can be applied to positions on guns, immigration, foreign trade, etc. In fact, the Trump style, can at any time give emphasis to look nationalist, populist, or traditionally Republican in appearance. That inconsistency actually turned into a magnet because of Donald Trump playing Donald Trump; the glue to his particular coalition is in his blood.

Joel Kotkin, Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University: noted,

Trump’s challenge to the establishmentarian worldview will resonate, even after the election. His willingness to stand up to China’s trade policies violated the interests of the corporate elite, tech, Hollywood, and the mainstream media, all of whom almost without exception backed his opponent

Donald Trump is an anti-establishment personality, but does not represent a philosophy or an ideology, the why of Trumpism. It isn’t even about the how Trumpism works, since Donald Trump’s way of business and government is chaotic.

I’m afraid the essence of Trumpism is Donald Trump. Most of his issues have been on the agenda of conservatives and Republicans for generations: a robust economy via low taxes, minimal government regulation; very shy of international entanglements, always uphold law and order. Those platforms made political conservatives moderately successful in recent years, with some emphasis or exemptions. Different shades of traditional issues, often itself shaded by political figureheads, actually define populist, nationalist, socialist, etc. What brought Republicans into the White House was the very personality of Donald Trump. His narrow loss in 2020 was remarkable in that the issues he originally campaigned on – seasoned by the way he actually served as President (and as perceived by the media) – resulted in 12 million more supporters (significant considering a small segment of Republicans had walked away.) They didn’t flock to the polls because we needed a strong China policy, or easier/cheaper ways to produce oil, or even the promise of a wall between Mexico and America, it was because Donald Trump was promising those things which brought out 74,000,000 voters.

As Pat Buchanan observed,

The American electorate failed to perform its designated role in the establishment’s morality play. Nor was it repudiated by the people if, by Trumpism, one means ‘America First’ nationalism, securing our borders, using tariffs to bring back our manufacturing base, bidding goodbye to globalism, staying out of unnecessary wars and swearing off ideological crusades [11] 

For better or worse, because of Donald Trump, there will have to be a personality attached to a platform so it can be interpreted as populist, nationalist, conservative, and moderate as needed (Joe Biden was the anti-personality personality attached to a neo-socialist platform doing the same thing). If not Donald Trump, then it will have to be a candidate whose technique and can give a shine of vibrant hues to the party platform. Trumpism without Trump will have to be a different “ism,” because the real legacy of Donald Trump isn’t a movement but a style.






[6] “2020 Election Lesson: Trump’s Coalition Proved Durable,” byJoshua Jamerson, Julie Bykowicz, andChad Day, Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2020 




[10] Politically, what’s ahead does not frighten this writer. The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a short statement to Congress, explained why a divided American government, with the three branches split among differing parties and ideologies, works best for the Republic: things move slowly, ensuring no radical transformation, alteration, or reversal that ultimately will not change the basic framework set out by the Founding Fathers (