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What is Trumpism, exactly?
And why do we remain so complacent about it?
A few years back, the mathematician and writer Cathy O’Neill cheekily noted that Trump the politician behaved an awful lot like a machine-learning algorithm. He doesn’t behave like he has any real beliefs, she observed; he more responds to incoming data as an algorithm might if it were a politician-bot tasked with soliciting strong reactions from a crowd.
The memory of that piece forced its way into my awareness as I sat reflecting on the chapter in Brad DeLong’s new book which discusses the rise of fascism. Mussolini, Brad writes, was a socialist who became disillusioned with his chosen ideology when the socialists of Europe, who had promised to respond to declarations of war by calling general strikes which would force politicians to pursue peace, instead responded to the July crisis of 1914 by joining the broader nationalistic fervor and going to work operating the war machine. Off socialism, impressed by the power of ethno-nationalism, and keen to lead a mass movement, Mussolini crept and felt his way toward a set of core principles, based in large part on what seemed to work best: another algorithm, learning from incoming data.
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What was it that became the tenets of fascism? Brad flirts with the notion that actually there was never much of anything coherent there: just an algorithmically learning leader exploiting the intoxicating power of nationalism to elevate himself into a position of power, through which he could enjoy access to wealth or adulation or whatever his troubled soul desired. But even if fascism often is that, it is also something else—and its capacity to attract millions of supporters is the proof.
What is that something else? It is a belief, first, in the fundamental importance of the ethno-nationalist community, appeals to which have a terrible unifying and inspirational power. It is implacably opposed to socialism and to liberalism, and the boundaries of the ethno-nationalist community are often drawn to exclude those associated, in reality or through insinuation, with such beliefs. It embraces a certain economic pragmatism and rejects deference to the market; the role of business is to follow the lead of the state and pursue those goals which best serve the interest of the ethno-nationalist community, as judged by the leader. And yes, it is about the leader: a figure who charts a course for his people, who through force of will can overcome all obstacles to action, who sees in the rule of law and the operation of normal political institutions only weakness and failure.
It is not on its face a particularly alluring set of principles, and its appeal has to be understood in the context of the shortcomings of other ideologies. In the middle of the 20th century, those shortcomings were all too obvious. The pre-1914 economic and political order had failed spectacularly, yielding inequality and war, then chaos and depression. Socialism, meanwhile, seemed an appealing alternative to many people but a terrifying one to many others, mostly the ones that owned property. And in that muddle, fascism found its moment. It was never the kind of movement that commanded large electoral majorities. But then it was never the kind of movement which was going to let a little thing like that stop it from gaining power.
In any case, Brad’s treatment of fascism prompted the memory of Cathy’s piece. And it did so in part because the other main item of Sunday reading I’d been through was the current issue of The Economist, which through a few different pieces assesses the state of Trumpism and the Republican party. There is a very good briefing which describes how the GOP has become ever more a Trumpist party, there is a nice business piece on the fractures opening up between the Republican party and big business, and other stories too; you won’t be able to read them if you’re not a subscriber, but you should be.
Now, I don’t want to discuss things which happen behind the editorial curtain, but a big question hanging over the package was the extent to which there might be a Trumpism without Trump, and if so what it might have at its heart. It’s a question which lots of writers at lots of publications have grappled with over the past year, as Trump’s hold over the party has strengthened, even as the road to a second Trump presidency remains dotted with obstacles: from his age to his legal troubles.
Is there a Trumpism without Trump? It’s a useful question, because it forces us to try to work out what all of this is actually about. Trump’s own financial and emotional self-interest? Very much so. But to write the Trump phenomenon off as a con-job and nothing more would be a mistake—and its capacity to attract millions of supporters is a big piece of the proof. A machine-learning algorithm doesn’t need to be a conscious thing with a complex set of political beliefs to tell us something important about the data on which it’s been trained.
Instead I think we need to recognize that it exploits the power of ethno-nationalism to unify and inspire. Many people, myself included, have seen Trumpism as being animated in large part by racism, but in fact that’s not quite right—as its appeal to many non-white Americans, and the Trumpified GOP’s capacity to absorb them, helps illustrate. Trumpy nationalism has room for people of different races, provided that they are not part of the Other: the liberal anti-patriots who fail to show sufficient respect to real Americans, who fail to love their country, and whose kooky beliefs threaten the health and security of the American nation.
Some writers process this failure of the Trumpist movement to adhere to a familiar racism by trying to reinterpret it through a classist lens. I think, actually, that our package this week makes this mistake here and there. But the GOP isn’t becoming a working-class party. It’s still full of rich people, and it still votes for lots of pro-business policies and against lots of pro-worker policies. Its evolution may be better understood as a movement toward a certain kind of economic pragmatism: in which the interests of the nationalist community are preeminent, and in which certain liberal cows can be slaughtered in the pursuit of national ends. Trump illustrated this very well during his presidency. He signed into law a big tax cut. He also tried to make the American economy more insular, and he tried to jawbone American businesses into helping him with this goal. Class never had anything to do with it; economic theories, of one sort or another, never had anything to do with it. There was something else at work.
And then of course, Trumpism is about Trump: the leader with no time for the hindrances of law and established institutions, in his supporters’ eyes the nation and the ideology personified. So: if you take that away, is there anything left? Is there a domesticated little American version of the national front, which can be trusted to loathe immigrants while also dutifully abiding by electoral law?
And in the end, I think that really isn’t the critical question just now, given the ground we’ve covered above. That Trump has succeeded in the way that he has tells us something profound about the American electorate. It tells us that our society has within it certain terrible capacities. If Trump goes away, do we imagine that those capacities will too? Do we imagine that no one else will ever try, in either a strategic way or a grasping and algorithmic one, to harness those capacities?
That those capacities are there tells us something about the economic and political order under which we live. It took extraordinary material hardship to create the conditions in which a fascist regime could take power in Germany. Even if we say that Trumpism isn’t fascism, but is more like the half-formed kernel around which an American fascism might coalesce if luck and the flow of history were against us, isn’t that on its own a remarkable thing? Doesn’t that suggest that whatever else our current system is and does, it has within it this extraordinary vulnerability, that some large portion of the population are ready to rip up everything to follow a Trump wherever he goes? Mostly sunny with a chance of afternoon fascism is one hell of a forecast.
And if the excuse for nonchalance is that Trump seems unlikely at this point to command electoral majorities, how is that reassuring? He didn’t win a majority of the popular vote in 2016. Majorities eluded many of history’s most electorally successful fascist movements: and it didn’t matter, because they didn’t consider themselves bound by institutions or norms or the results at the ballot box. And of course, among the most crucial components of Trumpism today is a commitment to undermining the legitimacy and the function of our electoral system. When our society has produced this, this imminent and enduring threat, I’m not sure that gaming out Ron DeSantis’s political options is really the best use of our time and mental energy.
I was in London, actually, while the current issue was being put together. It also includes coverage of the fight between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to replace Boris Johnson as leader of the Tories and as prime minister, and I have to admit that while there I gently ribbed some of my colleagues about how America has over the past few months come to seem slightly less doomed than Britain or Europe (or for that matter much of the rest of the world). And truthfully, I have felt a bit less pessimistic of late; the economy has been surprisingly resilient, we are weathering the energy crunch much better than many other places, and Congress has been oddly and usefully productive in recent months.
And it may be that optimism rather than relentless gloom is the more helpful sentiment just now, as so much hangs in the balance. It may very well be the case that the best the rest of us can do is dare to feel hope about America’s future, dare to detect a sense of purpose in the actions of our elected leaders and share a confidence that good things will come of it.
But reading Brad’s book, I found myself imagining a future, decades from now, in which people try to understand the events that led to a second Trump term—still a good bet, according to the bookies—and everything which flowed from that. What would they say about us? What choices that we are making would seem unfathomable to them, or unconscionable? What will they think we should have understood, should have seen coming? I don’t know. I don’t know.
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