AN important debate underway in the US and beyond is whether Donald Trump’s defeat in the upcoming election will also spell an end to Trumpism. Some cast the election as a referendum on Trumpism. What constitutes Trumpism is itself at issue in this conversation.
With the presidential election less than two months away the Democratic contender Joe Biden is leading in the polls. Just as one day is a long time in politics, 60 days are even more so for an election whose outcome remains wide open. Despite the uncertainty, discussion has intensified about the implications if Trump fails to be re-elected.
Views differ about what Trumpism stands for even though there is general agreement that it doesn’t represent any coherent ideology. It is too wrapped up with an egotistical and demagogic personality to be regarded as an intelligible or consistent set of ideas. Nevertheless, Trumpism has come to be identified with a syndrome of characteristics and attitudes, some of which have long been present in American society, that Trump did not create but are embodied in him.
In the debate Trumpism has variously been described as ‘right-wing nationalist, anti-establishment populism’, an “amalgam of a narrative of Trump’s business career and articulation of right-wing populist rhetoric mixed with previously fringe conservative philosophies”, a form of ‘plutocratic populism’ and a ‘zero-sum view of politics and the world’.
Consideration of four interrelated aspects from the cluster usually associated with Trumpism would enable an assessment of whether these will fade away with his defeat or survive beyond the election. They are: authoritarian right-wing populism, anti-establishment outlook, thinly veiled racism infused with white supremacist notions, a xenophobic, anti-immigration stance, and a unilateralist America-First paradigm of dealing with the world. The point about these strands of thinking is that they didn’t emerge with Trump but were manipulated and mainstreamed by him — and magnified. The question is will they vanish that quickly?
If we consider right-wing populism, it appears that while Trump’s defeat will be a setback to the phenomenon it will hardly end its appeal in the US or elsewhere in the world witnessing similar populist movements. In America it has deeper roots than Trump’s revival of ideas associated with it, previously found mainly in fringe thinking. Its invocation by Trump has partly been a reaction to America’s relative global decline and erosion of its economically predominant position. ‘Making America Great Again’, Trump’s slogan in the last election, aimed to address a ‘weakness’ he attributed to Obama and his policies rather than to changing structural realities in the US and global and domestic shifts in economic and political power.
The rise of Trumpian populism is also often regarded as reflecting public alienation with traditional political parties and the establishment for their inability to meet expectations especially in times of disruption caused by the uneven impact of ‘elitist’ globalisation. It seems that the underlying factors that fostered Trump’s political rise are not going to easily fade away as they now inform attitudes of significant sections of American society.
What about anti-establishment sentiment which Trump has also mobilised? Again, there are reasons for the emergence of popular disaffection in recent decades as manifested in eroding trust in public institutions, which Trump has played off and fuelled by his portrayal of the deep state’s anti-people conduct. Having sought to delegitimise public institutions, can that trend be reversed if Trump loses? Probably not in the near term, while the longer-term outlook will depend on what the next president does to revive this trust. As examples from elsewhere show, once institutions are undermined it takes a long time and much effort to restore confidence.
As for the racial component of Trumpism this has long been a troubling though enduring aspect of America’s social landscape, with racism a systemic problem. The centrist policies pursued by both political parties in recent decades prevented racism from rearing its head. But with Trump appropriating and according respectability to white supremacist ideas a resurgence of racism occurred — evidenced in the most serious civil unrest that recently swept the country in over half a century. Again, Trump fed off and fed into the unease among a section of white society who felt that minority numbers were rising so fast as to eventually swamp them. The Trumpian slogan in the previous election of ‘Taking our country back’ was an unsubtle way of conveying this — taking it back from minorities who ostensibly ‘seized it’ in the Obama era.
If Trump loses, a President Biden will certainly try to play a healing role, as he has repeatedly affirmed, and seek to unify the country after the polarising and divisive Trump years. But race will continue to be a complicated issue in a country where racism remains deep seated, especially when a racist minority has amplified its voice in national affairs.
Trumpism, like right-wing populism elsewhere in the world, is strongly infused by xenophobia and a viscerally anti-immigration stance — illustrated by Trump’s desire to build a wall along the Mexican border to shut out ‘illegal’ migrants. Its xenophobic and Islamophobic attitude is also exemplified by Trump’s infamous ‘Muslim travel ban’, which suspended travel from several Muslim countries. One of Biden’s campaign statements was that he would end this ban on his first day in office. But little change can be expected in America’s tighter immigration policies as this remains a politically charged issue, even if polls show a majority of Americans believe migrants make positive contributions to their economy.
On engaging with the world, a Trump defeat would likely mean a departure from extreme unilateralism as a Democratic president would return to multilateralism, rejoin global bodies, restore partnerships and repair ties with allies. Washington would arguably start dealing with the world with some respect. Perhaps on this Trumpism would see the most significant reversal.
But of the domestic trends evaluated above, only some and not all, will likely wane if Trump loses. A decisive defeat and bold actions by his successor may set back some ideas of right-wing populism but they would not disappear. It remains an open question whether America has been transformed — and deeply divided — by Trumpism in ways that will endure much beyond the election.