Once Trump Is Gone, We’ll Still Have To Deal With Trumpism

Photo: Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
It’s hard to know exactly how history will judge Donald Trump, but considering that he has presided over a devastating pandemic that he had the tools to minimize, empathizes with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and refuses to accept the results of the election because he lost, it’s safe to say that he will be remembered as one of the worst U.S. presidents of all time. But, even as Trump is on his way out, the forces and people that brought him to power — the same ones that continue to enable his fantasy of having won this election— are unfortunately here to stay.
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Trumpism is the political movement based around the president’s cult of personality; it’s a loose set of ideas that can’t quite be called an ideology because it’s so incoherent. Centering around anti-immigration, America-first trade regulations, and a rejection of social progressivism, Trumpism is mostly defined not by policy at all, but by a gleeful and vehement loathing of anything Democrats, the left, and the media (one and the same to Trumpists) say and do.
Sarah Kendzior, author of Hiding In Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, acknowledges the existence of Trump’s personality cult, but told Refinery29, “He’s also a vehicle for a lot of different people and their disparate agendas: for the GOP extremists that have been trying to dismantle government since the Reagan era, for theocrats like Mike Pence, for transnational organized crime, for white supremacists. But I think in Trump’s mind, it’s about Trump, the Trump family, the Trump brand, the Trump Organization, and the ideological component is just kind of extra. He does what his backers tell him to as long as it’s the route to more money, more power, and immunity from prosecution.”
One of the ways in which Trump has strengthened his power and appealed to his base is by making white supremacy one of the core tenets of Trumpism. And while many Trump supporters will vehemently object if you call them racist, it’s certain that Trump has enabled and encouraged white supremacist attacks and rhetoric, particularly during this summer’s racial justice protests. It’s telling that six in 10 white people voted for Trump in 2020, while 87% of Black people, 66% of Latinx people, and 63% of Asian-Americans voted for President-Elect Joe Biden. For all the national reckoning on race that we have done over the past year, it seems that the majority of white Americans haven’t learned much; Trump received approximately the same proportion of white votes that he did in 2016.
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While those votes weren’t enough to keep Trump in the White House, they were an indication that he and his ideas still have an overwhelming number of supporters in this country, and so even when Trump himself leaves office, a new strain of nationalist populism could rise in his place. That said, it will be harder for that to happen without Trump in the White House. While Trump has already reportedly said he might run again in 2024 (the only good news about that is it sounds like a concession), if that doesn’t happen, there are also major signs that Ivanka Trump is being groomed for a 2024 run, Kendzior said, which could prolong the reign of Trumpism. “They want the dynastic kleptocracy,” she said. “I know that they’d love the idea of running a woman against Kamala Harris, who I assume would be the candidate in 2024.” She added, though, that she is not sure Ivanka will have the same type of charismatic appeal to Trump’s supporter base.
For now, Trump maintains a terrifying amount of power. And while he will — possibly kicking and screaming — leave office, the only hope of him losing a grasp on the national consciousness in the near future is his age (as well as the distant possibility that he might be incarcerated for his crimes). Over 70 million Americans voted to give him a second term this year; and, according to a new poll, 68% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters say they believe the election was “probably” or “definitely” not free or fair — a baseless assertion, which shows that his supporters are willing to forsake America’s democratic principles in the service of Trumpism. Trump aides say the president is still planning to hold massive rallies in his lame-duck period, to receive affirmation from his supporters, and there’s no reason to think he’ll stop holding rallies after January 20 either. The “Fuck Your Feelings” flag-waving and social media-posting about how the election was “stolen” among fervent supporters does not seem to be slowing down. And, Trump’s influence over down-ballot elections is strong: Several big Trump backers won last Tuesday, including Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who holds the distinct honor of being the first open supporter of the QAnon conspiracy cult to win a seat in the U.S. House.
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“He’s a born demagogue,” Kendzior said. “He’s someone who played a fake version of himself on reality TV, and before that built a fake version of himself in the New York tabloids, and that’s all he knows how to do. He needs to be a brand because he’s terrified of being a person, because there’s just no there there, it’s just nihilism and emptiness and cruelty. But he knows how to package that into something else for the American public.”
Trumpism has been so successful in this type of packaging that an October 2020 poll found 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents surveyed considered themselves supporters of Donald Trump, specifically, rather than of the Republican Party. And instead of rejecting his anti-rule of law, anti-democracy, anti-free press movement, Republican politicians have decided to get on board with Trumpism, at least for now, not because they love Trump, but in order to boost their own power. Given his influence over the party, it seems some feel like they have no choice.
“The sort of more mainstream figures gradually capitulated to him through a combination of threats, bribes, and dark money,” Kendzior explained. “But then, there are opportunists with really evil intentions — people like Mitch McConnell — who just saw Trump as a wrecking ball. He could be filled with an ideology and given a direction as long as it also benefited him personally. I think when Republicans realized what they could get away with with Trump in power, they were like, ‘This is fantastic.’”
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Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake, was, unsurprisingly, more charitable when speaking to The Washington Post about Republicans on Capitol Hill: “They know there’s no future with Trumpism and they aspired to do more when they got to the Senate than defend the president’s tweets and his conduct and behavior,” said Flake, who quit the Senate in October 2017 with a strong rebuke of Trump. “And they want to legislate, and they’re not doing that now. There’s a lot of fear, but no love.”
Among Trump’s base of followers, however, there seems to be both fear and love, as well as an unending appetite for expressing their grievances toward immigrants, people of color, and the “coastal elites” they perceive as the enemy. On more than one occasion, these sentiments have exploded into violence, such as when a caravan of nearly 100 vehicles of Trump supporters surrounded and tried to obstruct a Biden-Harris campaign bus on a busy Texas highway the weekend before Election Day, leading to a minor collision. “I LOVE TEXAS!” Trump tweeted in response to the incident, egging on the senseless display of intimidation. Trumpists also drove through several Black communities in attempts to intimidate voters. Taken together with the other terrifying Trumpist mayhem — the anti-mask outbursts, the hate crimes and violence, the election-week tantrums — it appears that another core tenet of Trumpism is, simply, hate. One wonders how long they can stand to keep it up after he is no longer in office.
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While Trump ran on populist promises like rebuilding the country’s ailing infrastructure in 2016 (although xenophobia was also a big part of his platform), he never actually followed through with these plans. His biggest legislative accomplishment was the 2017 tax cut, which helped exclusively the rich and not the economically disenfranchised “white working class” with which he has aligned himself. Still, he has plenty of wealthy supporters who lauded this move, making his populist, working-class appeal sort of a myth. 
What Trumpists can agree on, however, is not policy, but white supremacy, cultural resentment of elites and the mainstream media — and liking Trump’s aggressive sensibility. Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is studying what unites Trumpists, and has so far found that those who agree that to be successful in life means to fight, even if it means being unfair, tend to prefer Trump, while those more prone to cooperation prefer Mitt Romney. “It’s not a partisan thing at all,” Hetherington said. “It’s a worldview thing. And now, there’s a constituency in the Republican Party for that.” 
Trumpism is a movement based on opposition and resentment — and there is plenty of evidence to show that its followers will continue to find things to oppose and resent during the Biden-Harris administration. For starters, Biden has already hinted that he plans to implement a mask mandate, something that many ardent Trumpists oppose because it infringes on their “freedom.” Any attempts to help immigrants, such as reinstating DACA, or institute even the mildest of police reform, are sure to be met with resentment, and likely to be fueled by Trump himself still stoking the fires at rallies, on cable TV, and on Twitter. And racism and xenophobia toward Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris are sure to continue as well, as she steps into a bigger national spotlight.
Aside from that, said Kendzior, Trumpism has already destroyed the government inside out, and the pieces will be very hard to pick up. “The thing that a Biden administration would need to do is tackle the crimes that were committed by members of the Trump administration,” she said. “So that needs to be gutted out of our politics, it’s corrosive. It’s made it impossible for our institutions to run. If we don’t have real accountability and real consequences for serious crimes, I don’t think we can move forward as a country, and it’ll give Trump a much greater chance of coming back in 2024.”

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