Trumpism: Understanding a Presidency Unguided by Ideology

Like many other Americans, I’ve had a lot of lingering questions about what got Donald Trump elected since that blur of a night in 2016. I’ve spent these past few years utterly confused about how a person so ignorant, crude, and unqualified as he is could become elected as the figurehead of our country. It defied everything I thought I knew about politics and how our leaders get elected into office. I was convinced that, surely, Hillary Clinton would be elected instead (something that made me feel more comfortable making a protest vote for a third-party candidate more closely aligned with my values. I plan to write the lessons learned from that at a later time).

Introduction

In the study of politics, we prescribe labels to the political ideologies of a person, party, or group to help describe the political behaviors of these individuals, to predict the actions they might take in office, and to help establish some sense of normality when we think about and engage in politics. For example, we are generally not caught off guard in the typically liberal vs. conservative dichotomy. When I’m in leftist circles, I have some understanding of what I’m getting into when someone refers to themselves as a Democratic Socialist or a Marxist-Leninist. Among my more liberty leaning peers, I know what to expect from a card carrying (big L) Libertarian compared to an anarcho-capitalist.

Trump has not just defied, but shattered these norms that I’ve come to expect in politics. I think that is a big reason why after my “Let’s shut down I-94 during rush hour while blasting FDT” anger died down, I’ve been left feeling exhausted when I try to engage in politics, something that used to be a core part of what made me feel alive. I think that’s a big reason why I’ve had so much trouble finishing my Poli Sci degree. Outrage is exhausting.

That’s been changing as we get closer to 2020. Impeachment appears imminent in the House, and removal from office remains a genuine possibility in the Senate. The Democratic primaries are starting to heat up, and even though I’m not super excited about any of the front runners, some of the second and third tier candidates have me thinking about the post-Trump future, and have me feeling ready to get back involved in this game. I’m done caring about Trump; he does not matter. So when some of my favorite Presidential candidates in this race (namely, Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson) speak truth to power and remind me that Trump is not the problem, he is instead a symptom of a larger societal disease that needs to be cured, I’m invigorated enough to start caring again.

Now that I care, I’m ready to answer this question. Trump’s ideology cannot be narrowed down to one or two words. He lacks the consistency to assign one to him. For the purposes of this piece, though, I’ll categorize what I’ve seen into different silos. Some of these focus more on personality than strict political philosophy, but I believe that is an important part of explaining how Trump engages with and impacts politics (a.k.a. Trumpism).

Conservative? Not really.

Under normal circumstances, it would be fair to assume that a Republican president’s political ideology would be similar to that of the rest of the Republican Party, either clinging to the values of Reagan-era conservatism, part of the wave of Tea Party conservatives that helped retake the US House of Representatives in 2010, or belonging to the fringe Ron Paul-esqe Libertarian wing of the party. While he has embraced bits and pieces of this, I think it’d be difficult, even foolish, to say that his behavior has been in line with what we’ve come to expect from the conservative party.

On Economic Policy

The 2017 Tax Bill is one of Trump’s most significant “legislative achievements” to date. This legislation is indicative of the “Trickle-Down Economics” policies pushed by the GOP for decades. While this is not outside of the norm, it’s certainly not something that benefits the majority of Republican voters. This legislation provided big tax breaks for the wealthy and large businesses, and increased the tax burden on lower and middle class American’s (myself included). I don’t believe that this was meant to help Trump’s base. This was a gift to his friends donors.

Reducing the Federal budget deficit has been a core pillar of Republican talking points every time are in the minority. This has time and time again failed to translate into action when they control the government.

Yes, the stock market and GDP are at all time highs. Yet, these mean hardly anything to the 45% of the country who doesn’t own stocks (Gallop, 2019). This doesn’t do much for working class folx who haven’t seen a raise in years, even to keep up with the cost of living, are struggling to pay their bills, and are drowning in debt. Yes, unemployment numbers are down, but this doesn’t matter then the bulk of the jobs are in cities workers can’t afford to live in, and people need to work multiple jobs just to keep from (metaphorically) drowning. I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that these harsh realities are only felt by Democratic voters.

Trump is not immune from this. He spent countless hours during Obama’s presidency tweeting and calling into Fox & Friends to complain about the budget deficit. Voters might have been convinced that after putting so much energy into attacking Obama’s spending, true fiscal conservativism would be something we’d see in our federal policies a few years into his presidency. If only:

One common talking point during Trump’s 2016 election campaign (and, as I remember, during Romney’s 2012 bid) was that the American people were “sick of career politicians in Washington” and that the best way to run the country would be to put a successful CEO in charge.

I understand the sentiment. Especially through the lens of the urban-rural divide, it’s no surprise that Trump’s base feels unheard and out of touch with our elected officials.

That being said - there are countless reasons why a country should not be run like a business. Namely, cutting costs and increasing profits doesn’t make sense when the only thing Washington seems to be selling most days is bulls**t. If our country is a business, who are the shareholders? If it’s the citizens, I certainly feel more like a customer, and it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten my dividend.

Even if we forget all that - if you want a successful businessman in office, put one there! Trump is not a successful businessman, he is a failed one. He doesn’t build things, he brands them. He doesn’t pay his bills. He doesn’t sell anything of value. Did we forget about the time he bankrupted not one, but five casinos (along with most of his other business ventures)?

Defense of the Constitution

When looking at their interpretation of the US Constitution, the Republican Party has generally taken a traditionalist interpretation of it, placing a high value on the rights granted to individuals and states. This isn’t just a talking point they use, it has been something that the party is known for, and in my opinion, was one of its few good remaining values.

Modern republicanism is a guiding political philosophy of the United States that has been a major part of American civic thought since its founding. It stresses liberty and unalienable individual rights as central values, making people sovereign as a whole; rejects monarchy, aristocracy and inherited political power, expects citizens to be virtuous and faithful in their performance of civic duties, and vilifies corruption.

Wikipedia: Republicanism in the United States

Trump is so far removed from these values, and as they are still supporting him, I believe the Republican Party has too. Let’s unpack.

It stresses liberty and unalienable individual rights as central values, making people sovereign as a whole

This is a President who told law enforcement officers they are being “too nice” to the people they are arresting. This amid high tensions resulting from frequent police-involved shootings of unarmed black men at a rate that could be considered a crisis of extra-judicial killings. Yikes.

We can’t forget the “migrant detention camps” at the southern border. While there’s mixed opinions inside the GOP regarding if Constitutional rights apply to non-citizens (though the Supreme Court has been pretty clear on this - they do, see (Reno v. Flores (1993)), the incarceration of asylum seekers and refugees, and especially family separation policies, seem antithetical to the both the liberty minded, and the Christian values commonly found throughout the party.

Even on the 2nd Amendment issue, and remember, the NRA GOP has been diehard opponents of any form of gun control for years, Trump is far removed. Remember the time Obama advocated for ignoring Due Process and seizing people’s guns? Me neither.


rejects monarchy, aristocracy, and inherited political power

Trump has:


vilifies corruption

Turn on CSPAN and tell me what you see. Trump has nullified this concept as a GOP value to a point that I’m not sure it will ever be able to return.


Trump shows a blatant disregard for the Constitution. This is so outside the norms of American Politics that it is difficult to place a label on. Perhaps we should call it “Unscripted Authoritarian Nationalism”.

Egotism and Inadequacy

It’s well established that throughout his lifetime, Trump has seen himself as someone deserving of celebrity, praise, and respect. He wanted to be accepted as part of New York’s social elite, but was continually pushed out and ignored by that community. Without diving in too deep as an armchair psychologist, some have said that there are signs that this points back to his adolescence, when he would have to act out to get the attention of his father, to the point that he was sent away to military boarding school.

I believe that this feeds into the behavior that we’ve come to expect from the Trump presidency. The Twitter outbursts, the bombastic and often violent comments at political rallies, and the astonishing disregard for political norms accomplish one major thing. These force the country to give Trump the attention he so desperately craves.

Ego in the Context of Foreign Relations

One place where the political implications of this personality trait can be seen is in Trump’s foreign policy and how he navigates foreign relations. There have been multiple instances throughout his term that Trump has met with leaders of US adversaries and treated those leaders as personal friends, regardless of the implications such actions could have on our country’s foreign policy objectives.

It’s been clear to me, and it must be to foreign leaders as well, that the way to get what you want from the United States with Trump in the White House is to roll out the red carpet for Donny, and to make him feel like the celebrity he’s always dreamt of being. He is there for the photo op, and that’s an easy thing to give him.

Some examples of this include:

Authoritarian dictators love Trump. He loves them back. No matter if it’s the betrayal of our Kurdish allies, waging an unsuccessful trade war that benefits China at the expense of American farmers, the sacrifice of our long standing relationship with South Korea for a photo op with Kim Jong Un, or allowing Saudi bombers to refuel at American military bases before bombing Yemini children, it’s all about the fame and the glory. Our country, our values, and our national agenda don’t matter. The long term implications of his behavior don’t seem to even cross his or his supporters minds. The only thing that matters is if he’s able to get a good photo-op.

Conclusion

Donald Trump is an egomaniac who has been playing the part of an authoritarian nationalist (and doing so poorly, I’ll add) for the past few years. The only thing he has been successful with throughout his entire career has been being a successful con-man. The only reason he has the power he does is because he saw an opportunity to exploit our 24-hour cable news networks and the Twitter outrage machine to keep himself at the front of our minds from the second he launched his campaign to the present. The only reason a huge part of the country can’t see him as a con-man is because he used “The Apprentice”, his reality TV show, to make himself look far more successful than he ever was. The only reason he still has the support he does is because of big money funding a hyper-partisan Fox News, and a steady stream of inarguably false news being portrayed as facts on authoritarian blogs and social media accounts.

What is Trumpism? Whatever it is, it’s un-American, and we can and should do better. Years from now - Trump will be serving out a life sentence in a NY prison cell, and we’ll all just be thanking God that this is over, and hopeful using this as a lesson of something for us to never repeat.