What is Trumpism?

Ever since he first announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in June of 2015, US President Donald Trump has given the world a new term: Trumpism. Though Trumpism is linked to the person Donald Trump himself, its roots run much deeper and share similarities with political ideologies ranging from Neo-conservatism to populism, to Christofascism. Here are the main characteristic of President Donald Trump’s political ideology:

1. Populism

Right-wing populism is one of the major components of President Donald Trump’s political ideology

Trumpism appeals to a large group of anti-intellectual, conspiracy-minded and alienated malcontents, the same type of voter that backed third party Presidential candidates Ross Perot and George Wallace as well as Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) during the “Red Scare.” Trumpism embodies a particular kind of populism composed of overt patriotism, economic nationalism, along with a vague commitment to the middle class and an aggressive foreign policy.

The roots of populism in the US can be traced back to the election of Andrew Jackson as President in 1828. Over the course of his Presidency, Jackson attempted to portray himself as a defender of the interests of the common man (as well as the slaveholding class in the South) against Northeastern political elites (who proposed progressive reforms such as infrastructure development and the creation of a federal banking system), Native Americans, and opponents of slavery. By the late 1890s, populism in the US moved towards the left-wing of the political spectrum due to the rise in industrialization and the Economic Depression of 1893-97. The populist movement of this period was primarily led by farmers and industrial workers who felt neglected by bankers and politicians. They called for the introduction of a progressive income tax, government ownership of railroad and telegraph systems, direct election of senators and a host of other measures designed to make government more responsive to their needs.

Like all forms of populism, Trumpism relies on the rhetoric of resentment but is thin on specifics. To the thorny issue of race and police brutality, President Donald Trump responds to the chant “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All Lives Matter,” an easy applause line on the campaign trail. Unrestrained by any ideological limitations, President Trump is also able to defend some form of universal healthcare. “Because the insurance companies are making a fortune because they have control of the politicians,” Trump was quoted as saying on the campaign trail. Additionally, President Trump has repeatedly cited President Andrew Jackson during his time in office and claimed that a majority of his policies are inspired by the ones carried out by Jackson. Attacks by the mainstream media, his political opponents, and traditional conservatives only serve the narrative that Trumpism threatens the established power structure, further framing Trump as the saviour of the disenfranchised.

2. Xenophobia

Aggressive xenophobia is another hallmark of President Donald Trump’s political agenda

Another aspect of President Donald Trump’s political agenda is Xenophobia, which is exemplified by his hard-line anti-immigrant positions and targeting of certain ethnic groups with discriminatory rhetoric and policies. The anti-immigrant, racist viewpoints espoused by President Donald Trump are nothing new, having been apparent in American politics since the mid-19th Century and promoted by the short-lived Know-Nothing and American political parties, who combined anti-immigrant sentiment with conspiracy theories about foreigners. Additionally, right-wing populists throughout the years such as George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, David Duke, as well as hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and various neo-Nazi groups have promoted xenophobic viewpoints with varying levels of success. Many of the groups targeted by these hate groups included African-American, Catholics, Asian-Americans, and Americans of Eastern and Southern European heritage. In recent decades, these groups and politicians have increasingly begun targeting both Americans of Hispanic heritage and Muslim Americans in their vile and bigoted rhetoric, claiming both groups are “not true Americans” and do not embody American values.

Following in the same tradition, Trumpism first emerged as part of the birther movement. While already debunked in the mainstream, Donald Trump’s 2011 public and calculated demand that then-President Barack Obama release his full birth certificate, kept him in the media spotlight for well over a year and helped him to develop an initial base of support. Most notably, Public Policy Polling released a national survey that showed 61 percent of Trump supporters still identified as birthers as late as 2016. Under the banner of “Mak[ing] America Great Again,” this same conspiratorial fear of foreigners explains the broad approval for President Donald Trump’s impractical, illogical, and callous pledges to build a wall along the Mexican border and deport all illegal immigrants and to ban Muslim immigration to the US.

Despite the fact that President Donald Trump often lacks the will to push his xenophobic, unrealistic proposals due to the current Congressional make-up, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of hate crime over the past few years. For example, statistics show that US counties that hosted rallies for President Trump have seen a 226 percent increase in hate crimes since 2016. Additionally, President Trump’s racist rhetoric and acceptance of support from white supremacists such as Richard Spencer and David Duke have directly contributed to events including the 2017 Charlottesville massacre, the October 2018 Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting, and most recently, the March 2019 New Zealand Mosque Shooting. In all three of these incidents, the perpetrators have cited the rhetoric and policies of President Trump as the underlying factors that motivated them in carrying out their crimes.

3. Militarism

Aggressive, unrestrained militarism plays a major role in President Donald Trump’s political ideology.

Another hallmark of Trumpism is an emphasis on the military and unrestrained, unilateral interventionism. Despite President Donald Trump’s proclamations on the campaign trail in 2016 that the US will be reducing its role of policing the world, the US military footprint has increased at an alarming rate during his Presidency. On the 2016 US presidential campaign trail, then-candidate Trump promised to a return to the era of American isolationism, pledging to put “America first,” and end costly foreign wars. Trump attacked his rival Republican candidates from the left, blamed the party’s previous president, George W. Bush, for adding trillions to the national debt in the pursuit of remaking the Middle East in America’s image. “The world must know we do no go abroad in search of enemies,” Trump thundered in what was billed as his signature foreign policy speech in April of 2016. In taking direct aim at Bush, war hawks, and neo-conservatives, Trump blamed their “foolishness and arrogance” for throwing “the region into chaos.”

Since taking office, however, President Donald Trump has gone ahead and done the complete opposite of everything he promised and is governing as a neoconservative who wants to extend American power and influence to every corner of the world. President Donald Trump has implemented the most significant increases in the Defense budget since the Reagan Administration and has announced that he would support increasing the Defense budget to as high as $1 trillion. Additionally, President Trump has repeatedly called for simultaneous invasions of Venezuela and Iran, which would both necessitate the reinstatement of the military draft. Moreover, President Trump has denounced a multilateral approach to foreign policy and has announced that the US is willing to use nuclear weapons in warfare. These positions have damaged the relationships between the US and its European allies and have led to much international strife over the past few years.

The Trump Administration’s embrace of the military is as much, if not more, about creating an ethos than making new policy. President Donald Trump frequently hails “his” generals and fixates on the projection of muscular, unilateral American power on the world stage and has sneered at the supposedly equivocating diplomacy of his predecessor. This is all an extension of the ultra-nationalist politics of his key advisers, ideologues who see the world in stark, terrifying and straightforward terms. For example, cabinet members such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton are major followers of Neo-conservative ideology and have repeatedly sought to frame American foreign policy as an “us-vs-them” type of situation. According to President Trump and his advisors, the entire world is against the US and the only way to address that perceived imbalance of power is to implement an aggressive interventionist foreign policy.

The aggressive militarism promoted by the Trump Administration was a major part of the geopolitics of the early 20th Century, when nationalist powers (including the US, UK, Germany, France, and Japan), unchecked by the systems built after World War II, embarked on arms races and entered into devastating, cataclysmic conflict. Observers now see a return to the politics of that era, when a period of “liberal” free trade and proto-globalization gave way to destabilizing struggle and the collapse of empires. “Trump’s sense of abuse and humiliation is potent,” writes Stephen Wertheim of Columbia University. “‘The world is laughing at us,’ [Trump] endlessly repeats. It’s a cry more common to revolutionary states and movements than to the world’s sole superpower. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany did not conquer territory for the thrill of it; their leaders acted out of perceived desperation, believing that they were losing a ruthless competition for power and status.”

4. Hyperpartisanism

The partisan rhetoric of President Donald Trump has noticeably increased the divide between both political parties in recent years.

Trumpism also promotes a hyperpartisan, pro-conservative political ideology. Disagreement among Republican and Democratic voters on a range of political issues has risen sharply in recent years as a result of the rise in political talk radio during the mid-1980s, the expanding popularity of conservative TV news sources such as Fox News, and the growing divide between both parties on nearly all political issues. This divide reached record levels during the Obama Administration and has grown even larger during President Donald Trump’s first two years in office.

President Donald Trump has encouraged this increase in partisanship dramatically. For example, Trump has repeatedly targeted his political opponents (both Democrats as well as Republicans who disagree with his vision) in his public comments, calling for them to be arrested (for imaginary crimes), investigated, and voted out of office just due to their party identification. Additionally, during his campaign for President in 2016, Trump stated that he would refuse to concede to Hillary Clinton if she defeated him and called upon his supporters to take up arms and protest against the Democrats he lost the election. This partisan rhetoric has continued to this day. For example, President Trump often calls the Democratic Party the “enemy of the people” and refused to even work with them on legislation that enjoys strong bipartisan support.

5. Direct & Personal Discourse With The American People

As opposed to previous President, President Donald Trump has sought to develop a personal, direct relationsip with the American people to pass controverial legislation.

Trumpism is unique in that it focuses on direct communication between the President and the American people. This shift in the relationship between the President and the American people first began with the launch of public Radio broadcasting in 1920 and public TV broadcasting in 1939 and expanded with the rise of online political blogs and social media outlets in recent years. President Donald Trump has made effective use of social media from the moment he launched his Presidential campaign and has used it to directly appeal to the American people to support his proposed legislation and controversial opinions on a whole host of political issues. Although this personalized and direct discourse between President Trump and the American people has served to increase individual involvement in the political process, it has also resulted in an increasing level of political branding.

Historically, American Presidents directly appealed to Congress to gain support for legislation. Congress served as a liaison between the President and the American people. Congress members had a smaller base of constituents and thus had a better connection with their voting base than the President had with the entirety of the American citizens. Therefore, the President relied on having a good relationship to pass any type of legislation and the legislative branch had more power. An example of a President who strove for a strong relationship with Congress in order to push forward his agenda was Lyndon Johnson. As a result of his past experiences as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson understood that a major factor in the passage of legislation was the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch and he strove to lobby members of Congress to support important pieces of legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and various social programs including Medicare and Medicaid. Additionally, President Ronald Reagan sought a constructive relationship with Congress to pass his policy proposals. Despite the fact that Congress was split between the Democratic and Republican parties during much of his tenure, Reagan sought to establish personal relationships with Congressional leaders of both parties and sought to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis to address numerous policy issues. Much like Johnson, Reagan’s willingness to directly appeal to Congress resulted in more substantive policy changes and furthered the dynamic between the executive and legislative branches.

The new relationship between the President and the American people promoted by Trumpism has resulted in President Donald Trump relying less on Congress and more on his own public approval to put forward his agenda. This has resulted in a weaker relationship between the executive and legislative branches and causes less legislation to be passed efficiently. Because Congress is less willing to work with the President, the President has to rely more on executive action. This situation has played out numerous times over the course of the Trump Presidency. For example, Congress has been reluctant to pass a vast majority of President Donald Trump’s legislative program and the few pieces of legislation were passed by narrow margins at best. Due to this protracted impasse, President Trump has utilized more executive actions than any other President in recent memory and sought to justify these acts through direct and personal appeals to the American people through social media sources such as Twitter.

the author

Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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