Why Trump Could Happen Only in America

By
Yes, Donald Trump and his movement are true red, white, and blue, but not necessarily in a good way.
Photo: Darren Hauck/Getty Images

It’s become common to compare Donald Trump to politicians in Europe and elsewhere who strike similar ethno-nationalist notes, or focus on the alleged links between immigration and refugee asylum on the one hand and violent crime and terrorism on the other.

But as the ever-insightful labor-movement veteran Rich Yeselson explains at Vox, there are a number of things about Trump’s candidacy that stand out internationally and, in fact, make him the unique product of an American environment. Unfortunately, Trump’s American-exceptionalist nature does not make him a less unsettling and dangerous presidential prospect.

The most obvious thing distinguishing Trump from European ethno-nationalists who similarly rail at immigrants and refugees is that he has conquered — for the moment, at least — a major party; his influence and proximity to power are not limited by association with some unsavory fringe party like Britain’s UKIP or France’s Front National. That was essential to his rise in a two-party system like America’s, and was probably facilitated by the aspects of the system that do not channel dissent into smaller parties.

But despite the frequent assumption that Trump represents an alien, even hostile presence that has occupied a staid conservative party, comparing him to Europeans also makes it clear how much he has accommodated himself to the GOP’s status quo ante, notes Yeselson:

[W]ith the exception of his attacks on the “bad deals” that define our trade policy — which fits nicely into the revanchist fear of American national weakness that many of his supporters feel — and his intermittent remarks about supporting Social Security and Medicare which he might or might not believe, Trump’s current policies are quintessentially Republican and aren’t anything like those proposed by secondary ethno-nationalist or major center-right parties in Europe.

Indeed, both conventional conservatives and ethno-nationalists in other advanced countries accept a welfare state (including universal health coverage) in a way that Republicans here — including Trump — simply do not. The overt Christian religiosity of U.S. conservatives, to which Trump has accommodated himself with varying degrees of credibility, is another key difference. And thus in Trump you have an amalgam of ideological tendencies that are more hostile to the left than is apparent in most other countries.

The result is thus unique in the history of the United States and also not found anywhere else in the advanced world: a major conservative party that combines the ethno-nationalism of the European splinter parties plus a religiously grounded concern about changing gender roles, and a libertarian fealty to its plutocratic donor class — an elephant one part George Wallace, one part Jerry Falwell, and one part Ayn Rand.

That’s an only-in-America achievement that is a sharp departure from both domestic and international precedents.

I’d add just one point to Yeselson’s analysis: The other thing most European right-wingers of either the mainstream or extremist variety lack is a non-immigrant object of disdain if not hatred. Yes, Algerians have been in France for a very long time, as have Turks in Germany. But there’s nothing like the African-American population that was the proximate cause of a savage, nation-changing civil war and a persistent strain of racism. Understanding the rise of Trump without understanding white lumpenproletarian racial resentment toward non-immigrants — and particularly toward an African-American president with an exotic, international pedigree — is impossible. It’s no accident that Trump’s political career was the product of the “birther” movement by which the first black president became, by stubborn assertion, the first immigrant president. There’s nothing quite like that anywhere else. And at this stage it is unclear whether Trumpism will ultimately be rejected by America’s conservative party as incompatible with its traditions — or will instead represent a durable mutation combining reactionary impulses in a way that reactionaries elsewhere might envy.