In Thursday night’s 12th GOP candidate debate, somebody pulled a plug and the candidates turned in an amazingly muted performance, with none of the high-volume insults and attacks that characterized the last get-together in Detroit. That mostly made the event a nothing-burger — unless you are really interested in hearing GOP boilerplate on Social Security privatization or Obamacare — with one important exception. With the volume turned down, the emptiness and incoherence of Donald Trump’s approach to public-policy issues becomes especially clear. He’ll make good deals and will be lethally inclined toward America’s enemies (including, for the moment, global Islam, it seems). Even on the one topic where he seemed to have a new thought — supporting the deployment of ground troops to fight ISIS — no reason was given for the change in position, other than a sort of gut feeling it would be necessary to “destroy ISIS.”
Everyone understands that Trump is exploiting a rich and very real vein of public sentiment, centered in but not limited to white working-class folk who may have voted Republican in the past but never shared the economic and foreign-policy views of the business and movement-conservative elites who run the GOP. Some optimistically view this Trump constituency as an addition to the Republican coalition; I think it’s mostly elements of the existing coalition that are threatening to leave unless the party changes. Either way, does this all go away if Trump loses or gets bored and goes back to different modes of brand promotion?
You might think so, but a certain erudite if occasionally cranky polymath and thinker, New America’s Michael Lind, believes there’s something we can call Trumpism, and it’s the future of conservative politics. Here’s how Lind boils it down in a piece on Trump as “the perfect populist” at Politico:
It remains to be seen whether Trump can win the Republican nomination, much less the White House. But whatever becomes of his candidacy, it seems likely that his campaign will prove to be just one of many episodes in the gradual replacement of Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan conservatism by something more like European national populist movements, such as the National Front in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain. Unlike Goldwater, who spearheaded an already-existing alliance consisting of National Review, Modern Age, and Young Americans for Freedom, Trump has followers but no supportive structure of policy experts and journalists. But it seems likely that some Republican experts and editors, seeking to appeal to his voters in the future, will promote a Trump-like national populist synthesis of middle-class social insurance plus immigration restriction and foreign policy realpolitik,through conventional policy papers and op-eds rather than blustering speeches and tweets.
Now, that’s a fascinating prospect, isn’t it? The entire conservative policy and messaging edifice, the product of hundreds of billions of dollars of investments and many years of development, employing God knows how many thinkers, researchers, gabbers, and writers, replaced by an infrastructure devoted to making Trumpism not just a brand or an epithet but a whole way of thinking about public life.
Where this would all come from is a mystery. The Trump campaign itself is a strange assortment of personal retainers, hired guns, and the occasional public figure reeking of brimstone after climbing aboard Trump’s bandwagon out of what appears to be sheer opportunism. When you look at a guy like Sam Clovis — the intellectually well-regarded Iowa “constitutional conservative” who abandoned Rick Perry’s sinking ship last summer and signed on with Trump as “senior policy adviser” — you see someone who’s probably winging it as much as the Donald himself. So the question abides: Does Trump represent anything larger than himself (not that he could imagine it!)? Is he the harbinger of some “national populist” movement that will kick conventional conservatism to the curb, or just (like many right-wing demagogues before him) the vehicle for the occasional rage that seizes people furious with change?
It’s hard to say. There was a similar moment in the mid-1970s when William Rusher, publisher of the conservative-movement beacon National Review, labored to create a “Producers Party” that would abandon the husk of the Republican Party to its desiccated Establishment and unite Reagan and Wallace supporters in furious opposition to the political elites of both parties and their alleged underclass clientele. Nothing much came of it, and instead Reagan supervised the capture of the GOP by Rusher’s friends and associates who remained within the party. If Trump is somehow elected president, the challenges of actual power may domesticate him and make him a real Republican. Without question, the prestige of the presidency and its vast patronage inside and outside government would stimulate the kind of interest in developing Trumpism that Michael Lind expects. If he wins the Republican nomination but then loses the general election, it’s far more likely the right will turn the whole Trump phenomenon into an object lesson about the consequences of irresponsibility and ideological laxity.
And if Trump can’t even make it to Cleveland and seize the nomination with all of the things working in his favor at present, he’ll become just another loser, and no more likely to become the founding father of a new ideology than Rick Santorum. So don’t hold your breath waiting for the development of Trumpism until and unless Trump takes the oath of office as president. But then we’d have more things to worry about than the future shape of center-right thinking, wouldn’t we?