For many, if not most, Americans, the only pleasure to be had from Donald Trump’s presidency is to imagine his premature eviction from the White House. Impeachment, the 25th Amendment, pick your poison. My own scenario places Trump on Richard Nixon’s Watergate resignation timetable, fleeing next August to Mar-a-Lago as federal bloodhounds close in on him, his son, or his son-in-law (or all three) and his party’s Vichy regime on the Hill at last mutinies in the face of what could well be an apocalyptic Election Day in 2018.
In private, Steve Bannon reportedly gave Trump only a 30 percent chance of finishing his term, even before Robert Mueller dropped his first indictments. (Bannon has denied saying this.) And there are other fresh signs of an advancing Trump expiration date besides, from the resounding Democratic wins in Virginia and New Jersey on November 7 to the epic failure of the Republican Congress to accomplish anything. But don’t celebrate just yet. Once Trump exits — whenever and however he goes — then what? It’s a continuing liberal blind spot to underestimate the resilience of Trumpism, which, if history is any guide, will easily survive both the crack-up of the GOP and the implosion of the Trump presidency. Whether Trump lasts another three weeks, another three years, or another seven years, our troubles won’t be over when he’s gone. They may well get worse. And by worse, I do not mean Mike Pence, the Koch-brothers tool so feared by liberals because he might be more efficient at bringing America to its knees than his boss. Were Pence to ascend unelected to the presidency after a Trump collapse, still more scandals would pour out, Republicans in Congress would be fighting for their political lives, the economy would be rattled, and Washington would default into faux-bipartisan our-long-national-nightmare-is-over mode until the next election. Unlike Gerald Ford, Pence might not even fill out a term as a one-and-done caretaker, given his own vulnerability to obstruction-of-justice charges.
What we should be worrying about instead is the remarkable staying power of the American voters who put these guys in office. They’re in for the long game no matter the fate of the current administration. Trumpism predates Trump and Pence by decades and is a more powerful, enduring, and scary force than either of them. Trump learned this himself the hard way when Alabama Republicans voting in the Senate primary this fall chose the more Trumpist candidate, the gun-totin’ crackpot bigot and alleged sexual predator Roy Moore, over Mitch McConnell’s candidate, the garden-variety right-winger Trump had impulsively and mistakenly endorsed. The toxic anger that defines Trumpism — a rage at America’s cultural and economic elites in both political parties as well as at minorities and immigrants — will only grow darker and fiercer once its namesake leaves office, no matter how he does so. If Trump departs involuntarily, his followers will elevate him to martyrdom as the victim of a coup perpetrated by the scoundrels of “fake news” and “the swamp.” If Trump serves one or two full terms, his base will still be livid because he will not have bestowed the lavish gifts he promised, from a Rust Belt manufacturing comeback to a border wall. His voters won’t pin these failures on Trump but on the same swamp creatures they’ll hold responsible if he’s run out of office. They’re already blaming the cratering of “repeal and replace” and other broken Trump promises on what Bannon and his allies call “the McConnell-industrial complex.”
Right-wing nationalist populism is nothing new in America; the genealogical lines of Trump and his immediate antecedents, Sarah Palin and the tea party, trace back at least to the later years of the Great Depression, when the demagogic and anti-Semitic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin turned against the New Deal and vilified Jewish “money changers” masterminding an international conspiracy to plunder his working-class flock. The movement was rebooted with a vengeance once the civil-rights revolution took hold in the 1960s: The term “backlash” grew out of the economic columnist Eliot Janeway’s 1963 observation that white blue-collar workers might “lash back” at new black competitors entering a contracting job market. That anger coursed through the quixotic presidential campaigns of the onetime Nixon aide Pat Buchanan from 1992 to 2000, through Ross Perot’s in 1992, and, most especially, through the four presidential runs of the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace between 1964 and 1976.
What these campaigns had in common besides a similar core of grievances is that the candidates failed to win national elections. And they lost no matter what banner they ran under; like Trump, they and their voters variously identified as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. But Trump’s unexpected triumph in 2016, claiming the Oval Office for unabashedly nationalist right-wing populism, changed history’s trajectory. His capture of the presidency and a major political party makes it highly unlikely that his adherents will now follow the pattern of their dejected forebears, who retreated to lick their wounds and regroup in the shadows after their electoral defeats.
When Jeff Flake, the self-styled Barry Goldwater conservative from Arizona, announced he was fleeing the Senate, he told Jake Tapper of CNN, “I think that this fever will break.” If only. At each defeat in the pre-Trump history of Trumpism, the rest of the country comforted itself by concluding that this troublesome minority had been vanquished. But these radicals are not some aberrational fringe. The swath of America that has now been reinvigorated and empowered by landing a tribune in the White House for the first time is a permanent mass movement that has remained stable in size and fixed in its beliefs for more than half a century. How large a mass? At the high end, Trumpists amount to the third or so of the country that has never wavered in support of the Trump presidency. A low-end estimate might bottom out at the quarter of the nation that still approved of Trump’s hero Nixon even when he surrendered the presidency rather than face near-certain conviction in an impeachment trial.
Now that Trumpists have tasted real Executive-branch power, they are ravenous for more. Laura Ingraham, Rupert Murdoch’s new all-in Trump host at Fox News, pointedly told the New York Times on the eve of her prime-time show’s premiere last month that while Trump is “invaluable” as “the titular head of the movement,” Trumpism “is about the movement.” Bannon has called Trump “a blunt instrument for us.” Finer-tooled instruments — smarter and shrewder demagogues than the movement’s current titular head — may already be suiting up in the wings.
Since November 8, 2016, Democratic explanations for What Happened have settled into a liberal litany of if onlys. If only Hillary Clinton had spent more time in the three states she lost by a total of some 78,000 votes; if only James Comey had shut up; if only the Democrats had sung Kumbaya with J. D. Vance’s “hillbillies” rather than fret about transgender bathrooms. But a year’s worth of Monday-morning quarterbacking obscures the overriding reality that Trump deserves credit for his victory too. He mobilized the Americans who want to blow up the system they feel has betrayed them and, with boosts from the Russians and the funky calculus of the Electoral College, led them to the promised land.
To appreciate the tenacity and enduring political constancy of Trumpism, George Wallace’s story is the essential text. Soon after Trump started running in 2015, commentators started to clock the uncanny parallels with his southern predecessor. As Trump’s path into presidential politics was greased by birtherism, so Wallace commandeered the national spotlight by playing the race card, showboating before television cameras to try to block black students from attending class at the University of Alabama in 1963. As Trump’s followers came for the racism but stayed for the nationalism and populism, so had Wallace’s. His presidential campaign slogan was “Stand Up for America.” He inveighed against “pointy-headed professors,” the “filthy rich in Wall Street,” and Washington’s “briefcase-totin’ bureaucrats” while supporting big-government programs like Social Security and Medicare that benefited his base. Wallace, again anticipating Trump, decried the two parties as interchangeable while refusing to offer anything beyond anger and complaints as an alternative. Wallace was “interested in exploiting issues, not solving problems,” as the Times put it in 1972. He “has no real policies, plans, or platforms,” observed the contemporaneous journalist Kirkpatrick Sale, perceptively adding that “no one expects them from him.” That he lost all his crusades against the federal government, including his signature battle against desegregation, didn’t faze his followers either. “What matters is that he fought and continues to fight,” wrote the early Wallace biographer Marshall Frady.
What Wallace did have was a pugnacious and charismatic persona. He loved baiting protesters and courting violence against them at raucous gatherings like his 1968 rally at Madison Square Garden, where visiting members of alt-right precursors like the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party turned up to cheer him on. In his canonical Wallace study, 1995’s The Politics of Rage, the historian Dan T. Carter describes his speeches as “stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious,” but adds that “his followers reveled in the performance” and “never tired of hearing the same lines again and again.” Like Trump, Wallace knew his audience. His “genius” was “in his ability to link traditional conservatism to an earthy language” rather than the lingo of Republicans like Goldwater who “parroted the comfortable platitudes of the country club locker room.” Wallace was also brilliant at “constantly manipulating television’s infatuation with visual action, dramatic confrontation, and punchy sound bites.” The editor of The Nation groused that “without any conscious bias, the television cameras automatically focus on him.”
Wallace’s reception from liberal and conservative pundits alike is indistinguishable from Trump’s. In The New Republic, Richard Strout invoked 1930s Berlin and called Wallace “the ablest demagogue of our time.” William F. Buckley’s National Review, prefiguring the NeverTrumpism of its 2016 incarnation, decried Wallace’s populism as “the radical opposite of conservatism” and warned that it would “poison the moral source of its strength.” The political press predictably underestimated the vulgar interloper’s appeal from the start. The Times relegated the announcement of his 1964 candidacy to a brief on page 76. The television networks didn’t cover it at all.
History is written by the winners. Some comparing Trump to Wallace in the run-up to the 2016 election assumed Trump would lose in part because Wallace did. As one Politico piece had it, Wallace “never came close to winning his party’s presidential nomination, so if past is prologue, we shouldn’t expect Trump to carry the GOP’s colors at the Republican convention.” But that’s not quite the case. Wallace did come closer to winning his party’s nomination — the Democratic Party’s — than is remembered now. His electoral history should have been read as an indicator that Trump had an outside chance of victory in 2016, not as an omen of likely defeat. What stopped Wallace from winning was not the verdict of the voters but the assassination attempt that felled him at the height of the 1972 primary season. Had his health and career not been ruptured then, he might have brokered a major party’s presidential ticket and perhaps won its nomination outright, more than 40 years before Trump did. And he would have done so with much the same amalgam of issues and prejudices as Trump and with voters who often demographically and geographically mirror those of Trump’s 2016 base.
Wallace “was the most influential loser in twentieth-century politics,” writes Carter. That was true when he was writing, three years before Wallace’s death in 1998, and it is even truer now. Up until the would-be assassin, Arthur Bremer, riddled Wallace with bullets at a Maryland campaign stop, Nixon had so feared Wallace’s looming threat to his reelection that he tried to derail him preemptively by secretly contributing $400,000 to Wallace’s opponent in Alabama’s 1970 Democratic gubernatorial primary. (The dirty trick failed.) Both in 1968 and 1972, with the race-baiting Spiro Agnew on the ticket, Nixon worked hard to usher Wallace’s disaffected white Democrats into the GOP en masse by pandering to their racial and cultural resentments with respectable code words (“silent majority,” “law and order”) rather than rants like Wallace’s clarion call for “segregation forever.”
Nixon’s fears of Wallace’s political prowess were driven not by paranoia but by hard numbers. What’s now forgotten about Wallace’s doomed first presidential run, as a Democrat challenging the then-popular Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 primaries, was how well he did in three states north of the Jim Crow South — Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland — against local favorite sons running as proxies for LBJ, who, as a sitting president, didn’t appear on primary ballots. In Maryland, the LBJ stand-in, the incumbent Democratic senator Daniel Brewster, condemned Wallace as “a professional liar, a bigot and an aspiring dictator, and a certain enemy of the Constitution of the United States.” Nonetheless, Wallace won 43 percent of the Democratic vote (to Brewster’s 53 percent) and 15 of Maryland’s 23 counties in a record turnout for a state primary. In Wisconsin, where he won 34 percent of the Democratic-primary vote, Wallace anticipated Trump’s 2016 showing in the home state of the Progressive patron saint Robert La Follette, winning over white steelworkers in Milwaukee, suburbanites, and rural voters in Joe McCarthy country. His serial successes drove LBJ to commission a detailed confidential poll of the Maryland primary and to take a closer look at the Indiana and Wisconsin polls. The numbers told him that the backlash fueling the Wallace insurgency was a “potential threat” if not yet a “real” one.
Wallace pulled off a more remarkable feat four years later: qualifying on the ballot in all 50 states as an Independent under the rubric of the American Independent Party. His fund-raising power would be another early iteration of Trump: Though he took in $5 and $10 contributions from his populist voters, he also scored large checks from right-wing plutocrats: the Texas oil tycoon H. L. Hunt, the South Carolina textile magnate and John Birch Society stalwart Roger Milliken, the Hollywood star John Wayne, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken titan “Colonel” Harland Sanders. Wallace ended up with only 46 electoral votes in the tumultuous three-way race of 1968, but that total belies his strength. He won four once-Democratic states in Dixie that Goldwater, by dint of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, had hijacked for the GOP four years earlier. In the border states of North Carolina and Tennessee, Wallace beat the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, and finished close behind Nixon. Full-blown Electoral College chaos and racial conflict were narrowly averted. “Had Wallace carried either state,” writes Carter, “a shift of less than one percent of the vote in New Jersey or Ohio from Nixon to Humphrey would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives.”
Running once more as a Democrat in 1972, Wallace was a political threat to the party’s Establishment right up until Bremer’s assault severed his spine. Though the Democratic National Committee tried to distance itself from his campaign and force him to sign a loyalty oath — much as Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee would later try with Trump — he kept piling up victories. Of the 14 primaries that cast votes by the time he was gunned down in mid-May, Wallace won five and came in second in five more. Among his wins was Michigan, where his voters would be rechristened “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980 Republican sweep — the ancestors, perhaps, of the 11,000 or so voters who put Trump over the top in that state last year. Wallace’s overall 1972 delegate total was unimpressive — like Trump’s operation, his was fuzzy on the Byzantine party rules — but his support from Democratic voters might have been hard for the party’s hierarchy to tamp down at that summer’s convention. Before he was sidelined, Wallace had won 3.3 million Democratic votes, compared to 2.6 million for Humphrey and 2.2 million for the ultimate nominee, George McGovern. Even four years later, fading and wheelchair-bound, Wallace came within four percentage points of edging out Jimmy Carter in the Florida Democratic primary. Perhaps only a neighboring southern governor could have beaten him.
It’s been an article of American faith for more than half a century that the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 was the tragic bolt from the blue that altered America’s destiny, plunging the nation into an abyss from which it is still digging itself out. But it could also be argued that Bremer indirectly had a historical impact on a par with Lee Harvey Oswald’s, by giving America a false sense of security for which all these years later it is paying the price of a Trump presidency.
When Wallace was taken out of contention, many who feared his movement assumed the threat had passed. That postmortem was codified in 1980 by Jody Carlson, a sociologist and poll analyst, whose book George C. Wallace and the Politics of Powerlessness was the only exhaustive examination of the data from all four of his presidential campaigns. Carlson concluded that Wallace’s supporters were driven “by their authoritarianism, feelings of political powerlessness, and racial prejudice.” But she judged that “the Wallace ‘movement’ disappeared as quickly as it had appeared” with his exit, in part because his voters had divided almost evenly between Carter and Ford once he was out of the race in 1976. His following was “not likely to coalesce around anyone else, for Wallace represented no discernible ideological politics, only a position, a stance.” Wallace himself soon added to this impression by devoting his political retirement to a long and surprisingly well-received redemption campaign in which he met with John Lewis and other black leaders to atone for his past racist sins.
But the country hadn’t dodged a bullet when a bullet took Wallace out of the arena; it had dodged a moment of truth. With Wallace off the field, and his voters for the moment dispersed and reassimilated into the normal two-party order of things, America in 1972 could tell itself that the fever was breaking, much as the deluded Jeff Flake imagines today.
Instead, Trumpism has been metastasizing in plain sight ever since — gravitating from the Democrats to the Republicans but in truth a remarkably consistent force no matter what its followers’ party affiliation (if any). When Wallace’s national political trajectory was accelerating in 1971, Donald Warren, a sociologist at Oakland University, began interviewing midwestern voters in depth to come to grips with the phenomenon. He coined the term “Middle American Radicals” to capture their paradoxical politics: They sided “with the traditional left in opposition to the privileges and power of the rich corporations,” but with the right in their fear “of the growing power of the poor and minority groups in our society.” In his 1976 book The Radical Center, Warren correctly surmised that Middle American Radicals “will be a significant force irrespective of their inclusion as part of the established parties,” and cautioned that their dissatisfaction, if left unaddressed, could pose a “great danger” and “affect the political and social fabric with possibly drastic consequences.” His research would be eerily echoed in 2016 when Amanda Taub reported in Vox on recent academic studies finding that Americans with authoritarian traits (a need for order, fear of outsiders, the desire for a strong man to preserve the status quo) are “a surprisingly large electoral group” that aligns with “right-wing populism.” Indeed, an authoritarian mind-set was the “single best predictor” of who would vote for Trump, just ahead of having only a high-school education. Taub sounded a warning that picked up where Warren had left off with his Radical Middle Americans of four-plus decades earlier: This “exists independently of Trump and will persist as a force in American politics.”
One might think that the constituency will finally stop persisting after the failure of an authoritarian and kleptocratic president as grotesque as Trump. Having delivered little but chaos and rhetorical red meat, he will be exposed as a con. His adherents will be disillusioned, and his destructive nationalist and nativist agenda, fully revealed by the unforgiving spotlight of the Oval Office, would be seen as a cancer to be expunged. That logic not only recalls the constant predictions of Trump’s imminent demise during his presidential campaign but flies in the face of Trumpism’s proven longevity. It also underestimates the legacy of those Trump achievements that would endure even if he were to be ejected from Washington tomorrow. Not policy achievements, of course, but the systemic erosion of political, ethical, and social norms that will leave his rabid followers with more wherewithal than ever to keep battling the enemies they will hold responsible for destroying their president.
The magnitude of cultural vandalism Trump has perpetrated in so short a time is impressive. Even without carrying out (so far) such draconian threats as revoking network-television licenses, he has fully discredited the legitimate news media in the eyes of his base and no doubt other credulous Americans as well. The earnest liberal conviction that Trump voters would see the light if only they were exposed to a relentless stream of fearless journalistic investigations accompanied by fiery op-eds and MSNBC sermons was a pipe dream. The press’s herculean efforts both to expose and to denounce Trump-administration corruption are uniformly dismissed by his followers as “fake news” (assuming such efforts penetrate their bubble in the first place).
The actual fake news that provides Trumpists their alternative reality, meanwhile, is more insular than ever. Murdoch has stamped out most remnants of non-Trump conservatism at the post–Roger Ailes Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Breitbart, flush with cash from the Mercer family, is liberated from pulling any punches now that Bannon is out of the White House. (A Breitbart headline about the Virginia results read “Republican Swamp Thing Gillespie Rejected.”) The message pushed by such alternative media now goes well beyond the expected diet of racial and nativist outrage and Clinton-Obama conspiracy theories; these outlets are equally determined to undermine the rule of law, as Trump has, with their relentless characterization of the FBI, the Justice Department, and the judicial system as captives of subversive elites out to undermine America. It’s no wonder that Michael Grimm, the former Staten Island congressman convicted of tax fraud, can be suited up by Bannon for a plausible political comeback in a GOP primary only some 18 months after being released from federal prison.
The idea that the pre-Trump GOP will make a post-Trump comeback to vanquish these forces is laughable. Old-line Establishment Republicans in the Senate and the House, even very conservative ones like Flake, are engaging in self-deportation, as Mitt Romney might say, rather than face a firing squad in the primaries. The Trumpists will with time expunge the rest, including Paul Ryan (whom Bannon has dismissed as “a limp-dick motherfucker who was born in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation,” according to Joshua Green in The Devil’s Bargain). It’s a replay of the purge of the 1960s, when the reinvented GOP shaped by Goldwater, Nixon, and the “southern strategy” shoved aside the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney. Given that 89 percent of Republicans voted for Trump in November and that 80 percent of today’s GOP voters reliably give Trump favorable approval ratings no matter what he has said or done since, that means only a fifth of those Americans identifying as Republicans are (possibly) “Never Trumpers.” Ta-Nehisi Coates had it exactly right when he observed that while “not every Trump voter is a white supremacist” — “white supremacist” being today’s term of art for Wallace’s segregationists — “every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” That’s the GOP brand.
The remains of Establishment Republicanism are at best a Potemkin village. It’s too little, too late for “the Republican renovation project” floated in October by the former George W. Bush speechwriter and passionate “Never Trumper” Michael Gerson, who imagined that John Kasich, Flake, Ben Sasse, and the like would dream up “a compelling alternative to the Bannon appeal.” History will show that feckless Establishment Republicans repeatedly missed their chance to take back or renovate their party by being too cowardly, too cynical, or too inept to confront Trumpism as it fanned the flames of racial backlash under Palin, the tea party, and finally Trump during the Obama years. As Sam Tanenhaus pointed out in the New York Review of Books, none of the 22 contributors to National Review’s special “Never Trump” issue mentioned Trump’s birther campaign, choosing to focus on his ignorance of “constitutional conservatism” instead. If Kasich & Co. want a new party now, their only option is to launch a why-can’t-we-all-get-along third party of their own, presumably on Morning Joe.
The Trumpified GOP will think nothing of replacing them with the likes of Roy Moore, whose sexual history and extralegal actions as chief justice of Alabama’s supreme court are no longer disqualifying in a party that countenanced Trump’s history of extralegal business dealings and assaults on women. (The professed outrage of Establishment Republicans about the Moore revelations, like their impotent outcry over the Trump Access Hollywood tape, will only make Moore and his supporters double down.) But the long-term threat is bigger than the potential arrival in the Capitol of radicals like Moore or the conspiracy theorist Kelli Ward, a possible inheritor of Flake’s Arizona seat. By illuminating a pathway to power that no one had thought possible, and demolishing the civic guardrails that we assumed protected us from autocrats, Trump has paved the way for far slicker opportunists to gain access to the national stage. Imagine a presidential candidate with Trump’s views and ambitions who does not arrive with Trump’s personal baggage, his undisciplined penchant for self-incrimination, and his unsurpassed vulgarity. The broad lesson imparted at the dawn of the Wallace movement in the 1962 Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate still holds: The fascist presidential candidate to be truly frightened of is the pious paragon of rectitude who presents himself (or herself) as a selfless patriot and who purports to protect and defend American democracy even while plotting (with a possible assist from the Russians or Chinese) to destroy it.
But resolute Trumpists account for at most a third of the country. Shouldn’t it be easy to defeat them and their candidates, whoever they are? If the Democrats can, say, lure a goodly share of the 20 percent of suburban Republican voters who don’t support Trump, doesn’t the math work? Look at what happened, after all, in Virginia and New Jersey, where last week’s surge in Democratic turnout fueled big victories, a happy antidote to the Democrats’ disappointing defeats in special congressional elections in Georgia and Montana earlier this year.
The euphoria fades a bit when you look more closely. New Jersey and the once-purple Virginia are both blue states that won’t be in play in 2020 and weren’t in 2016. (No Republican has won any statewide race in Virginia since 2009.) Victories on either the east or west coasts cannot mask the fact that Democrats have no agreement on a national message (or messenger) that would enthusiastically rally their own base in the swing states in the middle that Obama won and Clinton lost. An early November Washington Post–ABC News poll clocking Trump with the lowest approval rating (37 percent) of any president at this point in his term in 70 years also found that he would tie Clinton (40-40) if a rematch were held now. That poll was followed by a CNN survey showing that the Democratic Party’s own approval rating is at its “lowest mark in more than a quarter century of polling.” A Morning Consult–Politico poll marking the anniversary of Trump’s election found that 82 percent of his voters would vote for him again while only 78 percent of Clinton’s would vote for her.
It would help if the Democrats recognized that Trump has demolished the old political conventions they can’t quit. While they were busy fighting about Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s management of the DNC in 2016, the dark money on the right was mobilizing big data and fake news to foment hopelessness and apathy among the Democratic base on Facebook. In the aftermath of the election, the Democrats are still litigating the DNC of 2016 and have reconvened their usual circular firing squad. The more casualties the better. Trump was not wrong when he relied on his gut rather than the permanent focus-group-driven class of political strategists to determine his message. One could reasonably argue, as Hillary Clinton does in What Happened, that there was little difference between her economic program and Bernie Sanders’s. But whatever his other failings, Sanders spoke directly, even crudely, to voters, unburdened by scripted campaign groupthink.
Sanders was also untainted by the Robert Rubin–Lawrence Summers–industrial complex that managed the economy in the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations and was complicit in the bubble that burst in the Great Recession. Very few leading Democrats are free of those ties. (Sanders, let’s recall, is not a Democrat.) Those who are, like Elizabeth Warren, should remember as they go forward that a half-century of history tells us that they are not going to win over the third of America that is Trumpist no matter what arguments they make. However common the ground of Democrats and Trumpists when it comes to economic populism, they will still be separated by the Trumpists’ adamant nativism, nationalism, and racism. The liberal elites who continue to argue that Democrats can win by meeting Trump voters halfway don’t seem to realize that those intransigent voters have long been hardwired to despise them. William Rusher, the publisher of National Review who tracked Wallace with admiration in the 1970s, presciently envisioned a GOP that allied workers and the party’s corporate donors against what he called “a new class” of “essentially nonproductive” Americans like academics, the news media, and government workers. That’s the exact Trump–Fox News–Breitbart culture war we have today.
The Democrats’ growing demographic advantages mean nothing if their voters stay home. Those who didn’t vote in 2016 have to be given a reason to turn out in 2020 with the same fervor that Trump instilled in rural white Trumpists. The party might have to fight celebrity with celebrity. The novelty polls favoring the fantasy candidacies of Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson shouldn’t be dismissed as a joke. After Trump, no one can question a show-business star’s qualifications (or almost anyone’s) to be president; some of them could deliver a political message with more conviction than the professional politicians in either party. And the Democrats may well have to fight anger with anger. The rage of the Trumpists will intensify in direct proportion to Trump’s downfall, which will surely be attributed within Trumpism’s ecosystem to a Mueller–Clinton–Goldman Sachs deep-state conspiracy. That anger will be further inflamed by the economic insecurity that will continue to afflict most Americans as long as the inequality compounded for decades in the age of globalization remains unaddressed and unchecked. The Democrats can’t respond with the usual ten-point policy prescriptions culled from the comfortable platitudes of a liberal think tank.
Looking to the future in his 60 Minutes White House exit interview, Bannon said, “The only question before us” is whether it “is going to be a left-wing populism or a right-wing populism.” And that is the question, he added, “that will be answered in 2020.” Give the devil his due: He does have the question right. But there is every reason to fear that our unending civil war will not be resolved by any election anytime soon in the destabilized America that Trump will leave behind.
*This article appears in the November 13, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.