08.02.2021

Why Did Trump Succeed – And Why Might Trumpism Last?

David Moscrop on political decision-making, partisan identity, and the lingering influence of Donald Trump in U.S. politics.

The inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th president of the United States in January did not mark the end of Donald Trump, nor of the semi-coherent populist authoritarian, nationalist, conservative program that might be called, for the sake of ease, ‘Trumpism’. Biden’s predecessor had barely made off with the White House carpets before Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy, made his way to Mar-a-Lago to meet him. Not long after that, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conspiracy theorist who supported calls to execute Democrats in 2018-2019 and is facing calls for expulsion from Congress, met with Trump to secure his support. Among Republicans, the former president retains cachet, as do the same phenomena that produced his 2016 win. The man and the program remain embedded in the culture and politics of the country.

Ahead of the election that brought Trump to office, The Economist Intelligence Unit collected data for their Democracy Index. That report indicated that a global democratic recession was continuing apace, just as it downgraded the United States to the status of “flawed democracy.” Across the categories of evaluation, the country showed weakened functioning of government and political participation. If the methodology had accounted more for policy representation, the score might have been lower still in a land known for representing the few very well and the many very poorly. Perhaps that is at least in part reflected in the declining trust in government measure. As the report stated, “The US president, Donald Trump, is not to blame for this decline in trust, which predated his election, but he was the beneficiary of it.” He still is.

The shock that accompanied Trump’s win in 2016 betrayed an incredulity that is all too common in advanced democracies, especially the United States. As ‘It couldn’t happen here!’ became ‘It couldn’t happen here, right?’ and eventually ‘How did it happen here?’, observers were forced to confront the reality that material and non-material, identarian forces, from wealth and income inequality to racism and xenophobia, are common national features that may be more or less activated and mobilized by political elites depending on the politics of the day. It could happen here, indeed, for the same reason similar things have happened before: the stuff of nightmares is always present, even if it is not always put to work in common, sinister purpose for the highest offices in the land.

"No single cause answers the question “Why Trump?” But Trump’s capacity to capture and bottle up all sorts of sentiments tells some of the story."

Donald Trump appealed to millions of Americans for a handful of reasons, including those who might have been put off by one thing or another, but found a way to excuse their discomfort in service of some more pressing interest. Once Trump began to gain support during the Republican primaries in 2016, the commentariat began to wring their hands, wondering how it was possible. The articles and books and panel segments soon began soul searching, full-steam ahead, explanations running the gamut, offering one-dimensional catch-all takes that included economic anxiety, anti-globalist lashing out, structural racism, devotion to the authoritarian personality type, and so forth. Trump received nearly 63 million votes in 2016. He took home more than 74 million four years later. No single cause answers the question “Why Trump?” But Trump’s capacity to capture and bottle up all sorts of sentiments tells some of the story.

Two notable elements that were necessary for Trump’s success were clear from the beginning: partisan identity and the machinery of electoral democracy. The identity element and the machinery of American democracy merged and was applied to the governing apparatus itself, from Congress to the White House and the federal courts. In the United States, partisan identity is a tremendous force, such that for millions, the party they support is not merely an entity to which they lend their vote, but a lens through which they see the world—or, rather, in many cases, a way of being in the world, shaping political, social, and cultural beliefs, not to mention decision-making. In Democracy for Realists, perhaps the best contemporary study of partisan identity and (un)responsive government, political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue that social identities and partisan loyalties drive American political life. Individuals choose their side and then let it shape their world—even their assessment of facts—according to party and elite cues, rather than the choosing their side based on the track records and policy commitments of the parties. If you can capture a party – as Trump did with the Republican Party – you can then leverage partisan identity to mobilize and shape the worldview of millions of Americans.

Elite solidarity and Judicial Capture

Elite solidarity helps, too. Once Trump had managed the Republican nomination, the machinery of the party, save for some rebellious holdouts and resisters, fell into line behind him as the leader. Of course, Trump’s views from 2015 onwards – after his time as a registered Democrat and donor to, among others, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and the Clinton Foundation – often coincided with mainstream Republicans or reflected the logical, if stylistically gauche, terminus of policies dating back to the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. administrations. But regardless of policy, once Trump was the nominee, the interest of Republican leaders was to win Congress and the White House – and then take the courts, too. During his four years in office, Trump appointed over 200 federal judges, setting such a stunning pace that now over 25 percent of sitting federal judges have been appointed by him. Those judges will shape American jurisprudence—and policy—for decades in ways the GOP will likely welcome. Republican leadership, no doubt, have long had their eyes on the courts.

If the intent of the framers of the Constitution was for each branch of government to act as a check on the others, the practice has evolved to facilitate attempts at whole-of-state capturing by parties so that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are imagined to be extensions of the party that grease the wheels of the partisan machine. The goal of the opposing party, as seen by Republicans at any rate, is to be as obstructionist as possible. As then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” These comments matched John Boehner’s promise to stop the Obama administration, saying “We're going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

Partisan Interest and Identity

The political institutions of the United States, shaped by partisan interest and identity, thus explain a considerable bit of the rise and persistence of Trump and Trumpism. The former President was supported by a motley crew of voters connected and sometimes disconnected by racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-elite sentiment, economic concerns and grievances, and old-fashioned thoughtless partisan loyalty. Trump did not create these groups. He recognized them and mobilized them. They were always there. He elevated them and then put the machinery of party and state to work towards his own ends, as just about everyone went along to get along.

Trump constructed a large, if awkward, tent and ruled over it as an authoritarian.

The fact that Trump voters can be broken down into groups – the 2016 voter breakdown tells us that men were more likely to vote for him than women, older folks more likely than younger, white Americans far more likely than Black or Hispanic Americans, non-college graduates more likely than college graduates, and so forth – supports the argument raised by Achen and Bartels that groups tend shape U.S. politics and that those groups have shared identities and interests, even if partisan loyalty renders them more malleable than one might hope. The same election data that breaks down support for Trump along demographic lines tells us that 92 percent of Republicans voted for Trump and 94 percent of Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton. So far, the 2020 exit polling data tells a similar story. As the New York Times reports, 94 percent of Republicans voted for Trump and 94 percent of Democrats voted for Biden.

Now that the Republicans are out of the White House and reduced to the minority force in the House and Senate, the party will split their priorities into two symbiotic goals: to stifle the Biden administration and its agenda, and to win back the Senate and the White House. Same as it ever was. Whether the character of the party will resemble pre- or post-Trump is to be determined, but early money is chasing the latter. Only ten Republicans voted to impeach Trump, among them Representative Liz Cheney, who, like the others, including Representative Adam Kinzinger, has subsequently become a target of opprobrium. Four years of Donald Trump has empowered and made prominent the most sinister elements that have long been a part of the GOP. No Republican has yet emerged who is capable of charting another course for the party. Trump’s own political future is still to be determined. The mobilization of identarian and material interests and their transformation of the GOP into a fun house mirror iteration of the Republican Party will not be easy to undo as Americans reckon with the reality that it can and did happen here. And it is not yet done happening.

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