It is difficult to find fault with Matt McManus’ denunciation of Trump in his recent article “The Downfall of a Would-Be Authoritarian.” As McManus rightly points out, the right-wing mob that stormed Congress in the first week of 2021 was energized by the president himself. For months, Trump—along with many members of his party—actively cheered on conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud, theories that motivated the violence that left five Americans dead. As McManus writes, the riot at the Capitol was the “dramatic tipping point in Donald Trump’s ongoing crusade to assuage his personal grievances by overturning the results of November’s election.”
The persistent challenge for those of us on the right—and, in particular, those of us who have some sympathy with the realignment-style conservatism that Trump ostensibly represents—has always been to separate our defense of aspects of the Trump phenomenon from the behavior of the man himself. This can be difficult, particularly given the partisan pressures of our current moment. Many conservatives have simply given up on nuance altogether, either by going all-in on defending Trump or—in the case of the more ardent Never Trumpers—refusing to acknowledge anything positive about his presidency at all.
The truth, I believe, lies somewhere between these two positions. To describe Trump as a flawed vessel for the political ambitions of the so-called New Right is a monumental understatement. I agree with McManus that the Capitol riot represented “all the worst elements of Trumpism”—an electoral coalition that undoubtedly contains some of the ugliest elements in American democracy. But the populist fervor that the now retired president harnessed is fundamentally driven by legitimate political, economic and cultural issues that were often neglected or even actively scoffed at by our ruling class in the decades leading up to the 2016 election. In dismissing not just Trump but Trumpism, America’s leaders disregard these underlying issues at their peril.
This is the central point of my disagreement with McManus: he condemns both Trump as an individual and Trumpism as a political movement. McManus sees Trumpism as “a vacuous phenomenon, based on a façade of power and strength rather than anything substantial enough to generate principled conviction,” which does not speak to valid concerns, but appeals “to people’s most malicious and cynical impulses,” pandering to “the resentments of groups who feel that their status has been undermined by egalitarian movements.”
This has been conventional wisdom in most of our elite institutions for the past four years. According to this narrative, the 2016 election was the last gasp of an uneducated, reactionary white electorate whose bigotry and resentful backwardness found a voice in Donald Trump. From this standpoint, Trump’s election can be shrugged off as a fluke—or even as “illegitimate,” according to Hillary Clinton. But it is surprising to hear these ideas expressed by McManus, who is usually a fair and perceptive left-wing critic of the American conservative movement.
McManus is afflicted by a problematic attitude widespread in progressive academia. The mainstream left tends to position itself as the champion of liberal democratic values, but there is a clear tension between its ostensible commitment to democracy, pluralism and liberal toleration and its embrace of the idea that 74 million voters—almost half of those who voted—are primarily motivated by bigotry and petty grievance. McManus rightly critiques Trumpism’s “anti-democratic” mindset for not regarding “the views and experiences of others as worthy of equal consideration to his own,” something “deeply contrary to the spirit of democracy, which accepts that, in a pluralistic society, differences in opinion mean that there will always be changes in government and that this is legitimate insofar as it reflects what most people want over time.” But, in the same paragraph, he describes the politics of half the country as “the grievances of conservatives who felt that their country was being seized and given over to a motley collection of immigrants and minorities and their over-educated allies in the media and academia.” Are Trump’s voters not worthy of the same “democratic mindset that regards the views and experiences of others as worthy of equal consideration”?
McManus is as well-intentioned and honest as any political writer I know. But such attitudes are indicative of the larger problems with the elite worldview that produced Trump in the first place. The growing disparity between the upper one-third of American society and the rest of the population has led to a ruling class who consider the political preferences of a large segment of their constituents to be illegitimate. Populism, while often unruly and destructive, is a predictable response to this breakdown in the legitimacy of republican self-government. Trump’s unlikely rise to power, then, should be understood as a warning to be heeded—not merely an expression of parochial bigotry to be suppressed.
The elite dismissal of Trumpism is the latest in a long line of elite dismissals of the parts of America with whom Trump’s message most strongly resonated. McManus points out that “Trump and his enablers have spent years characterizing anyone who has opposed him as fraudulent,” and that Trumpist populism “sees no contradiction in claiming that any democratic process that vindicates [Trump] is legitimate while rejecting any that doesn’t,” but this anti-democratic attitude is not confined to the right: all our left-leaning institutions—the universities, the news media, Hollywood, the progressive activist class and the Democratic Party, among others—have long conditioned their support for American democracy upon whether it produces political outcomes they deem acceptable.
The last four years have seen progressives fluctuate sharply between proclaiming the sanctity of our political institutions (whenever those institutions are perceived to be under attack from the right) and deriding them as racist, oppressive and in desperate need of radical reform (whenever they generate results that the left dislikes). Every aspect of the American system, from the Electoral College to the Senate to the Bill of Rights, has become an object of suspicion in the course of Trump’s presidency. Progressives’ boundless confidence in the correctness of their worldview has led to an inability to believe that a significant segment of the population might disagree—and a palpable disdain for anyone who does. Just as Trumpist populism “regards anyone who doesn’t support the leader as an inauthentic member of the polis,” left-wing orthodoxy holds that any electoral rejection of its agenda must be illegitimate—for reasons ranging from voter suppression, racism and the Koch brothers to Vladimir Putin.
This is not a defense of Trump’s behavior. In an important sense, Democrat hand-wringing about the GOP’s “de-legitimation of our democratic process” is entirely warranted: Trump and his acolytes really were attempting to engage in a flagrantly unconstitutional and anti-democratic endeavor. But many of the same people who spent the past four years arguing that American democracy is fundamentally broken—and that then president Trump was illegitimate—have suddenly become somber institutionalists now that their power has been restored.
This hypocrisy demonstrates that the illiberal tendencies of Trumpism are not a particularly new or unique phenomenon, but only a less sophisticated and more depraved iteration of a decades-old bipartisan rejection of the shared rules, practices and institutions of pluralistic democracy. More importantly, however, the elite progressive understanding of Trumpism is fundamentally untrue. Rather than racism, sexism and xenophobia, culture is the central reason for the populist mood in large swathes of the country.
Cultural anxiety is not just a euphemism for prejudice. It is difficult to see how bigotry and white racism could be the underlying causes of an electoral movement that, in the most recent election cycle, won more nonwhite votes than any Republican candidacy in history—while simultaneously losing support from white men. And the increasingly absurd attempt to discount these voting trends by arguing that the minorities who voted for Trump are somehow actually white (as New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones did) or are guilty of “multiracial whiteness” (defined as “an understanding of whiteness as a political color and not simply a racial identity,” in the words of NYU professor Cristina Beltran), or are simply internalizing their oppression (“You do not have to be white to support white supremacy,” explained Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott the day after the election) is, ironically, a testament to the ideological bankruptcy of everything that Trumpist populism was rebelling against in the first place.
To understand what Trumpism actually means, we should look at what Trump himself said in his now famous speech at Mt. Rushmore on 4 July 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. In that moment, when the 1619 Project narrative was being uncritically endorsed by every major cultural institution in the United States, Trump stood in front of a towering cliff with the faces of four icons of the American tradition carved into its face and stated—“in full, without apology”—a single, simple truth: “The United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.”
The idea of the United States as an exceptional nation has been a given for most of American history. But with the rapid ascendance of contemporary social justice theories, the contention that America is even a good and decent country at all has become increasingly controversial among the chattering classes. This trend has accelerated in recent years: by the summer of 2020, Trump’s statement was being roundly scoffed at as absurd—or even downright “fascist”—by elite opinion-makers in legacy media and academia. This radical shift in America’s confidence in itself, and the myriad political and cultural changes that have accompanied it, is precisely what makes Trump appealing to so many voters.
Trump himself is not, by all accounts, a particularly patriotic man: his entire worldview is organized around his self-obsession and petty emotional immaturity. But his political appeal is, to a significant extent, a result of the surprisingly basic instinctual patriotism expressed in his Mt. Rushmore speech. It is driven by a pre-rational love of America—its people, land, traditions and culture—which does not always lend itself to easy articulation, but is nonetheless still felt by the significant majority of American citizens. Trump is not an intellectual and his movement cannot be entirely intellectualized. But his unapologetic willingness to reject the pieties of a profoundly broken ruling class—to stand athwart the decline of the American way of life, yelling Stop!—is understandably attractive to many voters for whom the failures of the last two decades of governance have become increasingly difficult to ignore.
Trumpism, then, is not fundamentally about racism or hatred of the other, but a natural indignance at the ongoing attacks on the foundations of the American project itself. The Mt. Rushmore speech was simple—and would have been unremarkable even thirty years ago—but it drew a powerful contrast with the revolutionary anti-Americanism to which a growing portion of our society has suddenly succumbed. Everyday Americans are still, by and large, a deeply patriotic people—instinctually defensive of the shared history that binds us together, fiercely proud of our inheritance and acutely aware of our place in the Burkean link between the dead, the living and the yet to be born. Our identity as Americans has always contained a special reverence for our national past.
The attacks on this reverence have been perpetrated, ironically, by the very people who are supposedly tasked with leading the country: one need only look at the outpouring of institutional support for this summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. It is a reaction to this top-down radicalism—rather than a reassertion of some straight white male hegemonic power structure—that motivates the Trumpist coalition. As Trump put it at Mt. Rushmore:
Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities. Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.
On an individual level, Trump’s combative demeanor is undoubtedly a result of the narcissism and self-aggrandizing tendencies that McManus describes. But in the face of this summer’s chaos, the appeal of his obstinate stubbornness is entirely understandable. Trumpism is what happens when a nation’s ruling elite grow contemptuous of their own people and suspicious of their own history. It is a desperate reaction to the fact that our cultural institutions now define themselves in firm opposition to the traditional American character, viewing anything but a revolutionary overturning of our political system and broader way of life as insufficient. This new regime, in the words of Trump’s 4 July speech, threatens “to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and that we feel for each other”—not in pursuit of “a better America,” but in pursuit of “the end of America.” It is far more difficult to laugh off this claim as hysterical right-wing exaggeration—as mainstream progressives have done for years—after the events of the past six months. Our cultural revolution is now in full swing. Trumpism is a reaction to the fact that our leaders not only did nothing to stop it—in many cases, they actively cheered it on.