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Trumpism’s Grip on the United States

Trumpism’s Grip on the United States
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

Fifteen months after Trump’s electoral defeat, and nearly a year on from the end of his term, it is difficult to underestimate the consequences of the Trump presidency. The results of the 2020 elections and the ensuing protests against the outcome, which culminated in the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill, far from ending Trumpism, have opened a new phase for American politics.

The 2020 defeat and the three months that followed entrenched Trump’s personal power over Republican voters and solidified the grip of Trumpism on the party. The two "Big Lies" - the first being that Biden’s victory was stolen from Trump through massive electoral fraud, the second being the rewriting of the January 6 assault on Congress as a "peaceful demonstration by American patriots" - are now endorsed by almost all Republican elected officials, both in Congress and at state level. They are joined by the entire right-wing media sphere, ranging from Fox News across the countless sites and forums of the alt-right. Fox News held off for a few days initially, but faced with an immediate loss of its audience to overtly Trump-glorifying channels such as OANN and Newsmax, the channel joined the movement. Within the Republican Party itself, dissidents have been purged from leadership positions in Congress and in the states; many of these elected officials have already announced that they will not seek re-election in 2022.

Trumpism is undeniable on three levels: 

The MAGA voter base - two-thirds of Republican voters

Trump lost - but still consolidated and expanded his electoral base and confirmed, if not his own political future, the political future of Trumpism: 74 million people voted for him in 2020, over 11 million more than in 2016. Biden won by a margin of seven million votes, with 306 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 232. However, as in 2016, the election ultimately came down to a few tens of thousands of votes in key states - let’s recall the 11,780 votes Trump asked the Georgia Secretary of State to "find" for him.

Trump’s hold has grown in both rural areas (from 59% of the vote in 2016 to 65% in 2020) and among non-college-educated voters. His base expanded between 2016 and 2020, particularly with Hispanic voters, although it remains dominated by whites, who comprised 88% of his total in 2016 and 85% in 2020. Analyses by Democratic pollster David Shor point to education as one of the most predictive determinants of the vote, a worrying development for Democrats. The importance of these electoral demographics, along with the much better than expected performance of Republicans in Congress confirm that the fate of the GOP remains absolutely tied to Trump.

Elected officials and power

Trump provides the party with a theory of electoral success; the party of the non-college educated working class, with a rural anchor that guarantees the GOP an Electoral College advantage. After a period of hesitation and procrastination, nearly all elected officials, as well as business and individual donors, have rallied behind Trump. The Trump clan controls party finances, local apparatuses and the majority of state institutions. Through their grip over those institutions, they also control the organization and verification of elections: in many states, and especially in those that resisted Trump’s demands after November 3, local Republican officials have passed legislation restricting voting access - an effort described by some as a "slow-motion insurrection", a reference to the January 6 assault.

The Trump clan controls party finances, local apparatuses and the majority of state institutions. Through their grip over those institutions, they also control the organization and verification of elections.

To paraphrase Senator Lindsey Graham, the future of the party is inseparable from Trump. Those who had a different vision have been purged and ostracized, like Liz Cheney. Those who voted for impeachment are either not seeking re-election (Adam Kinzinger) or are the target of primary challenges, such as those facing Jaime Herrera Beutler and Cheney herself. Even Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill are denounced as "traitors." In the House, MAGA representatives dominate the party hierarchy after the purge that followed Trump’s second impeachment in January 2021, a sign that the "Big Lie" of voter fraud has been endorsed by the party, despite its dismissal in the courts.

The last bastion of party resistance centers around the Senate Republicans who voted for Biden’s infrastructure bill, the passing of which was a major feat in the current political climate. It is also thanks to them that the United States did not default on its debt in December. But many of those senators are on their way out, with some having already announced their retirement - Richard Shelby (Alabama), Roy Blunt (Missouri), Richard Burr (North Carolina), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania). Apart from Pennsylvania, Trump won all of these states, and we can therefore expect their replacement by more Trumpist figures. It should also be noted, in order to avoid any false equivalence with the Democrats, that during the Trump presidency, there was always a majority of Democrats that voted to raise the debt ceiling as well as for the Covid-19 relief and stimulus packages. 

Intellectuals and radical conservative organizations preparing for the future

Trump has no political agenda to speak of and is seemingly solely driven by his thirst for revenge against those who failed to support his efforts to delegitimize the November 2020 election. But many intellectuals, journalists, activists, and ambitious young people, across a multitude of both traditional and online outlets, are fueling the culture war that has come to define Trumpism. They seek to imbue the next Republican administration with an offensive agenda, emphasizing the impetus that Trumpism has provided for the resuscitation of a nationalist, radical, post-liberal, nihilistic conservatism. The MAGA alt-right nationalist constellation does not agree on everything - far from it - but it is full of energy and willingness to join forces against the common "enemy:" the Biden administration and the Democratic Congress. It has many foot-soldiers, as the Trump Twitter-presidency has boosted an ascendant and radical far-right wing. They are a diverse group he lifted out of the obscure margins and forums of the web through retweets in broad daylight, using the bully-pulpit to both expand their audience and legitimize their positions. Algorithms and the acceleration of media rhythms fueled the chaos, and the ever-present "controversy of the day" completed the job. Trump’s ban from the major social networks came too late to curb this normalization of extremism and reinforced the Republican narrative that labeled the platforms as pro-Democrat.

The new right is not just those activists, intellectuals and journalists, but also a whole new generation of young Republicans who see the Trump presidency as a salutary and decisive moment for the country and the beginning of a new political era, even as they describe Trump as a "moronic boomer who tapped into something by accident." But he is still considered a "vector" who not only attended to their resentments against the left but also against the old Republican establishment and societal changes that they opposed. These developments are referred to as "wokism." One of the leading figures of the new right, Rachel Bovard, summarized it as a "totalitarian cult of billionaires and bureaucrats" defending so-called "liberal" values that the new right rejects. Essentially, modernity itself is seen as a hostile force.

The new right is not just those activists, intellectuals and journalists, but also a whole new generation of young Republicans who see the Trump presidency as a salutary and decisive moment for the country and the beginning of a new political era.

Trump has allowed the legitimization and even mainstreaming of these forces, all of which can be described as far-right, but which stem from many factions, including religious traditionalists, evangelicals and fundamentalist Catholics, neo-reactionaries, conspiracy theorists, militia members, right-wing anarchists, instinctive libertarians and even monarchists. They are a generation who have fed on the information wars of Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson, as well as new figures that exploded under Trump, such as Dan Bongino. Bongino’s Facebook page has 8.5 million viewers, more than the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal combined. While the Republican Party since Nixon has sought to attract these groups - referring to them as the "silent majority" or, perhaps more prosaically, "our crazies" - Trump has made them the base of the party. 

The influence of the nationalist "Jacksonian" wing has been growing since the end of the Cold War. Trump has made them dominant within the Republican party.

Their radicalism is expressed by their intolerance, and a liking for violence. Their ideas are not new; in 1992, Pat Buchanan proposed a trilogy of "nationalism-isolationism-protectionism" alongside an end to immigration. The religious right began its ascendancy into politics under Reagan and their political agenda was integrated under George W. Bush into the Republican Party platform. The influence of the nationalist "Jacksonian" wing has been growing since the end of the Cold War. Trump has made them dominant within the Republican party, as well as in the wider conservative sphere and its organizations, from think tanks to more directly political movements like American Moment.

Some of these groups, such as the Claremont Institute and Yoram Hazony’s National Conservatism movement, intend to capture this energy and orient the right through a strategy of alliances with a clear political agenda, despite the obvious contradictions between individual organizations. The Claremont Institute has been the "official" ideological purveyor of Trumpism since Michael Anton’s essay on the "Flight 93 Election"; it was also responsible for John Eastman’s memo on certifying the election and theorizing Pence’s expected role on January 6 - specifically, blocking the confirmation of Biden’s election. The Institute’s director, Ryan Williams, describes his think tank’s as on a mission to "save Western civilization." In a recent interview, he spoke of a new American civil war that should be avoided "almost at all costs." Claremont’s publications have become increasingly radical and apocalyptic: in a March 2020 article in Claremont’s "The American Mind" blog, Glenn Elmers wrote that more than half of the people living in the United States "are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term." In the August 2021 Claremont Review of Books, Angelo Codevilla described a country demolished by a "half-century of Progressive rule’s abuse." Among its activities, the Claremont Institute trains both current and future Trumpist cadres through its fellowships, which have included such alumni as Jack Posobiec and a congressional aide to Marjorie Taylor Greene. Greene is one of the most virulent "Trump babies" elected to Congress in 2020, a fan of QAnon whose first attempt at legislation after her election was attempting to launch impeachment proceedings against Biden in January 2021. 

A New Right and a New Republican Party

Trump’s reaction to his 2020 defeat, including the "Stop The Steal" movement that led up to the assault on the Capitol, has profoundly transformed the Republican Party, causing it to secede from reality. The persistence and amplification of the 2020 election "Big Lie," its place at the heart of upcoming primary campaigns and the rhetoric emanating from the Republican Party as a whole are not just worrisome for American democracy, they also illustrate the failure of Biden’s promise to "restore America’s soul."

January 6 was not the swansong for Trumpism, but rather the beginning of a new phase - an increasingly intolerant, nihilistic and dangerous era for American politics, with an increased risk of violence. Radicalism and violence are not only embraced by the MAGA base, but also by intellectuals of the ascendant groups of the new Republican generation, represented by organizations such as the Claremont Institute, as well some of the newly elected representatives in Congress. Trump remains the best way for Republicans to raise money, with the most extreme election candidates being the ones who are raising the most of all

January 6 was not the swansong for Trumpism, but rather the beginning of a new phase - an increasingly intolerant, nihilistic and dangerous era for American politics.

The upcoming midterms could bring a larger radical right-wing "squad" to Congress with a simple and brutal political agenda: multiply impeachment proceedings against the Biden administration and purge the remaining Republican "traitors." Their prospects are good for a number of reasons. These include ongoing redistricting processes that are more favorable to Republicans, as well as a primary system that tends to favor the most extreme candidates. They are also helped by the current economic and pandemic situations, which are Biden’s foremost priorities. The situation can evolve of course, but, for the moment, all indicators point towards a clear Republican victory in the House. The situation is less clear in the Senate, where the map somewhat favors the Democrats, and state-level elections may disadvantage some of the more extreme Trumpist candidates; all this remains to be seen, however, as even relatively recent precedents (such as the 2010 midterms) may have lost their predictive value in this new political era. For now, though, it is likely that the 2022 midterms will further consolidate the hold of Trumpism on American political institutions. And immediately after the midterms, the 2024 Presidential campaign will start, launching a new spiral of Trumpist one-upmanship among Republicans, designed either to please Trump - if he decides to run again - or to seduce his voters if he chooses not to.



Copyright: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

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