Is “Trumpism” the New Normal for American Politics?

Donald Trump—either by clever design or by bizarre circumstances— could become the centerpiece of American politics for at least the next two elections.

How can this be? His positive poll numbers are in the 30s and he seems to alienate more and more people every day with his erratic policy-by-tweet method of governing. In fact, according to a September 27 Quinnipiac poll, 56% of American voters do not think he is “fit to serve as president” and 59% say “he is not honest.”

But the nation is divided. The poll shows that a considerable majority of Democrats and Independents label Trump unfit to be president, but 84% of the Republicans say that he is.

Trump is an enigma. I don’t know if he is the demagogic bully he portrays himself to be, or if he is acting out a carefully-crafted roll he learned while following his WWE wrestling passion.

WWE fans don’t seem to care that the “sport” is phony and staged. They just love the chest-beating bully talk, followed by body slams. That bears a remarkable similarity to the reactions at a Trump rally. The more bombastic he becomes the more passionately the true believers cheer for him.

I am among those who never believed that Trump could win the presidency, but  during the primaries and general election I saw a fierce coming together of people around him. They ranged from the alt-right to the middle Americans who justifiably felt ignored by their government. Trump played into their fears, biases and anger with bombast and vitriol.

I also didn’t think Trump wanted to be president, but was seeking to build a coalition of the America-first white nationalists, right-wingers, and the disenfranchised. I thought he wanted to be at the center of a mass movement that could become  a dominant force in American politics.

And that is what he is doing as president, with the eager help of Breitbart, Drudge, Fox News, Limbaugh, Sinclair Broadcasting, the Koch brothers and other power-seeking financiers.

But, do I really believe that this coalition of angry people, right-wing media and big money can dominate politics with what is estimated as around 30% of the electorate? Yes, I do.

Consider that in August of this year Gallup asked a representative group of Americans which political party they identified with. Republicans and Democrats tied at 28%, and Independents represented 41%. Trump’s base is solid. Republicans, Democrats and Independents are leaky, and the Trump team draws members of both parties into his fervent, true-believing, unshakable band of compatriots.

In a three-way race with a mainstream Democrat, a mainstream Republican and Trump––which I think is possible in 2020–– Trump has a solid advantage.

This is particularly true because, in my opinion, neither of the two major parties presents a comprehensive, cohesive vision of the future in a way that sparks excitement and loyalty. Instead, both parties focus on the transactional: programs and policies with specific details that they think will appeal to their base.

Trump, on the other hand, presents a transforming agenda: “clean out the swamp and make America great again.” It is an agenda big on image and short on specifics, but one that touches the emotional biases of his base.

I remember Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, from my graduate school days. Hoffer was not a political operative, nor was he a scholar. He was a longshoreman who wrote about the rise of totalitarian movements.

This book, a best-seller, focused on what ignited nationalist and totalitarian movements. In a passage that sounds Trumpian, he wrote “The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinions of others, and the single-handed defiance of the world.” He continued, “The enemy–––the indispensible devil of every mass movement–––is omnipresent.”

In all of his rally-like speeches, the president uses arrogant gestures, disregards and ridicules the opinions of others, and relishes in acts of defiance. And, he always has his devil, be it Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama or (lately) Mitch McConnell.

Can Democrats overcome Trump’s passionate defiance of all that is decent? Yes, I think we can, but it will take hard work: It will require much more than just being against Trump or being fervently for a particular program.

The disparate wings of our party must be willing to compromise with one another and come together around a shared economic and social platform. This latter task might be the most difficult of all.