Because the leading spokesman of Trumpism is such a controversial figure, many have been quick to dismiss Trumpist populism or to deny that such a worldview exists. That is a mistake.
Whatever one may think about Donald Trump the man, there is much to learn from his populism and “Americans First” nationalism. Indeed, Trumpist populism offers a clearer view of the fault lines of American politics than any of the competing worldviews on the Left and the Right.
Trump rightly sees that America’s fundamental divide today is in terms of class — and not of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any of the other largely outdated categories of identity politics. Liberal diversity, after all, often conceals class homogeneity (at least in the narrower and measurable Sandersian sense of the term). Our elite universities’ cherished diversity statistics, for instance, look very different when they are broken down by income bracket instead. At Ivy League colleges, where diversity reigns and all identities are proportionally represented in the student body, there are more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the bottom 50 percent.
Trump also has a much better grasp of what defines the ruling class than does Sanders. As noted, he does not confine his analysis to income and wealth, but focuses instead on background, worldview, and access to power. Libertarians and conservatives, meanwhile, do not generally think in terms of class. They are so enamored with ideas — with the idea that ideas have consequences — that they have forgotten what Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Madison all taught: politics is primarily a clash of interests. Ideas, it is true, shape interests — and vice versa, of course — but once they enter the public square, ideas must attach themselves to interests.
More so than anyone else, however, conservatives do think in terms of family, and Trump’s populist analysis could be deepened by considering the familial divide that separates the children who are lucky enough to be raised by married parents, from the others who grow up in broken or never-formed homes. Based on Charles Murray’s work, one suspects that the familial divide will largely overlap with the class divide. That divide is also probably more fundamental than the racial divide. For instance, one can readily imagine what would happen to crime and incarceration statistics if they were broken down not by race as they currently are, but by family background to highlight absentee fathers. Few such studies exist, but one published by the Progressive Policy Institute (in 1990 admittedly) found “that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime.”
Trumpism not only explains our divisions better than the other competing ideologies, it is the most clear-sighted regarding the most serious threats confronting the country. If destruction ultimately be our lot, it will not be because of too much bigotry or concentrated wealth, as the Left claims, or big government, as the Right claims. Rather it will come from spiritual and civilizational fatigue and the abdication of our way of life by the elites tasked with defending it. As Arthur Toynbee concluded in his study of civilizational decline: “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” While Trump’s campaign speeches often suggested an awareness of this fact, it was not until the speech to the people of Poland that he made the point explicit.
In Warsaw, President Trump identified the “fundamental question of our time” as “whether the West has the will to survive.” More specifically, he went on to ask:
Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it? We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive.
In making clear the need for courage, Trump singled out the one virtue that is most lacking among members of the ruling class. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed long before Donald Trump ever came onto the scene, a “decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today.” While the Left today generally lacks the courage to stand up to America’s enemies (unless one counts the Southern Poverty Law Center hit list as enemies), the Right often lacks the courage to stand up to the Left. Whatever faults may be impugned to Donald Trump, a lack of courage is not one of them. In fact, not since Pat Buchanan has there been a Republican presidential candidate who has displayed such courage in confronting the intellectual tyranny of political correctness and the illiberalism of the identitarians.
Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of Trumpist populism, in its current form at least, is that it can at times be thin on proposed policy solutions. This, however, could readily be remedied, especially if reform-minded conservatives were to set aside their objections to Trump and reground their policy agenda to align it more closely with Trumpism. While Trumpism cannot readily be reconciled with anti-statist libertarianism, it could more easily absorb reform-conservatism. The conservatives would benefit from the overarching vision, the populists from having a more fleshed out policy agenda that would serve the well-being of Americans and protect national sovereignty.
At this point, Trumpism does not have much of a following among elected officials, party elites, and conservative intellectuals. Whether it succeeds in defining the Republican Party and capturing the imagination of Americans will depend in large part on how successful — and consistently Trumpist — President Trump ends up being.