Only rarely has a political ideology been tagged to an individual politician. Argentina’s autocratic leader Juan Peron engendered Peronism, but until Donald Trump, his was among the very few cases of politico-ideological cultism. Autocrats around the world have achieved cult status, such as North Korea’s Kim, Turkey’s Erdgodan, and India’s Modi, but none of them have engendered a named political ideology. In this respect, Donald Trump is a rarity.
How is it that this cultish political ideology – Trumpism – has arisen in the United States? Popular leaders like FDR did not engender “Rooseveltism,” nor for that matter, did Obama engender “Obamaism.” I believe Trumpism is due to the particular components it contains, the other “isms” that up until now have stood alone as ideological handles.
Racism, sexism, jingoism, authoritarianism, and corporatism are the components of Trumpism, and it is through his open embrace of these that Trumpism has emerged in America. Standing alone, none of these components have been able to mobilize mass support; it took Donald Trump to unify disparate ideologies into coalescence.
The closest we came to a similar situation was during the influence of Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, when Reaganism almost achieved a comparable status. That status was more firmly established after Reagan was out of office, and the mythology of small government took over. Of course, small government was not Reagan’s true legacy, far from it; federal deficits soared during his administration, as it has during all modern Republican administrations.
Trumpism required Trump, a media personality who, like Reagan, was elected on the heels of celebrity, not experience. Celebrity exposure counts for a lot with the considerable population of American men who pay little or no attention to traditional politics and political discourse but lots of attention to screen image. Others who followed that trajectory were California’s George Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger, two Republicans whose screen image fit well into the American male mythology of tough-guy power. Narrative, real or scripted, can be powerful; without television’s The Apprentice, Donald Trump would be just another real estate developer.
Neither Reagan, Murphy nor Schwartzenegger were, however, as naturally autocratic as Donald Trump. Trump’s talent, if we can call it that, is to embody a set of qualities that crawl into America’s darkest corners, where jealousy, resentment and anger simmer in wait for the flame to be turned up and they can boil over. Trump made that happen on January 6th at the nation’s Capitol.
Can there be Trumpism without Trump? I think not. Without Trump the gathered components will fragment. Trump is necessary to maintain their coalescence; his presence, like the sun, provides the gravitational force around which they, like captive planets, orbit. Without his attractive power, racism, sexism, jingoism, authoritarianism, and corporatism will establish their own trajectories, much as they had before Trump’s arrival, intersecting at times and at other times diverging.
To imagine anyone replacing Trump in this particular constellation is difficult; celebrity star power is what propelled Trump into office, and I see nobody in the wings that can provide anything comparable. Yet, Trump is only human, and 74 years old, at that. Four years is a long time in political terms, and most anything can happen. That said, if he’s around, the Republican Party will remain in his orbit. Accordingly, the Democratic Party had better snatch a shining star of its own for 2024 if it wants to light up presidential heaven.