The genius of Trumpism
Julius Krein sits in a cafe on the ground floor of his office building in downtown Boston, wearing a green corduroy blazer and a neat part in his hair.
He’s just launched a tweedy magazine called American Affairs, and the press has dubbed it “the intellectual journal of Trumpism.”
It’s a useful label, in some respects. “Frankly,” Krein says, poking at an apricot tart, “it gets me a lot of clicks.” But it’s also made the magazine a target for criticism.
Trump, as one skeptical columnist put it, is a “deeply flawed tribune” for an intellectual movement — an anti-intellectual, a former reality television star who changes positions at the speed of Twitter.
Can there really be a Trumpism, the skeptics ask, in the face of Trump’s flip-flops? How do you reconcile the president’s many, glaring contradictions?
Krein’s answer: You don’t. Instead, you cut right to the bracing argument at the heart of Trump’s campaign — that it’s time to pull back from the globalism that’s served coastal elites and turn to a vigorous, new nationalism that puts ordinary Americans first.
It’s “ism” as game-changer, as once-in-a-generation challenge to political orthodoxy. And while it’s not clear that Trump himself will stay faithful to Trumpism — he’s already broken from it in some big, public ways — Krein is betting that the idea will survive nonetheless, that the energy the president unleashed will re-order public life in important ways.
Trump’s wild swings are a blow to Trumpism. They may be fatal in the end. But the bet here is that “isms” are built more on the salience of the big idea than the intellectual purity of its namesake; that a malleable “ism” isn’t doomed to irrelevance, but equipped to endure; that you start with a big personality and a big moment, and you go from there.
History suggests that’s a pretty good bet.
Argentine workers streamed into the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires by the hundreds of thousands.
They waved homemade banners and belted out popular songs. One woman dressed as the Argentine republic, complete with a white and blue sash.
After years of waiting, they had finally found a champion in Juan Perón, a charismatic colonel-turned-labor-friendly-government-official, only to see him detained by political rivals. Now, on this October day in 1945, they were demanding his release. And they got it.
Within hours, Perón was standing on a balcony speaking to the adoring throngs. Months later, he was elected president.
Perón stood for something big — the dignity of labor and economic nationalism. But there was a flexibility to Peronism from the start. The colonel embraced a leftist push for social justice even as he drew succor from authoritarian intellectuals on the right.
Matt Karush, a history professor at George Mason University, says Peronism is best understood not as an ideological phenomenon but as a class one, with broad appeal to working people whatever their politics.
“What he empowered was the low cultural elements of society,” said Karush. “Upper class and middle class people with aspirations really looked down their nose at the people who became Peronists.”
Peronism’s wide ideological berth was evident after the military deposed Perón in a coup in 1955 and pushed him into exile. Opponents of the new regime declared themselves “Peronists” whatever their political persuasion. Fascist-admiring nationalists on the right. Moderates. Leftist guerrillas dressed up Perón’s late, beloved wife Eva as a revolutionary on their posters and magazine covers, her hair pulled out of its iconic bun and draped loosely around her shoulders.
Peronism would survive for decades, through Perón’s brief return to power in the 1970s and up to the present day — its flexibility giving it staying power.
In the 1990s, it was a Peronist president who cut spending and pressed for privatization. And when he left office, it was Peronists who turned the government back to the left. Peronism, the Argentines like to say, is not an ideology but a mystique.
No more coherent than Trumpism — arguably far less — and potent, nonetheless.
REAGANISM, THE ONLY “ism” of consequence in modern American politics, is more ideological than Peronism. It is, unmistakably, a creature of the right.
But it roams over a remarkably broad territory there. And little wonder. That’s what it was born to do.
Reaganism has its roots in “fusionism,” a union of free-market capitalists and cultural traditionalists arranged on the pages of the Gipper’s favorite magazine, National Review.
It was an awkward marriage from the start — a marriage of convenience, designed to deliver political power to the right.
But it worked for awhile. Hard-charging Wall Streeters and small-town churchgoers shared a common enemy after all — the Soviet Union. In the presidential election of 1980, they found a common hero in Ronald Reagan.
Reagan wasn’t always faithful to his constituency, though. He was a conservative, of course. But he was also a politician, more prone to compromise than Republicans like to remember. He insisted on cutting taxes, except when he raised them. He was a fierce cold warrior who befriended Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and pursued nuclear disarmament.
Reaganism was built not on a rigid policy program, but on the glow of a former Hollywood star — bright enough to draw together very disparate strands of conservatism during his time in office and for decades to come.
As late as the fall of 2015, at the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, candidates from across the conservative spectrum were declaring themselves the former president’s rightful heir — the libertarian Rand Paul, the social conservative Ben Carson, the union buster Scott Walker.
But the truth is, Reagan’s Republican coalition, always a bit of a patchwork, had been fraying for decades, ever since the collapse of the USSR, really.
No longer bound to the GOP establishment by the existential fight against the Soviets, the Republican heartland had slowly pulled away — first with Pat Buchanan’s populist campaigns for president in the 1990s and later with the Tea Party.
Rust Belt voters were no longer finding the internationalist orthodoxies of their establishment partners so appealing. Free trade was killing their jobs, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were killing their sons.
Then along came a blunt-spoken candidate for president who called the wars stupid and the free-trade deals bad. Along came a man determined to wipe away the old “ism” and maybe, just maybe, give rise to a new one.
IT SHOULD BE said here that Donald Trump is no Reagan.
He doesn’t have the broad, personal appeal that helped make Reaganism a lasting concern. And it seems possible — even likely — that Trump will stray further from Trumpism than Reagan from Reaganism.
The protectionist fervor of his campaign seems to be dimming. There are endless stories of Trump administration nationalists like Steve Bannon losing ground to moderates like Jared Kushner.
But even if the president retreats to a more conventional posture, it’s hard to imagine American conservatism — or American liberalism, for that matter — reverting to pre-Trump patterns after he leaves office.
Even the president’s staunchest critics seem to be waking up to that reality. Just a few weeks ago, Bill Kristol, editor-at-large for the Weekly Standard and a prominent #NeverTrumper, declared that “we live in a new moment.”
“At home, the forces of technology and globalization have changed the economic landscape,” he wrote. “The various cultural revolutions of the last half-century have changed the social landscape. Changes in policy, demography, and economy have altered the political landscape. Abroad, it’s a quarter-century since the collapse of the Soviet Union. History, once allegedly ended, has restarted with a vengeance. New thinking is surely needed to deal with threats quite new.”
The fight, at this point, is not over whether we need new thinking, but what shape it should take and who should do the shaping. Krein, the founder and editor of American Affairs, is doing his best to position himself as a shaper.
He graduated from Harvard in 2008, and his brief professional life reads like a tour through the wreckage of George W. Bush’s America.
He did a stint with private equity giant Blackstone Group, restructuring companies hollowed out by the Great Recession. And at one point, he worked as a subcontractor for the Department of Defense, doing economic development work in Afghanistan. “I saw, a bit, where the reality didn’t match the rhetoric,” he said.
The old conservatism, it seemed clear, was not working anymore. But the GOP establishment refused to accept that reality, Krein says, as evidenced by its response to Trump’s rise in the polls during the campaign.
“The response was, ‘Trump is terrible because Trump is not conservative in the conventional sense,’ ” he said. “I thought this response was incredibly weak. Trump was winning precisely because he was not a conservative in the conventional sense.”
Krein and a group of friends tried to get their Trumpist essays published in the established conservative journals, but were rejected. So they started publishing anonymously on a barebones blog with the cheeky name The Journal of American Greatness.
It did better than they ever expected, Krein said, with the hits reaching the low hundreds of thousands per day. Eventually they had to shut it down, with some contributors worried they’d be unmasked and could lose their jobs.
American Affairs picks up where the blog left off. But the magazine will not defend the president at every turn, Krein says. He is opposed, for instance, to the Trump-backed plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, arguing that a more socialistic approach to health care is probably required.
But even as it breaks with Trump on policy, American Affairs will embrace what Krein sees as the basic premise of his campaign, however poorly articulated: a rethinking of the neo-liberal order.
The lead essay in the first issue calls the election of 2016 “a revolt in the name of national sovereignty” — a rejection of the globalism that “has benefited a narrow swath of America” and a call to focus anew on “the success of the middle class.”
The trouble with the free-trade orthodoxy, Krein says, is that it puts the American economy outside of the control of the American people, sacrificing the interests of the average worker to an elusive “global common good.”
The real common good, he suggests — the manageable one — is the good of a country, with defined borders and an electorate that can hold its government accountable. “The only democratic institutions that we have,” he says, “are national institutions. So if you get rid of the nation-state, what you’re really doing is getting rid of democracy.”
Retreating to the nation-state could, of course, be a disaster. The new nationalism has already stirred a dark ethnocentrism. It will make it harder to deal with the existential threat of climate change. It could even set off trade wars that will sting the white working class Trump purports to defend.
But the nationalism coursing through the West is real: Brexit, the surge of the far right in France, and the presidential election of 2016. This is a big moment — an age of “isms” if ever there was one.
And the best name, the only real plausible name, for the American variant is Trumpism.