Trumpism as a political retrovirus

I have enormous respect for Ross Douthat, a Roman Catholic thinker and conservative columnist who has an uncommon understanding of what has gone wrong with our culture (and with American Christianity) and why. I regard his book  Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics as one of the most insightful books I've ever read.

In March of 2016, Douthat wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times which pretty much took the measure of Trumpism. Of course, the closing words of the piece seem a bit poignant now:

Fortunately Trump’s fire should still be contained, by the wider electorate if not by his hapless party. Fortunately he’s still more a comic-opera demagogue than a clear and present danger. Fortunately this is just history giving us a lesson in what could happen, how the republic could slide into a strongman’s hands.


Of course, it wasn't contained by "the wider electorate,"  because there were more angry, disaffected, badly-informed Americans than anybody realized. In fact, there were enough of them located in exactly the right places to elect that demagogue President of the United States despite the fact that a majority of Americans rejected him.

The consequences have not been as bad as some of us have feared. He has given encouragement and voice to some of the ugliest sentiments of the angry people who voted for him. He has damaged our alliances, undermined our position in the world, and in at least on one occasion compromised an intelligence asset of an ally in order to brag to the diplomats of an unfriendly nation.  His former campaign manager and former National Security Advisor have both admitted to having been in the pay of an unfriendly foreign government during the campaign. He oafishly tried to pressure the Director of the FBI into pledging him his personal loyalty. Then he tried to pressure the Director into curtailing an increasingly fruitful investigation into the activities of members of his administration and fired him when he persevered in that investigation. He has taken a nation already crippled by polarization and division about ideas and philosophy and divided it further over his own bizarre behavior and unstable personality.

But his attacks on our freedoms have been only rhetorical. He denounces any news which puts him in a bad light as "fake news" and has largely succeeded in getting the sizable segment of the population which supports him to disregard any information which does not glorify him. He advocates the abolition of freedom of the press. He lies nearly as often as he breathes, and throws childish Twitter tantrums whenever somebody is mean to him. The damage he has done to the dignity and credibility of his office is incalculable.

But probably the greatest damage he has done is to introduce the retrovirus of Trumpism into the Republican Party. A retrovirus is a virus- a piece of genetic material so simple that it's not really an organism like a bacterium and may or may not even be technically living - which insinuates itself into a cell and hijacks its RNA in order to reproduce itself. It usually can't survive for long outside of the host, and it can't make more of itself except inside a host cell. But it's completely alien to its the organism it infects and is indifferent to its fate except insofar as it's in its interest to draw out the process of killing it for as long as possible because when the host dies, it dies too.

In other words, a retrovirus is a tiny cellular parasite which uses its host to further its own agenda even as it kills it. And when Trumpism runs its course- when The Donald is chased back into private buffoonery- Trumpism will die, and the Republican party will be left the task of trying to square its identification with it with its own need to survive. And that will be quite a task, since in spite of the fact that most Republicans seem oblivious to the fact, the party has clasped a viper to its breast in embracing Trumpism, and its venom has already killed the Party's very soul.

Conservative columnist Rich Lowry is skeptical about whether Trumpism will even last as long as Trump does.  He cannily perceives the disconnect between the conservatism of the party professionals who have signed on with Mr. Trump- and even of the "Constitutionalist" movement conservatives who probably make up the majority of Republicans- and the profoundly unconservative nature of Trumpism

Populism is a phenomenon of the left, not of the right. Its ingrafting into the DNA of the Republican Party through Trumpism is nothing more or less than the infection of the party by a political retrovirus. The core of Trumpism is its populist concern for "the little guy," especially the aggrieved "little guy." Trump, as Lowry puts it, wants to "take care of people." That's why he was a liberal Democrat all his adult life and remained so until it became clear that the only real item on his political agenda- the greater glory of Donald Trump- could be best served by becoming a nominal Republican and trying to pass himself off as some kind of conservative.  That's why even now in his unguarded moments Trump even now praises single-payer healthcare systems like Australia's even as "Trumpcare" effectively reduces the number of people who have access to health care here.

The shotgun marriage between Trumpism and Republicanism is an unnatural union which has resulted in the Republican party compromising its most basic principles to a point at which it's difficult to see what it stands for anymore- and all this without most Republicans even realizing it. The host's immune system was so thoroughly compromised by Trumpism's appeal to the baser instincts of conservatives and by the threat of Hillary that it cannot detect the presence of a lethal alien invader, and now it's too late.

Certainly, the conservative vision of the party's professional politicians and "Constitutionalist" rank-and-file is not Mr. Trump's vision. That the president has put aside his lifelong (and very recent) liberal position on abortion, said tough (though often implausible) things about defense,  and by appointed constitutionalist judges like Justice Gorsuch doesn't change the fact that populism and conservatism are like oil and water- or, for that matter, that Mr. Trump's positions on abortion, defense policy, and the rest of the hot-button issues fool conservatives into thinking that he's one of them are exactly the opposite of what they were at most a few years and in most cases only several months ago!

He remains a liberal on issues regarding homosexuality and gender, though most of his admirers somehow ignore this or, more likely, don't know it. He has changed only to the degree that he has had to change in order to sell himself to Republicans. In short, Donald Trump has reversed himself on the minimum number of issues and to the minimum degree necessary to enable him to infect the Republican party and hijack its RNA to make the cause of his personal glorification and aggrandizement prosper. He has become a successful political retrovirus.

A prudent regard for the status quo does not mix well with anger and even rage against it, and when you stir them together they tend to separate again rather quickly. Trumpist Republicanism is a contradiction on such a basic level that it cannot survive Mr. Trump. But of course, it doesn't have to in order to serve Trump's purposes. That the party will face a post-Trump era having to either repudiate him or stop pretending to be a conservative party is of no concern to Trump. Trumpism itself will not survive his presidency, and he doesn't need it to. Donald Trump will have no political legacy, nor does he have a political philosophy even now, really, other than promotion of Donald Trump at all costs. Lowrey, again, thinks that the mixture of oil and water that is the unnatural union of Trumpist populism and the Republicanism will fall apart while Mr. Trump is still in the White House. But if it has achieved its purpose, that will hardly matter to Mr. Trump. He lacks the personal depth to require a legacy, after all; glory and adulation are quite enough.

Trumpism fundamentally appeals to the blue collar worker or farmer or other American who feels ignored and disrespected and marginalized. It appeals to that demographic precisely because it is fundamentally a movement of the Left, embracing causes and concerns most commonly found in union halls rather than on Main Street. The only reason why it finds expression within Republicanism is that the American left and its electoral expression, the Democratic party, are a fundamentally elitist bunch whose rhetoric about standing for the "little guy" is drowned out by its penchant for patronizing him and looking down its collective nose at him.

Historically and philosophically, though, if either American party was going to be congenial to populism, by right it should have been the party of William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats. But Trumpism would never have gotten off the ground in the modern Democratic party, which is thoroughly committed both to an egalitarian mentality and to a dysfunctional set of social attitudes antithetical to those of blue collar America. It simply could never be a viable host for Trumpism. Nor would the special interests which dominate the Democratic party far more effectively than their less effectual opposite numbers once dominated the GOP ever have stood for it.

Not so the Republicans, who by 2016 were in the throes of a spirit no less fanatical but lacking in coherence. There are all too many Republicans whose disdain for minority groups and the disadvantaged are more important to them than fiscal conservatism or abortion or free trade and free markets. The fanaticism of the ideological purists who have come to dominate the GOP created the atmosphere of distrust in the party's more pragmatic establishment that undermined it and set the stage for the party's hijacking by a set of prejudices which finally had nothing conservative about them. In selling out to Trumpism, the Republican party has compromised its very soul. Ironically, it has allowed its values to be co-opted by a movement fundamentally incompatible with its philosophy and identity in large measure because it is dominated by ideological purists so obsessed with punishing the grown-ups in the party that they were unable to recognize that Jeb Bush, for example, would have been far more congenial to their viewpoint than Donald Trump is. They haven't realized it to this day. Ironically, the angry conservatives who have rejected the party establishment as insufficiently conservative and insufficiently aggressive in pursuing their ideologically favored agenda have anointed as their hero a man whose every instinct and indeed whose very appeal runs diametrically counter to their ideology, whatever temporary and unnatural peace he has made with parts of their agenda.

Make no mistake: Trumpism is a virus, not an ideology. Trumpism without Trump is merely nonsense. Trumpism offers no real solutions, but is only an outlet for rage; whichever party had been the unfortunate enough to have been infected by it would have been left, once Trump left the scene, with neither a coherent message nor a real reason to exist. It would have been rendered fit for nothing other than being a personal vehicle for Donald Trump. In itself, Trumpism has no program but bombast and demagoguery. As it turned out, while both parties were equally crazy, Mr. Trump was canny enough to realize that the GOP had the weaker immune system.

The Great Mexican Wall was never practical from either an economic or engineering view, nor would it result in any appreciable reduction in illegal immigration even if it were built. People can go over what they can't go through or around. Restricting immigration from Muslim countries will not reduce the threat of terrorism because immigrants are in fact already strictly vetted no matter where they come from, and also because immigration from Muslim countries has yet to produce a terrorist incident on American soil (though there is one case of a non-political Muslim student "going postal" at Ohio State University because of what seem to have been personal reasons despite vague and unprecedented Islamist rhetoric immediately before). Donald Trump's demagogic pushing of people's buttons with inflammatory and unworkable proposals like these are the main feature of his pseudo-program, and they only underscore the fact that he really has no program. He is a retrovirus whose sole agenda, like the agenda of a virus, is his own benefit.

Mr. Trump's touting of his insistence on abandoning less than ideal treaties from which we still, on balance, benefit and are unlikely to be replaced by better deals, often on the basis of exaggerated arguments about their supposed bad elements, are still more examples of insubstantial blather masquerading as a program. We're not going to get "better deals," for the most part. What we will get is isolated and deprived of the benefits we might have derived even from flawed treaties. Protectionist measures against foreign economic competition even in the name of protecting American jobs isn't just a left-wing tactic which betrays everything the Republican party has ever stood for, but a non-solution; history teaches us that such measures merely foster trade wars which in the long run end up costing more American jobs than they save. Search the Trumpist platform and you will find drama galore. You will find noise and dramatic gestures all over the place. But you will not find solutions to America's problems. You will not find a serious program, and to the extent that you find a coherent philosophy, it's the philosophy of the left.

To put it another way, if Trump and Trumpism can be said to have a program, it's as simple as the "program" of a virus: the exaltation, aggrandizement, and personal glorification of Donald John Trump by every possible means. Period.

No, Ann Coulter to the contrary, Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan. The "Reagan Democrats" embraced conservative economics because the liberal economic policies of the Carter administration weren't working, and they were suffering as a result. Ronald Reagan's "misery index" and his stress upon the power of a free market to help the disadvantaged was conservative as well as compassionate and realistic because it helped the Reagan Democrats (and all of us)  not by taking some of the economic pie from those with the biggest slice and giving it to those whose slice was small, but by stimulating growth in every way possible and thus making everybody's share of the pie bigger because the pie itself was growing.

But the pie isn't growing anymore. The richest 20% (not the richest one percent, as the Leftist mantra has it) have benefited disproportionately from what little growth there has been in the economy since the Great Recession. The middle class is shrinking. The American Dream seems to have died. For the first time in my life, Americans no longer expect their children to be better off than they are. In fact, all the evidence suggests that they will be worse off. And that is perhaps the biggest single crisis facing America today

At present, the growth of the pie through conservative, market-stimulating policies no longer seems a realistic way for those who aspire to a better life to obtain it. A truly conservative movement would have sought a means to revive Reagan's solution. But Trumpism has merely sought to exploit the plight of Americans who suddenly find their social and economic status in decline and the path to improving their lives no longer open to them. It offers them no real help. It has no solutions to the problem. Finding solutions is not its concern. Like a virus, its only actual objective is the advancement of its own selfish interests and is finally indifferent to anything else. It serves no constructive function whatsoever for the host, whether the host, in this case, be conceived as the Republican party or the nation itself, and is utterly indifferent as to the fate of either one.

The Reagan revolution was fostered by hope; the Trump revolution, if it can be called that, is driven by despair. It has come to power not because it has something better to offer but because nobody seems to, and it least it gives us people to blame for that fact. The Reagan Democrats supported Reagan because he offered them the prospect of something better; Donald Trump is President of the United States today because of the impotent rage of their modern counterparts at the fact they have no hope.

That impotent rage does not result in an increased measure of devotion to the free markets which are no longer clearly the solution to the plight of the angry, despairing Trumpist.  He is understandably angry because he cannot get affordable health insurance under Obamacare. Yet every alternative yet put forward by the administration and the Republicans would result in even fewer Trump supporters having insurance! The dyed-in-the-wool Trumpist is an economic conservative only when his tax dollars are going to help the scapegoat class. But he has no problem with government intervention in free markets to punish companies for outsourcing jobs in foreign countries or to erect trade barriers to foreign goods which compete domestically with American-made goods. Everything he objects to when it benefits the poor or minorities he demands when they seem to benefit him and free markets are the furthest thing from his mind.

This is not an economic philosophy. This is not a solution to anything. What it is is angry, hopeless people wanting to hope, but being offered scapegoats instead. Scapegoats, and dramatic rhetoric and gestures which solve nothing.

To the extent that Trumpism has an economic philosophy, it has a leftist one. But its only true philosophy is the political interests of Donald Trump. Does Trumpism have a future after Trump? I don't see how. Trying to imagine post-Trump Trumpism is like trying to imagine the Labour Party in a Britain without labor unions or a Communist Party in a nation without a proletariat and in which everyone was equally prosperous and wealthy. Such a thing would be pointless. It would have no purpose. It would be too absurd to exist.

Donald Trump will doubtless remain a hero to his followers even after he has been seen by everybody else to have completely and finally failed them. Many of his supporters will continue their well-established pattern of stubbornly insisting that he was right all along even after events prove him wrong. They will probably have scapegoats to blame for Trump's failures, too, even as they deny them and blaming the media for creating "fake history."Trumpism was always an irrational movement, and its followers will likely be no more rational on the subject of Donald Trump once he has been shown by events to have been a self-seeking phony without any real answers and his program shown by history to be merely a set of delusions and deceits.

Much of the anger behind the phenomenon of Trump and Trumpism is justified, and will still be there after Mr. Trump has failed his followers. The hopelessness and the anger will remain. But without Trump to give it cohesion, his movement will collapse. Like all retroviruses, it will die- but only after having exhausted and destroyed its host by compromising its very essence. Trumpism will leave behind a Republican party sucked dry of principle, opposing free markets and advocating the dream economic policy of the labor unions, and a Democratic party as crazy and as elitist as ever.

I hope something more substantial and more constructive takes their place, perhaps in the form of a new and more principled party of the constructive Center to counteract the polarizing and paralyzing extremism of today's politics. The Trump movement will vanish with Trump. But the future of America depends on our following the era of Trumpist delusion and fantasy and the fevered. extremist polarization which has disabled our system and left it vulnerable to a demagogue like Trump with hard-headed and constructive pulling together by all of us, "progressive" and conservative alike, to make America into a place where the people to whom Trump appealed can hope again, and the politics and policies of hope can win again.


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