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 then 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 source of information which does not meet with his approval and sing his praises. He advocates the dismemberment 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 can't thrive without its host, usually can't survive for long outside of it, and it certainly can't reproduce except inside a host cell. But it's completely alien to its the organism it infects and in fact, usually, ends up damaging or even killing it. Its strategy is to kill the host organism only slowly, though, because when it dies, the virus dies, too.

Populism is a phenomenon of the left, not the right. Its ingrafting into the DNA of the Republican Party through Trumpism is nothing more or less than a political retrovirus.

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

Say what you will about Trump and his movement, but the core of their appeal of is their populist concern for the 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 by far the biggest item on his political agenda- 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. 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 which attract conservatives to him were exactly the opposite of what they are now 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. In short, Donald Trump has reversed himself on the minimum number of issues and to the minimum degree necessary to enable him to use the Republican Party as a host for his retrovirus. He has managed to compromise its immune system so that it doesn't even perceive the danger posed by an alien attacker.

A concern 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. Lowrey thinks that it may fall apart while he is still in the White House.

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 get off the ground there. The contemporary Democratic Party is thoroughly committed both to an egalitarian mentality and to a dysfunctional set of social attitudes antithetical to those of blue collar America that it simply could not 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.

But the Republicans proved to be a different matter. 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 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.

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 be personal reasons). 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 treaties from which we 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.

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 liberal economics under Jimmy Carter 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 compassionate, realistic and conservative because it accomplished that 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.

The most crucial political fact of contemporary American life is that the growth of the pie through conservative, market-stimulating policies is at present no longer a realistic way for those who aspire to a better life to obtain it. In fact, it isn't clear at this point that there is such a path to a better life. 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.

This rage does not result in an increased measure of devotion to the free markets which are no longer clearly the solution. The hostility of the Trumpist hordes toward government interference with the economy and social engineering is largely superficial and rhetorical, to the extent that it exists at all. Despite the disdain of the average Trump supporter for Obamacare, the fact that not only the previous but also the present Republican alternative will result in far fewer people being covered than under the Affordable Care Act has implications which cannot be avoided forever.

Trumpists are understandably angry because many of them are unable to get decent health insurance under Obamacare. But even fewer Trumpists supporters are going to be able to get it under Trumpcare. Supporters of the president by and large not only haven't realized that yet, and in fact are in active denial. Yet the denial is not going to survive the actual fact. Trumpcare may appeal to ideological conservatives, and remain popular on ideological grounds. But not only is it not a solution to what Trumpists find objectionable about Obamacare; it is utterly alien to the role most Trumpists would like to see the government take when they need its help. Even Trump himself doesn't like it! That's why he celebrated the repeal of Obamacare not by praising the Republican alternative, but the single-payer Australian system!

The scapegoating of the poor and of minorities serves the cause of those who want to reduce government benefits for them for ideological reasons. It also provides a convenient outlet for all those angry people looking for someone to blame for their own misfortunes. But that common ground evaporates when punishing the scapegoats ends up hurting the scapegoater as well. The ideological conservative dislikes entitlements from ideological conviction; the Trumpist dislikes them as a way to express his anger. The two are simply not the same thing. The one is a program; the other is a tantrum.

Blue collar workers instinctively resent companies outsourcing their jobs overseas, and rightly so. A strong case can be made for government incentives to encourage companies not to do so. But that is a very unconservative expedient. Take it further and actively punish companies which send jobs overseas, as Mr. Trump has advocated, and you will find a policy that is a labor union's dream and a free marketer's nightmare. Promoting "Buy American" attitudes and erecting trade barriers to foreign goods is something the labor unions have advocated for years, and conservatives vehemently opposed. History teaches that protectionism rarely works and more often result in trade wars more likely to end up costing American jobs than saving them. Donald Trump's is a left-wing economic policy by any standard and an utter repudiation of the most basic of conservative economic principles.  Yet it is what the Republican party finds itself in the position of advocating!

Does Trumpism have a future after Trump? I don't see how. Once the personality of Donald Trump has left the stage, its actual substance, such as it is, will be gone. There will be no coherent ideology or philosophy or even legacy to give it form or substance. From the outset of Donald Trump's candidacy and its storm of nonsensical promises, conspiracy theories, and above all its aggrandizement of Donald Trump, thoughtful people wondered how, if he somehow won, his supporters would react when- not if-  he inevitably failed them.

Unless his presidency blows up in a way far more disastrous than I think even he will be able to manage, I expect that 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 that, too, even as they are ignoring Mr. Trump's failings and blaming the media for reporting them even now. 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 and his program a set of delusions.

But 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 and undeserving of America's trust, 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.