Analysis by Reporting San Diego
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March 26, 2016 (San Diego) What is Trumpism? This is a basic question that few have asked. Why is his message resonating? What is he saying that has been so popular? These are important questions that deserve deep exploration. First off, he is not a classic conservative, or a classic liberal. Some of his ideas come from both ends of the spectrum. For example, he has been in the past for single payer health care. He has also said that the Affordable Care Act has not worked, and would like to repeal it and replace it. Access to health care for Americans is an issue he agrees with liberals. Though he disagrees currently as to how to achieve it.
Others of his positions have changed as he’s been getting ready to finally run for president. Among them his positions on choice, they have gone from traditional liberal positions, to opposition to most abortions. It is not like he woke up in 2015 when he started to explore this run in Iowa. His first foray into the concept of running for president was in 1988, then he toyed with it. He did as well in 2000 and finally in 2008. This idea of running for President is part of his DNA and some things have been constant over the years. They reveal party what is driving Trump.
At the heart of Trumpism is the strong man. Most Americans are far more familiar with that concept when it comes to other countries. Whether this is the Latin-American Colonel who just carried a coup, or the classic European fascist of the 1930s. The strong man has certain characteristics. He is the only one with the solutions to all the complex problems facing the nation. He is also willing to sacrifice to save the nation from itself and bring it back to the glory days of a mythic past. In the case of the United States Trump will also restore the true social order that has been upended over the last generation or two. The election of a black man to the White House was the final insult.
So let’s explore some of this in closer detail.
The Mythic Past
Trump calls the United States a shining city on a hill. This is not just a reference to Ronald Reagan, who revived the phrase. It is also a clear reference to John Wintrop, who gave a sermon on board the Arbella during the crossing to the New World. The ship was on the way to New England, and his sermon was meant to speak of a new Jerusalem to guide humanity united in Christian charity. President Reagan added to this deep religious meaning a secular meaning. The United States was a beacon of liberty and freedom for the rest of the world.
Trump has both meanings in mind, since quite a bit of his speeches and his book Crippled America have words about the past. He also has an affectation for a country that has been gone and he seeks to restore it. This is a nation with not just a correct social order, but also a correct constitutional and religious order.
Trump does blame a few groups for what ails the country. This is not outside the thinking of the Tea Party, which he reflects in some clear ways. In his mind the nation has gone off the rails because of corrupt politicians, who promise all, and never deliver. Or the media that tries to control the process. The political class is one more interested in sled preservation, and can be controlled by donations from interest groups. He admits to having played that game himself. The media is corrupt, and seeks to maintain the status quo. He is not accusing them of being liberal though. In his mind they are controlled by board rooms who are more interested in business and profit. He also admits to being a master of control and using them for his own goals.
He has also spoken with complete derision of the political reporters. In his mind, a marker of the strong man, their speech will have to be curtailed and the First Amendment will have to be curtained as well. It is also an appeal to an era when the press was more circumspect.
Trumpism also has a strong appeal to an era when men were able to earn a good living, and wives could stay home. He speaks often of bringing those jobs back to the United States. He is also against the current form of free trade, the neoliberal form, that has driven many good middle class union jobs to cheap labor markets. this has upended the social order.
This mythic past includes another element. The country was far better when the Federal government was smaller and not dominated by technocrats or professional politicians. There are only two types of civil servants he respects. These are the police, who he believes are misunderstood. The other are both the military and the intelligence establishment. After that, while he does not quite use those words, he would like to down the government in a bathtub.
The Wall and Mexico
One thing that he does not understand is why the wall, which is central in his stump speech, has become the center of attention in the political press. Well, for starters, this racism has existed in the United States. It is not new. It is usually not this honest, or at least has not been this open for a generation or more. It has been coded, heavily, into dog whistles. Trump is not shy about it. He wears it in his sleeve. Why does this matter? In Mexico the message is already a matter of national security and has risen to the level of the Cabinet. But how about San Diego?
We live in the Cali Baja region and we can ill afford bad relations with our biggest trading partner. For all intents and purposes, we are the same economic region. Therefore, our local economy could be well affected. Even our electrical supply could be affected. But this does not matter to Trump. He really does not care that we are that tightly connected.
This message is popular with members of the American working class, not just whites, because there is this fear that illegals are indeed taking their jobs. In fact, they have seen many good jobs disappear and what used to take one income earner now takes two and three. It is puzzling though that while Trump lays the blame on Mexico, he has yet to mention H1B visas and how that is also costing jobs internally. It is easier to blame Mexican workers in particular and free trade agreements in general. This is the classic other, and protecting the nation from foreign threats.
Another populist appeal is his reliance on common sense solutions and at times outright lies. One of these is the wall which will stop Ilegal immigration into the United States. As an example of how badly treated he gets by the press he makes a reference to a wall build between Mexico and Guatemala. He points out that Mexico can do that and is not called racist. Here is the problem with that wall. It is Is in the Arizona sector of the United States- Mexico border. The border between Mexico and Guatemala is a jungle. We will provides photos of both.
Creating the other is essential to Trumpism. Without it we would have to look inwards to find the root of the problems. It is much easier to blame outsiders for what ails the country, and to promise a great future while we restore the past.
Another element of the strong man is a strong military. Not only is he promising to restore the military to a strong position. He is promising to use it wisely. As an aside, this strong military will also produce jobs, good paying jobs, in the United States.
Not only does he see the military (and military expansion as a jobs program) but he will challenge our role within foreign alliances. This includes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), He has written that he wants others to pay for our protection. He sees no reason why we should protect South Korea either, without them paying for it. Never mind the Koreans have a strong military that trains often along ours.
He also believes in fixating our nuclear arsenal, which he claims does not work anymore. What is more worrisome is that in the recent past he has said he wants to use nuclear weapons to stop Daesh. This might appeal to the nativist followers, but deploying unclear weapons will be advised against by the military.
His approach though is one that will be attractive to many Americans. In his mind the only reason the United States should ever deploy the military is when the threat to the United States is clear to the American people. Given that after 911 the American people had no problem in sending the troops to Iraq, what is a clear threat might be an open question. That said, to his credit, he considers the Iraq misadventure a very serious mistake. He said that he would not involve troops if there was no way out.
We still must question this. His militarism seems less aggressive than that of the Neoconservative movement. For example he is not for regime change, or at least overtly. His is far more in the tradition of the United States being alone in the world, and not as part of a coalition. He believes that we can defeat Daesh, but not necessarily by getting directly involved in what causes the issues.
He does identify China and Russia as the main long term source of conflict for the United States. Never mind that he has said that he admires Vladimir Putin. HIs ideology is a hard look back at the cold war, which justified the vast amounts of military spending of the Reagan era.
Why is he Doing so Well?
As we pointed out, Trump’s run is not a shocker or a spur of the moment decision. He has been thinking of this since at least 1988, and some of the language he has used, started at the Oprah show in 1988. This is not new. In 1988 he was “not willing to rule it out totally.”
He might have thought about this in the past. This year he positioned himself for it. The conditions of the working and middle class are not better today than they were in 1988. They are worst now than they were. His populist talk, and taking the country back to that mythic past, is part of it. That is what makes him so attractive. In times of crisis the essential strong man is very attractive to those who are angry and desperate for change.
Trump has carefully waited for a few decades until we entered into a classic change election. The media has been under estimating Trump, partly because what he says sounds so fantastical. Part of his appeal is to bring that same media down a notch or two. The political class also misunderstood Trump. He has a very good chance of taking over the Republican Party, and while traditional political would give him zero chances in a general election, his populist appeal will attract minorities as well. The question is how many? Time will tell, but none who reads his philosophy should take him lightly. Strong men have been elected to high office in democracies in the past. We are seeing the same phenomena in our own shores. This is nothing short than a new form of fascism.
Nadin Abbott has a masters degree in history from San Diego State University.