Trumpism Without Trump

The Republican Party faces a reckoning. President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid by a wide margin, and the ability of Republicans to wield power is due more to structural advantages (the Senate, which gives equal weight to California and Wyoming, and the Electoral College, which lifted two Republicans in this century to the presidency despite losing the popular vote) than to a widely accepted message.

Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Josh Hawley of Missouri

A trio of Republican senators thinks the way forward for the party is to embrace and build on the populism they believe Trump advocated. This trio — Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Josh Hawley of Missouri — is  trying to demonstrate its populist chops by accusing President-elect Joe Biden of elitism when describing his early Cabinet appointees as well-heeled and well-educated but out-of-touch with the problems ordinary Americans face. 

These Republicans conclude that the election returns show Biden winning a larger share  of college-educated suburban votes while Trump strengthened his base among non-educated working class Whites in rural and small-town America. Rubio, Hawley, and Cotton read the data as showing that an effective way forward is to brand Biden as an elitist catering to the wealthy and professional classes on the coasts at the expense of laboring Americans. A whiff of this argument emerged in a Rubio tweet: “Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools,have [sic] strong resumes,attend [sic] all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline[.]” Cotton said Biden is “surrounding himself with panda huggers,” and Hawley referred to Biden’s Cabinet nominees as “a group of corporatists and war enthusiasts….”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida

Rubio has been perhaps the most outspoken Republican on the need for the party to reboot. He says, “The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working class coalition.” Rubio also turns traditional Republican devotion to free-market capitalism on its head. “The free market exists to serve our people,” he says. “Our people don’t exist to serve the free market,” he adds, suggesting a more robust intervention of government in the economy than Republicans traditionally favor.

For Rubio and other would-be Republican populists this amounts to “Trumpism without Trump.” But, that formula misreads Trump’s electoral success in 2016 and his ability to garner more votes in 2020 than four years earlier. It assumes that such a thing as “Trumpism” exists, apart from Trump’s grudges, racism, and narcissism. Trump’s appeal to voters lay more in the politics of resentment, appeals to nationalism, and disdain for what he and his supporters labelled “political correctness.” Trumpistas reveled in what they perceived as his hoisting “a giant middle finger” at elites.

President Donald Trump and Joe Biden in their first debate

Yet, Trumpistas never held Trump’s boasting of his Ivy League degree from the University of Pennsylvania against him while he mocked Biden for his educational credentials. Trump’s supporters cheered when he flaunted his wealth at rallies, boasting of having nicer houses and apartments than his opponents. People who voted for Trump showed no discomfort with his Cabinet, perhaps the wealthiest in history, filled with executives from Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil. 

Trump showed little inclination to fulfill the economic populism he pushed during the 2016 campaign. The only exception, perhaps, has been his trade policies, where he fitfully has cracked down on China for alleged unfair trade practices. Candidate Trump promised to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, only to endorse turning Medicaid into a block grant vulnerable to cuts at the state level. He said he would not cut taxes on the rich, yet he signed the biggest tax giveaway to the wealthy in American history. As a candidate four years ago, Trump suggested he would raise the minimum wage and push for a massive infrastructure spending plan. He did neither as president. 

Trump’s supposed populism was more style than substance, so “Trumpism after Trump” does not provide much of a roadmap for would-be populists like Rubio, Cotton, and Hawley. Can any other Republican successfully push the us-versus-them mentality that propelled Trump into the presidency? Trump overcame the Republican Party’s lack of a coherent policy on health insurance and controlling the costs of a college education by aligning his frustrations with those of his supporters. Trump loathes experts, but unlike most Republicans, he means it. Trump tried to make himself look smart by calling everyone else dumb, and Trumpistas ate it up. They did not care that he lacked a program to improve their lives as long as the show continued. Can the putative heirs of Trump keep the act going?

Biden, on the other hand, has real working-class roots, which is why, I suspect, Trump feared running against the former vice president so much that he tried to enlist Ukraine in a smear campaign to weaken Biden’s candidacy. Biden played up his Scranton, Pennsylvania, roots and told participants in a CNN town hall, “We’re used to guys who look down their nose at us, or people who look at us and think that we’re suckers.” 

Democratic failure to do better in down-ballot elections last month may hamper Biden’s legislative agenda. But, it is Biden and the Democrats who promise to raise the minimum wage, improve heath insurance, provide relief for college tuition, and create jobs through a massive infrastructure program. Congressional Republicans likely will obstruct all of these initiatives and more, providing the party’s so-called populists with little to offer the voters.

Except, perhaps, more resentment and anti-elitism, more “Trumpism without Trump.” Will it sell? Not unless Trump runs again in 2024, which is, of course, possible. 

Posted December 1, 2020

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