By Justin Henry
In 2016, the United States realized the strength of grassroots politics. Among candidates on both sides of the political aisle, the harshest critics of an aloof political and financial establishment were elevated to the status of cultural icons.
Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump ignited dissent from the mainstream philosophies of their parties toward anti-establishment politics. This shift in support forced policy makers from within each party to begrudgingly follow suit in order to stay in good favor with their voter base.
For Democrats, this meant embracing the democratic-socialist views of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who were considered radical in the Democratic party of the 1990s. For Republicans, it meant embracing Trump’s right-wing populism or else be ousted from constituent favor.
Trump’s campaign was unprecedented for its irreverence toward the “political machine”—crony crossbreeding between politicians and wealthy Wall Street bankers. He stoked the fire of a long-repressed rage in the hearts of Americans in “fly-over” states, sneered at by liberal elites and disillusioned by the Republican party. Trump pledged to be their mouth-piece in Washington, offering change.
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the costs,” Trump said in his inaugural address, an indictment of the career politicians with whom he shared the stage. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed.”
Change is what Rick Hock of Shreveport, Louisiana, hopes Trump’s presidency will bring— ironically using the tagline from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He said he hopes Trump’s presidency would rebel against Washington’s career-politicians and reduce the scope of government.
“Make the government a little smaller, more efficient and treat it like a business,” Hock said.
But for many Trump supporters, such a change applies equally to Republican politicians as it does to the big-government Democrats. Erick Erickson, former editor-in-chief of the right-wing blog RedState, said throughout the second part of the 20th century the Republican Party failed to deliver on several key points of conservatism. For example, the Republican free market pathway toward prosperity led to the outsourcing of American factory jobs and Republican politicians advocated against the entitlement programs for workers who consequently were laid off.
“The Republican party created Donald Trump because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them,” Erickson said.
"Trumpism" as a lost American dream
On the morning of November 9, 2016, grey clouds hung low on the Ithaca College campus as students struggled to cope with the tragic outcome of the election. Referrals for suicide-prevention hotlines flooded Facebook. However, in a different America, drivers honked their horns and neighbors cheered in the streets. Thousands of the “forgotten men and women” started planning to make the pilgrimage to D.C. to witness the inauguration of Donald Trump.
Hock and his wife Ricky traveled from Shreveport to witness the inauguration, as proud supporters of the 45th president. Rick Hock compared the euphoria of Trump’s election to the United State’s declared victory over Japan ending the second World War.
“Everybody was definitely happy,” Rick said. “World War II was pretty monumental, but this was pretty monumental as well.”
“Trumpism”, the people’s politics that the media and career-politicians tried to suppress, had won.
Trumpism riotously dissents from the mainstream political discourse of both the left and the right. It combines the social values of right-wing conservatism with the economic arrangements to restore America to a post-World War II industrial powerhouse.
Hock’s comparison to V-J Day isn’t purely sentimental; it references a bygone American dream, a utopia for industry and thrift.
Just imagine it: you’ve been underbid by some desperate developing world laborer caught between prostitution and working seventy-five cents an hour in a sweatshop. You’ve got no skills that make you desirable in the modern labor market so you work for minimum wage at a department store in order to provide food for your family.
Tom, an inauguration attendee from Kentucky who wished to not have his full name published here, works for General Motors, which was planning to build a factory in Mexico until Donald Trump threatened to implement unaffordable import tariffs to protect American workers. GM has since withdrawn their plans to outsource, a move which Tom attributes to Trump’s tough-talk.
“He’s already making an impact before he became president,” Tom said.
But for all Trump’s nationalistic promises, Trumpism contains contradictions. Trump’s voting base was a combination of the disaffected rural poor, Tea Party libertarians and ideological conservatives who considered Trump a lesser of two evils—an unsustainable electorate.
The latter group appearing ready to shift their votes to a candidate with a proven conservative record. The first two groups at irreconcilable odds with each other,due to the overhaul of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a social program meant to expand coverage to impoverished Americans that conflicted with the Libertarian idea of a private healthcare market.
Juan Arroyo, assistant professor in Ithaca College’s department of politics, said Trump’s brand of populism allows for vague and contradictory distinctions of patriotism because it allows him to argue on behalf of abstract terms like putting “America first”.
“Let’s say two or three years down the road, he can say the conditions are different and move ahead,” Arroyo said. “People will say, wait a minute, you’re going back on what you said. He’ll say no I’m not. It’s good for America...I don’t think he’ll have a problem with that inconsistency at all.”
Following the failed repeal of the ACA, which was a major talking point for Trump during his campaign, some have noticed the inconsistencies of Trumpism and have come to view it as a demagogic ruse.
"Trumpism" as the manifestation of cultural clash
The cultural divides in the United States that came to the forefront of the 2016 election have roots in the birth of the nation. On one side of the divide are urban communities and postgraduates who encourage social programs and foster progressive philosophies. On the other side are isolated rural communities and working class laborers, fearful their lack of population density will render them voiceless in national decision-making.
Beginning in the 1960’s working class Americans and conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater protested the “rights revolutions” of women and African-Americans. They feared politicians used this as a precedent for the federal government to invade the everyday lives of its citizens.
“As a conservative, I don’t believe that we have to come up with answers that’s posed by an individual or another party,” Goldwater said on Buckley’s television program “Firing Line”.
In the campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace, conservative candidates began their appeal to working class, white Americans who were resentful of the overbearing liberal elitism that had worked its way into Washington. Both made their appeals for a stoic federal government and a society constrained by “law and order,” a coded attack on the Civil Rights movement’s expansion of government power.
“As president, I shall within the law turn back the absolute control of the public school systems to the people of the respective states,” Wallace said in his 1968 presidential campaign advertisement, challenging the Supreme Court's decision to integrate public schools.
Richard Nixon, the seeming savior of the conservative movement, instituted the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Environmental Protection Agency, both with the explicit goals of reducing carbon emissions. Industries soon found it more profitable to outsource their production to China, Mexico and other countries without the United States’ altruism and environmentalism.
Nixon and Wallace’s proclamations for maintaining traditional values and a small-government were compromised for the sake of political expediency and compromise. The Nixon administration made Washington Post headlines in the most scandalous big-government move of all: the Watergate Scandal.
In the globalizing world that proceeded, Republican resistance to entitlement programs to help those dissatisfied by such a global market advocated by their free-market philosophy led to a culture of “disappointment and betrayal” among their impoverished constituency, according to long-time Washington Post Op-Ed Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., in his book, “Why the Right Went Wrong”. Their conservative ideals, however, made them bull-headed toward the progressive politics of the Democratic party.
The lost conservative dream propagated by the likes of Goldwater and Nixon evolved into Trump’s pledge to deliver America into that post-World War II utopia of industrial thrift.
“Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a government that is controlled by you, the American people,” Trump said in one of his campaign advertisements.
In his book “How the Right Went Wrong”, Dionne speaks reverently of a much different conservative politic, before Republicans compromised their ethics by voting for Trump, before the obstructionism of Obama’s Republican congress and before the reactionary backlash of the Tea Party. Conservatism is, at its best, Dionne states , a wise check on the idealism of the political left.
“The radicalization of conservatism is thus not solely an issue for the Republican party, or for the movement itself,” Dionne wrote. “It is a problem for us to reach compromise and common ground.”