Share this post
Trump's is a strength based on fundamental weakness
Written by Alex Massie
27 August 2020
In the course of his four years in the White House, Donald Trump has so successfully lowered expectations of what one might ordinarily expect from the president of the United States of America that it no longer makes sense to view him as an American president at all. This week’s virtual – and virtually unrecognisable – Republican convention is a spectacle more easily understood if, rather than looking at it as a pitch for re-election, it is viewed as a family-style fiesta in which the ageing – but still vengeful and unpredictable – patriarch is festooned with hosannas wholly unrelated to his record of achievement.
Like many protestations of strength, this is built on a fundamental weakness. Trump must be flattered because he must be loved. Without the adulation of the crowd or, in this instance, television ratings, he is nothing. A small man trapped in the husk of a presidency.
Absolute loyalty is required but the great leader’s moods are so changeable courtiers can never be wholly sure they have judged the boss’s sentiments correctly. Today you are ‘in’ but there is always the risk that tomorrow you will be ‘out’. No wonder the only people Trump truly trusts are those fortunate enough to be members of his own family. Blood is thicker than brains.
No wonder the GOP convention has, in effect, been the Trump Family show. Sons Eric and Don Jr have already spoken, so has Trump’s wife, Melania. The content of their speeches need not concern us, for there was no detail to be discovered. This, in common with so much of the Trump presidency, was a piece of theatre; a performance and a spectacle in which the show is the only thing which counts.
Trump formally accepts the Republican Party’s nomination on Thursday evening and he will, unsurprisingly, be introduced by his daughter Ivanka. She, along with her husband Jared Kushner, are the closest things Trump has to friends in Washington and, perhaps, the only people in whom the president has something close to total confidence. Here again, Trump’s presidency is more easily understood as a matter of style, not substance. He is the ‘caudillo’ on the Potomac and ‘owning the libs’ is not just more important than advancing a coherent agenda or, gosh, achieving anything but more satisfying too. It is a form of politics in which the culture war is elevated to something close to art.
To that end, Trump’s greatest allies this summer are those American liberals whose righteousness and sense of social justice over-reaches itself. Calls to “defund the police” or suggestions white Americans apologise for their whiteness (and all the unearned privilege that comes with it) help Trump much more than they assist Joe Biden. Not least because they reinforce the core – perhaps the only – message the Trump campaign can muster: it’s Trump or the abyss.
Or, as Charlie Kirk, a 26-year-old activist swiftly becoming one of the conservative movement’s brighter stars, told the convention: “This election is a decision between preserving America as we know it and eliminating everything that we love”. If this is heated rhetoric, it is at least familiar. What followed was not: “We may have not realised it at the time, but Trump is the bodyguard of western civilisation. Trump was elected to protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life, our neighbourhoods, schools, churches and values. President Trump was elected to defend the American way of life”. Trump is the man on the wall; only he can save America from its enemies, both foreign and domestic.
There is juice in this. It is possible to think Black Lives Matter without thinking neighbourhoods should be set ablaze to emphasise the point. It is possible to believe the work of forging a “more perfect union” remains eternally incomplete without thinking American history something of which to be wholly ashamed. It is possible to note the dishonourable elements of that past while still wondering if, as a lower-middle-class family in suburban Cleveland, it is really something for which you should personally take responsibility.
But for all that Trump is a snake-oil salesman peddling a cure to an illness he helped create himself, his election also reflected the exhaustion of what one might deem traditional post-Reagan Republicanism. The party elite failed. They failed in Washington. They failed on Wall Street. And they failed in the deserts of Afghanistan and Mesopotamia too. Add those failures together and you create the conditions for Trumpism.
By bending the knee before Trump, the GOP establishment implicitly accepted its own shortcomings. Nevertheless, the question haunting the party bears some resemblance to some of the problems evident in smarter corners of the Conservative Party here too. Notably these questions: what is it for and, having determined that, how does it achieve its ambitions?
Trumpian incoherence is only sustainable, to the extent it may be maintained at all, in the presence of the caudillo himself. After Trump, whether that moment arrives in November or four years hence, the Republican Party must ask itself these questions all over again. There will be a temptation to pretend that the Trump era never happened, that it was all some ghastly nightmare, never to be spoken of or even thought of again. But it did happen and the reasons for it happening will not have disappeared simply because Donald Trump may lose his re-election bid.
Indeed, if it were not for the coronavirus – “the Chinese virus” as Trump prefers to call it – this election, in which Biden currently leads by around 10 points, would be uncomfortably close. It may yet prove closer than is comfortable anyway. Biden’s advantage in the swing states is, as you would expect, smaller than his national lead. That reflects this truth too: for all that the Democratic Party’s candidate will most likely win more votes than Trump this year, Trump’s resilience, or rather the resilience of Trumpism, is a reminder that the Democrats have not yet offered a compelling alternative to a hollowed-out GOP that exists to flatter the president and to prevent a liberal take-over in Washington but that has few ideas, and even fewer policies, of its own or any great desire to do much more than occupy the White House.
As we look forward – I believe that’s the correct term – to Trump’s speech accepting the nomination we should, I think, expect it to offer a more coherent vision than most of his public statements while being in no great way connected to reality. As someone whose imaginative powers proved incapable of envisaging a Trump victory four years ago, I am wary of thinking it impossible this time around too. And yet, if Trumpism is not defeated now, one wonders what circumstances would be necessary for it to be defeated in the future. That is enough to make me gulp and it might be enough to make you do so, too.
The old saw that Republicans campaign on a message that government doesn’t work and then prove it in office has sometimes been unfair, but it’s never been more true than in the Trump era. To that end, Trumpism has never been interested in answers, but the question it poses – how did it come to this? – remains both open and miserable.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.