Trumpism Is A Coherent Ideology (PART 1)
“Trump and the modern GOP don’t have policies, it’s just improvisation, shitposting and culture war grievance.” This line became so popular over the course of Trump’s term it became an article of faith amongst the commentariat. To deviate from it became a kind of heresy. Anyone who saw in the disorganized stupidity of the administration anything resembling coherence had to have been straining hard to see patterns in the chaos.
As the CPAC speeches are rolling out this week, that dogma is reappearing, voiced by people like Chris Hayes who said, “So much of what they are railing about was about things that aren’t even political …or have to do with governing…nothing that you could write a bill to deal with. That seems to me the thrust of much of what this sort of grievance and anger has been throughout the first day.”
I’ve never been convinced by this line of reasoning, and it’s not because I’ve been divining sixteen dimensional chess in everything Trump does. It’s because he has always been surrounded by people with overlapping worldviews. All one has to do — or has ever had to do — is pay attention to what those people say and interpret policy accordingly.
Trump The Politician isn’t much different than Trump The Real Estate Guy. The goldpainted brand name on the building signals a narcissistic, self-enriching organizing principle. Just as it can be used to sell steaks, a phony university, hotels and casinos, Trump The Politician can be used to sell a variety of interlocking political products and programs. Corporate brands aim to transcend products, to become abstract evocations of generalized positivity and familiarity which activate consumers to adopt brand loyalty.
I think the first place to start, because it sheds the most light on what Trumpism stands for, is Steve Bannon. Reduced to a cartoon by Twitter, his ideas seem lesser known today than they were when Buzzfeed posted This Is How Steve Bannon Sees The Entire World. There was, for a moment in 2018, a great deal of fuss over whether Bannon should be debated publicly, since to debate him is to give him a platform. I’m sympathetic to the effort to deprive far right nationalists of a public platform; but it’s worrisome when the opponents of far right nationalism begin to show clear signs that they’re not sure what their enemies are after.
In the above-cited article, Bannon lays out a fairly legible political programme. It is, in his words, “militant” in its commitment to traditional Judeo-Christian values. He views secularism, atheism and non-Christian religions as threats and enemies in a world-historical global struggle. His sense of history is deeply imperialist, referring to the “barbaric” East and indulging a kind of East/West Us/Them chauvinism.
It is, in other words, the kind of politics you’d expect from someone who adopts conclusions based on a series of self-serving assumptions, and then seeks out the most convenient literature, historical anecdotes, and philosophical precepts as scaffolding. White, Christian men who have made a lot of money in America and who stand to benefit the most from traditional cultural values, might naturally want to imagine that Western capitalism, enlightened by good Christians, is not just superior because it benefits them to believe it, but because there’s a list of classroom reasons for that superiority.
Imagine, for a moment, if American politicians were to state this political worldview in its positive form, as Bannon did on this call: Christians in the West have to defend Civilization Itself — which they invented — from Eastern barbarians. It’s theocratic nationalism based in racist history that revels in imperial dominance. But if you state it in the negative, what mainstream commentators deride as mere grievance, you can get away with a lot more. You’re against white privilege, critical race theory, liberal cowardice in the face of migrating hordes, and atheistic communists.
It’s getting easier to be a theocrat in America, but “the church militant” still sounds too far removed from anything the American founders wrote or believed to just blurt it from the presidential podium. Instead, you seize on religiously defined notions of cultural issues, especially in the realms of sex, gender, and marriage, and sell them with the label “religious freedom.”
Liberal and left Twitter loves to post about failing to understand why anyone would care who uses which bathroom, but recall anti-big box brand activism of the late 90s? Back then the left understood that it was good politics to seize upon Nike, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Walmart as representations of a larger political goal. People could immediately relate to these ubiquitous monoliths, and you could carry on a broader ideological campaign via symbolic enemies and symbolic victories. Which is to say the Trumpist right doesn’t actually care who uses which bathroom, they are waging their own symbolic war in service of a larger political goal.
(It’s worth going on a brief tangent here about a few things. First, Bannon’s dishonest categorization of his politics as “center right” when they are blatantly radical right. His preference for euphemism regarding the PEGIDA/AfD contingency as “The German tea party” is a big tell. And his sense that the racial and militia elements in these movements will “wash out” hasn’t played out that way at all.)
And the last point about Bannon in terms of understanding Trumpism as an ideology is his remark that he’s a Leninist: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too […] I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Without referencing this specific example, Anne Applebaum makes a similar point in her recent book, “The Twilight of Democracy.” She’s doing it as a self avowed person of the right, as a means of delineating the postwar and Cold War right to which she feels an allegiance, from Trumpist, Polish, and Brexiteer nationalist right, which she rejects.
It’s on the point of a world-historical global struggle, the notion of a grand war to prevent the extinction of one’s people and culture, that it’s worth pivoting from Steve Bannon to Michael Anton. Anton is best known for his article for the Claremont Review of Books, “The Flight 93 Election.” It would be as impossible to empirically measure its influence as to overstate it. The piece aimed to valorize Republicans voting for Trump in the same light as those like Todd Beamer that gave their lives to prevent an attack on the Pentagon. Arguably, it was an announcement (however unwitting) of the new GOP’s own burgeoning self-realization as a radical theocratic extremism: inspired by religious text and political conspiracy, ready to exterminate unbelievers and topple the Great American Satan [the secular neocon globalist deep state] so that a kingdom of the godly could be established.
If Trump was the wedge that split the Cold War Republican Party from its antidemocratic nationalists, Anton’s framing of the choice between Trump and Clinton as existential was the glue that reunited them. It was not only what united them, it has been the guiding, determining principle of the post-COVID, post-1/6 drive to never again cleave one from the other. Put simply, as long as Democrats exist and as long as nationalists strongarm the party for dominance, the only choice for the Cold War Republicans is reluctant support for Trumpist nationalism (a reluctance, it must be said, which has a way of decreasing over time).
But while Michael Anton’s millenarian paranoia paved the way for the ISIS-tinted militancy of 1/6, Marjorie Taylor Greene and QAnon, he’s the sort of person who (not unlike viral provocateur Mike Cernovich) is fond of reminding you how he‘s kind of a liberal. But he’s obsessed with nuclear war. Anton’s intellectual style consists in a combination of mundane truisms like “anything that human beings have wanted to do badly enough, that it is physically possible to do, they have eventually found a way to do” combined with the kinds of natsec warnings that sound as if they were formulated in a sports bar like, “If Chicago wakes up one morning and NY is simply not there any more, and some dude on Al Jazeera is saying, ‘Chicago you are next!’ I don’t see order lasting long.”
Anton is a doomprepper in a fancy suit, with a worldview lifted from Hollywood action movies and an above average understanding of the mechanics of nuclear detonation fallout. It appears as if he’s shrewd enough to avoid saying so, but his remarks about trust levels in diverse societies vs. homogenous ones strongly suggest that the kind of homogeneity Trumpist nationalism is carving out dovetails with Anton’s visions of post-nuclear civilizational breakdown. After the inevitable nuclear attack on the United States by Islamic terrorists, after the social order collapses, less diverse and more homogenous communities — connecting the dots between Anton’s conclusions — will be the most resilient.
It’s worth pausing here to note that Anton and Bannon don’t need to have coordinated with one another, no manifesto needs to have been written, and Trump needs neither to have read nor believed in its tenets for any of this to work together in a coherent way. “The cruelty is the point” isn’t without its insightful and explanatory power, but the point is a bit more simultaneously fine and comprehensive…
Trumpism seeks a more homogenous American nationalism, organized around Judeo-Christian civilization, the militant church defending traditionalist values, braced for survival in the face of impending world-altering acts of war and social collapse, while securing as much wealth and prosperity for the nation in the meantime as possible through an “enlightened” capitalism at war with the barbarians of the East.
The trade war with China, the Muslim Ban, child separation, attacks on trans rights, drumming up secret communist Democrat enemies, and an exhaustive deference to the wisdom of CEOs, entrepreneurs — all of these policies make sense together.
If Bannon and Anton represent the civilizational war room of Trumpism, in the next post I plan to discuss the alliance between technofascists, libertarians and the coalition of technological and social engineers [who claim they aren’t engineering society].