In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates famously described Trump’s politics as white supremacy made evident because of the election of a Black president. Although the writers of the “More Specific Letter” don’t mention Trump by name, they’re building on Coates’s argument: Trumpism is the brutal manifestation of inherited power. Thus, the notion that it could be a malady that transcends lines of class, race, gender, and ideology—expressed not only by Republican politicians but by people of color in newsrooms and on campuses—is nonsense. As the writer Jeet Heer has argued, Trumpism is the culmination of the GOP’s decision to make itself white America’s vehicle for opposing racial equality. So there cannot be a “Trumpism of the left.”
Today, the argument about the meaning of Trumpism is taking place in intellectuals’ letters. But if Trump loses, it will migrate to Washington. Democrats insistent on dramatic change will collide with conservatives able to block it. Progressives will then demand, as they have already begun to do, structural changes that would let them override the right’s veto. Such demands could take the form of sweeping new executive actions, alterations to the structure of the Supreme Court, efforts to abolish the filibuster, and moves to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Some of the people who define Trumpism as intolerance will view such moves as a progressive form of Trumpism—that is, as an assault on the rules of fair play. In 2018, Obama’s former White House counsel Bob Bauer warned that if liberals expanded the size of the Supreme Court, they would “emulate President Trump’s contempt for democratic institutions and the rule of law.” If Trump’s Democratic successor imposes policies of “the far left via executive order,” my colleague David Frum argued last year, it will be a sign that “neither side abides by the rules of democracy.”
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The progressives who define Trumpism as oppression will reject these claims as absurd. They will argue that certain aspects of America’s system of government undemocratically entrench the privilege of historically dominant groups; by this logic, structural changes that allow progressives to bypass conservative opposition constitute not an attack on democracy but the removal of barriers to it. Making Washington, D.C., a state, The Week’s Ryan Cooper has argued, would enfranchise 700,000 people—almost half of them Black—“who are currently treated like quasi-colonial subjects.” Eliminating the filibuster, Cooper maintains, would end a practice that, historically, has been “primarily used by racists to stop civil rights legislation.”
Schlesinger’s vision of a vital center—composed of liberals and conservatives who made common cause against both the undemocratic left and the undemocratic right—dominated American politics in the years after World War II because there was no leftist movement powerful enough to challenge it. In the late 1960s—under pressure from the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, and the movement for Black freedom—it lost its intellectual hegemony. The problem for Schlesinger’s successors today is that they are trying to constitute a new vital center at a time when the activist left is strong enough to challenge their control over the terms of debate. One way that challenge will unfold is through an effort at ideological guilt by association, in which each side will accuse the other of being Trumpism’s rightful heir.