Since Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, Americans have heard a lot of discussion about what exactly Trumpism is. Is it the anti-foreign-wars, anti-immigration, anti–Wall Street economic populism Trump campaigned on? Is it the nativist “national conservatism” some enthusiasts invented, post hoc, to rationalize his election? Does it imply a “draining of the swamp,” a move to rid the capital of lobbyists and sycophants? Had it been any of these things, Trumpism might have presented a problem for small-government libertarian Republicans, with their tight network of funders and their close ties to business. It might have been anathema to Democrats and progressives. It would not, however, necessarily have presented a problem for democracy, the American political system, or the rule of law.
As it turned out, Trumpism has nothing to do with economics, nothing to do with foreign policy, nothing to do with lobbyists or the business of government at all. The true nature of Trump’s “ideology” lies elsewhere: in the construction of alternative realities that make him an eternal winner, even in situations where, objectively speaking, he has lost. His slogan isn’t “America First,” in other words, but “Trump first, always and above all else.”
The appeal of this ideology is not economic or material, but rather psychological. Millions seem to be convinced that when Trump wins, they win too. He pumped money into the economy, created the biggest deficit in American history, burdened industry with tariffs, and goosed the stock market while small businesses went bankrupt—and millions of Americans believe this was brilliant economic policy. He staged a flashy meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, signed nothing, and achieved no arms control—and millions of Americans believe this was a diplomatic success. He botched the coronavirus response to such an extraordinary degree that the United States of America, a biomedical superpower, has had one of the highest death rates in the world—and yet millions of Americans still believe him when he says the virus is going to just disappear.
As the rest of the public is now learning, this form of Trumpism does indeed represent a life-and-death challenge for democracy and the rule of law, for it allows true believers to ignore uncomfortable facts, including the fact of a lost election. Look at the behavior, over the past few days, of the most ardent Trumpists: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows; the Republican lawyers Cleta Mitchell and Kurt Hilbert; Senators Marsha Blackburn, Ron Johnson, John Kennedy, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and others; Representative Louie Gohmert; and Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward. These are people who have consciously, deliberately abandoned our political system of nearly two and a half centuries in order to declare that Congress, not the Electoral College and not the voters, has the right to choose the president; that conspiracy theories invented and promoted by the president deserve to be heard and repeated; that rules can be changed at the last minute to accommodate the whims of the White House.