Trumpism Without Trump

The 2024 race is showing that the -ism will outlast the man.

An illustration of a lectern with an empty, dotted-line silhouette of Donald Trump standing behind it
Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Updated at 1:43 p.m. ET on February 7, 2023.

Who’s afraid of Donald Trump? Not Nikki Haley, who is reportedly on the verge of announcing a run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Not Ron DeSantis, whose own run seems certain, and who has been agitating the former president to no end. Not Mike Pompeo, who has published the sort of memoir that usually foretells a candidacy, and which criticizes Trump.

Trump is furious about these challenges, especially DeSantis’s. He railed last week against the Florida governor, calling a prospective campaign “very disloyal” and alleging that DeSantis had tearfully “begged” Trump for his endorsement in his first run for governor, in 2018. “It’s not about loyalty,” Trump said. “To me it is; it’s always about loyalty. But for a lot of people, it’s not about that.” The sudden abundance of challengers is richly ironic. Trump, who doesn’t care at all about his party, has improbably remade the GOP in his own image—yet also seems to be losing his personal appeal to its voters.

For years, pundits have discussed the possibility of a Trumpism without Trump, and largely concluded that it was a chimera. As my colleague David Frum wrote in 2020, after Trump lost his reelection bid, “It’s not at all clear that such a thing as Trumpism exists, apart from Donald Trump’s own personality and grudges. Subtract Trump’s resentments and the myth of Trump the business genius and what’s left?” As a result, the odds that another candidate could effectively run on this platform—much less that it could create the organizing basis for an entire political party—seemed very slim.

Candidates who had tried to run as Trumpists in competitive elections have largely struggled. The 2018 midterms were a disaster for the GOP, which lost the House and the Senate. Establishment Republicans who tried to emulate Trump, such as Ed Gillespie of Virginia in his 2017 governor’s race, flopped. Trump lost in 2020, and Democrats improbably held on to the Senate after two country-club senators from Georgia tried and failed to don the MAGA mantle.

Yet Trump’s hold on the GOP was plainly still very strong. Infamously, the 2020 Republican National Convention forwent a platform in exchange for promising “that the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” Even when Trump attempted to overturn a lawful election and incited a violent insurrection, most leaders of his party never left his side, or ran back to it quickly. Those who didn’t were drummed out. Sure, some officials were willing to grumble privately, but that had been true all along.

The case against Trumpism without Trump was compelling: It barely existed, it had been tried and had failed, and his grip on the GOP made a challenge quixotic. All of this logic was sound, and yet it now appears to have been wrong.

First, these would-be nominees are constructing a Trumpism without Trump. It’s not, for the most part, based in policy—or at least, policy is a second thought, serving the cause of exploiting cultural resentment. DeSantis has shown that he can stoke anger at LGBTQ people and about loosely defined bogeymen such as “wokeness,” but he’s more effective than Trump at actually marshaling a policy response behind it. (As I’ve noted before, this is easier at the state level than nationally.) My colleague Adam Serwer wrote that the cruelty was the point of many Trump policies. Some Republicans have taken that more as a blueprint than a critique.

Second, those who doubted the possibility of a Trumpism without Trump, including me, seem to have overestimated how much of Trump’s popularity was a product of his fame and personality versus his shtick. The shtick has proved enduring even as Trump’s own popularity sinks. As the journalist Nate Cohn explains, the polling picture is a bit obscure, but high-quality polls point to the former president’s grip on Republican voters loosening. Many factors could explain this, including fatigue, backlash to January 6, and a sense that Trump is a repeat loser, but whatever the reason, it has allowed other people to make a grab for his voters without having to construct a new political message from the ground up. During the race for RNC chair, even the incumbent Ronna McDaniel, his handpicked leader, emphasized party neutrality in a primary.

The emergence of candidates flogging Trumpism without Trump doesn’t mean it will be successful with voters. Trump has lost the national popular vote twice, and no one would argue that DeSantis, Haley, or Pompeo brings anything near the natural charisma (and preexisting profile) that Trump did to the race. Several other politicians, including Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, are also considering runs, and they would offer a different kind of campaign. Trump could also break out of a crowded field and win the nomination despite middling popularity—it’s happened before.

At many times during his presidency, Trump seemed to defy not only the rule of law but also the rules of politics: He made all the “wrong” choices and persisted anyway. But nearly every successful national politician appears to have broken the system and made his own way; eventually, the eternal dynamics catch up to him. Trump is learning a sobering lesson that although he is different, he is not so different that none of the old rules applies.

And he isn’t taking it well. As my colleague Peter Wehner writes, Trump has begun threatening to make a third-party bid if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination and doesn’t approve of the Republican nominee. (As if he’d be satisfied with any nominee other than himself!) To him, it’s all about loyalty—but always to himself, and never from himself.

This article previously misnamed the governor of New Hampshire.