“What is a Trumpism?” Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint asked, the (unintended) insertion of the definite article a clear Freudian slip. The audience assembled before him had come to hear a lecture entitled “Understanding Trump and Trumpism,” the implication being that there is some sort of ideological underpinning to the president-elect’s agenda, thus requiring that the suffix “-ism” be appended to his last name.
Considering how the country has been deluged with them over the past 18 months, “a Trumpism” isn’t hard to spot. An ad hominem tweet sent at 4 a.m. (preferably with a grammatical error or misspelled word); the self-aggrandizing declaration that one possesses the “best” of something (brain, genes, etc.); promising to “fix” vast and complex social or economic problems without offering even a hint as to how: All of these are certifiable Trumpisms.
But as for Trumpism itself, well, that’s what former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich has set out to do in a series of “reflections” about “the incoming President and the phenomenon of Trumpism as well as the policy challenges facing the new Administration, Capitol Hill, and the nation.” Following a disquisition on “The Principles of Trumpism” that Gingrich delivered at Heritage last fall, Tuesday’s event was the first of six lectures.
Most conservative writers and thinkers were either vocally opposed or neutral to Trump’s candidacy, but since his election victory, a hardy few are attempting to provide an intellectual gloss to this robustly anti-intellectual man. The current issue of The New Yorker contains a long article profiling “Intellectuals for Trump.”
Last week, a 30-year-old finance analyst, comparing himself to William F. Buckley, announced the creation of a new public policy journal sympathetic to Trumpism, American Affairs. As for Gingrich, he has published an e-book, Electing Trump, a collection of his columns, Facebook live streams and other detritus from the 2016 campaign.
Now that Gingrich has been ruled out for a job in the administration, he appears to have appointed himself Trump’s Boswell, deciphering this enigma for those of us too burrowed within our coastal elitist cocoons to properly understand his genius. This being a Newt Gingrich Production (as his website is aptly named), Tuesday’s address was at the very least entertaining, replete with references to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Robert Conquest and William James (not a single one of whom, I’m sure, Trump has ever read) as well as PT Barnum (to whom Gingrich compared Trump favorably).
The only problem with Gingrich’s effort to “codify” Trumpism is its dependence upon the proposition that the assortment of constant contradictions, temper tantrums, and half-baked “policies” to have emerged from Trump over the past 18 months can accurately be described as constituting a coherent ideology. Listening to Gingrich try to explain Trump is like watching the fake sign-language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral: both literally make it up as they go along.
Gingrich should know. “Drain the swamp” was a Trump campaign catchphrase. Yet when president-elect Trump started filling his nascent cabinet and administration with Washington insiders, Gingrich told NPR that Trump “doesn’t want to use it anymore.” The following day, Trump passively-aggressively tweeted: “Someone incorrectly stated that the phrase ‘DRAIN THE SWAMP’ was no longer being used by me. Actually, we will always be trying to DTS.” Gingrich, toadying grifter that he is, confessed he had “goofed” and that “draining the swamp is in.”
Gingrich is right about one thing: Trump is sui generis. His upset election win came about as a result of “the person [meeting] the moment,” a larger-than-life figure harnessing technology and mass media at a time of anti-elitist fury. Yet Gingrich’s attempt to burrow further into Trumpism, arguing that “substance powered the technology” and that Trump’s vaunted “unpredictability” is actually part of some grand master plan, is entirely unconvincing. “This kinda stuff is not just random,” Gingrich marveled, citing Trump’s online brawl with Meryl Streep. “He learned from Page Six. The second you hit him, he clobbers you.”
For those still unconvinced that Trump’s erratic behavior is the mark of a great political genius (rather than a sign of a seriously disordered personality), Gingrich reached into his bag of political anecdotes to recall the origins of Ronald Reagan’s most famous presidential remark. In the weeks leading up to a speech in Berlin, all the pointy-headed paper-pushers at the State Department advised Reagan against saying anything too provocative about the Berlin Wall. Reagan did it anyway, and won the Cold War to boot. Trump, ergo, is the next Reagan.
Mentioning these two men in the same sentence is perverse, not least because the 40th president was resolutely committed to defeating Russian tyranny while the 45th is apparently indebted to it in ways we still don’t fully understand. The trajectory from “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” to “Mr. Putin, please hack my opponent!” is a sorry one indeed.
The essence of Gingrich’s case is that the President-elect is “a pragmatist more than a philosophical anything.” “Outcomes” are the “essence of Trumpism,” Gingrich said, for Trump “treasures results, not effort.” But the application of cutthroat boardroom principles to government, where supposedly namby-pamby liberals adhere to the kindergarten dictate of “all must have prizes,” is hardly something new in American politics. It’s long been a Republican mantra, one embraced even by RINOs like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Gingrich’s praise for Trump’s supposedly non-ideological “pragmatism” (delivered, ironically, at the headquarters of highly ideological movement conservatism) was remarkable for the way in which it mimicked those technocratic liberals who claim that there are objectively correct policy prescriptions and that any opposition to them stems from avarice or evil. This pretension to being above ideology was perhaps President Barack Obama’s worst trait. Anyone who opposed him was either a warmonger, a greedy 1-percenter, or a bitter clinger to guns and religion.
Rather than dispense with ideology, conservatives and liberals should embrace it. After all, politics is ultimately about the peaceful management of conflict and the apportionment of scare resources; there will never be an objectively “right” answer.
To see the absurdity in portraying Trump as some post-ideological pragmatist rather than a conman who tells audiences what they want to hear, take the issue of trade. Trump, according to Gingrich, is merely “anti-bad trade deals,” as opposed to those of us who consciously support bad trade deals (a constituency that not so long ago included Newt Gingrich, who as House minority whip in the 1990s helped shepherd the now-much-derided NAFTA through Congress).
In aggregate, free trade overwhelmingly benefits the vast majority of Americans by offering them a wider variety of goods, lower prices, and increased economic growth. On the other hand, free trade negatively affects a much smaller number of Americans whose jobs are made redundant by cheaper overseas competition. The question for policymakers is whether the entire country should suffer so that a small, vocal minority can maintain their aging factories and outdated forms of economic existence.
Those opposed to free trade—like labor unions, historically protected industries, left-wing anti-globalization activists and, apparently now, Newt Gingrich—would argue that, yes, the entire country should suffer higher consumer prices and drastically reduced growth on behalf of this benighted minority. That’s an intellectually respectable position. But it’s not a “pragmatic” one.
To the extent that Trumpism is ideological, it’s a distilled, Pat Buchananite paleoconservatism fronted by a charismatic (to some people, anyway) buffoon. Unlike other political movements—progressivism, liberalism, communism, neoconservatism—Trumpism is defined by nothing more complex than the mood swings of one man, who just happens to possess the intellectual curiosity of an olive and the attention span of a gnat. Interpreting it as anything more is a fool’s errand.