Even though observers of American politics expect Donald Trump to suffer a humiliating defeat in the presidential election, he might win a greater victory. Trump’s ideas could form the basis of a political movement that might reshape US politics for decades to come.
Although many people fail to recognize it; Trump espouses a coherent political philosophy and a set of ideas which have popular appeal. The philosophy might best be called “economic nationalism;” a belief that the interests of the nation and its people must be the basis of all decision making on issues like trade.
Is Trumpism More Popular than Trump?
This is the same basic thinking that motivated the Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom and opponents of the European Union in some countries. A key difference between the British and American situations; is that such ideas are not closely associated with a controversial political figure in the UK.
Few Brits would have voted for Brexit, if it would have put Neil Farage in Downing Street. Likewise many Americans who sympathize with Trumpism, refuse to have anything to do with Trump himself. That means the election is about
Trump and not Trumpism.
Events in the state of Ohio seem to be verifying this thesis. Republican US Senator Rob Portman; who espouses policy positions similar to Trump but maintains a healthy distance from Donald, is leading his Democratic opponent in the polls by a margin of 6.4%, data provided by Real Clear Politics indicates. The same polls indicated that Hillary Clinton was easily beating Trump in Ohio’s presidential polls by a healthy margin of 4.8%.
This indicates that Trumpism without Trump is a viable political movement. Many Americans; who would never consider voting for Donald, might support a Trumpist candidate.
There is even some support for the Trumpist agenda on the left. US Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) who came in second in the Democratic presidential primary was openly critical of free trade deals. A few prominent American leftists; including moviemaker Michael Moore and author Thomas Frank, have sympathized with Trump’s positions on issues like trade.
What is Trumpism?
The economic nationalism espoused by Trump and his followers can be summed up in a few broad positions. These include:
- A belief that free trade kills jobs and lowers wages and the income of the working class.
- A distrust of big business and the financial industry.
- A belief that the government should intervene in the economy to help average people or the working class.
- A belief that the power and influence of big business should be limited. Trump forced the Republicans to add a provision asking for reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act to their platform. Glass-Steagall was a 1930s law that prevented investment banks from engaging in consumer banking in the United States. It was repealed in the 1990s – greatly increasing the size and wealth some US banks.
- A distrust of immigrants and immigration.
- A belief that immigration should be restricted or perhaps ended.
- A belief that the US should withdraw from trade agreements.
- A belief that the US should limit its role in the world; and try to avoid interfering in the affairs of other nations whenever possible.
- Skepticism of US military power.
- A belief that the US should avoid war and the deployment of military force as much as possible.
- Skepticism in the motives of other nations; including US allies, and of international bodies like the United Nations.
- Skepticism in alliances like NATO.
- A belief that tariffs should be used to protect American industries and jobs.
- Support for entitlement programs such as Social Security, (basic income for older Americans) and Medicare (America’s national health insurance system).
- A distrust of the rich, politicians and intellectuals.
- A belief that the government should serve the interests of middle or working class Americans – even at the expense of other groups.
This should concern people around the world because when taken to its extreme such beliefs might lead to drastic actions like Brexit. An example might be a US withdrawal from NATO; which some Trump supporters like Pat Buchanan believe is obsolete. Another popular idea is a withdrawal from trade arrangements; like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Trump himself seems to want a return to Cold War-era US foreign policy; which involved unconditional support for undemocratic regimes that towed the American line. He has even praised tyrants like the late Saddam Hussein.
Can Trumpism Go Mainstream?
It is not clear how popular these ideas are; only 28% of Americans were opposed to free trade deals according to an April 16, 2016, Gallup poll. Yet Gallup found that a little over half of Americans supported “stricter import duties” on Chinese goods.
A problem for the Trumpists is that a large percentage of Americans simply don’t care about trade. Around 43% of those Gallup surveyed admitted they did not know enough about NAFTA to form an opinion on it. A reason for this lack of interest is that most Americans do not work in professions; such as manufacturing, that are affected by trade.
This means that the Trumpists would have to find some other issues to appeal to. They would also have to find some means of appealing to groups that dislike Trump including nonwhites (who make up around 37% of the US population), women and younger voters.
Trump does poorly among those groups; polls indicate he only gets 8% of the African American vote, 22% of Hispanic voters and 35% of women voters. Donald’s performance among younger voters is even worse. A McClatchy poll found that Libertarian Party Candidate Gary Johnson actually had more support from those under 29 than the Republican nominee less than 10% of that demographic supported Trump, while 23% supported Johnson.
The polls indicate that there may not be mainstream support for Trumpism in its current form. That means the movement will have to change dramatically in order to capture popular appeal.
One thing is certain, if the Trumpists were ever to capture control of Congress and/or the Presidency they would make drastic changes to US trade, foreign and economic policy. Those changes would have an impact on the world that will extend far beyond Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.