11 min read

What Trumpism is Now

What Trumpism is Now
Mike Segar / Reuters

We were discussing recently how Trumpism's become a much bigger problem for America—and the world—than was once thought. Not an evanescent short-term one, which is what American liberals still want it to be, desperately searching for a magic solution, assuming there must be one. This is just the flu, right? Wait, it's not? So what is it? Let's delve into that a little bit.

What is Trumpism? Trumpism now is a long-term problem in three senses of the word. A generational problem, an institutional problem, and an existential problem.

Now, I don't like the word "problem" in this context. Perhaps "challenge" or "issue" is a better word. There's a reason for that. In American thinking, especially American liberal thinking, there can't be such a thing as a long-term problem. Go ahead and think about it. Stagnant economy? Generations in downward mobility? Social fabric ripped apart? Widespread misery and falling living standards? Not long-term problems—barely problems at all.

On the other hand, if you ask America's conservatives, long-term problems do exist, but they're basically...the rest of us. Women, minorities, gays, "government spending," which is code for "I won't put a dollar towards those dirty people's basic rights, even if it means I don't have them myself!"

So when we even say the word "problems" in the American context, there's a...problem. It's a loaded term, which one side has more or less coded to mean "short-run issues," and the other one's coded to mean various flavors of "all these people I don't like shouldn't exist." Neither sense of the word captures the...plight...presented by Trumpism. So...clear your mind of that frame, and let's discuss it for real.

The other day, Hillary said something like: "Trumpists will have to be deprogrammed." It's a telling statement, because it hints a truth. Trumpism's a generational problem. That doesn't just mean "an issue that only affects certain generations. Rather, it means a problem that lasts a very long time, which is to say, generations. One that endures over the long-run, and outlasts smaller scale social changes and shifts.

How is Trumpism a generational problem? Think back. There was a time when American liberals hoped, laughing nervously, taunting those of us who warned, that it was something like a fad. Or a phase. Societies have those, to be sure. Look at the way, I don't know, Zoomers wear Crocs. That's a fad. It'll come, it'll go, like so much foam atop a social current.

But Trumpism shows no signs of being such a short-lived phenomenon. And why would it have been? When those of us who took it seriously as an implosive social force warned of it being just such a thing, we did so for a reason. We saw social indicators plummeting downwards, and that usually tends to precede fascist-authoritarian movements, precisely because that's what falling living standards trigger. It's not exactly a new conclusion—it applies from Caesar crossing the Rubicon to the Weimar Republic to Stalin's meteoric rise to power.

So why couldn't American liberals get it? And why don't they get it even now? You see, there they are, hoping, more desperately by the day, for a way out. Maybe we can put him in jail. Maybe the 14th Amendment will come to the rescue. If only we can find a set of charges that'll disqualify him. All well and good, I suppose, if only for the sake of the sanctity of the rule of law. But all this is what it looks like, on another level, which is increasingly frantic gamesmanship. None of it is likely to defuse Trumpism's implosive charge one iota.

Liberals don't understand social forces. I don't mean that as some kind of insult, it's just a fact. They never have, it's their calling card, in fact. If we think all the way back to the grandfather of social critics of liberalism, Karl Marx himself framed his theory in terms of "forces" precisely because liberalism is, in a sense, a Great Believer in the Absence of Historical Forces. What does liberalism really believe in? Nature and destiny. Not "forces." Certainly not historical ones. It elevates markets in a form of modern apotheosis precisely because there's a sort of denial of historical forces right at its heart. So if we just put markets everywhere, in the neoliberal formulation, anyways, hey, presto, we solve all the problems humanity ever had, from bigotry to hate to inequality to injustice. Wow, great magic trick, guys. There I was thinking all those problems had force, as in power, behind them.

Of course, that idea doesn't work in the real world—markets only amplify existing inequities, which is how you get to, for example, Elon Musk amplifying hate on his Shiny New Toy. The theory really is wrong. (You know how Matt Yglesias sort of annoys everyone, the poor guys? That's because in this Age of Forces Just Ripping Our Lives to Shreds, he's the kind of Ivy League Liberal who'll die on the hill that Forces Don't Exist.) Forces exist. So. Liberals. History. Forces. It's their Great Blind Spot.

And this Great Blind Spot has rarely glared more than in the case of Trumpism. Trumpism is part of a new historical force—the resurgence of fascism around the globe. Precisely because neoliberalism is failing, out of juice, out of steam. It's unable to deliver on its Famous Promise, AKA, the End of History. Just buy stuff and go to work like a good boy slash girl, and you'll all get rich and live happily ever after. Didn't work out that way—anywhere. Not in America, not in China, not in India. Instead, everything flamed out into the dystopia we live in now, made of crackpot billionaires, imploding democracies, crashing economies, and burned out dreams.

Trumpism is a generational problem in that frame. That widescreen view of history, fascism coming back to life, part of, and thanks to, forces. It's part of a new historical force, or an old one coming back to life, if you like. It's a Big Part of that force too, the return of fascism—though it's far from the only case or part of it. Plenty of other nations are going down the same road, led by their own demagogues, as neoliberalism implodes all around with the fury of a thousand dying suns.

It's not a fad. See my point a little bit? You see, if we ask most American liberals even today, they'll say the same thing they've been saying for almost a decade now. Where did Trumpism come from, guys? Why, it came out of the blue! To the liberal mind, there is no explanation for Trump, because the correct one, which is also the glaringly obvious one, which is also the only one—the country really did fall apart, the economy really did fail, society really did tear itself apart in rage, despair, and fury—can't exist. Because history has no forces. To liberalism, History is just a Blind Man climbing a Mountain, and his journey only goes in one direction, upwards. Therefore, none of this can possibly be real. Maybe the Blind Man is just resting for a moment. Maybe he's just...hey, is he putting on Crocs?

Why, it's just a fad.

No, it's not. This is a generational change. Not as in "between generations," but as in, "this is going to last a long, long time." Think back to the Nazis. How long did it really take for them to go away? Well, they got bombed to bits in a World War, then their Fuhrer committed suicide, then their country got split in half, and even then, they didn't really go away. It took Germany—and much of Europe—decades to really deal with them. As a simple reminder, the Eichmann Trial didn't happen until 1961, and Nazis are being hunted down and rooted out to this day. That's a generational problem, in its simplest form, as in, how long it can really take to deal with them.

Think about it another way. What is America to do with Trumpism, anyways? I don't just mean the average soul who merely likes Trump, I mean the die-hard MAGA true believer who's ready and willing to, for example, go all the way for him, even if it involves ripping peace and democracy to shreds. Do you think we can...I don't know...sit down with those folks and talk like civilized people? Beer and hotdogs and high-fives? Good luck with that, I guess.

When implosive movements get radicalized by demagogues, then a society's in deep trouble. And that's where American is now. There's no easy way out or back. True believers means what it says on the tin: they really believe this stuff, and it doesn't matter precisely what it is, the basic idea is the same across implosive social movements. Us good, pure, true, them bad, impure, evil. Us victims slash heroes, them persecutors slash monsters. Get them first, wipe them out. Our Glorious Demagogue Alone Can Save Us, and We Must Obey Him At All Costs.

We don't have a way to...undo that. Not for any lack of trying in recent history, by the way. Among the many attempts that have been mounted are everything from Truth Commissions to Reconciliation Movements to Conflict De-escalation Programs. You can ask the UN and think tanks about that stuff, the point is that while some of it works a little bit, there's no magic bullet here. Not even close.

We—you, me, us, you know the score by now—warned of Trumpism precisely because we didn't want American to cross this line. Knowing that once a movement like this is built, and it gets radicalized, then...going back is all but impossible. Even if you can do it for a few, you can hardly do it with and for millions. In a very real sense, a society just has to wait...stop the bleeding...and hope it can outgrow, outlast, and out-endure the problem. A generational problem is also usually a problem without a solution.

Why is that? Why do generational problems become so sticky, so "wicked," as social scientists often say? It's because generational problems are also often institutional ones. What do I mean by that?

Think again of the way liberals desperately want Trumpism to just go away. What do they overlook? By now, Trumpism has its whole own alternate universe. Of institutions. You can live in that universe, and never once rejoin civil society in any way, shape, or form. And that universe is growing at light speed.

What is that universe? Think of how big it's really become. It's everything from their own social network, even though Twitter's now about as unfriendly to Nazis as a stolen car is to a heist, to their own video platform, to their own publishers. But it hardly stops at the Trumposphere. The alternative institutional universe is growing, in the hands of figures like Ron DeSantis, who want to turn educational systems and curricula and universities and schools into the Trumpist Youth League. I could go on and on.

The point is that Trumpism's now set down roots. Deep roots. You can be that sort of person, and basically center your whole life around its ideas. Or its one Big Idea, anyways, which is that democracy shouldn't exist, and neither should many kinds of people. You don't have to come within five hundred yards of civil society, meaning some vague semblance of normal public life in a democratic society.

That institutional universe isn't just about lifestyles. It cuts way deeper than that. Trumpism has such deep roots that the BBC regularly invites its senior figures on...to this day. It's just sort of another fact of life of American power to much of the world by now, if a weird and creepy one. That institutional universe goes on to encompass lobbying, money, influence, and all the other forms of sociopolitical power. Trumpism's got its own establishment at this point, and that establishment consists of everything from marketing agencies to research groups to campaign chiefs to financiers.

That's how generational problems come to be, too. Think back to the Nazis. How did they get there? Because Germany's fading conservatives, terrified of the left, basically cut a deal with a guy they thought of a madman and raving lunatic, with growing appeal, but also a simpleton they thought they could control, and bring to heel, once he'd done his job, of keeping the Real Bad Guys at bay. That man, of course, was Adolf Hitler. And Germany's conservatives were soon to rue the day they handed the reins of power to him, grinning at their own cleverness.

Because what Hitler did was to...forge institutions. Everything from the SS to the Hitler Youth to propaganda campaigns. Right down to informal institutions, too, like street violence, intimidation, and overt hate, all of which would soon be formalized into official government policy. Hitler checkmated Germany's establishment precisely by building institutions through which, soon enough, he could focus, exert, and wield society-altering amounts of power.

When a society is met with implosive social movements, that's bad enough. And it's true that they can be fads—though that's rare. But when a society's met with implosive social movements, led by demagogues, who know how to build institutions, that begin to structure the chaos, and formalize the rage—that's when things get really dangerous. Because through that process of organization and formalization and structure, what could have been a short-term problem becomes a long-term one.

Now, a society has to somehow pull this monstrosity up by the roots, which pull right back, with a force stronger than gravity. Institutions give implosive social movements power, of many kinds, and among them is staying power. Because institutions aren't people, but bigger, more enduring, more impersonal, more focused, they give such movements purpose, too. And because institutions attract capital and people, they grow and grow, giving such movements resource power, as well. That's how institutional problems and generational ones go hand-in-hand—they're very, very hard to pull apart.

All this is what the hardening of social collapse really is. I said it before, and I'll say it again. This is precisely what we warned of and for. When we warned of Trumpism way back when, those warnings weren't taken kindly by liberals. They didn't understand them, unable to see much, given their Great Blind Spot to Historical Forces. And that meant they thought we were trying to be "alarmist" or just score points or get on TV or what have you. None of that was the case. We were shouting and screaming that this was the real deal because that was the time something could have been done about it. To keep it a short-term problem.

That's not what Trumpism is anymore. Now, it's part of an Historical Force, as funny and sad as that sounds. The resurgence of fascism and authoritarianism across our world. It's a generational problem, an institutional problem, and an existential one. It didn't need to be any of those things. Now that it is, there's no easy way out. It's anyone's guess as to whether democracy will make it, or what America will look like in a few years time. Now, having metastasized, the Issue's not even really about Trumpism, but about that old bete-noire liberals don't want to see: forces.

I guess that's what they said to Germany's conservatives, too, though. History's like that. It laughs at those who think they're clever enough to outrun it. You can't outrun history. All you can do is walk beside it, and let it teach you something. This time, the lesson is: buckle up, because this going to last a lot longer than you think, and it's going to hurt more than you can imagine yet. Some problems don't have solutions, if you let them spin out of control. Some crashes really are fatal, and the best way to handle them is not to have them in the first place.

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