August 3, 2023   5 mins

In Hollywood sci-fi movies from the Fifties, there is often a moment when the US military drops an atomic bomb on a monster. It then invariably emerges from the radioactive cloud unscathed — to the disappointment and horror of those looking on.

Today, something like that disappointment and horror can be found in the response of America’s political establishment to the as-yet unstoppable Donald Trump. His Democratic enemies have deployed two impeachments and multiple lawsuits, some more frivolous than others, but they have proven as ineffective in stopping his return as the A-bomb was in halting the Martian invaders in The War of the Worlds (1953). Consider the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls: 53.9% of Republican voters favour Trump for the 2024 presidential election, compared to only 18.1% for his closest challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The other candidates, including entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former vice-president Mike Pence, are in the single digits.

Will Trump’s indictment this week, which charged him with plotting to overturn his 2020 defeat, shift the dial? It seems unlikely. Only 19% of likely Republican primary voters believe that Trump “threatened American democracy” by challenging the 2020 election results, while only 17% believe that he has committed serious crimes. Moreover, when it comes to the presidential election itself, among registered voters, Monday’s polls showed Trump and Biden in a dead heat, with each winning 43% of the vote. If helped by third-party candidates who tend to siphon off otherwise Democratic voters, Trump could not only be nominated again by the Republican party, but also elected to a second term.

All of this is good news for Trumpism, defined as the cult of personality of Donald Trump. But for the other two tendencies in the Republican Party — post-Trumpism and pseudo-Trumpism — it is not good news at all.

As a political framework, Post-Trumpism seeks to build a new conservative governing philosophy that rejects the Goldwater-Reagan-Bush fusion of economic libertarianism, military adventurism and lip service to social conservatism that dominated the Republican party. In his first campaign and his presidency, Trump took a chainsaw to American conservative establishment’s three-legged stool. He substituted narrow transactional economic nationalism — symbolised by tariffs and a “border wall” to block the flow of illegal immigration — for the Reagan Right’s traditional support for free trade and cheap-labour immigration. While President George W. Bush had championed a global democratic revolution, Trump rejected crusading neoconservatism for a kind of Nixonian Realpolitik, denouncing the Iraq War and refraining from starting any other new “wars of choice”. And, despite his opposition to abortion and transgender military service members, Trump reflected the trend of Republican voters in embracing gay rights.

Since the Sixties, there has been a large constituency of American voters, mostly but not exclusively white and non-college-educated, who have preferred a combination of economic nationalism, moderate social policies, and fewer foreign wars and military engagements. However, the growing influence in both parties of wealthy individuals and corporate donors, who tend to share libertarian economic and social views, combined with the decline of trade unions and old-fashioned political party machines, meant that this synthesis was unrepresented by donor-dependent Clinton Democrats and Bush Republicans. It is no coincidence that the two presidential candidates who had the most success in mobilising voters with these third-way views — the Dallas electronics billionaire H. Ross Perot, who won 19% of the popular vote in 1992, the highest percentage since 1912, and the New York real estate mogul Donald Trump in 2020 — were able to finance at least part of their own campaigns.

Like Perot, Trump benefited from a combination of issues that made him a favourite among many white working-class voters in Midwestern industrial states. Comparisons of Trump and his supporters to fascists are the dishonest propaganda of partisan Democrats, who compared Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush to Hitler, too.  The genuine equivalents of Trump are contemporary leaders of the populist Right in the UK and Europe, such as Boris Johnson and the late Silvio Berlusconi. With varying degrees of success, Trump and his European peers succeeded in tapping into concerns about trade, immigration and cultural Leftism that had driven many voters who had left social-democratic parties for the nationalist Right.

The problem for all these movements is the challenge of becoming a permanent wing, if not the dominant wing, of the Right once the charismatic tribune has passed from the scene. In the Republican Party, foreshadowing what a post-Trumpist wing would look like, politicians such as Senators Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, and J.D. Vance have broken with legacy Reaganism on issues ranging from child benefits to the legitimacy of labour unions to worker safety. So far, however, most elected Republicans have been unwilling to repudiate the Reaganite consensus, while they wait to see if Trumpism was an ephemeral flash in the pan. Paradoxically, the longer Trump is active in politics and monopolises attention, the more the development of post-Trumpism without Trump is delayed.

What about other factions in the Republican party? At this point, many Never-Trumpers have abandoned the party altogether for the Democrats. That leaves what might be called pseudo-Trumpists — opportunistic Republican politicians and strategists trying to borrow some issues from Trump, without alienating the substantial group of legacy Reaganites.

This group includes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, once a typical Reagan-Bush conservative, and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who worked in finance, hardly a bastion of conservative populism. Like Youngkin, DeSantis has refused to adopt the economic heresies of Trump about entitlements and trade, for fear of offending the free-marketeers and hawks of the old Reagan coalition. In response, the Trump campaign has shrewdly seized upon his past votes for cutting Social Security and Medicare, in an attempt to undercut the appeal of the Florida governor to working-class Republican voters. For now, it’s working.

From afar, this might all seem like a gift for the Democrats. But it isn’t. Paradoxically, the persistence of Trumpism also hurts Democratic party coalition-building in the long run, if not immediately.

No doubt many Democrats would welcome a Biden-Trump rematch. After all, apocalyptic and hysterical opposition to Trump united the Democratic Party’s otherwise fragile coalition: a peculiar assortment of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Wall Street tycoons; green crony capitalists seeking government subsidies; virtue-signalling professionals in the non-profit and academic sectors; public-sector unions; and socially moderate black and Hispanic voters wary of a Republican Party with a history of flirting with racists.

This rhetoric of anti-Trumpism, however, will make it more difficult for Democrats to win back voters, including growing numbers of Hispanics and some black voters, who have left the Democrats for the Republicans in recent elections. According to the logic of anti-Trumpism, if ex-Democrats who voted for Trump once or twice are America’s version of the Nazis, then it would be immoral to appeal to their votes. And it would be just as immoral to acknowledge that Trump has exploited legitimate concerns about bad trade deals and illegal immigration. As long as Trump is around to serve as a demonic figure whom the Democratic base can unite against, it will be difficult to argue that the Democrats need to modify their policies to have broader electoral appeal.

Trump’s legacy, then, might end up resembling that of William Jennings Bryan, the “Great Commoner” and agrarian populist who won the nomination of the Democratic Party in 1896, 1900 and 1908. Like Trump, Bryan was a polarising figure, adored by his followers and viewed by the Eastern Seaboard establishment as a dangerous demagogue who threatened democracy and civilisation. And like Trump, Bryan led his party to permanently break with its older small-government, anti-statist ideology. Without Bryan’s campaigns as an icebreaker, the more thoughtful and moderate reformism of later Progressives and New Dealers might not have come about. But before others could separate the worthwhile from the eccentric in his legacy, Bryan had to depart from the scene. More than a century later, the same may be true of Donald Trump.

Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His latest book is Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America.