Though I was in China last week for the Xiangshan Forum focused on Asian security issues, as has been the case with many such conferences this year, much of the chatter in between the formal sessions surrounded the U.S. presidential elections and Donald Trump. In particular, with Trump looking like he will almost certainly lose the election, Asian observers wanted to know whether support for his core beliefs – nativism, nationalism and protectionism – would simply evaporate or endure and assume another vessel. Put more simply, what is the future of Trumpism in the United States without Donald Trump?
That question should concern both Americans and foreigners alike. Even if Trumpism or a variant of it enjoys reduced but still sizable support within the U.S. electorate over the next few years, that could complicate Washington’s efforts to undertake much-needed domestic reforms – whether it be reforming entitlements or investing in infrastructure – or sustain the support for U.S. commitments and leadership in a more crowded and competitive world (See: “Trump or Clinton, Challenges Ahead for US Asia Policy“).
Those who believe Trump has brought out the worst in America – with his misogyny, xenophobia, racism, bald-faced lies, conspiracy-laden diatribes, and at times sheer ignorance – would hope that the candidate would simply go back to his business after losing on November 8 and that we will never see such a message come so close to becoming the leader of the free world. That wishful thinking aside, there are also a couple of good reasons to believe that it was a unique combination of factors that produced his victory in the Republican primary, including Trump’s celebrity status, his “unique” way of communicating with the American people and running his campaign, as well other structural factors beyond himself such as an especially crowded Republican field led by the much-maligned Ted Cruz.
Trump and the Bigwigs
Trump and those close to him have not exactly indicated that they will simply be admitting defeat and retreating quietly if they lose the election. On the contrary, Trump has repeated suggestions of a “rigged” election and refusal to clarify whether he will accept the final outcome at the third presidential debate last night suggest that we may not have heard the last of the message, or even the messenger, even if Hillary Clinton does triumph.
Even if Trump himself does step aside, it is far from clear if some of his most influential bigwigs will. Bob Costa, a well-informed observer of the Trump campaign, warned on The Washington Post just over an hour after the debate of a “grievance movement” that could haunt Republicans for months and years to come, consisting of fervent Trump backers from politicians inside the House Republican caucus to influential voices in the conservative media. As one notable example, Costa said that friends of Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart and now Trump’s most influential confidant, say he expects him to work with his network of allies, super PACs and websites to battle the Republican establishment through 2017, including House Speaker Paul Ryan who may be trying to rebuild the party and take it in a more traditionally conservative direction.
Should these bigwigs wither away, there’s still the question of his support base. The general profile of Trump voters one gets from polls is that they are more often than not male, are without a university education, and are anxious about their relative economic position in an increasingly diverse society. If you look at the Washington Post-ABC polls from this year for instance, Trump has never had less than 48 percent of support from white voters, or, more specifically, never less than 62 percent of white men without a college degree. This group largely constitutes the oft-cited “high floor” that Trump enjoys.
There’s evidence to suggest that this group is not just particularly attracted to Trump or repulsed by the establishment, but may actually be wedded to any party which peddles a nativist, nationalist and protectionist Trumpian message. To take just one example, when political scientist Justin Gest surveyed white Americans back in August on whether they would support a hypothetical third party dedicated to “stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage, and stopping the threat of Islam,” a whopping 65 percent said yes. That’s higher than the support we have seen in cases for Trump, and it could rise even further if this base of supporters does not see their candidate triumph this time.
Things could be even less encouraging when one looks further out. Beyond growing anxiety about the economy and frustration with the political system, uncertainty among some whites about the changing demographics of the country is also a variable in the rise of Trump. That deep uncertainty can be expected to exacerbate if, as the Census Bureau projects, whites will become a minority of the U.S. population by the early 2040s. One disturbing study by Northwestern University released in 2014 found that increasing the diversity of the country could lead not to more tolerance, but greater intergroup hostility among White Americans. This trend would arguably further increase the already sizable support base for Trumpism as an ideology.
The Republican Party
Then there’s the Republican Party, or whatever is left of it once Trump loses as he is likely to do. Some have suggested that the GOP will sort itself out after November 8 with the help of more able, traditionally conservative leaders like Ryan. That would likely see the tent widened to accommodate some of the more moderate Trump voters while also still preserving the normal mix of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and national security conservatives that form the foundation of the party, and perhaps more outreach (or at least less alienation) of minority groups. If this happens, more reasonable voices would win the civil war that has been raging within the GOP.
While that’s certainly one scenario, it is not the only or even necessarily the most likely one. The fact is that the GOP leadership up to this point has been unable to sufficiently unify itself in both opposing the new, more radical forces that have emerged – be it the Tea Party or Donald Trump – while at the same time articulating a clear alternative that can resonate enough to triumph nationally. A third consecutive election defeat might prompt a rethink that is even deeper than the post-2012 GOP autopsy. But especially with another Clinton at the helm, the prospect of uniting the party against an established external threat rather than for a new internal platform will also be tempting for some.
The risk of this approach is that we would largely see Republicans oppose Clinton’s ideas rather than articulate some of their own, resulting in more gridlock that would see her lose the next election in 2020 but to yet another Trumpian outsider seizing on the ideological vacuum, riding the wave of Clinton’s unpopularity, and railing against Washington’s inability to get anything done. Given the diversity of views we have seen within the GOP with respect to Trump and Trumpism, one also ought to think beyond just these black-and-white approaches and not discount the possibility that the party will remain divided between those keen to expel or at least extinguish more extreme right-wing forces and those who are willing to appease them yet again, thereby preventing the emergence of a more united front.
The Hillary Clinton Years
And that’s not even getting to how America’s domestic and international position will evolve under a Clinton presidency and beyond and what that means for Trumpism. Abroad, if Clinton ends up making moves like passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a sensible but controversial deal – or getting more militarily involved in the Middle East, as she may well have to eventually do (popular support for U.S. military action in the region is actually higher than some believe, with one August poll from the Chicago Council of Global Affairs finding that 42 percent of Americans now support the deployment of ground troops), that will presumably only serve to increase the appeal of a nativist, nationalistic, and protectionist Trumpian message four years later (See: “TPP May Fail if Renegotiated, Singapore Warns US“). It is not easy to envision the cries for an America-first foreign policy growing even louder.
At home, things could look even bleaker. A more pessimistic view might conclude that regardless of what Clinton does, the support for Trumpism is likely to grow, not shrink. Irrespective of whether an already unpopular Clinton ends up undertaking new domestic reforms that are against Trumpism, is obstructed from doing so, or ends up preserving existing policies like Obamacare, a Trumpian candidate who emerges could accuse her of being either a formidable opponent whose agenda needs to be thwarted or an incompetent foe that has accomplished little.
Add to that the fact that unlike Barack Obama, Clinton will take office more reviled by her foes (some with axes to grind dating back to the 1990s) and with less support even from within her own party, giving her even less political capital to take on Trumpism. Then factor in at least some of the other effects we mentioned earlier, including the likely broadening support base for Trumpism and probable obstructionism from the GOP in Congress, and you’ve got a pretty uphill struggle.
To be sure, how these factors eventually play out may depend on variables that remain unknown, including what the House and Senate will look like, how Clinton will govern a deeply divided country, and even whether Trump’s support base may ultimately fracture unlike how it has held together thus far. But when you examine the outlook for the forces that will be key in determining the future of Trumpism without Trump, whether it is Trump and his fiercest advocates, his support base, the Republican Party, or the projected Clinton years, there’s enough reason not to discount the fact that the message may survive at least in some form even without its messenger. Given this as well as the general unpredictability of this presidential campaign, it would be nothing short of arrogant to simply dismiss that possibility.