If you’ve encountered hard-core Trump supporters, you’ve probably heard them declare that his candidacy is a kind of cleansing fire that is going to purge the weaklings from the party and remake it in their leader’s image. Maybe so, and that’s what a lot of us fear. We fear that if the Republican Party becomes Donald Trump’s party, it will be driven not by profound and universal ideas about liberty but by an ideologically empty authoritarian nationalism.
Yet there’s little evidence so far for such a transformation, and Paul Ryan’s easy victory over his primary challenger on Tuesday is the latest reminder. For all of the bluster about Trump’s defeat of “the GOP establishment,” he has had no effect on primary races for other offices.
Trump was definitely an issue in the Ryan contest, and Trump injected himself into it, wittingly or unwittingly, by toying with saying nice things about Ryan’s challenger while pointedly withholding his endorsement of Ryan, echoing Ryan’s initial reluctance to endorse him.
Trump eventually, half-heartedly gave the Speaker of the House his endorsement. But that’s obviously not relevant to the result, which was already evident in the polling well before Trump’s decision.
More to the point, Ryan’s challenger was a vocal Trump supporter with a Trump-like style and message, who was supported by many of the people who have supported Trump, like Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin and Breitbart News. So if we were looking for an early test for whether there is such a thing as “Trumpism” that has a wider appeal and electoral purchase, this was a pretty good sign that there isn’t and it doesn’t.
That has been true across the country, for all offices. For such a seemingly disruptive political force, Trump has left Republican incumbents untouched. And while he is flailing in the national polls, unable to catch up with the weakest Democratic candidate since Dukakis, Republicans in the Senate are starting to feel safer, confident that when he goes down, he won’t take them with him.
This is not so big a surprise as it may seem. The whole essence of Trump’s campaign, and of his person, is a rejection of the kind of broader ideology that might fuel a movement and give him wider influence.
This collapse of the role of ideas in politics is the chief danger of Trump’s candidacy.
Trump is viewed very unfavorably by the public and will push minority voters over to the Democrats by much larger margins than usual, but I think the Republican Party can recover from this faster than most people expect. They can recover from it to the extent they are able to repudiate Trump and his message in the epic round of recriminations that will begin this fall and to the extent they can promote new leaders who are more appealing.
But what the Republican Party can’t survive is a hollowing out of its core ideas, which include principles about liberty, individual rights, limited government, and free markets which go all the way back to our Founding Fathers. The danger posed by Trump is that he would replace this tradition with a more European style of conservatism, which is less about big ideas and more about nationalism, tribalism, and traditionalism. More to the point, this is a more Russian style of conservatism.
I don’t know what role Vladimir Putin and his troll army of egg people has played in this year’s election, but no conspiracy theories are really necessary. The broadest picture of foreign policy is very simple: every major power wants to remake the world in its image. If you are a liberal democracy, you want every country to be a liberal democracy. If you’re Adolf Hitler, you want Mussolini to be in power in Italy, Franco in Spain, and so on. (During World War II, Germany and Japan even backed a fascist-style “great leader”—”Netaji” was Hindustani for “Fuhrer”—in India.) The Soviets wanted every country to be Communist.
The reason is that foreign governments who see the world the way you do are more likely to go along with your agenda—and less likely to raise any challenges, either internationally or domestically, to your own system.
Putin is no different, which is why he promotes a constellation of mini-Putins in the states around him: advocates of nationalism and traditionalism, fronted by a self-aggrandizing strongman who sets up a cronyist system of state-backed businessmen. It’s why he supports this style of right-wing party in Europe. So of course Putin wants Trump to reshape politics in the US. He wants him to break down the Republican Party’s ideological promotion of liberty and representative government and replace it with Putin’s own style of government.
You could call this Putinist style an ideology, but that’s not quite right. It’s what takes over when ideas disappear and people are driven by emotions, loyalties, and resentments that are pre-ideological or sub-ideological—including hatred of an “establishment” that is not very well defined, except that it includes anyone who disagrees with them. All of which is a pretty fair description of how Trump operates and the mentality to which he appeals.
But the very thing that makes Trump potentially dangerous is also what makes him politically weak. He doesn’t represent a philosophy or a movement. He only represents himself and the inexplicable (and limited) appeal of his own personality. At this point, it doesn’t look like that’s going to carry him into the White House—and it also looks like it hasn’t inspiring any successful imitators.
That’s good news for those of us who want to try to salvage the Republican Party afterwards, because it means that when Trump is cleared away by the voters in November, there won’t be much in the way of a Trumpist movement left over.