The first two nights of Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention were — to put it in terms the nominee might recognize — low-energy. The convention hall wasn’t full, or if it was full, attendees milled around instead of listening to GOP luminaries like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Then on Wednesday, talk radio host Laura Ingraham saved Trump’s convention.
She stirred up the crowd by hitting Trump’s themes: that America is being taken away from the people it belongs to ("It belongs to us," said Ingraham, "it’s where our dead are buried"); that the country is threatened from within and without by immigration, terrorism, and disrespect for law enforcement; that Hillary Clinton is crooked and that reporters are corrupt; that Republicans who don’t support Donald Trump are lacking in their manhood.
She even used a version of one of Trump’s favorite bits of rally business: pointing to the press gallery and shaming the reporters there as they watch.
Ingraham wasn’t just a stand-in for Trump. She was a better speaker than he is.
Ingraham is a better Trumpist than Trump, honestly.— Michael B Dougherty (@michaelbd) July 21, 2016
Trump’s demeanor can seem smug or complacent — low-energy, even; Ingraham was a firebrand. Trump is sometimes more in love with his own riffs than his audience is; Ingraham was laser-focused on giving the audience what it wanted. It’s often impossible to divine Trump’s platform from his rhetoric; Ingraham made Trumpism into a coherent ideology, the next step in the evolution of American movement conservatism.
And the audience went bonkers for it.
Trumpism will survive long after Donald Trump
Here’s the thing: As much as Donald Trump wants Trumpism to be a personality cult — as far as he has gone to ensure that the Republican National Convention is a four-day paean to the virtues of Donald J. Trump — he doesn’t control it at all. Trumpism might not exist as we know it if Trump had never entered the 2016 presidential race, but that doesn’t mean it will disappear if he loses.
Trump has given voice to anxieties that people like Ingraham have been airing for some time. His genius was in doing so as an incredibly famous person and a presidential candidate, and in making sure he was always in the news.
That allowed him not only to bring Ingraham’s message to people who weren’t already steeped in conservative media but to make it into something that could be expressed outside conservative circles without fear. For many of the people who voted for him in the Republican primary, Trump embodies the courage to speak the truth, political correctness be damned.
Trumpism isn’t just a political ideology. As a set of attitudes about who deserves respect and who deserves to be called an American, it’s a social code for everyday life. And it’s one that, by all appearances, is more permissive about things like racist chants at high school sporting events than the code it replaced.
This is why I’m more interested in Trumpism than in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. If Trump loses in November, he’ll probably lose interest in politics. But the norms he’s smashed, and emboldened his followers to smash in their own communities, won’t magically resurrect themselves. And the Laura Ingrahams of the world — passionate and polished — will be ready to remind Trumpists that they are owed something by this country, and that they deserve to remain aggrieved.