The special Senate election in Alabama had everything. It had Roy Moore, a twice-fired former state Supreme Court justice who believes that non-Christians should be stripped of their right to serve in Congress. It had allegations of sexual misconduct committed by Moore, to which Moore’s denials grew increasingly unbelievable. It had Steve Bannon, who viewed his full-throated support for Moore as part of his battle against “establishment” Republicans. It had extra-Biblical understandings of the relationship between the Virgin Mary and Joseph, a poorly ridden horse, and a Democratic candidate running a liberal campaign in one of the most conservative states in the country — and winning.
What it did not have was Donald Trump.
Of course, Donald Trump was involved. He recorded a robocall message urging his supporters to vote for Roy Moore (and many of his supporters did, mostly in order to show support for Trump. He stumped for Moore in neighboring Florida. But he wasn’t visiting fish fries in Mobile or evangelical churches in Theodore. And he was not running for Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat.
Roy Moore lost for many reasons. But one is that he attempted to run a Trumpian campaign without being Donald J. Trump. A feat which, once again, has proved impossible.
Trumpism is not a political ideology. It’s a fairy tale.
I’ve argued before that there is no such thing as “Trumpism,” no real political theory that underpinned Trump’s 2016 campaign, or his identity while in office. In August of this year, I wrote:
Trumpism was made out of whole cloth, by his supporters and by his detractors, cobbled together from an amalgamation of The Art of the Deal and divinations of Trump’s innermost thoughts based on his staffing decisions and tweets. Trumpism was less an interpretation of another language than a wholly invented phrasebook for a language that was never real in the first place. Trump’s genius was in letting millions of people largely believe what they wanted to believe about his policies and preferences and refusing to get in the way.
“Making America Great Again” became a sort of Rorschach test in 2016. Some voters looked at “Trumpism” and saw a means of getting better health care, or better trade deals, or keeping their jobs. Some even looked at Trump and saw a pro-LGBTQ candidate in the same man evangelical Christians viewed as a hero in waiting. His opponents worried about the potential power of Trump’s populist appeal, too. David Frum wrote in the Atlantic earlier this year that a populist agenda — massive spending on infrastructure, combined with massive tax cuts and a heavily restrictionist immigration policy and economic protectionism — would ensure Trump a second term in office.
But Trump’s own “Trumpism” seemed to die a rapid death when Trump entered office. While doing markedly little abroad to earn his campaign reputation as a foreign policy “dove,” President Trump has supported a markedly unpopular health care policy and a tax bill aligned with long-standing GOP priorities while doing very little on trade. As Trump has jostled with journalists and black athletes on Twitter, the long-promised massive infrastructure investment has yet to take place, NAFTA remains intact, and China has yet to be named a currency manipulator. (And, of course, the wall remains unbuilt.)
The “Trumpism” of the 2016 presidential campaign was thus largely imaginary, a selling point rather than an overarching policy.
This is the reason why so many GOP members of Congress have voted with Trump in 2017: Not because they are supporting a Trumpian agenda, but because Trump has largely governed as a pretty standard conservative Republican. While conservative priorities — like deregulation and nominating conservative judges — have been more or less successfully brought to fruition, the last remaining fragment of “Trumpism” appears to be Donald Trump’s exceedingly pugnacious Twitter feed.
No wonder that Trump’s popularity with Republicans — and, more importantly to the concept of “Trumpism” being an alternative to Paul Ryan-esque conservatism, Independents — has dropped precipitously. Trump had 42 percent job approval ratings from independents in January. That number has dropped to 32 percent, a number President George W. Bush didn’t reach until 2005.
“Trumpism” wasn’t an ideology. It was a means to an end, the promises one makes when trying to win an election, not change the face of politics. And only Trump could use it. Only Trump could tell Americans that America wasn’t great and be greeted with rapturous applause by those most in touch with their patriotism, though Roy Moore tried. Only Trump could make promises so grandiose that they exceeded the very boundaries of fact-checking.
Bannon keeps trying to make Trumpism bigger than Trump, and failing
But the purported architect of Trump’s electoral victory believes “Trumpism” is a template, even though so far he’s had markedly little success since November of 2016. Bannon believes that “Trumpism” exists, and moreover, he believes that he can take on Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker, Paul Ryan, and the entire Republican Party with it.
Source close to Bannon re: #AlSen: "This doesn't stop Steve's war against the establishment, all it does is pour gasoline on top of it."— Kevin Cirilli (@kevcirilli) December 13, 2017
Never mind that besides Trump, Bannon has little evidence of his political kingmaking.
Here’s his track record so far:
- Bannon and Breitbart News supported Paul Nehlen in his primary fight against Paul Ryan in Wisconsin in 2016. He lost by 68 points and has now resorted to embracing white nationalism.
- Indiana’s Marlin Stutzman lost handily to an “establishment” conservative.
- Arizona’s Kelli Ward ran against John McCain in 2016 and lost badly. And meanwhile, Ward lost two former Breitbart writers as staffers on her 2018 Senate campaign because, in their view, she wasn’t adequately “Trumpian.”
- And most recently of course, Bannon supported Roy Moore in Alabama since before the Republican primary in September, sending Breitbart writers to the state to champion Moore’s candidacy.
Roy Moore ran an entirely Trumpian campaign: a stylistic embrace of a brash, bombastic sentiment, an opposition to “political correctness” (and frequently, basic decency), and fully supportive of nationalistic populism. He railed against “globalists,” the “establishment,” “elites,” and Mitch McConnell with the same vigor that he typically used against LGBTQ people. He was more than willing to describe America as a failed state only he and his followers could rescue. (Of course, that’s not new for Moore: In a poem from 2007, Moore wrote, “You think that God’s not angry, that our land’s a moral slum? / How much longer will it be before His judgment comes?”)
He decried the “fake news” media. He was tough on immigration while knowing markedly little about immigration policy. He whipped out a gun on stage to show his support for the Second Amendment. When allegations of sexual assault were raised against him, he denied them vociferously and called his accusers liars. He followed the Trump script to the letter — and lost. Trump could be credibly accused of sexual assault and win an election. But Moore couldn’t.
And yet Bannon and some others are still clinging to the idea that they can recreate Trump’s rise, and do so without Trump himself.
Much has been made (particularly on the right) of President Barack Obama’s “singularity.” This concept focuses on his victory for two consecutive terms in the White House while his party suffered historic defeats in Congress and in statehouses and governors’ mansions across the country, and how his personal popularity didn’t seem to translate into Democratic success.
What if there is no Trumpism without Trump? What if he is a unique political figure, not the leader of an ascendant movement of candidates who share his approach to the world? All the while activating his opponents at a unique level of intensity, with follow-on effects for all Rs— Garance Franke-Ruta (@thegarance) December 13, 2017
From his debut on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama seemed to speak a new language, one of apolitical hope and nonpartisan ideals, and the promise of change to an ineffectual status quo. He delivered on some of his promises, but not all. And his claim that he could fundamentally change our politics never came to pass. And he knew it, too.
President Obama seemed to eventually acknowledge that he could say what others couldn’t, and garner real faith — a faith beyond politics — from his supporters. But his words couldn’t make the leap into reality. He had an agenda and a policy, but he became, to many liberals, something of a disappointment.
This led to the rise of the Bernie Sanders wing within the Democratic Party and the increasing popularity of left-wing groups outside of the party. President Obama, then, wasn’t a movement. He was a man, unique and unreplicable. A lot, in that way (and that way alone), like Trump.
Trumpism is really just Trump.
A year after his win, it appears that Trump — and “Trumpism” — is much the same. His electoral victory wasn’t a clarion call or the launch-point of a new political order. Trump won office because of a confluence of factors unlikely to be repeated. An opponent under FBI investigation. A news media attracted to Trump’s existing fame and willing to give him near unceasing airtime, treating him like a sideshow rather than a real threat to win political office. A heavily racialized campaign that seemed to use foghorns, not dog whistles.
And of course, Trump’s own unique willingness to make promises rooted not in policy, but audience applause. Sure, Mexico is never, ever going to pay for a wall along the United States’ Southern border, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?
The only real “Trumpist” politician is Trump himself, because “Trumpism” was merely an extension of his own personality: irrational confidence and overwhelming paranoia existing simultaneously. But Steve Bannon will keep looking for another such politician. And failing.