By: Timothy Potenz
When Trump’s defeat seemed increasingly likely, Trump and his team pre-emptively ratcheted up the excuses for a loss on November 8th 2016 – media bias, inaccurate polling, rigged voting booths. Many commenters who accused Trump of whining about the result even before the elections took place or by painting him as a petulant child unable to handle defeat, may well have missed something. Yes, if Trump’s only goal were to win this election, it is arguable that whining would never secure him enough new voters. However, this is arguably not Trump’s only goal. Trump 2016 could have an institutional consequence for four years. Trumpism 2020s will affect far, far more.
We need to stop viewing Trump within the prism of this election. Should we continue to do so, he will look nonsensical. However, if one were to see this through the prism of the next decade or even longer, his actions may well bear him some dark fruit. For Trump himself, November 8th 2016 is unlikely to be a decisive moment.
Trump can pivot from Trump 2016 to Trumpism 2020 because he is not simply a political figure. He is a movement, an idea, and expression of something much larger. Like the Leviathan adorning Hobbes’ 17th-century text, he consists of a great many people who have invested in him the power to voice their collective rage. Trump is the embodiment of a group that he has isolated and united. He has made this group, whose numbers were previously underestimated, into something cohesive. They are now a constituency. They are not going anywhere on November 9th.
This can afford Trump and his imminent ideological successors with far more tremendous power that can shake the nature of the establishment in USA.
The rise of the cult
Donald Trump has often been chided for using divisive tactics over the course of this election. This is unlikely to be a miscalculation on his part. Keeping his group together in the long term is far more important to him than bringing in outsiders. For instance, you are not welcome in Trumpland if you do not share the fundamental belief that the establishment and its internationalist, diversity-driven, elite-run agenda is the devil, and that Trump is going to break this evil.
Anything that shows that this view is wrong is a lie, anyone who disagrees with them is a liar, any statistic that disproves them is fabricated, any system that denies them must be skewed, broken or rigged. The thought process is classic cult thinking: ‘Don’t believe anyone else, we have the truth, and anyone who says otherwise is working against you and your family.’ Cults and cult leaders are considerably more interested in isolating themselves and establishing a siege mentality by demonizing the outside world than they are in bringing outsiders into their world.
By building a wall around his support base, which costs nothing and deters not just immigrants but dissenting views, Trump has been steadfast in ensuring that his agenda remains relevant beyond Election 2016. He has constructed a perfect echo chamber with the booming voices of him and his constituents, strengthening their solidarity with each other and imperviousness to outside influences.
Increasingly, fueled by a fragmented media, this echo chamber is mirrored in many countries in the Western world. The rise of populist and nationalist movements across Europe – such as Britain and France – reveal a phenomenon that is propped up by transnational networks and newer means of political communication. Trump is one who has expertly manipulated this and is arguably taking it to another level. He has molded his followers to refuse to concede defeat.
This affords Trump with a position of great strength in Trumpland. By appealing to his base rather than widening his appeal, he is securing his status as a cult leader rather than watering down his image with an appeal to the mainstream. As a result, he commands incredible loyalty from his followers. He may lock it down it even further soon by filling his echo chamber with the megaphone of a Trump News Network.
So long as this constituency exists, ideological opportunists sharing Trump’s views will seek it out. Trumpism will inspire new Trumpist politicians (or anti-politicians) to rise up and contest Congressional elections all over the country. These Trumpist politicians will depend on Trump’s good graces to maintain inroads with this base of voters, hence making Trump not simply a President with a four-year tenure but a founder of a movement that can last much longer. Moderate segments of the Republican party are likely to lose a lot of territories.
It is further possible that the representatives of Trump Party will adopt a primary goal of obstructionism. They will aim to thwart the establishment wherever possible, hence delivering their base with catharsis rather than policy outcome (which is what they derive from this movement).
The Republican establishment will face a fundamental choice much like they faced with Trump: accommodate or resist. Resistance would lead to a right-wing split that the Democrats would thrive on. It would suit both the Republicans and the Trump Party to have the Republicans accommodate the Trumpists by lending them political leverage or minimal resistance (while publicly distancing themselves from the Trump Party) and in exchange having the Trump Party vote with the Republicans whenever they have a joint interest in blocking Democrat proposals.
The filibustering and obstructionism during the Obama years will pale compared to what this alliance will be prepared to do after the next mid-terms. Looking at the last six years, who had power? Was it Obama? Or was it the obstructionists whose only goal was to thwart him at every turn? Call this fantasy, but this is Trump’s fantasy, and he has an uncanny knack of making nightmares come true. Prepare for Trumpism 2020.
Timothy Potenz is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department of King’s College London. He researches on the relationship between national self-image and susceptibility to pro-war arguments. He is specifically interested in contemporary issues of populism, media fragmentation, and Anglo-American military intervention. All views expressed in the above articles are solely of the author.