The recent U.S. airstrikes in Syria and the contested nature of Steve Bannon’s role in the White House have raised questions not just about Donald Trump’s strategy, but about Donald Trump’s ideology. Members of the so-called alt-right described being “bitterly disappointed” with Trump to The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray, with white nationalist Richard Spencer saying that he felt “betrayed.” The very concept of “Trumpism,” the purported ideological bedrock of Donald Trump’s campaign, seems to be in question.
Trumpism has been described in National Review Online, for instance, as promoting “tradition, populism, and American greatness.” But nearly 100 days into Trump’s presidency, Trumpism has still been largely defined by its observers and adherents rather than by its purported creator. Perhaps that’s because there was never any such thing as true Trumpism to begin with.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump signified at once a rejection of liberalism and, to some, of traditional small-government conservatism, while embracing nationalism and a form of populism fit for the 21st century. But that was Campaign Trumpism, when Donald Trump at once could claim a purported allegiance to Evangelical Christianity and wave a rainbow flag at a rally.
Campaign Trumpism was effective because it could be different things at different times. Campaign Trumpism offered strength in times of weakness, clarity in an increasingly confused political era. But Trumpism, in and of itself, was largely dependent on the perception of the viewers, be they Midwestern farmers looking for lower taxes and an end to Obamacare or third-party voters opposed to Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness. To them, Trump offered everything and nothing: “health care for everyone” and an end to wars in the Middle East — and winning, so much winning. He sold conservative voters on a transition from eight years of liberalism to a future governed by Republican ideals; on a middle finger to coastal “elites” and progressive activists; on a country that would control its government, and not the other way around.
Thus, Trumpism — supposedly the ideology of Donald Trump — was in reality not a Trump-created product. How could it be, when Trump’s statements were largely reflections of whatever he thought would be popular at the precise moment he made them? (Sometimes he misjudged his audience, as when he fumbled Chris Matthews’s question on whether women who seek to terminate their pregnancies should be punished.) Rather, 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.
But in truth, “Trumpism” never existed. There was no overarching theory behind his candidacy, no coherent governing strategy. Trumpism was never defined by Trump himself, and it will have no real relevance for how he will govern. He will be more influenced by polling and cable television than by “The Flight 93 Election.” He will bomb Syrian airfields because he sees images of murdered children on the news, and no alt-right blogger will be able to change his mind. He will abandon plans to repeal and replace Obamacare because its potential replacement would be even more unpopular with voters than the existing law. He will listen more attentively to his cherished son-in-law than to the publisher of Breitbart News. This is not who Donald Trump campaigned as, but this is who Donald Trump is.
Conservatives who look to Trump for leadership are not looking at Donald Trump, president. They are instead looking for the Donald Trump of their dreams, the one who promised a border wall and an end to government overreach. That Donald Trump does not exist. Neither does the alt-right Donald Trump who demands a full-throated populism constructed on racial foundations, or anti-war Donald Trump, or any other form of the man who currently inhabits the Oval Office. And nor, to his own deep disappointment, does the Donald Trump of the 2016 presidential campaign exist, the one who launched chants of “lock her up” in packed arenas across the country.
There is no wizard behind the curtain of Trumpism, and no governing ideology. Just Donald Trump.
— Jane Coaston is a politics writer for MTV News. She is based in Washington, D.C.