Donald Trump’s election victory is the death knell for the founding ideology of the United States.
On 9 November 2016, Donald Trump, to the astonishment of virtually everyone (including, most likely, the man himself) became president-elect of the United States. This is one of the most significant events in the history of Western politics; we have reached a culmination, a tipping point that could send the US and her allies hurtling down a new and potentially frightening path. There is a good case for calling Trump the most “un-American” president since the nation’s founding; this is not in spite of, but precisely because of his populist, protectionist, and nationalistic beliefs. Trump represents a decisive turn away from the classical liberal principles of America’s founding, and the first solid foothold for European-style populism in US politics.
The United States was born at the climax of the Enlightenment, of a near perfect marriage between spontaneity and design. The American Revolution was a conservative revolution that harked back to the values of John Locke and Magna Carta, and sought to establish a republic based on the principles of individual liberty, private property and limited, decentralised, accountable government. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights exhibit a crystalline classical liberalism whose legacy has been the surprisingly resilient (and unfortunately often rather vapid) pro-freedom, pro-individualist sentiment held dear by American citizens over the last two centuries.
Since Democrats turned towards a European-style Keynesian progressive liberalism in the 1930s, the Republican Party has been the main torch-bearer for America’s founding ideology. Sadly, the Republican commitment to social, economic and political freedom has been more a matter of talk than action for a very long time. George W Bush for example praised free markets and officially honoured neoliberal economist Milton Freedom, whilst simultaneously being one of the least freedom-friendly presidents in recent history. Even Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism”, did little more than pay lip-service to classical liberal values. Nevertheless, the GOP has managed to keep those values at the forefront of its professed ideology.
That is, until now. Donald J Trump has no ideology; “Trumpism” is a scattered array of populist, protectionist and nationalist ideas that don’t sit comfortably on either side of the spectrum. To find the politicians whose beliefs most closely match Trump’s, one has to look to the other side of the Atlantic, to figures like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Viktor Orban. American politics, however, is not a stranger to such ideas: the Reform Party, whose most famous presidential candidate, Ross Perot, obtained almost 19 per cent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election, has been preaching the right-wing populist line for decades. Trump himself ran for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination in 2000, losing to theocratic xenophobe Pat Buchanan. Trump’s election as president is a victory for the Perot-Buchanan brand; the Reform Party has effectively engulfed the GOP.
This usurpation of the Republican throne by Trump and his followers is somewhat akin to the hijacking of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the hardline British left. Most Republicans do not approve of Trump or his ideology, and tensions between the new president and Congressional Republicans will continue to be high. However, unlike Mr Corbyn, Trump has actually managed to win an election, delivering the GOP the White House and both houses of Congress. His political brand has thus been democratically legitimised, and it would be unwise for conservative Republicans to try to topple him. Any attempts by the GOP to subvert Trump’s plans would (rightly) be seen as a subversion of the will of the American electorate.
The Republican Party is stuck with Trump, and the United States is stuck with European-style populism. What happens next could depend on the success of Trump’s presidency. If Trump’s populist programme fails in some catastrophic manner, the pendulum could swing back to the left and deliver us a Democratic president in 2020 or 2024. Perhaps then the Republican Party will shift back towards a more traditional line. This scenario relies on us not underestimating Trump, which we have done consistently since his foray into politics began. Perhaps—in keeping with the relentless anti-logic of 2016 politics—Trump will be an effective, well-liked president, and his ideas will be implemented without major hiccups, although this scenario seems equally doubtful.
Either way, we can be confident that the Republican leadership’s new populist ideology is here to stay. Trump has won; he has won by appealing to the centre and the working class, abandoning traditional American values, focusing on hot-button issues like trade and immigration, and actually listening to the ordinary people who voted for him. The Democrats will imitate this strategy, as will his Republican successors—they would be silly not to. As right-wing populism continues to surge across Europe, the odds of the United States turning back towards the values of her founders look slim to none. We may be witnessing the final nail in the coffin of American classical liberalism.