Just as Elizabeth I would have been disheartened to learn that she had lived during the Age of Shakespeare, I am sure that no living US president, from Jimmy Carter to Joe Biden, wants to be a footnote to Donald Trump. But I don’t make the rules. It seems very likely that historians of the future will agree that the presidency of Donald Trump, like those of William McKinley, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, marked the end of one American political era and the beginning of another.
The date dividing B.T. (Before Trump) and A.T. (After Trump) was June 16, 2015. On that day, America’s 45th president descended Trump Tower’s golden escalator to announce that he was running for the Republican nomination. Within hours, the traditional patterns of US politics were shattering and crystallising into new formations. Whether Trump is sent to jail by vengeful Democratic prosecutors, re-elected to the White House, or fades away playing golf in Florida, today, in the Year 8 A.T., America’s Left, Right and centre have all been redefined in relation to him.
To understand this transformation, one must first understand that Trumpism did not appear out of nowhere in 2015. The migration of the educated and affluent to the Democrats, as well as the white working class and more recently a minority of the non-white working class to the Republicans, dates back to the Sixties. Politically, it first manifested itself in the 1972 presidential election, in which white working-class Democratic voters switched and helped Richard Nixon win a landslide victory over George McGovern.
But this shift was far from fixed. Instead of building on Nixon’s Main Street populism and centrism, Ronald Reagan bequeathed the Republican Party to K Street neoconservatives who sought to build a post-Cold War American global empire ruled by Wall Street free marketeers. This was not what “Nixon Democrats” or “Reagan Democrats” were looking for. Alienated by an increasingly upscale and socially liberal Democratic party, many white working-class voters in the Northern industrial states, which would later vote for Trump, rallied behind the Texan billionaire Ross Perot in 1992, when, by denouncing the offshoring of US manufacturing jobs, he won 19% of the popular vote — more than any third-party candidate since former president Theodore Roosevelt had run as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912.
After winning fewer votes in his 1996 run, Perot withdrew from politics. His personal vehicle, the Reform Party, was contested by would-be successors, with its Right wing led by the “paleoconservative” populists Patrick Buchanan and former KKK leader David Duke, and its relative Left wing dominated by the TV wrestler Jesse Ventura and one Donald J. Trump. Trump withdrew from the Reform Party presidential race and Patrick Buchanan became its nominee in 2000. Ventura went on to become a one-term governor of Minnesota, while Trump became a — so far — one-term president of the United States.
In the following years, a strain of Nixonism-Perotism continued to exist in the Republican party, but it was represented by economically populist, socially conservative figures such as Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. They were easily caricatured in the media and blacklisted by Republican donors. Trump, however, was able to win the nomination in spite of donor-class opposition because, like Perot, he could fund his own campaign (although at later stages he came to rely on other big donors as well).
What this shows is that, between Nixon and Trump, there existed a constituency of Republicans, independents, and some Democrats who could be rallied behind pro-manufacturing economic nationalism, a preference for national-interest realpolitik over costly crusades abroad, and a moderate social traditionalism — even if it lost most of its battles to shape the Republican Party to the globalist neocons and libertarians.
Of course, had Trump not run, and had he not been a self-funded billionaire candidate, the populist candidates in 2015 would have been defeated by the big-money candidates. But while neocon-libertarian control of the Republican Party under Jeb Bush and others might have lasted into the 2020s or 2030s, at some point it was doomed to collapse under the weight of its incompatibility with domestic and global realities. Whatever else might be said about Trump, by toppling the Bush and Clinton dynasties and the establishments they embodied, he accelerated that moment. And in its wake, the Republican Party has been split into four factions: Only-Trumpists, Never-Trumpists, Pseudo-Trumpists, and Post-Trumpists.
Any hope that Trump might promote the Nixon-Perot alternative to Reaganism-Bushism was dashed soon after his unexpected electoral college win. Trump fired Steve Bannon, who had helped him win by tapping into populist themes. For the rest of his presidency, he relied on his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a completely conventional establishmentarian.
Lacking any ideological fuel, Trump was the weakest president in his relations with Congress since another anti-Washington outsider in the White House, Jimmy Carter. The congressional Republican leadership, for instance, which controlled both the House and the Senate between 2017 and 2019, humiliated him by refusing to allocate any funding for the central promise of his campaign, a “wall” along the US-Mexican border. Instead, the president was forced to meekly sign into law a massive tax cut for the rich pushed through Congress by Paul Ryan and others, which turned out to be the only major legislative achievement of his presidency. He may have sought a détente with North Korea and did not start any new foreign wars, but he did not end US involvement in any of the Forever Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
In 2020, for the first time since the party was founded to oppose the extension of slavery in the 1850s, the GOP did not have a policy platform. The old Republic offering of global military intervention, free-market fundamentalism and economic appeasement of China was gone. But Trump failed to fill it with any new programme. Instead, he himself filled the void, something which remains the case to this day. Last month, on his personal social media platform, Truth Social, Trump released a 2024 platform calling for up to 10 new American cities on federal land, flying cars, and Tony Blair-style baby bonds — proposals that had nothing to do with anything he had run on in 2016 or anything he had achieved in office. Trump’s policy agenda has descended into improvisation. The sole continuity is Trump himself.
Meanwhile, the true number of Only-Trumpists remains unclear. High levels of support for him in polls about preferences for the Republican nominee in 2024 are probably misleading and, at this preliminary stage, reflect lack of public knowledge about rivals such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. A more representative sample may be the mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, which contained a mixture of conspiracy theorists, radical reactionaries, misguided patriots, mischief-makers, and a shaman wearing buffalo horns — a far cry from the army of armed white nationalists who, many Democrats warn, are awaiting the signal from their orange leader to rise up, seize control of most states and the federal government, and end American democracy. Donald J. Trump — disorganised, incompetent, and unable to keep his mouth shut — is the last person in the US who could lead a successful conspiracy.
Compared to when neoconservatives defined Republican foreign policy and free-marketeers and supporters of mass cheap-labour immigration controlled Republican economic policy, the Never-Trumpists are a shadow of what they once were. In less than a decade, they went from paramountcy to pariah status in the Grand Old Party. Paul Ryan, once seen as the future of the party, was driven out of Congress in 2018, while many prominent former Republican neoconservatives such as William Kristol have formally switched their allegiance to the Democratic party (beware, Democrats!).
Once Trump is gone from the scene, the Never-Trumpists and Only-Trumpists will vanish. In their absence, the battle for the GOP will be played out as a struggle between the two remaining groups: the Post-Trumpists and Pseudo-Trumpists.
The largest faction among today’s Republican policymakers might be described as pseudo-Trumpists. These are former Reagan-Bush Republicans, some of them former Never-Trumpists. They are unwilling to abandon the Republican Party, and afraid to abandon Trump’s still significant followers.
Their solution is to focus on criticism of “woke” topics, such as transgender ideology and critical race theory, in the hope that this will allow them to win office without discarding their prior commitments to free trade and foreign wars of choice. In effect, this is just a revival of the old culture-war politics of the Bushes, particularly George W. Bush — who ran on hot-button social issues such as gay marriage and then governed as a libertarian in economics and a neoconservative in foreign policy.
Today, as governors, Glenn Youngkin in Virginia and Ron DeSantis in Florida have both been able to win by running against Left-leaning local school boards, while keeping their views of foreign policy and national economic policy vague. But is that enough? When DeSantis recently criticised the extent of America’s commitment to Ukraine, much of the Republican establishment criticised him for his heresies and he walked back his comments, suggesting that, under a thin orange coating of Trumpwash, a lot of Republicans remain Bushites.
Of all of the factions in contemporary American politics, the Post-Trumpists are the most promising. They are also the most interesting, given they can be found in both parties.
A small number of Republicans in Congress, including Senators Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio and J.D. Vance, are committed to building a Republican Party and a conservative movement that reflects the transformation of the party in the last few decades: from one dominated by business elites and affluent professionals to one with an increasingly multiracial working-class base. While remaining staunch social conservatives, Hawley and Rubio have battled for higher tax credits for children and families. Rubio, in particular, has also defended striking workers and the idea of organised labour in the abstract, while Vance has called for making childbirth free for all Americans.
Most of the brainpower on the centre-Right is found among the editors and contributors to Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin’s American Affairs, Oren Cass’s American Compass think tank, and Compact, a heterodox journal uniting mavericks of Right and Left, edited by Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz. The latter has links to Britain’s post-liberal movement and to Catholic critics of liberalism such as Patrick Deneen. They are post-Trumpist insofar as they see their reform project as one that is independent of Trump, whatever their views of the man himself.
Another strain of Post-Trumpism can be found in the Democratic party. Since Trump’s election, the Democrats redefined themselves as reflexively anti-Trumpist. Indeed, in many areas, the presidency of Joe Biden has been theatrically anti-Trumpist — from more or less abandoning enforcement of US immigration laws to supporting “gender-affirming care” for youth.
In trade and foreign policy, however, Biden has been Post-Trumpist, building on Trump’s policies and themes and trying to appeal to his working-class supporters in industrial states. Biden had the nerve to cut America’s losses in Afghanistan, which Trump failed to do. And Biden has waged a trade war against China as vigorously as Trump, but with more sophistication. Now, with an eye to re-election in 2024, Biden is even tentatively taking a tougher line on illegal immigration. Margaret Thatcher once said that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair. Perhaps Donald Trump’s will turn out to be Joe Biden.
There are certainly causes for optimism. More than any other faction, Post-Trumpists have been willing to work across party lines on particular issues. Hawley collaborated with Bernie Sanders to push for higher spending on childcare, while Vance teamed up with fellow Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, to advocate more regulation after the recent toxic train accident in Ohio. Both cases hint at the best thing that could happen to the US: the triumph of Post-Trumpism in both the Republican and the Democratic Parties, and the abandonment of Reaganism and Clintonism.
And the worst thing? A political civil war between Democratic anti-Trumpists, perpetually trying to whip up mass hysteria over the imaginary prospect of a Trump Reich, and Pseudo-Trumpist Republicans — Bush-style militarists and libertarians, crouching inside not a Trojan Horse, but a Trojan Trump.