Origins of Trumpism

For Donald Trump, it’s always about him. His biography broadcasts that loudly and clearly. With each new tweet and campaign-style utterance, he reinforces and amplifies his narcissistic, pathological personality. The recent episode in Japan in which the Navy went to great pains to mask the USS John McCain name spoke about the man-child’s thin skin.

But the existential crisis America is facing is more than about Trump; it’s about that which he personifies and symbolizes: Trumpism.

Because of its immediacy and imminent threat to our constitutional order, Trumpism is the defining moral issue of our day. It ranks higher than human-caused climate change, the wealth gap and income inequality, immigration, or other great social-political challenges. For if he gets four more years, it will become exponentially more challenging to address them, especially climate change, and the oligarchic corruption of the republic will be a fait accompli.

The 2020 election will either crown the man as the American Mussolini, thereby affirming and institutionalizing Trumpism, or it will repudiate him, along with his unethical and criminal behaviors. It would also check Trumpism for now. The outcome will also either embolden and power up supremacists, xenophobes, and others he calls “very fine people” or knock them back.

Like other social-political-religious movements, Trumpism is an ideology. Nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, and Christian Triumphalism are hallmarks of its beliefs. Among fervid Trumpists, there’s a sense of entitlement and being above the law. Rejecting democratic behavioral norms, dehumanizing, demonizing, and attacking those who challenge them and those they consider inferior, and vandalizing synagogues and mosques are part and parcel of their practices.

It’s important to note not all Trumpists subscribe to the extreme rendition. But they come across as duped fellow travelers—“poputchik” in Russian—not put off by or wary of extremism in their midst, much like how some in the 1930s American left were sympathetic to Stalin and turned a blind eye to the brutal excesses of Stalinism.

Trumpism is not a new phenomenon. It has a long, sordid pedigree. Its roots lie in the Know Nothing nativism of the 1840s and 1850s, which rose in reaction to the influx of German and Irish immigrants. Sound familiar?

In her Smithsonian Magazine article, novelist, journalist, and historical researcher Lorraine Boissoneault details the rise of the Know Nothings.

“They were the first party to leverage economic concerns over immigration as a major part of their platform,” she writes. “Though short-lived, the values and positions of the Know Nothings ultimately contributed to the two-party system we have today.”

Boissoneault cites University of Cincinnati history professor Christopher Phillips who said the Know Nothings “came out of what seemed to be a vacuum” because of “the failing Whig party and the faltering Democratic party and their inability to articulate, to the satisfaction of the great percentage of their electorate, answers to the problems that were associated with everyday life.”

According to Phillips, nativist movements, from the Know Nothings to Trumpism, display three patterns: “embrace of nationalism, religious discrimination, and a working-class identity exert[ing] itself in conjunction with the rhetoric of upper-class political leaders.”

That’s the reason, Phillips said, we shouldn’t be surprised by what’s happening today.

“One can’t possibly make sense of [current events] unless you know something about nativism. That requires you to go back in time to the Know Nothings. You have to realize the context is different, but the themes are consistent. The actors are still the same, but with different names.” 

In his famous dictum, George Santayana phrased it one way, and Yogi Berra another, albeit more colloquially: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Read Boissoneault’s entire article at Smithsonian Mag.

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