Donald Trump may have just launched his presidential candidacy’s endgame. It began on Monday evening, when he issued a statement calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
The proposal was more or less consistent with Trump’s long-held substantive policy positions, but the rhetoric he used this time around was incendiary enough to prompt a GOP revolt. Republican heavyweights — including many of the party's other presidential hopefuls — rushed to denounce the proposed shutdown as dangerous, divisive and un-American. Signs of weakness in Trump’s poll numbers may have stiffened their resolve. Earlier Monday, the most recent Monmouth University survey found Texas Sen. Ted Cruz edging ahead of Trump in Iowa, site of the first presidential nominating contest of 2016.
Trump may weather both the intraparty pile-on and the bad news from Iowa. Either way, he is taking a risk with his most recent announcement, albeit a calculated one. The key to his campaign’s success has always been its peculiar blend of nativism and flamboyant showmanship, and his call for a ban on Muslim immigration is a logical extension of both.
It is quintessential Trumpism: A bold statement of nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment, delivered with the bravado of a onetime reality TV star. And the rise of Trumpism will likely come to be understood as the billionaire candidate’s most enduring legacy. Even if Trump dropped out of the presidential race tomorrow, the political style he pioneered would live on.
In a parliamentary system, the Trump method of politics would likely find its home in a third party similar to the right-wing populist movements gaining support across Europe: France’s revitalized National Front, the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), the Sweden Democrats and so on. Like Donald Trump, the leaders of those parties tend to stake out far-right positions on immigration and nationalism but seem less wedded to doctrinaire economic and social conservatism.
The Republican Party is considerably more rigid when it comes to things like taxation and abortion — or at least it was, until Trump, a relative moderate on those issues, leaped to the front of the presidential field.
Because the U.S. system lacks a viable third-party outlet for Trump’s idiosyncratic strain of conservatism, Trumpism will likely persist as a force in the Republican Party. In fact, despite their vehement anti-Trump remonstrations, party leaders have been taking diligent notes on how to imitate his success.
Last week The Washington Post broke the news that a confidential intraparty memo, authored in September by the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, advised down-ticket candidates to borrow from Trump’s playbook if he wins the nomination. Although the memo urged other Republican candidates to keep a measured distance from Trump, it also conceded that he “has connected with voters on issues like trade with China and America’s broken borders.”
“Don’t insult key voter cohorts by ignoring that America has significant problems and that Trump is offering some basic solutions,” wrote the memo’s author, Ward Baker. “Understand the populist points Trump makes and ride that wave.”
Even if Republican leaders wanted to fully repudiate Trumpism, they probably couldn’t do it without tearing their party apart. The political currents that led to Trumpism existed before this campaign cycle. All Donald Trump did was learn how to most effectively harness those forces. The underlying causes for his success will almost certainly outlast his candidacy, and Republican leaders will need to make peace with that fact if they want to hold their base together.
Recent polling shows that Trump’s anti-immigration message resonates most strongly among white people with relatively little formal schooling, a core constituency for the Republican Party. That same demographic bloc is in crisis: Recent research has shown that the life expectancy for working-class white men is dropping, even as life expectancies for other groups in the U.S. continue to improve across the board.
Trump has tapped into the despair and anger of many-working class white people. His fans, when speaking to the press, will often depict him as a champion of the working man, standing athwart job-stealing immigrants and currency-manipulating foreigners.
“A lot of what he says hits a chord with me,” Jerry Hubbard, of the decaying industrial town of Flint, Michigan, told The Washington Post in August. “Immigration and jobs going to China — this area’s really suffered from that. I just like somebody that stands up for what he speaks about."
In that respect, Trump’s U.S. supporters are very similar to England’s UKIP voters and France’s blue-collar National Front partisans. Trumpism, like European right-wing populism, is a reaction against decades of economic stagnation, a perceived loss of national prestige and the large-scale immigration that is thought to exacerbate both.
Long-term economic and demographic trends are likely to guarantee that such views stay in the mainstream for years to come. Mass migration to Europe and the U.S. will likely only increase over the next few decades as climate change prompts a new wave of refugees. Meanwhile, worsening inequality will continue to chip away at the post–World War II economic pact that for so long kept the U.S. white working class relatively comfortable. And as the aggrieved and newly precarious members of that class search for redress, there will always been some figure on the right willing to promise it to them.