Donald Trump and the Politics of Ideology

Donald Trump speaks with conservative commentator Sean Hannity at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, MD.

By Christian Lingner

Back from the days when Donald Trump’s rhetoric still focused on “making big deals” and building a wall along the Texas border, a snippet of one May 2016 interview stands out as indicative of today’s Republican Party.

Trump said:

“Does the party have to be together; does it have to be unified? I’m very different than everybody else, perhaps everyone that’s run for office; I actually don’t think so. I think it would be better if we were unified, I think there would be something good about it, but I don’t think that it has to be unified in the traditional sense. I have to do what I have to do; I have millions of people who voted for me because I have strong borders, because I want strong trade; I want good trade … I have to stay true to my principles also, and I’m a conservative. But don’t forget, this is called the Republican Party, not the conservative party.”

In the midst of this word salad is an important insight into Trumpism. Trump breezily dismisses conservative ideology to appeal to the public mandate. But what, exactly, did the public mandate?

Lots of things, in fact – but rarely the same things.

Emily Ekins’ recent study, “The Five Types of Trump Voters,” highlights the fact that these individuals were anything but “a homogenous bloc with similar tastes and motivations.” Voters set aside their particular ideological agendas in pursuit of finding solutions to pragmatic issues, such as immigration and international trade.

Therefore, it makes sense that Trump deemed the “traditional sense” of unity, an ideological one, less essential than following through with the people’s demands. He implied that if he was elected, the Republican Party should be unified in satisfying the voter’s mandate first and foremost.

However, Ekins illustrates how the five distinct groups of Trump supporters were dissimilar and even diametrically opposed on various issues, from immigration to economics to American identity and nativism. There’s no clear consensus issue among Trump voters.

The majority of his voters didn’t support all, or even most, of his policies, but instead found him providing an answer here or there for specific uncertainties they saw in America’s future. One might find his position on immigration attractive, while the other might hate his stance on immigration but agree with his emphasis on the free markets. Another might buy into his anti-establishment rhetoric, but reject the economic aspect of his platform.

His supporters are only fully unified in one way: They like the idea of the outsider, the citizen-president hybrid who defies convention and establishment protocol; they like Trump himself. An un-ideological people has elected an un-ideological Trump, who has no clear agenda except to abolish the establishment status quo.

So the Republican party finds itself adhering to a Hegelian master-slave dialectic, parading after Trump’s pied piper, who is himself shackled to the whims of public opinion. The president is traditionally supposed to be elected on the grounds that citizens trust them with the leadership and direction of the country. Trump rose to the presidency because people believed he would carry out their wishes, and now must face the fact that this approach has only served to inhibit his work as commander-in-chief, due to the fracturing of his party.

Such seems to be the fate of populism. But what’s the alternative?

The Democratic Party presents a much clearer platform, as it is still linked to a specific ideological ethos. In today’s society, saying “I am a Democrat” denotes assent to a distinct set of positions, built on the party’s ideological pillars: welfare statism and identity politics. Liberals exist on an ideological gradient, from the baby blue of a centrist to the deep indigo of the true believer — but they’re all blue.

They have a consistent, well-known platform, but they also have an attractive term to denote their entire policy: tolerance. Tolerance is the impeccable cornerstone of modern liberalism, though clearly self-refuting if not applied as an auxiliary to a far-reaching moral ethic (for tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance, and is always forced to choose what to tolerate and what to call intolerant). However, this synthetic virtue is simple and attractive, always providing the progressive agenda with an easy rhetorical edge by appealing to human empathy. Somehow, Hillary Clinton failed to capitalize on this advantage in 2016, constantly resorting to messaging so vague that she lost to a man with no defining set of principles.

In the past, the Republican Party’s conservatism could have been depicted on a similar sliding spectrum, but the emergence of Trump’s non-ideological populism has left the GOP acting as a façade for a plethora of concealed (or maybe not-so-concealed) ideological polka dots; it isn’t positively anything, but simply an umbrella for any mere non-liberal. Trump was adamant that he wasn’t Hillary and wasn’t the establishment, but what does he claim to stand for? The GOP establishment, recognizing their unpopularity (evidenced by Trump’s primary election), are now struggling to understand their leader and themselves.

Meanwhile, as a recent Washington Post article pointed out, the Democrats are using their 2016 setback as an opportunity to develop refreshing young party leaders who are passionate about the progressive ideology. Tom Perriello, a progressive in the Virginia political scene, was quoted saying, “I’m biased, but I think that you can accomplish more with a transformative loss than with 100 mundane victories.” His point was vivid: The Republicans might have numbers to their advantage at the moment, but the ideological advances of the progressive agenda are winning the day.

Jason Kander, an up-and-coming 36-year-old Democrat from Missouri, was also quoted in the aforementioned article, saying, “Voters are okay with you believing something they don’t believe, as long as they think you genuinely believe it, and you believe it because you care about them.” This is, in fact, the exact opposite of Trumpian populism. People speak, Trump listens. Kander speaks, people listen. While Trump provides a sort of agnostic pragmatism, Kander’s clearly defined ideology nearly propelled him to an unlikely upset of longtime Republican incumbent senator Roy Blunt; in fact, he ran 6 points ahead of Hillary Clinton in the historically red state. Granted, neither Perriello and Kander, despite all of their youthful optimism, won in their respective, recent elections.

Only the future will provide an answer for the impending question regarding America’s political future: Will each party’s long-term success be found in an ideological unity like that indicated by this young crop of Democrats, or will un-ideological umbrellas like the current Republican fixture provide the numbers to command Washington? Ideas possess power, but they have to attain broad appeal in order to carry practical weight. On the other hand, as the current stagnation of the Republican congress suggests, mere numbers don’t ensure results, either.