Trumpism is new in its name and its details, but it is not a fundamentally-new phenomenon, in general or in the United States. The transformation of the Republican Party into a Trumpist organization is not a fundamental change, either. And the usual way of understanding Trump and his party, as expressions of conservative and reactionary sentiments, is not wrong; but it is also not the best way of understanding Trump, or understanding what we must do in response. Trump and his party are not quaintly indulging in nostalgia for a bygone era. They mean to rule.
We must recognize in Trump and the Republican Party a desire for dominion — a pursuit and seizure and desperate attempt at retention of power, by a minority, for the benefit of the minority. If that means keeping things as they are, they will do so. If it means taking us back to the past, they will do that. And if it means creating an entirely-new condition that better suits their desires, they will do that instead. They have no adherence to other principles or fidelity to long traditions, and for that matter no loyalty to the independence and purpose of the United States. If they speak reverently of the Constitution, it is no more than rhetoric, a calculated nod not to a set of laws but to a malleable and empty symbol of whatever they happen to want at any given moment. They are not a party of laws. They are a party of power. Until this is clear in our minds, our response to their actions will always be inadequate.
US politics is typically described through a change spectrum, where individuals are placed along a line based on the degree of change that they favor, and align with others on that basis. Liberals (progressive liberals, that is) favor change, conservatives oppose change, and moderates fall somewhere between them. Radicals, meanwhile, favor extreme change, while reactionaries oppose change so extremely that they wish to undo change that has already taken place.
radical — liberal — moderate — conservative — reactionary
This scheme is of course relative to society; it tells us nothing about the policies or even the general disposition of conservatives or liberals, other perhaps than a general openness to change. But if we were all living in the perfect society, we should all be conservative. Would it be fair to say, in that case, that we were not open to change?
The Republican Party is and has long been a conservative-reactionary party, and the Democratic Party a moderate-liberal party. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, the Southern Democrats were conservative-reactionary as well. Trump’s imprint on the Republican Party is to emphasize the reactionary element, and his attraction to so many ordinary people, aside from his brash combativeness, is the transparency with which he appeals to a past, partially real and partially fictional, that he has promised to recreate. He is thus popular with those whose kind fared better than others in the past: males; whites; Christians; straights; Anglophones; the native born.
Trump has also been correctly described as an authoritarian. This has been painted as a departure from previous Republican presidents and nominees, and in degree, it certainly is. Trump is an authoritarian by personality, not ideology; indeed, his ideological content is next to nothing. He cares about adulation, about getting richer, and about hurting his enemies, however he made them. He has few if any policy preferences that do not serve to advance those other, personal causes. His authoritarianism arises from having always been rich and having mostly been at the head of a private company. He expects to be served and obeyed.
But his success in the Republican Party is not an accident, such that he could just as easily have succeeded in the Democratic primaries. What do his idiosyncrasies have to do with his party, or with conservatism and reaction? To understand that, we need to understand the actual ideology of the Republicans and the Democrats. The Libertarian Party has long insisted that it has an ideological coherence that the two major parties lack: in their telling, the Republicans favor economic freedom but personal regulation, and the Democrats favor personal freedom but economic regulation, while the Libertarians favor both economic and personal freedom. This view represents a failure to understand what freedom really is. Personal freedom is what libertarianism, or classical liberalism, is supposed to be about; if you do not have civil liberties, and freedom of your body, then you are not free, period. Among the three parties, then, the Democrats and Libertarians are both classically liberal, and differ on how to treat property, while the Republicans are not liberal at all.
What the Republican Party believes in, and what it does, in fact, is the opposite of classical liberalism. It is dominion. Dominion begins as a psychological phenomenon, a tendency to act towards the world in a particular way. What should be our relationship with the world, and the people and things in it? This question is answered in countless decisions every day, and no person always answers the same way. But our answers, our decisions, tend to cluster around two poles. The first pole is dominion: the world belongs to me and my people, to do with as we wish, to use, consume, even destroy; those outside of my people are part of the world and subject to our dominion. The second pole is stewardship: the world is our responsibility, to be protected, improved if necessary, for the benefit of the whole; all persons have equal stakes and equal rights.
It is important to understand dominion as a continuum of actions, not merely something grandiose like world conquest and totalitarian tyranny, but everything down to small acts of personal selfishness. If you drive a car recklessly and force others to protect themselves from you, that’s dominion. If you throw your cigarette butt on the street, that’s also dominion. If there are enough cookies for each person to have exactly one and you take two, that is dominion as well. That is you saying, “I will take what I want; I am the only person who matters.” If you are someone who acts selfishly in your personal life, there is a good chance that you will support selfishness in your political views as well; if you take two cookies instead of one as a general practice, then you will support parties that take more than a fair share for your people, and if you should get into office, you will enrich yourself at the public’s expense.
But though this idea of taking more than a fair share can obviously apply to stuff, material objects, wealth, and thus explain a lot of Trump and the Republican Party, it is more important to apply the idea to power. The dominion orientation leads individuals and groups to take more than a fair share of decision-making. Dominion is the orientation that gives us rulers and masters, people who make decisions that affect all of us but don’t take account of the needs and interests of others. Classical liberalism (or from now on, simply ‘liberalism’) was a set of ideas explicitly opposed to dominion, opposed to rulers and masters; while it is originally about human freedom (Latin ‘liber-’), human freedom immediately entails human equality on the most basic level. If no one is to have a position of greater power, then we must all be of equal power. Thus did liberalism lead not merely to civil liberties, but to democracy. Liberalism is also very much a work in progress, even in the freest societies. Dominion does not give up power voluntarily.
There is perhaps no better indicator of the dominal orientation of the Republican Party than voter suppression. The GOP is organizationally dedicated to making it harder for people to vote if those people are more likely to vote for Democrats. While this can be dismissed as Republicans simply acting for partisan interests, it is not a coincidence that among those more likely to vote for Democrats, and thus targeted for voter suppression, are racial and cultural minorities. Given the particular shame of slavery and Jim Crow, and the national commitment we are often said to have made to atone for those acts, the disenfranchisement of black adults should raise particular alarm: if Republicans aren’t even pretending to be ashamed of suppressing the votes of black people — as black people — they are truly incapable of shame on this issue.
The Republicans have worked against voting through the implementation of photo identification at the polls, purges of voter rolls, barriers to registration, felon and prisoner disenfranchisement, restrictive residency, and unequal access to convenient polling places, early voting, and reliable voting machines. This has been done in state after state, county after county, where the Republicans have sufficient control. They are aware of which demographic groups tend to vote against them, and they are doing their best to prevent or discourage those groups from voting.
Among the other ways Republicans are skewing the election process in their favor are gerrymandering, enhancing the ability of corporations and the wealthy to influence the process (through money, especially) while weakening labor unions, gaming the upcoming census, and playing hardball about and in the courts — which would be bad enough were it just Bush v. Gore and Merrick Garland, but also includes gutting the Voting Rights Act on the claim that voting discrimination is in the past, only to unleash a new wave of voting discrimination. Note that Republican-appointed judges are full partners in the dominal project of the party.
Special mention must be made of the Republican Party of North Carolina, whose gerrymandered legislature — a gerrymander found to be unconstitutional by a federal court — has passed law after law to keep power from Democratic governor Roy Cooper from the moment of his election, and to thwart future Democratic electoral wins in any number of ways. A federal appeals court struck down voting restrictions that attempted to, in the court’s own words, “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision”. Again, this is the South, where blacks were once enslaved and where in living memory they were systematically deprived of civil and political rights and subject to frequent terroristic violence by individuals or groups protected by and even collaborating with the state. But Republicans have no hesitation even in the South to hang onto their power by keeping blacks from voting.
Dishonesty is a key component of minority rule. Justifying the inequality of power between one person and another, between one group and another, justifying why a smaller group should rule a larger group, relies on presenting a myth of superiority and having some people believe it.
How central has dishonesty been to Trumpism? He himself lies all the time, of course. He lies about big things and small things. He lies about the facts of the world, he lies about his intentions, and he lies about his past deeds — as he must, since he has lived a life full of serious misdeeds, many of them criminal, and such misdeeds continue. The case for his candidacy and presidency was always incredibly weak, so he and others must lie constantly in support of it. And as he is engaged in corruption of an unprecedented sort, he and others must lie in his defense.
Fake news was important to his rise and success — actual fake news, stories that were presented as news but never happened. But Trump and his supporters quickly began claiming that any news adverse to their cause was “fake news”. Some of Trump’s audience continued to understand the word ‘fake’ correctly. To them, Trump was simply lying: this (true) story is false. But some of his audience came to understand ‘fake news’ as the equivalent of ‘negative news’. For them, Trump’s dishonesty had a different but also bad effect: any opposition attempt to point out actual fake news was devalued into opposition whining about unfavorable stories.
But we should not treat the dishonesty of the Republican Party as a new thing. Basically all politicians lie, at least in small ways, and they all bend and conceal the truth routinely. The tendency is not equal in the two major parties, though. Republican policies are generally much less popular than Democratic policies, so the Republicans habitually lie about both. The Affordable Care Act is merely the most prominent recent example. The GOP routinely misrepresented what the Act would do, or does, and their promises for a replacement can only be described as outright lies. From Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell on down, they repeatedly claimed they would be able to deliver something that was all at once more effective, cheaper, and more consumer-friendly; and this was impossible. Any improvements would come with trade-offs that they were pretending did not exist.
We have an industry that has the ability and to some extent the motivation to expose lies. Many journalists, I suspect, secretly imagine themselves as the reporters at the Munich Post, who saw through Hitler, and taunted him, from his earliest days as a local hoodlum. Less dramatically, they see themselves as Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post, who exposed the corruption of Watergate. As such, modern journalists should be dying for an opportunity to do what the Posts did. And yet, instead of looking for possible clues that Trump, an obviously-dangerous demagogue, could morph into something worse, and openly opposing him for it, they’re constantly looking for excuses to treat him like Dwight Eisenhower, engaged in a natural give-and-take with Adlai Stevenson over some trivial details about government policy. That’s at best; many of them are still in the 2016 mode of covering Trump like a celebrity carnival act who is good for ratings. Fox News might carry Trumpist propaganda twenty-four hours a day, and the National Enquirer might buy damaging Trump stories so as not to print them, but most of the press is complicit to some degree. Their commercial interests and their rigid both-sides ideology have led them to a massive professional failure, to see Trump and his party for what they are, and to tell us this.
In addition to its rigorous opposition to genuine democracy, the Republican Party embraces dominion in many other ways, which are often described in special terms: theocracy; white supremacy; patriarchy. One of the most notable features of the Republican Party, compared to other successful parties in the world’s democracies, is its utter devotion to plutocracy. At the elite level of the party — in every administration, in Congress, in the higher courts — there is a pervasive concern for the interests of the wealthy. The wealthy and their interests are not particularly popular, of course, which is why this concern must be accompanied by culture-war vitriol, racism, and a fair amount of lying. After the wealthy lost an important legislative battle, on campaign spending restrictions, the Supreme Court simply nullified the law, and the wealthy immediately used their new freedom to spend their way to a more favorable government. But whatever one thinks of this in principle, it’s not accurately described as conservative or reactionary. There is no status quo or status quo ante that is the guiding reference for these plutocratic policies. The Republicans simply ask themselves what would serve the interests of wealth, and do it.
Republicans pose as the party of limited government, but they are enthusiastic about using government to regulate personal behavior, and to constrain any resistance to the state that isn’t about wealth. Republicans disregard civil liberties and they zealously and uncritically support law enforcement, up until the point where it investigates their party’s leader, at which point they actively thwart and publicly denigrate law enforcement. Trump, of course, has made a theme of prosecuting his rivals. So according to Trump, cops beating suspects and locking up Hillary Clinton is good; cops investigating his corruption is bad. And the Republican Party is standing by him in this, like everything else.
To understand the Democratic Party as a party of stewardship, a few examples are helpful. As an institution, the party promotes public health and universal access to health care. It more consistently defends human rights abroad, and of course is the only major party that protects civil and political rights domestically. It has a consistent concern for the rights of women and minorities and the economic welfare of the poor and working classes. It supports the conservation of nature and natural resources. All this adds up to a program of taking care of the world, of taking responsibility for its welfare.
But the most important element of the party’s stewardship for this discussion is its effort to resist dominion. The Democratic Party is the main organization in the United States promoting and protecting genuine liberalism. There are many legacy Republicans who believe in liberalism. If they value it as much as their rhetoric has suggested, they must leave the Republican Party and vote for Democrats. There is no other serious use of the ballot that will protect our freedoms and the institutions that make those freedoms possible.
A dominion-liberalism spectrum can help us make sense of world affairs that could otherwise be interpreted relativistically. The US has a powerful military; other states have powerful militaries. We use force; they use force. We spy; they spy. We’re all the same, right? We are morally equivalent? How can we object to Russian spies in our computers if we have spies in their computers? How can we object to Russia working to choose our government (and succeeding) when the United States actively works to replace other governments?
The world has gray areas, but this is not one of them. Russia has been working in the US and Western Europe to bring down liberal governments, and install governments favorable to Russian dominion. If Russia had liberal intentions, most of its interests would not conflict with ours. The US, by contrast, has of late mostly used its power against governments when they were illiberal. It makes questionable decisions and has numerous illiberal allies, but (prior to Trump) it has collaborated more deeply with the world’s liberal governments, and could be fairly said to be an ally to all of them. We had, therefore, an alliance of the world’s liberal governments with some illiberal governments against the world’s remaining illiberal governments. As with the Cold War, or World War II, the fact that the US side is imperfect doesn’t detract from the clarity about which side is better.
The Trump-Russia affair is a manifestation of Russian desire to spread illiberalism, and to destroy the liberal alliance against it. It is a manifestation of Trump’s corruption, and that of the people around him. But it is also a manifestation of Republican ideology. Pre-Trump figures like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan had no interest in a Bannonesque white Christian civilizational alliance with Russia, but they were perfectly willing to cover up the treasonous conspiracy between Putin and Trump to subvert the interests of the US electorate because they and their donors care more about cutting taxes, stacking the courts, and keeping themselves in office.
Having been raised in a civic religion that values republicanism, democracy, and public engagement, and an intellectual climate that values debate, I find no great pleasure to state so plainly that, of our two major parties, one of them is unredeemable and must absolutely be opposed. Our journalists continue to treat Trump and his party as normal, and strive to find equal flaws on both sides; this approach played a big part in giving us our Trumpist government. Nonprofits are often non-partisan by requirement, and so we have many organizations working as stewards to protect and improve the world, working hard and giving their best intellectual and emotional efforts as well, who cannot openly admit the truth.
Here is the truth, for all stewards to acknowledge: the single most important thing we can do as a society, for the foreseeable future, is to elect Democrats at all levels. There are other important things as well, and we needn’t all drop what we are doing and go into professional politics. But we all must vote, at every opportunity, and we must vote for Democrats. We cannot vote for Republicans. We cannot vote for a third party, or not vote at all, and expect other people to stop the Republicans for us.
As we saw during Jim Crow, an anti-democratic party will use every scrap of its power to prevent democracy from taking that power. The United States has not suddenly become the Soviet Union, nor even returned to the Jim Crow South. But we must recognize, now, that we are not living in the United States of high-school civics class. Sounding the alarm on Trumpism and the Republican Party is not old-fashioned partisanship. The Republican Party is not an acceptable democratic party, or even a democratic party at all. It is tolerating, facilitating, and even encouraging Donald Trump’s corruption, incompetence, vindictiveness, and above all his treason, and it is doing so because it does not care about these things, and does care about Donald Trump’s magical ability to deliver power to a party with an unpopular agenda, so that that power can be translated into future power as the party’s base of support gets smaller and smaller. Trumpism is not an anomalous, ephemeral accident that has victimized the Republican Party. Trumpism is an outgrowth of what the Republican Party was before Trump, and the means by which the party has extended its dominion. For the sake of liberalism and democracy, the Republican Party must be defeated now, and defeated when Trump is gone, defeated over and over until its desire for dominion is gone. That desire permeates the party, its officials and its voters, and none of them can blame that on Trump.