Donald Trump's presidential campaign is so disruptive to our understanding of politics that even his many critics can't decide how to describe it.
The account most frequently heard is the one favored by many right-wing pundits (including the writers associated with National Review, blogger Erick Erickson, and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol): namely, that Trump is "really" a liberal. These critics are fond of circulating a couple of chummy-looking photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton at Trump's 2005 wedding to Melania Knauss, as well as quoting public statements in which Trump appears to take a more liberal position than the one we would expect from a Republican, on taxes, Planned Parenthood, and other topics.
But on each of those issues, Trump has usually taken a more staunchly conservative position at one time or another — sometimes merely a few hours or days before or after the incriminating liberal-sounding statement. And then there are those issues on which Trump stands far to the right of most mainstream Republicans: draconian immigration restrictions, forcible deportations of more than 11 million people, and a ban on Muslims entering the country.
That would make Trump a pretty unusual liberal.
Then there are the Trump critics who take the very different tack of highlighting Trump's flirtations with political violence and his most xenophobic positions — on Mexicans and Muslims — to suggest that his campaign represents the leading edge of fascism in the United States. The most recent and cogently argued case for this view was made in a recent Washington Post column by Robert Kagan, a neoconservative foreign policy analyst who switched his political allegiance to Hillary Clinton back in February.
But this view also seems a little…overstated. For one thing, fascist movements aren't usually as ideologically heterogeneous as Kagan suggests. They are unified around a collective aim or goal, and they seek to achieve that end through the complete absorption of civil society into the state — and the radical militarization of both. (Think of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta blown up into the size of a modern nation-state, with unity enforced with modern technology of surveillance.) Trump has sometimes stoked violence at his rallies and made threatening comments against journalists. Both tendencies are quite troubling. But they don't (yet) make Trump the leader of a fascist movement.
Kagan also highlights what may be the most distinctive thing about Trump — the trait that explains how critics can somewhat plausibly describe him both as a liberal and a fascist. (And no, it's not because liberalism is actually fascism, and vice versa, as at least one conservative writer apparently believes.) This trait is Trump's deliberate inconsistency, and even outright ideological incoherence.
Most discussion of Trump's myriad shifts of position see them as evidence of his ignorance about policy, or a sign (as Erickson and others on the right contend) that Trump is really a liberal who conceals his true commitments behind a facade of conservatism.
The more ominous truth may be that Trump is beyond ideology altogether.
You might not think this is such a bad thing. Ideology can distort our vision, forcing reality to conform to pre-existing assumptions and leading us to ignore evidence that might complicate our presumptions. That's true, and one reason why thinking at its highest levels always pushes beyond ideology.
But ideology also enforces discipline and rigor. It constrains thinking and action. It's a limit to freedom of movement on the part of elected officials. When people voted for Mitt Romney, they could be pretty sure that as president he wouldn't sharply raise taxes or pull the U.S. out of NATO. How did they know these things? Because Romney is a Republican, the Republican Party has (until now at least) affirmed the ideology of the conservative movement, and the conservative movement is ideologically opposed to raising taxes and ideologically committed to muscular internationalism in foreign policy.
The same held for Barack Obama back in 2008. We didn't know the details of what he would do when he became president, especially after the scope of the financial crisis became clear in the months leading up to the election. But we knew his approach would be broadly Keynesian, involving a lot of deficit spending on the part of the federal government. We knew this because, despite a campaign that relied heavily on vacuous rhetoric about "change," Obama is a Democrat, and the liberal ideological tendencies of Democrats are well known to all.
Trump appears to be different. Yes, he's running as a Republican, but he hasn't consistently endorsed any element of the ideology that has defined the party since Ronald Reagan — not in economic policy, not in social policy, not in foreign policy. But neither has he shown himself to be a liberal ideologue seeking to blow up the nominally conservative GOP from the inside.
On the contrary, Trump has shown no ideological consistency at all — not even for a new kind of ideology I sketched in a speculative recent column. That ideology would make the GOP a party of white ethnic nationalism, combining harsh anti-immigrant policies with protectionism, tax hikes on the rich, generous social programs (at least for citizens), and a radical shift toward isolationism in foreign policy. Trump sometimes sounds like he favors something like this mix of policies. And if he ran on them, won, and tried to enact them as president, he might very well succeed in catalyzing a dramatic realignment of both parties.
But there's no reason to suppose Trump will commit himself even to this alternative matrix of policies. Every time he talks about raising taxes or the minimum wage, he then backtracks to a more standard Republican line. The same goes for foreign policy, social issues, and other topics.
The only thing that's consistent about Trump is his inconsistency — a refusal to be pinned down on anything, and a propensity to state his position of the moment (whatever it is) with absolute conviction. (When he adopts a different position the next day, he invariably states that with just as much certainty and assurance.)
This tendency on policy goes along with his contempt for formal as well as informal limits and constraints more generally. We've seen this in Trump's willingness to duck out of a scheduled primary debate, his refusal to articulate and affirm core conservative principles, and his threat not to accept the rules of delegate allocation for the Republican National Convention (back when it looked like the campaign of Ted Cruz might be outmaneuvering him).
In every case, Trump's aim is to secure absolute freedom of movement for himself. Settled traditions, norms, institutions, rules — including ideological commitments — aren't for him. What he might do in office will be impossible to discern in advance.
That's not fascism. But it is a splendid precondition for authoritarian government.
In November, the Trump campaign will be asking voters to cast a ballot not for a party or a platform but for an individual who will aim to embody our nation's will and do anything necessary to advance its interests as he discerns them from day to day, maybe even from moment to moment. In this sense, it doesn't matter that Trump is running as a Republican. He could just as easily be running as a Democrat. Not because he's a liberal. But because for Trump and the kind of authoritarian-populist politics he practices, ideology is entirely beside the point.