Will Trumpism doom us all?

Trump is our present. But Trumpism is our future.

President Trump.
(Image credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Trumpism is new, and it is awful. But the style of politics that delivered President Trump to power is something the world has seen before. And it is unlikely to disappear when he's gone.

That can be difficult to recognize and accept. Because the lies, corruption, graft, racism, xenophobia, hucksterism, and demagoguery of President Trump and leading members of his administration are so brazen and diverge so sharply from the political norms of the recent American past, it's easy to lapse into misplaced hope that the pathologies swirling around us will dissipate as soon as the man leaves office.

But that is naïve. Whether Trump departs by way of impeachment (don't bet on it), after an electoral loss in November 2020, or on January 20, 2025, after finishing out two full terms, our political reality is unlikely to return to anything like what it was before he rose to office in the first place.

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That's because, while Trump is a hugely significant catalyst of the political transformations going on around us, he is also a symptom of deeper changes in our political culture, which he's merely exploiting to further his own ambitions.

These deeper changes have many mutually reinforcing facets.

There's the spread of skepticism, rooted in radical egalitarianism, about the capacity of any authority to judge fairly among competing truth claims. There's the technological amplification of extreme views, which allows those on the ideological margins (and other bad actors) to spread and organize with unprecedented potency in virtual space. There's the thoroughgoing transformation of our public life into a forum for mass entertainment aimed at the lowest common denominator. There's ideological polarization combined with a regional (urban-rural) split along both cultural and political lines, which is exacerbated by our country's multiple counter-majoritarian institutions. And there's the willingness of cynical, power-hungry political functionaries to traffic in outright lies and distortions in order to win and hold office.

All of these tendencies contribute to our political woes. Donald Trump makes all of them worse. But the dynamics go beyond the president and his administration. They're unfolding according to their own logic — a logic that will remain at work even after the current occupant of the White House is gone.

That logic is producing a form of politics that can best be described by borrowing a line from conservative philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: Politics has become a "civil war carried on by other means." As in a civil war, political conflict now takes the form of a battle to the figurative death. Justice has been reduced to the friend/enemy distinction: Whatever damage is done to the other side in the name of progress for my own mission is acceptable, even laudable.

In such a world, all political disagreement begins to look like zero-sum conflict in which mutually beneficial outcomes are impossible. Each party is either a winner or a loser, and compromise is impossible. The very notion of a politics of principle vanishes, with all appeals to higher loyalties increasingly dismissed as a cover for lower, more self-interested motives. All that matters is victory for one's own side or faction.

This is a politics conducted without any notion of a common good. The interests of the whole political community no longer transcend the competing, perpetually clashing, and conflicted parts.

This is our reality, and it's bad. But it isn't new.

It goes all the way back, in fact, to the ancient world, when the first political philosophers recognized the distinctive advantages and dangers of republican self-government. At its best, republicanism can serve as an incubator for human excellence. When the political order cultivates public spiritedness and virtue, citizens flourish by fulfilling their political natures, thriving to a greater degree than they do under most other forms of government.

But at its worst — especially when the community is too large, when the inculcation of civic virtue is neglected, or when moral degradation takes root and proliferates — republicanism can be unstable, volatile, corrupted, and corrupting of everyone in public life, driving the few good souls who remain to withdraw into the relative insulation of private life, leaving the political sphere to the worst elements in the community.

That's when things really turn ugly, with politics reduced to squabbling factions, backstabbing, and clan warfare conducted through cutthroat competition, intrigue, and the ruthless lust for power. (The mafia reproduces these dynamics in microcosm.)

The possibility (and even likelihood) of republican government declining over time into such a morass is one reason why so many political philosophers prior to the modern era were reluctant to advocate it. Benjamin Franklin spoke from that wisdom when he responded to an inquiry about what form of government the constitutional convention had chosen by declaring portentously, "A republic, if you can keep it."

We are on the cusp of fulfilling the predictions of the skeptics who would have scoffed at the possibility of a continent-wide commercial republic perpetuating itself over the long term. They would be astonished that we managed to keep it this long. We more than beat the odds. But luck always runs out, eventually.

Trump is our present. But Trumpism is our future.

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