Does Trump support transfer?
This has been an open question since 2015. President Trump obviously inspires, uh, enthusiasm with a fervency not seen for other Republican presidents of recent history (and it's those supporters I have in mind here: the sort who would themselves storm or approve of others storming the United States Capitol Building, not the more transactional voters of 2016). He's also 74 and possessed of a limited political lifespan, even if we accept all his fantastical claims of perfect health.
Trump may be on the ballot again in 2024, though that is more difficult to imagine after the "failed insurrection" in his name in Washington on Wednesday; he will not be there in 2044. So when Trump finally leaves politics, whatever the circumstances, will he be able to pass his movement to an heir?
Like many, I've speculated on the possibilities. Perhaps one of Trump's children, most likely Donald Jr., will inherit the base along with a tower or two. Or maybe some other politico angling to be an ideological heir, like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), will successfully claim the crown. But watching the pro-Trump protests in Washington this week as the Senate gathered for the final formality of President-elect Joe Biden's victory, I grew increasingly skeptical that a transfer is possible — that is, I'm increasingly convinced this whole phenomenon is tied to Trump himself by a knot that can't be undone.
Consider the aesthetics of the thing. As political scientist Richard Hanania observed before Wednesday's demonstration turned violent, the overwhelming theme of his faction's attire is simply "Trump."
How demonstrators present themselves is part of the demonstration — think of the colonial attire of the Tea Partiers, which Hanania mentions, or the pink hats of the Women's March of 2017. These choices have symbolic weight, communicating embrace or rejection of traditions, ideological underpinnings, policy goals, and conceptions of the good. And by that measure, the gist of the Trump protesters' communication is: We want Trump.
Even many apparent deviations from this pattern are less of a departure than they may superficially seem. QAnon costumes are about Trump, of course, as is the meme stuff and the tactical gear used for storming the Capitol in Trump's name.
There's a lot of generic patriotism imagery — stars and stripes, in every possible configuration and on every conceivable garment.
But this, too, is about Trump, for in this universe, loyalty to Trump is loyalty to America, and opposition to Trump is treason. Trump isn't the first to attempt to conflate identification with his side with American patriotism — "patriotic correctness" is a pre-existing problem — but he has been unusually effective in the task. And so there's talk of freedom and tyranny, cheating and fairness, law and order, yes, but the Trumpist diehard's concrete ask is not American values of freedom and fairness. It's certainly not rule of law. It's President Trump.
And that distinction takes us beyond the aesthetics. Consider this encounter between a Trump supporter and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has refused to coddle his own party's delusions about Trump's election performance.
Here's the key exchange:
Trump supporter: "Why aren't you supporting President Trump?"
Romney: "I do support the things President Trump does — every day — that I agree with."
Trump supporter: "You're not supporting him."
Romney: "I'm sorry, I do agree with many things he is for, and I support those things."
Romney is telling the truth. Eight in 10 votes he casts are in agreement with Trump. This is a lower proportion than the average Republican senator, but it's higher than, for example, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who rallies and golfs with Trump but voted in alignment with him less than two thirds of the time in the congressional session that just ended.
All that is irrelevant to the Trump supporter behind the camera. She does not care whether Romney helps Trump advance his stated policy agenda. She cares about Trump himself — and so does the rest of his base, which is why Romney has half a plane screaming charges of treason at him and Paul does not.
This makes sense if you assume, as Jane Coaston wrote at National Review in 2017, that there is no such thing as "Trumpism," only Trump. I've more recently and narrowly argued this about Trump's foreign policy, but Coaston made an early, broad case against there being an "overarching theory behind his candidacy." "There is no wizard behind the curtain of Trumpism, and no governing ideology," she contended. "Just Donald Trump," reacting to what he sees on television, telling people what he thinks they want to hear, lying and grifting and getting high on his own supply.
That doesn't strike me as a heritable thing. A movement with a philosophical basis — however flimsy or false it may be — can transfer from one leader to the next. But if there is no -ism, Trumpism can't live without Trump.