For most of the last 18 months, Donald Trump has been portrayed as a clown, a showman, an opportunist, a faux conservative, a political naïf, and an egomaniac bent on nothing but power and glory—but rarely as a man with an intelligible ideology. Yet if Trump’s ideas can’t quite be said to cohere into a unified worldview, and if his legion flip-flops deny him any claim to philosophical consistency, many of his signature promises and policies do add up to a set of ideas—populist, nationalist, authoritarian—with deep roots in American history. After a year and a half of dwelling on Trump the personality, it may be time to turn our attention to Trumpism.
To the extent that analysts have discerned any new philosophy behind Trump’s rise, they have focused on the vicious, bigoted internet stylings of the so-called alt-right. But the unabashed white nationalism, anti-Semitism and misogyny of that hitherto underground movement constitute only one strain of Trumpism. The larger ideology that the president-elect represents is a post-Iraq War, post-crash, post-Barack Obama update of what used to be called paleoconservatism: On race and immigration, where the alt-right affinities are most pronounced, its populist ideas are carrying an already right-wing party even further right. On a few economic issues, such as infrastructure and entitlement spending, they could direct the party toward the political center. On trade and foreign policy, they threaten to demolish the internationalism that has governed the GOP since Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. In each of these ways, Trumpism represents a significant break with the conservatism that has dominated the Republican Party for decades.
Where did these currents come from? Today’s populist right has its clearest origins in an early 20th-century backlash against a society that was becoming centralized, urban, cosmopolitan and interconnected with the world at large—tendencies that are still upsetting white rural America today. Just as Trump was boosted over the wall of 270 electoral votes by white Midwesterners, some of whom had previously voted Democratic, so it was formerly progressive elements from the country’s midsection that fueled the rise of a right-wing populism after World War I. That movement was never strong enough to win the White House, and it was largely discredited and marginalized by World War II. But in today’s post-Great Recession globalized world many of its ideas are suddenly reemerging with a vengeance. And now, for the first time in history we have a president, commanding all the powers of the Executive Branch, who espouses its ideas. That could mean a rollback of the core tenets of post-New Deal, post-World War II America, including the commitment to civil rights, civil liberties, and pluralism at home and to liberal internationalism abroad.
The conservative populism from which Trumpism derives began as a mutation of the progressivism of the early 20th century. Progressivism is the name we give to the bipartisan reform movement in the century’s first decades that called for an activist president and a strong federal government to address urgent new social and economic problems brought on by the industrial revolution. Led first by Republican Theodore Roosevelt and then by Democrat Woodrow Wilson, progressivism sought to tame corporate power, protect workers, assimilate immigrants, provide new social services, expand democracy and, on the global stage, bring order to a fractious world. Both the idea of a strong federal government and the specific goals that progressives cherished would also undergird Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and, in time, postwar liberalism more generally.
But as the nation journeyed from progressivism to New Deal liberalism, not everyone came along for the ride. After World War I, many Midwestern and western progressives of a populist bent swung hard to the right, retaining in some cases their economic egalitarianism but also taking up reactionary stands on cultural and foreign-policy issues. “Somewhere along the way,” as Richard Hofstadter wrote in his classic work The Age of Reform, “a large part of the Progressive-Populist tradition has turned sour, become illiberal and ill-tempered.”
The reasons for this swing are complicated, but they can be summarized as a form of backlash. The 1920s, though remembered as a raucous time of cultural innovation and modernization, also witnesses profound social change. Fueled by decades of immigration, America’s urban population finally overtook its rural population in size. “The New Woman” and the “New Negro” demanded equality in gender and race. But conservative forces, especially in the rural Heartland, regarded the changing complexion of America with suspicion and considered the looser morality of the cosmopolitanism cities a threat to their old-fashioned Protestantism. Reactionary movements arose. The Ku Klux Klan went mainstream and marched through Washington D.C. Fundamentalist Christians banned the teaching of Darwin. Prohibition became the law of the land. Midwestern and western progressives, previously allied with liberal goals, could now often be found fighting the liberal tides—championing, for example, the 1924 Immigration Act that all but sealed America’s borders. Economic conservatives who favored the Republican Party’s pro-business policies joined with these cultural conservatives to make the GOP the dominant party of the 1920s, through the elections of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
In foreign policy, too, nationalistic populism gripped many onetime progressives, both Democratic and Republican. After World War I, Western and Midwestern progressive senators such as William Borah, Hiram Johnson, George Norris and Robert La Follette, who were less attuned than Eastern progressives to the importance of remaining involved in Europe’s affairs, had killed Wilson’s plan for the United States to lead a League of Nations, rooting their opposition in the fear of a loss of American sovereignty. Some progressive intellectuals, such as the historian Charles Beard and the sociologist Harry Elmer Barnes, promoted conspiracy theories blaming America’s involvement in the war on bankers or the arms industry. (Barnes eventually became one of the earliest and most influential Holocaust deniers.) In 1934 Senator Gerald Nye chaired a committee that, by investigating these dubious claims, fanned popular fears.
Former progressives also fought against easing the neutrality laws that kept Franklin Roosevelt from doing more to fight fascism. Historians today tend to avoid the word isolationist, because, as its critics note, many of those who opposed the liberal internationalism of Wilson and FDR didn’t want to extract the U.S. altogether from global affairs. Still, in the absence of a pithy alternative phrase, popular habit still relies on this useful shorthand term—and there were, after all, antiwar leaders who believed America could and should steer clear of Europe’s strife, and some of them either supported Hitler or espoused anti-Semitism. (Since the original Populists of the late 19th century, those movements have been suspicious of banks, internationalism, and concentrated power and have frequently scapegoated Jews as well. Donald Trump’s anti-Semitic campaign ad featuring George Soros and Janet Yellen has roots in 19th century populist iconography.)
This populist right was a powerful force in the 1920s and 1930s. But the success of the New Deal and the Allied victory in World War II together dealt the movement a near-death blow. The open anti-Semitism that had flourished in the Depression, stoked by demagogues like the radio priest Charles Coughlin (an exemplar of this philosophy), was thoroughly discredited, giving way to a common view of the United States as home to “Protestant, Catholic, Jew.” Civil rights for black Americans moved to the center of the liberal agenda. The election in 1952 of America’s first Republican president in a quarter-century, Dwight Eisenhower, confirmed the rout of the populist right, as Ike vowed to beat back isolationism in his own party and espoused a “modern Republicanism” that acquiesced in the permanence of the New Deal order, including liberal welfare-state programs like Social Security.
Amid this new liberal order, activists and intellectuals on the right reconstituted themselves to try to reclaim the GOP from moderates like Eisenhower. William F. Buckley’s National Review emerged in the 1950s as the intellectual organ for what would soon be called the New Right. (The older populist-nationalist conservatism now came to be called the Old Right, or, later, “paleoconservatism.”) The New Right restored the 1920s alliance between religious traditionalists, who bemoaned the erosion of old values by the acids of modernity, and free-marketeers, who attacked high taxes, government spending and regulation as the weapons of a bureaucratic leviathan. Conveniently cementing the alliance now, too, was a militant Cold War anti-Communism—Communism was, after all, was both anti-market and anti-God. (Buckley himself, in the words of George Nash, the foremost intellectual historian of postwar conservatism, “was at once a traditional Christian, a defender of free-market economics, and a fervent anti-Communist.”) Anti-Communism also won over some old isolationists, who deemed the Soviet Union a grave enough threat to suspend their qualms about getting involved in foreign conflicts or agreements.
Within the new conservative coalition, paleoconservative voices remained. But Buckley and other political and opinion leaders policed the boundaries of their budding movement. While we think of National Review as a staunchly right-wing magazine because it assailed Eisenhower and the era’s moderate Republican leadership, it also pointedly contrasted itself with far-right rival publications such as The American Mercury and The Freeman. Buckley famously excommunicated extremists like the leaders of the John Birch Society, a radical populist-national group of the late 1950s and early ’60s that imagined Communist conspiracies everywhere (they thought Eisenhower was one) and warned against world government. He and other conservative intellectuals also warred with libertarians like Ayn Rand, whose atheistic “objectivism” had no place in his campaign against “secular humanism.” After the civil rights revolution, finally, conservatives began to reject explicit racism, too, continuing to oppose most civil-rights legislation yet accepting (or paying lip service to) the underlying liberal premise of civil rights for all.
The new conservative coalition came to power with Richard Nixon’s election to the White House in 1968. Though true-blue conservatives always eyed the opportunistic Nixon warily, his divisive cultural populism was clear a far cry from Ike’s modern Republicanism. On drugs, crime, religion, abortion, sex, child-rearing, gay rights, patriotism and dozens of other cultural issues, Nixon and the GOP politicians who followed his lead assailed the liberal “cultural elite”—Hollywood, academia, the media, the courts—for corroding traditional American values. With Ronald Reagan in 1980, they found a populist key for expressing their anti-government ideology, arguing that Washington was incapable of responsibly spending taxpayers’ money.
But if conservative populism thrived in the late-20th century debates over social and cultural issues, in other realms it was a dead letter. On foreign policy, Republicans might quarrel over how to deal with the Soviet Union (Nixon’s pursuit of détente vs. Reagan’s renewed militarism), but few prominent leaders or intellectuals counseled neo-isolationism. Meanwhile, the conservative movement’s free-market philosophy consigned protectionist views to the sidelines in debates about trade and rendered criticisms of finance and business almost unheard of within their ranks.
Still, paleoconservative voices occasionally arose. Pat Buchanan—the most prominent apostle of Old Right ideas in the 1980s and 1990s—held influential positions in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, bestrode the TV gab shows as a ubiquitous pundit, and ran for president in 1992 on an “America First” slogan that echoed the 1940s isolationists (and previewed Trump). Phyllis Schlafly, best known for her role in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, also opposed the Vietnam War, Bill Clinton’s humanitarian intervention in Bosnia, and most international agreements since. Other fringier paleocon writers such as Joseph Sobran, a Holocaust denier, and Taki Theodoracopulos, whose anti-Semitic and racist views were presented under the thinnest of veneers, were largely ignored by policymakers and by the mainstream media but commanded significant followings on the hard right.
In retrospect, the first stirrings of a paleoconservatism comeback can be seen in the 1990s. With the fall of the Soviet Union after 1989, anti-Communism receded as a unifying principle, and paleoconservatives revived the case for isolationism. When Democrats held the White House, they rallied Republicans in Congress to oppose interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the exploding number of undocumented immigrants made border control a leading paleoconservative cause, as it had been in the 1920s, and the international trade pacts backed by both parties fueled the a new zeal for protectionism.
But paleoconservatism struggled to gain adherents, owing to the prosperity of the 1990s and the nation’s growing toleration on social issues; paleoconservatism had always been associated with the neo-Confederate, white supremacist and ideologically anti-Semitic causes that respectable conservative leaders took pains to shun. In the 1990s and 2000s, the appearance of this sort of rank bigotry provoked controversy when it surfaced in magazines like National Review, and Buckley and his successors felt compelled to banish the worst offenders. (The more moderate Weekly Standard—which surpassed National Review, at least for a while, as the preeminent conservative magazine—had never attracted many paleocons to its pages.) In 1993, Buckley fired Joseph Sobran for anti-Semitic writings. In 2001, the magazine’s young new editor, Rich Lowry, fired Ann Coulter, for writing, after 9/11, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” In 2012, Lowry fired another paleocon, John Derbyshire, for racist writings that appeared in Theodoracopulos’s webzine, Taki’s Magazine—which, not coincidentally, is now one of the favorite outlets of the alt-right. Even Pat Buchanan, for decades one of the most popular conservative pundits on TV and in print, fell into disrepute after publishing a book in 2008 arguing that going to war against Hitler was a mistake.
Just when the Old Right seemed on the verge of extinction, the world changed. First, George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq undermined conservative support for the hawkish foreign policy that had been Republican orthodoxy since Reagan. Second, the 2008 crash and the sluggish recovery that followed undercut the enthusiasm—among voters, if not elected officials—for the free trade pacts that market conservatives promoted. (The refusal of the increasingly paleocon House Republican caucus to pass Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program in late 2008 was, in retrospect, a harbinger of the fissures that erupted in 2016.) Third, the prospect that whites would soon constitute a minority in an increasingly multiracial, polyglot society inspired a new racial consciousness among whites—as did the election of America’s first black president, who was swiftly branded as un-American by the populist right.
For much of the Republican base these multiple shocks discredited the conservative political and intellectual leadership that had failed to deliver on promises to contain immigration, produce prosperity and make America safer. Increasingly unwelcome even in a thoroughly right-wing magazine like National Review (which devoted a whole issue during the primaries to denouncing Trump as a sham conservative), paleocons found new vehicles for their nationalist-populist ideas in The American Conservative, founded by Buchanan and Theodoracopulos in 2002, Breitbart, which evolved from a right-wing curation site into an ideological organ, and VADRE, a webzine founded by the anti-immigration advocate (and immigrant) Peter Brimelow. The resulting cluster of voices, which includes but isn’t limited to the “Alt-Right,” represented a new generation of paleocon thought that stressed its differences with the establishment right on trade, foreign policy, immigration and race.
Until Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, these profound divisions on the right drew little analysis. Even in the last year’s coverage, Trump’s insurgency was mostly portrayed as the challenge of an outsider to the establishment—an accurate but incomplete picture. The hidden history of Trumpism suggests that the president-elect may be not simply an opportunistic showman but the leader of an at least semi-coherent ideology—a new iteration of the populist and nationalist paleoconservatism that has long lurked in the shadows of American politics. Now, for the first time since the isolationist 1930s, this ideology commands real influence, and for the first time in our history, it will enjoy favor from a sitting president. The prospects could not be more ominous.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine.