“Not that I condone fascism; or any –ism for that matter. –Isms, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an –ism, he should believe in himself.” This quotation, from Ferris Bueller, seems like the natural place to begin when trying to define “Trumpism.”
It is very important that we have the term “Trumpism” to distinguish Donald Trump’s views from the coalition of views that make up the Republican Party. Though it certainly didn’t emerge in a vacuum, Trumpism is different from the more familiar –isms of the American right. That is to say, it's not the same as:
So what is Trumpism? It is worth noting at the outset that Trumpism is not the product of only one mind, and that the Trump administration has a lot of different ideological voices setting the agenda. But arguably the best place to start is with the man himself, so I read Trump’s 2011 book Time to Get Tough. What follows is a summary of what I learned.
1. Let’s Get Down to Business
“Trump is going to run America like his business!” This is what Trump supporters hoped for and what Trump detractors feared. And it is precisely how Trump sees his role as president. In a typical passage, he writes, “The right president can actually make America money by brokering big deals. We don’t always think of our presidents as jobs and business negotiators, but they are. Presidents are our dealmakers in chief. But the outcome of a deal is only as effective as the person brokering it.” (4) In Trump’s mind, his experience in the business world makes him plenty qualified for the job. Given that the business of America is business, America’s leader needs to be a consummate businessman (and not, Trump reiterates, a “community organizer” like Obama).
Most of the ideas he advocates in the book are framed on this “countries-as-businesses, statecraft-as-dealmaking” metaphor. It is the cornerstone of Trumpism as a philosophy. America is the world’s most powerful corporation. Other countries are our business partners, our competitors, or our customers. The book is by far the most compelling when this analogy holds (for example, in Trump’s discussion of national debt and fiscal responsibility.) The book is at its most troubling when this analogy does not seem to hold at all.
One of the most surprising elements is the inclusion of the military as one of our business assets. When discussing oil prices, Trump writes, “A smart negotiator would use the leverage of our dollars, our laws, and our armed forces to get a better deal from OPEC.” This way of thinking is found throughout the book. Trump sees everything in terms of an economy of exchange; “tit for tat” is the logic that holds the world together. Our military strength is part of our comparative advantage. L.L. Bean sells slippers, Kraft sells noodles, America sells war.
One passage is especially revealing of Trump’s foreign policy, and worth quoting at length. Criticizing America’s military intervention in Libya, Trump writes, “Now Qaddafi is dead and gone. So what? We have spent more than $1 billion on the Libya operation. And what are we getting in return? A huge bill, that’s what. It’s incredible how foolish the Obama administration is. Libya has enormous oil reserves. When the so-called ‘rebels’ came to NATO (which is really the U.S.) and asked for help to defeat Qaddafi, we should have said, ‘Sure, we don’t like the guy either. We will help you take out Qaddafi. But in exchange, you give us 50 percent of your oil for the next twenty-five years to pay for our military support and to say thank you for the United States doing what you could never have done on your own.’ The ‘rebels’ would have jumped at the chance—they were being routed—it was over. But did we do that? No. Our leaders are too brainless to negotiate a deal like that. Imagine the amount of oil we could have secured for America. Think about how much economic relief we could have secured for our people and our businesses. A deal like that would have been easy to broker. But our diplomats are pansies. They don’t want to ‘offend’ anyone. Guess what? The American people are offended! Our policy should be: no oil, no military support. No exceptions.” (103) Trump simply assumes that self-interest is the whole point of foreign policy, and can only explain why we help others without compensation in terms of stupidity or weakness. No other motivation occurs to him.
This thoroughgoing quid-pro-quo logic is found throughout the book. It frames Trump’s views on immigration, and why he favors a merit-based vetting process centered on what a potential immigrant can offer America. “Living in America,” he writes, “is the greatest blessing a person could ever receive. If people want to live and work here, they should bring something to the table, not just be feasting on it.” (146) This sheds some light on Trump’s resistance to admitting refugees—not just that refugees might prove to be threats, but more fundamentally that they are freeloading. Similarly, Trump’s bizarre claim that Mexico will pay for the border wall finds some justification in the book. In Trump’s mind, America has been the dumping ground for Mexico’s lawbreakers. Since Americans bear the cost of capturing and imprisoning them, Mexico owes us a debt for the services we provide with our penal system. Mexico needs to pay this debt or we’ll use “our dollars, our laws, and our armed forces” to collect it. It’s just business.
2. Tough (Love?)
Trump's philosophy is a sort of realism in which toughness is the cardinal virtue. Trump wants to intimidate. Extended politically, he wants America to intimidate everyone else. His goal is hegemony more so than peace, war, or stability. By "make America great again," he has in mind the kind of Cold War America that didn't hesitate to push other countries around. If the U.S. can have that kind of authority without also having to fight Russia, that's the best case scenario for Trump. This logic frames Trump’s obsession with China. Right now, because of Obama’s “weakness” (Trump gets in a dig at Obama on seemingly every page), China is pushing America around. We need to reassert our might. Trump writes, “China is our enemy. It’s time we start acting like it… and if we do our job correctly, China will gain a whole new respect for the United States, and we can then happily travel the highway to the future with China as our friend.” (48) Trump insists that he’s not anti-Russia or anti-China, he just wants to make sure that these countries respect America.
As a real estate magnate, his business model included paying contractors less than the agreed-upon amount, and then tangling them up in litigation if they ever challenged him. His team of lawyers could make suing Trump prohibitively expensive for his business partners. Given Trumpism’s statecraft-as-business metaphor, I suspect this kind of "might makes right" strongarm tactics will frame Trump's foreign policy, and it will go under the guise of freedom—our first priority should be to secure America's freedom to do what America wants.
His ethical philosophy is, roughly, "get power so you can enjoy life." Trump thinks he can edge out, bargain with, and overpower the competition, and then once he's won he can sit in his hot tub with his Playboy Bunnies. That's what he wants America to do—get big enough, smart enough, and tough enough to have leisure. You gotta wear the power tie if you wanna wear the golf pants. In that sense, it is benevolent— Trump values "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and wants Americans to have them— but the only way to get to that point is by bloodying a few noses.
3. You’re the Boss
Given that Trump sees America as a business, we can begin to understand his hyper-sensitivity to criticism and resistance. Doubtless, part of this is simply egomania. But part of it is a concern with keeping up a unified front. Remember the quotation above, “Presidents are our dealmakers in chief. But the outcome of a deal is only as effective as the person brokering it.” (4) To be effective, Trump needs to give his “business partners” around the world the impression that he has the authority to broker big deals and follow through with them. Imagine a CEO of a major corporation trying to negotiate a merger while facing public mockery and insubordination from his employees and his board of directors. That’s how Trump sees SNL, and federal judges, and CNN, and fact-checkers, and John McCain, and the Women’s March, and... the list goes on. Trump doesn’t want to be seen as weak, not just because of his own ego, but because keeping up the appearance of toughness and popular support is vital to success as a dealmaker-in-chief. On Trump’s diagnosis, America’s chief problem is that “We’re being humiliated, disrespected, and badly abused.” (154) He can’t make America respected again at the global bargaining table if he’s being constantly disrespected by his own people.
Trump’s vision of the job of the president also helps explain his chronic lying. Again, some of it is just straightforward disregard for the truth. But a thread runs through most of Trump’s lies since the election: his administration lies to preserve the image of a mandate, of widespread support. That’s why Trump keeps bringing up the election results, why he lied about his margin of victory, why he makes unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud, why he lied about the crowd at the inauguration, why he discredits media polls, and so on. He wants to be seen as having the kind of authority needed to back up the deals he makes with other nations. Hence the contradictions that baffle his critics: he’s sensitive for the sake of seeming tough; he lies for the sake of seeming credible.
These three elements are necessary but hardly sufficient for understanding the metaphors, ethics, and rationale that constitute Trumpism. We will continue to see Trumpism emerge (and evolve?) over the rest of Trump’s term. In the meantime, it’s worth keeping in mind that Trumpism does not represent conservatism as a whole. Conservatives need to evaluate their relation to Trumpism rather than being unwittingly lulled into it, and liberals need to be open to allying with principled conservatives in opposition to it. It’s also worth remembering that Trumpism is a comprehensive political vision. Despite his rhetorical persona, Trump is not just “winging it.” He’s done his research and he’s got a plan. If it’s madness, there’s nevertheless a method to it—and we cannot be so fixated on the latest tweet that we miss the –ism that inspired it.
Returning to Ferris Bueller, the verdict is still out on whether Trump condones fascism. But does he believe in an –ism, or does he believe in himself? The answer, I’ve learned, is complicated. It’s “Trumpism” not simply because it’s what Trump believes, but because it calls for someone like Trump to be in power. Trump has diagnosed the problem with America in such a way that he is the solution. I worry people have been so fixated on debating whether or not he is the solution that we have not paid sufficient attention to the diagnosis. Investigating Trumpism provides an opportunity for Americans to deliberate not just about who we want to be president, but how we envision the job of the president.
 Time to Get Tough, though ostensibly a book about politics, has a thirty-one-page “Afterword” in which Trump talks about how foolish his critics are, how high The Apprentice’s ratings are, how wealthy he is (with official forms to prove it!), how great his vineyard is, how he’s responsible for launching Lady Gaga’s career, and so on.