It is easy to forget now, and it was hard to see then that there existed a fundamental contradiction between Trump the campaigner and Trump the incumbent. It’s even more difficult to accept that though Trump won as an outsider, he was subsequently assimilated into the establishment and stripped of his anti-establishment essence—whether he realizes that is irrelevant. Trump’s policies and endorsements matter more than his rhetoric and squabbles with Republicans, who still manage to outflank and use him to advance their ends. By not creating a distinction between the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, the decidedly more establishmentarian 2020 version of Trump has come to define Trumpism with its Paul Ryan hangers-on under his nose. Indeed, Trump's candidacy and even victory in 2024 would be a boon for the enemies of his movement, as the more honest ones admit.
In 2017, New York Times columnist David Brooks noted that “Trump may not be the culmination, but merely a way station toward an even purer populism.” Whoever comes next will “add an anti-corporate, anti-tech layer,” giving teeth to Trump’s antitrust bark. Zeynep Tufekci, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, wrote in an op-ed that liberals could consider themselves fortunate “Trump is not good at his job.”
“The attempt to harness Trumpism—without Trump, but with calculated, refined, and smarter political talent—is coming,” Tufekci wrote. “And it won’t be easy to make the next Trumpist a one-term president. He will not be so clumsy or vulnerable. He will get into office less by luck than by skill.”
Others elsewhere have issued similar warnings to their hysterical peers who saw in Trump a much graver threat to the establishment than he was in practice, considering that virtually every single arm of the managerial regime is more emboldened today than ever, from the Pentagon to the FBI.
If the movement that began in 2016 wants to break the cycle of disappointment, then it should learn from Trump’s successes and failures, and find or cultivate leaders capable of realizing the fears of their enemies.
Pedro L. Gonzalez is associate editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture