The Next Stage of Trumpism is Here
Threatened by the law, the former president is saying the quiet part out loud.
It’s been coming for months, but Donald Trump was apparently caught unawares. Early next week, he is expected to be indicted by a New York grand jury, probably (though not certainly) for alleged hush money paid to former porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 election. Trump is expected to fly back from Florida and surrender to law enforcement on Tuesday, and the country now faces the unprecedented spectacle of a former and possibly future president defending himself in court.
The situation is made especially grave by the fact that the past year has seen an alarming radicalization in Trump’s rhetoric, quite likely in response to the various legal threats hanging over him, which also include federal and state probes examining his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. This radicalization has its roots in Trump’s first campaign against Hillary Clinton; it reached new heights immediately prior to January 6 2021; and it has ratcheted up significantly in the months leading up to the indictment. The latest line is: “We have no choice. If we don’t do this, our country will be lost forever.”
Trump’s rhetoric has evolved a lot since 2015. Descending from the golden escalator outside Trump Tower, he had a simple message: America is in trouble. This was what you might call first-wave Trumpism. In his announcement speech he railed against Chinese manufacturing, against America’s failure to combat ISIS, against Obamacare, against special interests in Washington, against border crossings from Mexico. First-wave Trumpism was an economic proposition that fed on racial anxiety, much like the Tea Party earlier in the decade. Its motto was “build the wall.” When Britain voted to leave the European Union the following year, first-wave Trumpism was interpreted as the advance guard of a global populist revolt.
If it was a revolution in governance and industrial policy Trump promised, however, it’s one he conspicuously failed to achieve in office. His pledge to bring back domestic manufacturing failed to materialize: America shed manufacturing jobs while he was in power. His “big, beautiful wall” was largely a reinforcement of pre-existing infrastructure. His foreign policy had some successes, but was in general a failure even on its own terms.
By the end of his time in office, a second wave of Trumpism had emerged, one that increasingly abandoned the language of economic resentment. An illustrative moment was Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech delivered on the Fourth of July weekend in 2020. Flanked by the graven faces of past presidents, he spoke of “a growing danger,” declaring, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” It was a pivot to culture—capitalizing, in part, on the progressive zeitgeist of 2020. But it was also a strategic shift: economic populism was not a winning strategy for the incumbent president because Trump, in theory, had his hands on the levers of economic policy and was failing to use them effectively. Newt Gingrich hailed the Mount Rushmore speech as “the most important and historic speech of [Trump’s] political career.”
Second-wave Trumpism also introduced an existential flavor to the narrative. America didn’t just need to be made “great again”; it needed to be saved from cultural forces that threatened its very existence. In time, Trump directly linked this with his own political survival. After he lost the 2020 election he gave the now infamous speech that preceded the storming of the Capitol on January 6. “If you don’t fight like hell,” he declared, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The message, in contrast to the laundry list of populist grievances from 2015, was clear: the country was staring into the abyss, and Trump, surrounded by enemies on all sides, was the one to save it.
Many people hoped January 6 was the apotheosis of Trump’s rhetoric. It was, after all, a clear endorsement of the violence that erupted that day and his supporters took their cue directly from him, even if Trump’s language remained somewhat vague and retained a wafer-thin veneer of deniability regarding incitement.
But in the first few months of 2023 the temperature has increased again. As indictments loomed, third-wave Trumpism emerged, and the incitement became more direct. “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” he wrote on Truth Social. “IT'S TIME!!!” America doesn’t just need to be saved; the crunch point is now. “This is the final battle,” Trump had earlier told the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4th. “Either they win, or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”
This is the final battle. With these remarks, Trump positioned himself as the leader not of a political movement, but of a millenarian one. True, it is an ideology that has bubbled beneath the surface of MAGA all along: Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Steve Bannon was heavily influenced by a version of Fourth Turning Theory, the idea that America is plunging towards a catastrophic social crisis that will fuel the rebirth of a new nation phoenix-like from the ashes. But it took seven years for Trump to fully embrace this mythology—and he has unsurprisingly done so at the moment when his own future is most jeopardized. As the perceived stakes mount, so does the likelihood that violent rhetoric will translate into violent action.
This is why the New York indictment could be an inflection point. Just over a week ago, when rumors first started flying that legal action was imminent, Trump took to his social media channels predicting “death and destruction” should he be arraigned. When the indictment materialized last Thursday, he reposted a blunt message from a supporter: “They Want a War? Let’s Give it to Them.”
The question is: will anyone listen? Revolutions famously devour their own children, and Trump is attempting to foment unrest from a position of political weakness. The “man the barricades” attitude has, at the time of writing, failed to translate into immediate mobilization among the grassroots, who declined to turn out on the streets at the first asking last week. Many of his supporters may be willing to switch their allegiance to a different Republican candidate rather than risk a shootout, punchup, or arrest on Trump’s behalf.
But we shouldn’t count on peace just yet. The biggest danger doesn’t come from the millions of Republican voters willing to support Trump, but from the growing subset of radicals willing to put their bullets and fists where their votes are. As political violence expert Rachel Kleinfeld puts it: “Large percentages of Americans are fantasizing about secession and cosplaying at warfare.” Many of them—militiamen, conspiracy theorists, even, to a certain extent, regular middle-class people without obvious links to extreme groups—will buy into the rhetoric of a “final battle” and may engage in isolated acts of violence and unrest over the coming months. They will be the face of Trumpism’s third wave: willing to risk it all in the final showdown they believe will make or break the republic.
Luke Hallam is a senior editor at Persuasion.
The views expressed are those of the individual writer, not necessarily those of Persuasion.
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