Trump’s Ghost Will Haunt America

Disastrous leaders from Mao to Chávez created enduring movements. Trumpism will show Americans how hard it is to escape a political phantom.

What do Leninism, Maoism, Peronism, Gaullism, Castroism and Chavism have in common? They’re political movements that long outlasted their charismatic founders. Some, like Leninism, went global. Some, like Cuba’s Castroism, were mostly regional. Others, like Gaullism in France and Peronism in Argentina, are purely national.

Donald J. Trump will be the first American leader who can boast of having an influential political movement named after him. Trumpism—his brand of nostalgic nationalism, autocratic bullying and egotistical manipulation—resembles other movements named after their leaders. Like those, it will have a long shelf-life.

The men who founded these movements have plenty in common. Each discovered an untapped political market. Each reached into reserves of public rage that more conventional leaders had not registered—or preferred to ignore. Each connected powerfully with people’s intimate sense of identity, and converted these feelings into engines for political engagement. Each ignited devotion in their followers, a devotion so ardent that it outlived them. And each remade their country’s politics for a generation or more.

The movements they founded share important traits: an eagerness to transgress political norms, unbridled opportunism, a marked authoritarian streak, anti-intellectualism, nationalism, a hostility toward rules and institutions that check executive power, and a fierce enmity against rivals, who are not treated as compatriots but as enemies who pose an existential threat.

These movements’ ideologies have proven peculiarly malleable. “Maoism” has been applied to everything from the original vintage of totalitarian communism to today’s state-led Chinese hypercapitalism. Gaullism was applied to the prickly nationalism of General Charles de Gaulle himself and to the technocratic centrism of Jacques Chirac. Argentina’s Peronism has become famous for its plasticity, attached variously to the soft-touch fascism of Juan Domingo Perón, to the neoliberal reforms of Carlos Menem, and to the leftist populism of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner. While Venezuela’s Chavism converted the once-rich nation into one of the world’s poorest, polls show that almost half of the population still supports Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013.    

Today, Trumpism seems poised to join this list, regardless of what happens to Trump personally. Why? Because his politics of grievance, rage, race and revenge worked, winning a presidential term, vast power and fanatical support. Also, Trumpism is not rigidly beholden to any specific ideology. All this will stimulate new political leaders to run on platforms that could, once again, lure the voters whom Trump activated.

Trump himself may still run for the presidency in 2024. But his ideological incoherence will prove an advantage to politicians who aspire to succeed him at the helm of Trumpism. Like Perón, whose ideology was a mishmash of left and right, Trump has advocated so many positions, including contradictory ones, that a successor could sell any number of policies in his name.

It is possible that, in coming decades, center-right politicians in the United States will honor Trump’s name while not really championing his disastrous ideas, much as Democrats kept attending “Jefferson-Jackson” dinners long after the party had abandoned Jacksonian nativist populism. But that will take decades, and in the nearer term much worse could be in store.

Commentators have often noted that America’s next authoritarian populist could be a defter tactician than Trump, who made one unforced error after another in his efforts to retain power. In the hands of a smart, disciplined, media-savvy demagogue, Trumpism could return, and pose an existential threat to the Constitution.

Much depends on how Republican elites respond. For four long years, they’ve been riding the Trumpian tiger. The ride provided huge rewards—three conservatives appointed to the Supreme Court! Enormous tax cuts! But their enjoyment has been tempered by the panicked realization that, when they do dismount, the tiger will try to eat them. The post-election period has shown that the Republican Party lacks the roadmap to extricate itself from this position—and with protesters at Stop The Steal rallies now chanting “Destroy the GOP! Destroy the GOP!”, it’s little wonder they are scared to try.

Just as Maoism did during China’s Cultural Revolution—empowering young zealots to humiliate old Communist Party stalwarts, and strip them of power—Trumpism could destroy the party that brought it power. Or, as Maoism did starting in 1979—when Deng Xiaoping honored Mao’s name, while dismantling his legacy and introducing market-oriented reforms—Trumpism could end up saving the GOP. It’s even possible that, as in China, it will end up first destroying, then rescuing, the party. Alternatively, it could divide Republicans, and draw Trumpists into a new political machine. 

To Americans, this will doubtlessly feel new. But it’s not. What we know is that when an -ism attaches itself to a family name, disaster often follows—and that disaster never seems to blunt the -ism’s appeal. Perón devastated Argentina’s economy, turning a country whose prosperity once rivaled western Europe into a political and economic basket case. Mao, Castro and Chávez left broken countries in their wake. Yet calamity never buried their -isms. Any hope that the damage Trump has done to America will help bury Trumpism is probably misplaced.

Trumpism will be around much longer than Donald Trump.

Moisés Naím, a member of the Persuasion advisory board, is an internationally syndicated columnist, distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be.