In Search of Trump’s Ideology

Photo by Guido van Nispen | CC BY 2.0

Is Donald Trump a rightwing ideologue – perhaps a libertarian like Ted Cruz or a “nationalist” (as per the current euphemism) like his former “brain” (the best he ever had) and BFF Steve Bannon?   It might seem that he is one or the other or (somehow) both, given what he has been up to in recent years.

But this is a trick question.  Trump is not a rightwing ideologue because he is not an ideologue at all.  The very idea gives him too much credit.

Indeed, Trump has no settled political convictions.  How could he?  If his tweets are any indication, he cannot even hold a thought for more than a day or two.  He just goes with whatever is on his mind.

But because his is a one-track mind, it can seem that there is some consistency underlying “the blooming buzzing confusion,” as the philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) described the human baby’s first encounter with the external world.

The track his mind is on is all about him, his glory and his money.  The two could not be more intimately connected; Trump’s glory is his wealth – conspicuously displayed.

Trump is no ideologue, but he does have it in him to pretend to be one when it serves his purpose.

His purpose is always and only to close a sale.  Trump paid dearly for a capable, and now repentant, ghost writer, Tony Schwartz, to write The Art of the Deal, but, in truth, Trump is just a huckster working a crowd.  If that means promoting positions pleasing to Cruz and his co-thinkers or to Bannon and others of his ilk, then that is what he will do.

Many of the marks he got to vote for him in 2016 have caught on by now.  But the ones that remain, the ones he can still bamboozle, insist on him adopting, or seeming to adopt, positions they favor.  Therefore, he does.  Expediency is all.

Some of them mean well but are willfully blind; they know not what they do.  Some are mean-spirited; some are outright vile.

It should surprise no one that that many evangelicals side with the vilest among them.  Evangelicals are predisposed to believe nonsense, and Trump brings out the hatred they lodge within.

In different circumstances, Trump and his base would have little in common.  If the Donald thought that he could glorify himself better and enrich himself more by striking a liberal pose, he would.

This was what he did in the seventies and eighties when his fortunes depended on the good offices of New York Democrats, and their counterparts in New Jersey, Florida, and elsewhere.  All that has changed since then are his circumstances and his needs.

That change was, in large part, his own doing.  As his ambitions took a national turn, Trump realized that he could no longer rely on the political juice he inherited from his father.  He also realized that likely Democratic voters would be harder to bamboozle than their Republican counterparts.   Republican voters are dumber, and more inclined to fall for a candidate who can spew out a believable racist, nativist, and phony “populist” line.

Trump didn’t have to work hard to assume that coloration; it came naturally to him.  Ignoble baseness is a Trump family tradition – his grandfather, his father, and now his children, fruit of the poison tree, demonstrate this beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ten years ago, people desperate for “hope” and “change” put their faith in Barack Obama.  He was the political equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot, a candidate upon whom they could project their dreams.   For many of his supporters, the delusion persisted long after it became clear that little, if any, hope or change would be forthcoming from his quarter.

When, to the dismay of voters enthused by the Sanders insurgency, the Clintons and their cronies called in their chips in 2016, more than a few erstwhile Obama supporters, fed up with the same old same old, felt desperate enough even to vote for a billionaire buffoon.

They deserve disapprobation for that, but there were mitigating circumstances.  Obama had made taking the high road seem foolish; and, in 2016, the Democrats were fielding someone less appealing, thoughtful, and capable than he.

Neoliberal and liberal imperialist Clintonites had been running the Democratic Party for nearly three decades by the time the election came around.  More and more people were coming to realize that Hillary and Bill had a lot to answer for; and there was the stink of corruption surrounding them both.  Trump and the rightwing media promoting him made sure that Hillary’s “crookedness,” real or imagined, was never far from anybody’s mind.   In the circumstances, the low road had a certain appeal.

Meanwhile, Trump had become a Rorschach inkblot too – for reactionaries of various stripes, for working-class Obama supporters desperate enough to try anything, and for people in the demographic to which inane sloganeering about America’s lost greatness appealed.

Fox News and other rightwing media had done such a good job dumbing people like that down that Trump didn’t have to do much to sell them his line.

Middle aged and elderly white men, nostalgic for a time when people of color knew their place and when Eisenhower era notions of chastity, modesty and decorum prevailed were especially susceptible.  So were the women who stand by them.  Could they really be that dense?

The consensus within the commentariat is that a “civil war” is brewing inside the GOP.  If and when it comes to pass, and if the more fascist-like and less country-clubish “alt-right” faction comes out on top – in other words, if the likes of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller win out over the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan  – Trump will become even more alt-right than he already is, even if he now says that Bannon is “out of his mind.”   On the other hand, if establishment Republicans prevail, they will be the ones in the Donald’s good graces.

Either way, Trump could care less – unless, of course, his grudges get the better of him.  Unless there is some percentage in it, that is not likely.  It is more likely than not, if Bannon wins over the hearts and minds of Trump diehards, that he would be welcomed back into the fold.

The reason why is simple: what matters to Trump is Trump; end of story.

There has been enough solid reporting  by now about that pathetic excuse of a man to warrant the conclusion that while fixed convictions lie beyond his ken, social pathologies do not.  They are what account for the semblance of ideological consistency he exhibits. These would include his vaunting egotism and a lack of self-control manifested not so much in his personal deportment as in his passions and disdains.

The consensus view nowadays among responsible commentators is that clinical diagnoses are best left to trained clinicians who have examined the patient.  This is sound advice.  Nevertheless, it would be fair even for lay observers to conclude that there is no one in public life, including Kim Jong-un, less psychologically fit to command a nuclear arsenal.

And that is only the most obvious way that Trump’s unfitness for the office he holds is manifest.  There is not world enough and time to list all the others.


Trump’s governing style is disconcerting too – especially his insistence on complete and total loyalty.

Forget the blather about the “team of rivals” that pundits and pop historians talked up when Obama formed his cabinet nine years ago.  Trump has no time for that.

In line with the ideological coloration he now finds opportune, his team is comprised, in part, of enemies of the agencies and departments they lead.  The rest are Trump’s partners in crime.

Contrary to a widespread view, none of them are there to implement a Trump agenda.  Having no ideology and no settled convictions, Trump has no agenda.  Many of the miscreants who report to him do, however; and they are hell-bent on implementing as much of their own as they can while they can.

Trump does not quite demand subordination from his subordinates.  In view of his indifference to policy matters, what would be the point of that?  What he demands is deference.

Some of the people that the Trump administration has empowered are as rich or richer than he.  Trump would never think of bossing people like that around; he respects their money too much.  But he would think – obsessively – about getting them to show him signs of respect.  He lives for that, after all.

Therefore, if some cabinet secretary cares deeply, say, about driving a nail into the coffin of public education, Trump is happy to let her have at it.  It is a win-win situation.

Betsy DeVos gets the power to do what she wants to public schools, and he gets credit for having done the kind of grievous harm that will put him in good stead with both “the donor class,” as it is called nowadays, and with the Trump base.  As for public education itself, Trump doesn’t care any more than any other hyper-rich arriviste who would never dream of sending his own children to anything but a prestigious private school.

Therefore all DeVos need do is be obsequious on those occasions when her boss demands it of her.

No doubt, she holds Trump in contempt in much the way that more sensible and decent people do.  Indeed, if “leaked” reports on Michael Wolff’s reporting in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House are correct, nearly everyone in Trump’s inner circle feels that way.  But she and other high-level appointees are clever enough to pretend otherwise.  No doubt, they figure that for the keys to the Magic Kingdom, this is a small price to pay.

Loyalty, embellished by obsequiousness, was the cement that held feudal societies together.  It is much the same with hierarchically structured organizations in the modern world that operate outside the law – organized crime is an example.

This is one reason why Trump;s governing style seems so out of joint; the government generally and therefore the executive branch he heads is supposed to protect and defend a system of “equal justice under law.”  It is supposed to substitute “the rule of law” for “the rule of men” (sic).  Trump seems unwilling or unable to understand that.

The generals Trump has empowered aren’t a whole lot more up to the tasks assigned them than Trump’s cabinet secretaries and agency heads are.  But, to their credit, they seem less venal – the currently deposed and indicted Michael Flynn is an exception — and less intent on pursuing their own nefarious agendas.  Best of all, unlike the Commander-in-Chief, they are not always on the verge of slipping off the deep end.

Moreover, Trump respects them – enough to let them call the shots behind the scenes.  No doubt, were they to cross him, they would soon find themselves out on the street, alongside Steve Bannon. But at least Trump doesn’t demand abject obeisance from them, the way he does from his other official underlings.

Again, the temptation to play armchair psychologist is hard to resist.

In that spirit, I would venture that like many troubled boys from well-to-do families back in the day, little Donald was sent off to military school to deal with behavioral issues that his parents couldn’t handle.  Then, as everybody knows, while the Vietnam War raged on, bone spurs – and political influence – got Trump out of having actually to join up.   But perhaps, along with so much else that he never outgrew, dreams of military glory survive in some dark corner of his mind.

Whatever the reason, we can only be grateful that his generals have his ear. John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, and James “Mad Dog” Mattis are hardly paragons.  Better them, though, than anyone else in Trump’s administration or Trump himself.  At least, they are somewhat knowledgeable and sane, and more interested in the public good, as they understand it, than in feathering their own nests.

It is demeaning to have to take Trump seriously.  His words and his tweets are hardly worth engaging, even when they reflect libertarian or “nationalist” (quasi-fascist) ideas that, despite obvious flaws, do merit serious consideration.

But what Trump says or tweets cannot be ignored because of the power that our electoral institutions have conferred upon him through Inauguration Day 2021 —  or, if he leaves or is removed from office, upon Vice President Mike Pence.  Pence is less likely to start a nuclear war, but as a bona fide reactionary, the policies he would try to advance would likely be as bad or worse.

It would be different if those institutions were more (small-d) democratic, at least to the extent that their counterparts in other so-called democratic countries and in many American states are.  Then Trump and Pence could be recalled and replaced.  But this is not the hand we’ve been dealt.  And so, for now and for some time to come, the fate of the world depends on what happens to be on Donald Trump’s mind.

2017 was a very bad year.  With Trump or Pence in the White House, Democratic Party bigwigs leading the opposition, and a “resistance” that has so far shown itself to be too unorganized and too close to the Democratic Party to do much good, we will be fortunate indeed if 2018 is not worse.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).