An intellectual history of Trumpism

Just when the Old Right seemed on the verge of extinction, the world changed. First, George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq undermined conservative support for the hawkish foreign policy that had been Republican orthodoxy since Reagan. Second, the 2008 crash and the sluggish recovery that followed undercut the enthusiasm—among voters, if not elected officials—for the free trade pacts that market conservatives promoted. (The refusal of the increasingly paleocon House Republican caucus to pass Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program in late 2008 was, in retrospect, a harbinger of the fissures that erupted in 2016.) Third, the prospect that whites would soon constitute a minority in an increasingly multiracial, polyglot society inspired a new racial consciousness among whites—as did the election of America’s first black president, who was swiftly branded as un-American by the populist right.

For much of the Republican base these multiple shocks discredited the conservative political and intellectual leadership that had failed to deliver on promises to contain immigration, produce prosperity and make America safer. Increasingly unwelcome even in a thoroughly right-wing magazine like National Review (which devoted a whole issue during the primaries to denouncing Trump as a sham conservative), paleocons found new vehicles for their nationalist-populist ideas in The American Conservative, founded by Buchanan and Theodoracopulos in 2002, Breitbart, which evolved from a right-wing curation site into an ideological organ, and VADRE, a webzine founded by the anti-immigration advocate (and immigrant) Peter Brimelow. The resulting cluster of voices, which includes but isn’t limited to the “Alt-Right,” represented a new generation of paleocon thought that stressed its differences with the establishment right on trade, foreign policy, immigration and race.

Until Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, these profound divisions on the right drew little analysis. Even in the last year’s coverage, Trump’s insurgency was mostly portrayed as the challenge of an outsider to the establishment—an accurate but incomplete picture. The hidden history of Trumpism suggests that the president-elect may be not simply an opportunistic showman but the leader of an at least semi-coherent ideology—a new iteration of the populist and nationalist paleoconservatism that has long lurked in the shadows of American politics. Now, for the first time since the isolationist 1930s, this ideology commands real influence, and for the first time in our history, it will enjoy favor from a sitting president. The prospects could not be more ominous.