This essay was written in response to Gideon Rachman’s invitation to readers to sit his ‘2066 history exam’. Of 170 entries, the FT is publishing the best five (see panel for the others). This piece addresses the challenge: Donald Trump was not an accident but the logical culmination of long-term trends in politics and society. Discuss.
Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election at first seemed a definitive rejection not only of Mr Trump but of the very notion of Trumpism. He lost the black vote by 94 points, the Hispanic vote by 66 points and the female vote by 16 points — and the demographic and cultural trends pointed to an ever larger non-white population and an increasingly empowered female population.
No matter how angry white male voters became, simple maths implied that they had blown their last chance “to take their country back”.
“The future,” according to one disappointed Trump supporter, “belongs to some Hispanic lesbian with a plan for more inclusive bathrooms and a visceral hatred of red meat.”
The Republican party’s famous report on its 2016 election loss, Autopsy 2: The History of a Dead Horse, appeared to acknowledge this harsh reality. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, noted that the party had not sold its soul to Mr Trump. “It was merely rented,” Mr Priebus insisted, “and it was returned with hardly any visible damage at all.” Reform was in the air.
In a vicious counter-revolution, the Republican elite purged the Trumpian elements from its ranks. Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani all abandoned politics and took jobs as commentators with Trump’s TV Huge™, his cable news network (all were fired within six months). The party also cartelised its donors, cutting off the insurgent candidates from life-giving soft money. They seized control of the primary system, appointing hundreds of super-delegates, closing the state primaries and establishing a system for equal television time for candidates not already blessed with celebrity.
The reform process worked. At least, it worked for a while and to a degree. The Republican primary voters seemed dispirited but chastened. In the next four primary elections, the party nominated a Bush and three Romney boys, whom no one could tell apart. They were firmly from the Republican establishment. They all made an earnest effort to attract minority and female voters.
But they did not get elected. Minority voters were unimpressed with what became known as the “Wonder Bread” candidates. The Trumpian Republican base lacked enthusiasm for their platform of tax cuts and strong defence, while swing voters were more inspired by exotic Democratic candidates. The Republicans lost in rapid succession to the first female president, the first Hispanic president and the first gay president. Julian Castro’s vice-president was a transgender Iraqi war veteran, referred to in official functions by the gender neutral pronoun “ne”.
The Republican base grew more restless and angry as the inaugural parade evolved into a multicultural showcase for alternative lifestyles. The court-ordered legalisation of polygamy in 2030 was the rightwing’s final, bitter defeat in the culture wars. The electorate was clearly waiting for a leader who could both respond to their cultural fears but also charm the mass of apathetic voters brainwashed by political correctness.
In 2036, that candidate emerged from the most obvious of places: the Trump family. Building on the example of French president Marine Le Pen, Ivanka Trump set out to present the old Trumpism with a human face. Her political programme was explicitly Trumpian in that it focused on ending immigration and restoring American greatness. In carefully chosen words, she signalled to her father’s core demographic that she was his political heir.
But she avoided the bluster that had obscured her father’s message. When her 90-year old father awkwardly tried to campaign for her, her staff spread the rumour that he was impotent. When he was found dead of a Viagra overdose, sympathy for Ivanka’s family travails only increased. Even the Republican establishment was charmed by her combination of flawless grace and steely nativism.
She was much better prepared for the general election than her father had been in 2016. She was calm where he had been angry; inclusive where he had been racist; attractive where he had been ugly. Her kinder, gentler Trumpism reinvigorated Trump Snr’s dispirited white working-class base. Her patriotic appeal to restore American greatness and finally end the wars in Iraq and post-Saudi Arabia won over independents tired of the Democrats’ missionary zeal. And her friendly manner reassured many of those minorities that her father had so frightened.
She was also blessed in her opponent. Chelsea Clinton had enjoyed an impressive career in philanthropy and politics but she was still dogged by numerous nagging scandals, including the decades-old accusation that, in 1993, she had murdered Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel, in a fit of pubescent pique.
Ivanka Trump’s electoral triumph was narrow but solid and she quickly consolidated control. After five terms in office, three suspensions of the constitution and 15 million deportations, it was safe to say that President Trump’s iron rule had ushered in a new age in American politics.
A decade after Ivanka Trump’s bloody ousting by the Mormon-Trotskyist Romney Underground, it is clear that the political trends behind Trumpism did not culminate in 2016 — they had much further to go. After Donald Trump’s candidacy, they lay dormant, or maybe festered, awaiting the right messenger.
Ivanka Trump’s ascension proved what has since become a truism in American politics: if you want to be a fascist president of the United States, it helps to be friendly and attractive . . . and Jewish.
The writer is research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former official in the US state department