The End of the Beginning
Why did thousands of Trump supporters invade the US Capitol? Why was there a shirtless man dressed in a Viking outfit taking pictures on the Senate floor? Why did Donald Trump receive more votes than any other incumbent president in US history? Why did two incumbent Republican senators lose their seats in a historically red state? Why does everyone seem so angry and why are we so divided? These questions may seem larger than life and defined by an incomprehensible amount of variables but all, in some sense, harken back to a certain sentiment that has been brewing in the United States for decades. This sentiment is called right-wing populism, an ideology that can simply be understood as an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.
The modern right-wing populist movement largely gained traction in the US during the early 2010s with the emergence of the Tea Party, a grassroots political movement that sought to reform a Republican establishment (them), considered incapable of serving the interests of conservative voters (us). Like other Republican primary candidates, Trump saw the opportunity and was often found praising the movement along the 2016 campaign trail. It was during this time that the Tea Party began to shapeshift into what is called today, the MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement.
By embracing the nationalist, anti-establishment, and populist attitude of the Tea Party, Donald Trump was able to build a coalition dead set on putting ‘America first’ and ‘draining the swamp,’ catapulting him to the presidency. Some later noted that the Tea Party died off under the pressure of super PACs and insincere candidates but this isn’t necessarily true. While it is true that some of the original values embodied by the movement, low spending, constitutionalism, etc. were abandoned, what’s important is what remained - the energy. Energy, something the GOP often desperately lacks, is key to any successful political movement and the Trump campaign understood this.
Donald Trump went on to serve as the symbol for a class of voters in this country tired of “free” trade deals that ship their jobs overseas, discouraged by “open” online platforms operating with the privilege of publishers, jaded by Wall Street bailouts at the expense of Main Street, sick of losing sons and daughters in what seem like no-win wars, fed up with being ridiculed for practicing religion deemed primitive by coastal elites, and done with sending their children to public schools where they grasp nothing but contempt for their own country. This is to say that Donald Trump, love him or hate him, is not the cause of the division, violence, and unrest that has plagued this country, he is a symptom, energized by the demagogues that denounce him. Hyper fixating on Trump as the cause for political division is too narrow of an assessment, his support is preexistent. It’s a response from middle-class voters (us) to a DC managerial class (them) that has gone unchallenged by the begrudgingly elected, Bush-style neoconservatives of the past. That is why Trump crushed every establishment Republican so easily in the 2016 primary, he got the issues right and called the GOP on its incompetence; that is also why few conservatives actually showed up to vote for establishment Republicans, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, in the latest Georgia special election.
This dynamic will be especially important for the future of the GOP. As populist sentiment reaches its peak, the internal battle for the institutional influence and infrastructure built up over decades by big conservative donors will reach its breaking point. The GOP, as we know it, could undergo serious transformations. This prediction may sound grandiose, I certainly would have thought so a week ago, but it’s clear that ideological energy can turn kinetic overnight, and there’s no telling what will be the next target. Although co-opting the GOP seems like the next logical step.
I’ll be honest though, I’m a college freshman, I’m fairly inexperienced. However, after watching the events that unfolded on Thursday I can say, with relative confidence, that the tectonic political changes that our country is experiencing are much bigger than Donald Trump and will live on long after Joe Biden’s inauguration. No matter how many people are banned from Twitter, no matter how many people face charges for the events that occurred on the Capitol, no matter how much ‘unity’ a Joe Biden administration calls for, the Rubicon has inevitably been crossed and this feels like the end of the beginning for right-wing populism in the United States.