Trump the Ideologue?

Portraying Donald Trump as an incompetent, ignorant blowhard may reassure his opponents, says Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, but it could be a trap. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, she, too was mocked, yet she cast the Labour opposition into the political wilderness for almost two decades.



Could Alec Baldwin, the actor who impersonates Donald Trump on the comedy show Saturday Night Live, turn out to be the president’s most useful ally?

In my view, those who see Trump as a laughingstock because of his unhinged tweetstorms, blatant lies, and racist and misogynist pronouncements fail to get to grips with the essence of Trumpism.

Part of the problem may be that Trump has been on both sides of several major debates, causing many to dismiss attempts to establish an ideological foundation for Trumpism as hopelessly oxymoronic. But it’s happened before.

When Margaret Thatcher came to power nearly 40 years ago, conservatives and liberals alike failed to see the revolutionary politics behind her blonde hair and shrill voice. Like Trump, Thatcher was no philosopher, but she surrounded herself with people who refined the ideology and policy program that was eventually called Thatcherism.

The left-wing magazine Marxism Today was the first to recognize the significance of Thatcher’s political project. Its then-editor, Martin Jacques, recently told me why she was so frequently underestimated: The focus on the performance of political parties obscured much deeper changes in society.

Trump, like Thatcher before him, articulated the frustration and anger of a large segment of the working class. And he, too, has attracted ideologues, notably Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of the far-right Breitbart News. Bannon defines Trumpism as a movement that aims for economic nationalism, national security, and the deconstruction of the administrative state.

Jacques argues that the British Labour Party’s failure to come to terms with Thatcherism kept it in the political wilderness for almost two decades – until Tony Blair’s New Labour aligned the party with the new regime.

This bodes ill for Trump’s opponents, who remain so distracted by his apparent lack of leadership skills, that they have yet to grasp the depth of the divisions and neuroses in America that his victory has exposed. If they fail to engage seriously with the forces that brought Trump to power, not even impeachment – and certainly not Baldwin’s mocking impersonations – will be enough to put the genie of Trumpism back in its bottle.