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Jonah Goldberg: Trumpism psychological, not ideological

| Tuesday, March 13, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington.

For the last couple of years, I've been banging my spoon on my high chair about how Trumpism isn't a political or ideological movement so much as a psychological phenomenon.

This was once a controversial position on the right and the left. Steve Bannon devoted considerable resources to promoting Trumpist candidates who supposedly shared President Trump's worldview and parroted his rhetoric, including anti-globalism, economic nationalism and crude insults of “establishment” politicians. Those schemes largely came to naught.

On the left, there's an enormous investment in the idea that Trump isn't a break with conservatism but the apotheosis of it. This is a defensible claim if you believe conservatism has always been an intellectually vacuous bundle of racial and cultural resentments. But if that were the case, Commentary magazine's Noah Rothman notes, you would not see so many mainstream and consistent conservatives objecting to Trump's behavior.

Intellectuals and ideologically committed journalists on the left and right have a natural tendency to see events through the prism of ideas. Trump presents an insurmountable challenge to such approaches because, by his own admission, he doesn't consult any serious and coherent body of ideas for his decisions.

Trump says he thinks his gut is a better guide than the brains of his advisers. He argues that past presidents and policymakers were fools and weaklings. That's narcissism, not ideology, talking.

Even the “ideas” he has championed consistently are grounded not in arguments but in instincts. He dislikes regulations because, as a businessman, they got in his way. He dislikes trade because he has a childish, narrow understanding of what “winning” means — foreigners are ripping us off, other countries are laughing at us. He doesn't actually care about, let alone understand, the arguments suggesting protectionism can work.

The president's attack on his attorney general's conduct as “disgraceful” makes no political, legal or ideological sense, but is utterly predictable as an expression of Trump's view that loyalty to Trump should trump everything else. Likewise, his bizarre blather about skipping due process to “take the guns” was consistent with his poor impulse control and well-established tendency to tell people in the room with him what they want to hear.

And his decision to promote and protect his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is purely psychological. Giving Kushner the responsibility to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for all time seems like the premise of a sitcom — yet is wholly congruent with Trump's management style.

Still, many of Trump's biggest fans stick by him, mirroring Trump's mode of thinking and discovering ever more extravagant ways to explain or rationalize his behavior. When Trump attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University tweeted his support, floating the idea that Sessions was an anti-Trump deep-cover operative who endorsed Trump to undermine his presidency from within.

It seems Trumpism is infectious. If this infection becomes a pandemic — a cult of personality — one could fairly call Trumpism a movement. But psychology would still be the best way to understand it.

Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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