Spring 2017 | Publication

Understanding Trumpism: Nationalism, Populism, and Industrialism

Introduction and Summary

President Donald J. Trump’s worldview marks a dramatic departure from the principles that had dominated the Republican Party for decades.  The fusionist conservatism that prevailed following Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary challenge to President Gerald Ford until the 2016 GOP presidential primary emphasized global responsibilities, defined America as a set of ideals, and celebrated post-industrial technology.  In contrast, Trumpism champions America First over international commitments; eschews canonical principles in favor of national identity; and embraces “industrial might” as preferable to the increasingly workerless digital economy.1  Through a combination of nationalism, populism, and industrialism, Trumpism endeavors to rebalance American prosperity to the benefit of working-class interests long disparaged by legal, nancial, and creative elites.  In achieving this goal, Trumpism prioritizes tangible results (e.g., creating domestic manufacturing jobs) and dismisses ideology (e.g., principled objections to government intervention in private-sector decision making).


Contrasting the presidential announcement rhetoric of Trump and George W. Bush reveals the distinctiveness of Trump’s nationalism.  Although both leaders have enlisted Judeo-Christian language to argue for American exceptionalism, for Trump the biblical inheritance underscored America’s particular national identity.  In his prepared announcement speech, Trump declared, “While I love my company and what I have built, I love my country even more.”  For Bush, the biblical imperative commanded Americans to beneficently treat the Other, rather than advance self-interest.  In contrast to Trump, Bush used the word love in reference to one’s family, neighbor, babies, children, but not to the United States of America.  Bush spoke of America’s universalistic ambitions: “The purpose of prosperity is to make sure the American dream touches every willing heart. … America’s greatest export to the world is, and always will be, freedom.”2

Trump’s January 2017 inaugural address also underscored the prioritization of the American nation, instead of an undifferentiated humanity.  According to Trump, nationalism allows for the flowering of a civic identity that treats all citizens uniformly as God’s children: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.  When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.  The Bible tells us, ‘how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.’”3  Perhaps most strikingly, Trump declared in his recent joint address to Congress, “My job is not to represent the world.  My job is to represent the United States of America.”4


In his inaugural address, Trump identified people, not the ideas of the Founders, as the country’s essence: “At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.”5  Similarly, in his announcement speech, Trump declared: “Our country has tremendous potential.  We have tremendous people.”6

Trump’s related belief that an economy exists “to serve human welfare,” not free-market ideology, aligns with former Senator and now-Attorney General Jef Sessions (R-AL).  Sessions consistently opposed immigration reform that would advantage technology companies seeking increased numbers of skilled foreign workers, famously remarking: “People aren’t commodities.  We compare labor to commodities, but they’re not commodities.  They’re human beings.  They have families.  They have hopes and dreams.  They want stability in their life.”7  Sessions’ former Senate staffer, Stephen Miller, now serves as Senior Advisor to the President for Policy.  In 2014, Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Stephen K. Bannon also criticized what he termed libertarians’ and Wall Street’s objectification of workers as “commodities.”8  In February 2017, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon stated unequivocally: “We’re a nation with an economy.  Not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders.”9

Trump maintains that social and economic decline afflicts much of the country outside of mainly coastal bubbles of prosperity.  Hence, Trump’s statement upon winning the Nevada primary, “I love the poorly educated!”10  Although mocked by the mainstream media, the sentiment resembles William F. Buckley’s famous statement that he would “rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”11  Trump has been effective in harnessing the Left’s language of victimization in defense of suffering working-class whites who, he asserts, are vilified by many of society’s economic winners: “Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy.  But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.”12  Trump’s appeal proved compelling.  In 2012, whites with partial or no college education voted for Mitt Romney by a margin of +25 percent; in 2016, the same demographic voted for Trump by a margin of +39 percent.13


According to Trump’s worldview, industrial jobs that provide men with the ability to make things best advance human dignity.  Trump champions “skilled craftsmen and tradespeople and factory workers [who] have seen the jobs they loved shipped thousands of miles away.  Many Pennsylvania towns once thriving and humming are now in a state of despair.”14

An early expression of Trumpian industrialism came from Pittsburgh-area U.S. Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA-18), perhaps best known as the leading voice in Congress on drug treatment and mental health reform.  Like Trump, Murphy received strong opposition from traditional pro-growth forces.  Like Trump, Murphy defeated them.  In an August 2013 floor speech opposing EPA’s assigning a social cost to carbon, Murphy said:

When people lose their jobs, we give them unemployment compensation.  They go hungry; we give them food stamps.  They lose unemployment; we give them welfare.  They lose their homes; we give them public housing.  They lose their dignity and pride, and the government has nothing left to give – nothing – when all these folks ever really wanted was a job – a job and a chance for the American dream.15

As if following through on Representative Murphy’s argument, President Trump promised to change this cycle of decline for manufacturing workers in his recent speech in Ypsilanti, Michigan: “We’re going to use the full economic powers of our country to protect our workers. … There’s consequences to pay for the companies that desert us and fire our employees.  There are consequences. … America will be respected again, and you, as workers, will be respected again.  Believe me, you will be respected again.  Soon.  Now.  I think it’s already happened.”16


Trumpism transcends the conventional ideological divide of the postwar period and reorders the partisan framework of Washington, D.C.  Dismissing consistency prized by public policy intellectuals, Trump pursues practical ends – American dominance, job creation, and reindustrialization – by leveraging seemingly contradictory means: government interventionism, attacks on regulation, pro-business advocacy, support for labor against threats from immigration, hawkish but anti-internationalist defense policy, and often conflicting elements of social liberalism and cultural conservatism.

Trumpism foreshadows tax reform that benefits capital expenditures and small business; trade policy that leverages American economic power to onshore jobs; immigration enforcement to protect wages; environmental policy designed to prioritize industrial sector growth; and increased military spending to promote domestic manufacturing and protect narrowly defined interests abroad.

More than reflecting the views of a single man, Trumpism should be understood as a movement in response to the popular perception of protracted national decline.  If successful, the result will be a shift in resources and influence from coastal bastions of post-nationalism and post-industrialism to the American heartland.

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1 Donald J. Trump, “Remarks by President Trump at American Center for Mobility | Detroit, MI,” The White House, March 15, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/03/15/remarks-president-trump-american-center-mobility-detroit-mi.

2 For Trump’s presidential announcement speech as prepared for delivery, see Donald J. Trump, “Donald J. Trump Presidential Announcement,” Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., June 16, 2015, http://web.archive.org/web/20160204091313/http://www.donaldjtrump.com/media/donald-j-trump-presidential-announcement; for Trump’s as delivered, see Staff, “Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech,” TIME, June 16, 2015, http://time.com/3923128/donald-trump-announcement-speech/; and for Bush’s, see George W. Bush, “Remarks Announcing Candidacy for the Republican Presidential Nomination,” June 12, 1999, http://www.presidency. ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=77819.

3 Donald J. Trump, “Remarks of President Donald J. Trump – As Prepared for Delivery,” Inaugural Address, The White House, January 20, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/inaugural-address.

4 Donald J. Trump, “Remarks by President Trump in Joint Address to Congress,” The White House, February 28, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/02/28/remarks-president-trump-joint-address-congress.

5  Donald J. Trump, “Remarks of President Donald J. Trump – As Prepared for Delivery,” ibid.

6  Donald J. Trump, “Donald J. Trump Presidential Announcement,” ibid.

7  Jeff Poor, “Sessions: ‘People Aren’t Commodities,’” Breitbart, March 17, 2015, http://www.breitbart.com/video/2015/03/17/sessions-people-arent-commodities.

8  J. Lester Feder, “This is how Steve Bannon sees the entire world,” BuzzFeed, November 15, 2016, https://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/this-is-how-steve-bannon-sees-the-entire-world.

9  Max Fisher, “Stephen K. Bannon’s CPAC Comments, Annotated and Explained,” The New York Times, February 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/24/us/politics/stephen-bannon-cpac-speech.html.

10  Josh Hafner, “Donald Trump loves the ‘poorly educated’ – and they love him,” USA Today, February 24, 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2016/02/24/donald-trump-nevada-poorly-educated/80860078.

11  Peter Robinson, “Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan And William F. Buckley Jr.,” Forbes, December 12, 2008, https://www.forbes.com/2008/12/11/friedman-reagan-buckley-oped-cx_pr_1212robinson.html.

12  Donald J. Trump, “Full Transcript: Donald Trump’s jobs plan speech,” Politico, June 28, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/06/full-transcript-trump-job-plan-speech-224891.

13  Alec Tyson and Shiva Maniam, “Behind Trump’s victory: Divisions by race, gender, education,” Pew Research Center, November 9, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/behind-trumps-victory-divisions-by-race-gender-education.

14  Donald J. Trump, “Full Transcript: Donald Trump’s jobs plan speech,” ibid.

15  Congressional Record, House of Representatives, August 1, 2013, p. 5287, https://www.congress.gov/crec/2013/08/01/CREC-2013-08-01-pt1-PgH5285.pdf.

16  Donald J. Trump, “Remarks by President Trump at American Center for Mobility | Detroit, MI,” ibid.