The seeming decline of Steve Bannon’s influence has people thinking that Trumpism won’t become anything like a coherent ideology. That is looking at things from the wrong direction. Trump’s success, despite his manifest vices, comes from having no ideology at a time when all the variations of conservative ideology seem like they are failing.
Bannon tried to create for the GOP a new ideological basis built around protectionism and non-interventionism. Trump himself only ambivalently fit into those categories. The ideological distance between him and the GOP’s more hyperactive interventionists, such as John McCain, was obvious. Trump (retrospectively) opposed the Iraq War and the Libya campaign. If people wanted non-interventionism, they could have supported either Ron Paul or (the more temperate) Rand Paul. That didn’t happen partly for reasons of economic policy. It turned out that most Republican voters disliked the small-government commitments of the libertarian Paul family.
But it was more than that. Paleo-conservative-derived non-interventionism was a bad fit for both Trump and Trump’s voters. He opposed the abandonment of the Surge in Iraq and promised to destroy ISIS. Trump argued that our alliance system had developed into a bad deal in practice but not that it was a bad idea in principle.
Trump’s non-interventionism was highly selective. He didn’t buy into the bundle of paleo-conservative ideas about how America was wrong to enter World War I and/or World War II or that the U.S. government should have stayed neutral in both the Libyan rebellion and the American Civil War.
The result was that Trump was able to assemble a set of positions that were more popular than either paleo-conservative non-interventionism or the kind of interventionism that inspired Bush’s second inaugural. Trump could clearly oppose both the decision to invade Iraq and the decision to abandon Iraq to al-Qaeda’s even more terrible successors. He could oppose the original Libyan bombing campaign and promise to destroy a transnational organization like ISIS (a promise that would necessarily entail military operations in multiple countries).
He isn’t some kind of foreign-policy genius. He came to some of these positions retrospectively. There is nothing wrong with that, except that he lies about having changed his mind. His habit is to jump in front of every parade and claim that he started it — while denying having been a part of any earlier parades.
But that doesn’t mean that Trump is mostly wrong (other than about the stealing-the-oil thing). There is a prudential argument for opposing the Iraq invasion and supporting the Surge. There is a prudential argument for opposing Obama’s Libya campaign and seeking to destroy ISIS. There is a prudential argument for saying that the U.S. alliance system will not survive absent greater allied contributions but at the same time not wanting that system destroyed.
Trump could hit that sweet spot not because he had a new ideology but because he had no ideology. Both interventionism and non-interventionism have become so rigid, and so obsessed with spinning all events as vindication, that retrospective public judgments are a better guide to truth and prudence than are the participants of our debates. The problem is that this works only for looking backward. Trump’s approach of following public opinion is worthless or dangerous when it comes to figuring out what to do next. There was a time when the Iraq War was supported by most Americans – including Donald Trump.