A cursory glance at any political commentary over the last two years will provide us with multiple, disparate answers to the question in the title of this post. Usually, answers include some mix of nativism, celebrity culture, authoritarianism, and tribalism (i.e., a strong distrust in institutions).
David Brooks, in a recent op-ed at NYT (“You can be a conservative or a Republican, but not both”), gives what I think is a better answer, though he does so unwittingly. The article actually attempts to give a short history of conservatism and its beginnings as a response to Enlightenment political thinking. He writes:
Enlightenment thinkers were throwing off monarchic power and seeking to build an order based on reason and cosent of the governed. Soceity is best seen as a social contract, these Enlightenment thinkers said. Free individuals get together and contract with one another to create order.
Conservatives said we agree in general but think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to creat order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Inividual freedom is an artifact of that order. [Emphasis mine]
This is an important distinction: liberalism tends to think that individuals freely create order, ex nihilo. Conservatism (real conservatism, anyway) thinks order is already inherent in the human social experience, and individuals are not fundamentally autonomous or simply “free” to act however we please. The point Brooks ends up trying to make is that Trump isn’t a true conservative, and neither are those following his vision of politics:
[Trump] doesn’t base his belonging on the bonds of affection conservatives hold dear. He doesn’t respect and obey those institutions, traditions and values that form morally decent individuals. His tribalism is the evil twin of community. It is based on hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy mongering and distrust. It creates belonging, but on vicious grounds.
In 2018, the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualsim that leads to a vicious tribalism.
So what is Trumpism, then? It’s not conservatism or liberalism. It’s not just tribalism or nativism or authoritarianism. Instead, it is simply the very worst aspects, and the distorted, extreme pictures of what unfettered liberalism and conservatism look like at the same time. Trumpism is a fundamental belief in the autonomous individual that can do as he/she pleases as long as those actions garner power. Trumpism is also interested in creating the kind of belonging that conservatives desire — but it is a false belonging, built ultimately on distrust and fear.