Those of us who have seen the Donald Trump phenomenon as a seizure of temporary insanity in the American body politic could be in for a surprise. If the laws of life expectancy mean anything, we will almost certainly see the last of Donald Trump within a decade. But Trumpism as a political current around which our political processes orbit could have a long life indeed.
Trump the person is a profoundly defective personality, a pathological narcissist who only thinks about what is good for himself, Identifying the public good with his own interests, a compulsive liar who doesn’t know what truth is. He is rightly considered the most serious threat to constitutional order in our history, because he simply refuses to accept the legitimacy of any electoral outcome except his own victory.
But the reason he poses such a threat is that he has successfully built a political base of one third of more of the electorate, who will believe anything he says and follow him anywhere. He is The One they have been waiting for. This is the very definition of charismatic leadership, when a leader is perceived as having extraordinary qualities that warrant such unconditional devotion.
What will happen to this base when he passes from the scene? One possibility is that it will melt away, unresponsive to all attempts by successors at mobilization. History is filled with examples of such flashes in the pan.
An alternative possibility is displayed by the Peronist movement in Argentina. Juan Perón was a colonel in the army in 1943 when he was part of a military coup that overthrew the government. Over the next couple of years he took advantage of his role as Minister of Labor (with critical help from his wife, Evita, who died in 1952) to build a devoted working class following that enabled him to win a free election in 1945. Reelected once, he was finally overthrown and exiled in 1955. Succeeding governments sought without success to purge Argentine politics of the Peronists: instead, it became clear that no one could govern without them. Finally, in desperation, the Peronists were allowed to compete in an election in 1972, which they won. The new Peronist government called a new election in 1973, permitting the now aged Perón himself to compete, and he won.
Perón then served until his death in 1973. He was succeeded by his much younger second wife, Isabel, who was his Vice President. She in turn was overthrown by a military coup in 1976. Democracy was restored in 1983 with the election of a non-Peronist, but Peronism was not dead. The movement had split into left- and right-wings before Perón died, and both wings have held power at one time or another since then.
Power corrupts, of course, so when enough Argentine voters get sick of Peronist corruption, they elect a non-Peronist, who then also falls into corruption. The Peronists are always the main alternative to any non-Peronist government, so they tend to get elected after the other side has had its chance. The current president is a Peronist who succeeded a conservative anti-Peronist. His Vice President is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a former president who was Vice President to her husband, who died in office. She was then elected to a full term, before being replaced by the anti-Peronist.
Argentine politics, half a century after the death of Perón, still orbits around Peronism. The movement has had leftist and rightist manifestations, but the devotion to Perón remains. Peronists are either in power, or are the main opposition.
This could be the future of Trumpism.