Donald Trump likes winning, winners and avoiding any association with losers. He's recently taken to trumpeting his endorsement record in Republican primary elections, which achieves the synergy of an explicit boast and implicit threat at once. So it's understandable that after a 24-year-old named Madison Cawthorn handily defeated the Trump-endorsed favorite in a North Carolina Republican congressional primary on June 23, some media observers believed they'd witnessed an embarrassment or even a rebuke of Trump.
But this narrative thoroughly and dangerously misconstrues the nature of Trump's appeal and the source of his sociopolitical power. In short, the Trump movement did not (and does not) derive from wholesale respect for the president's individual thoughts and opinions or a devotion to his discernible ideology; all the evidence suggests, rather, that Trumpism is an aesthetic — one generally shepherded by certain shared cultural and political values and experiences, but an aesthetic all the same, not a political philosophy or even a full-blown cult of personality.
Trumpism is primarily the appearance of insurgency, irreverence and a particular understanding of white masculinity and power — so when Republican voters choose a candidate who exudes all of this symbolism over a nominally Trump-endorsed candidate who does not, we fall into a trap if we excitedly note the grassroots rejection of Trump's preference as a portent of his waning influence and potential demise. We misunderstand what attracted voters to Trump four years ago and what they expect him to deliver, as well as how these same voters assess the other political decisions they face.
Trumpism: An aesthetic
In May and June of 2015, as pollsters began including him in their surveys, Trump failed even to reach 5% support; the data offered little by way of contradiction as pundits initially laughed off Trump's chances.
Then, in the first poll following his voraciously covered announcement speech — a speech mostly devoid of policy prescriptions, let alone details, but famously rich with braggadocio and rhetorical antagonism towards large, crude targets like Mexican immigrants, Obamacare and China, Trump immediately registered 11% support. Such swift success from a politics that blatantly prioritized aesthetics over substance was surely reinforcing to his burgeoning political instincts.
The second major Trump-campaign firestorm erupted in July of that year, after the candidate disparaged Sen. John McCain for failing to avoid capture during the Vietnam War. That criticism, directed at a symbolic figurehead of the Republican mainstream, began an escalating series of similar offensives against entrenched figures and institutions that remains a staple of the Trump playbook. It jibed remarkably well with the populist, anti-establishment rhetoric of the announcement speech.
It also heralded a collision between antiquated and emerging sets of cultural values. McCain, a decorated veteran with mid-century emotional discipline, was no longer a paragon of virtuous masculinity. Suddenly, conservative voters craved Trump's distinctive and domineering rendering. They wanted his violence, his obscenity, his overstated confidence and his belittling of prominent women for their looks and performance of universal bodily functions. In the days that followed, Trump first registered greater than 20% support in a major survey and claimed a lead in Real Clear Politics' polling average. By early August, Trump had rapidly built a 10-point polling advantage over other Republican candidates that he would never relinquish.
Also in August, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic began corresponding with Trump supporters across the country about the motivations for their allegiance. One anonymous response warrants reproduction:
"Trump fights. Trump wins. I want an Alpha Male who is going to take it to the enemy. I am tired of supporting losers. I used to vote for President based on their positions. Now I am going to vote for President based on emotion. I want a strong man to be president, an Alpha male."
The aesthetic nature of Trumpism — the extent to which his appeal to voters is predicated on his performance of impudence and outsiderdom, and not a precise agenda — is powered by this emotionality. Among a large, overwhelmingly white and disproportionately male population that make up the notorious "Trump base," the president's behavior elicited a visceral response that took much of the rest of the country by surprise. It did so by delivering to this constituency something few others had realized it wanted — not policy but narrative, an animation of its grievances and its fantasies played out in the public square.
This is not to suggest that the Trump presidency has been inconsequential — that's clearly untrue — but that the underlying Trump phenomenon remains aesthetic. The most substantive of the president's accomplishments are not ones you're likely to hear cited at a Trump rally: tax reform and judicial confirmations were and are primarily the priorities of a different, elite group of Republican wonks and interest groups. And the most actionable of the formative opening salvos of the Trump movement — "Build the Wall," the "Muslim Ban" and "Drain the Swamp" come to mind — were more slogan than policy, as four years of harmful but mediocre implementation of these apparent priorities has continued to demonstrate.
Indeed, their appeal too was aesthetic, in their bald, subversive vulgarity. Their political potency derived from the same. The priority demands of the president's core constituency amount to, at most, large and unwieldy political symbols.
Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, has written about the aestheticization of politics in the pursuit of the Italian fascist state. She acknowledges parallels between the fundamental preeminence of aesthetics in that political project and in Trump's.
"I give you a formal expression — that's it," she explains, in reference to the way Mussolini offered the masses participatory spectacles while denying them opportunities for real political engagement and change. "Which, I think in part, reflects something that is happening" in the Trump era as well.
Trumpism, too, is exciting and participatory but insubstantial, Falasca-Zamponi says. Trump strips issues of their political essences and instead supplies "little expressions of easily-gathered agreement — 'this flu is Chinese' — little things that create a relationship between him and his base." She notes that 20th-century fascists used cutting-edge mass media to inculcate people into their aesthetic languages, much in the way that Trump relies on social media to perform for his supporters and provide them, almost ritualistically, with opportunities for engagement and arousal.
It's not hard to spot the ways this political aestheticization manifests.
Until this past week, Trump refused to wear a mask in public, despite widespread and bipartisan pressure to do so — a seemingly inexplicable rebellion against the consensus advice of experts and the political establishment that is plainly resonating with his base, and which comes further into focus when you consider what wearing a mask requires of Trump: the literal subordination of his aesthetic to his governing imperative.
Amid the roiling protests that have followed the murder of George Floyd, he staged his entirely peculiar, explicitly but not specifically religious, violence-soaked photo-op before St. John's Church — a perverse and confused performance, and an acutely aesthetic one.
He remains shockingly incapable of articulating policy priorities, as demonstrated by a recent exchange with Trump-night-whisperer Sean Hannity in which, despite repeated prompting, the president failed to name a single one. It's hard to escape the notion that, though Trump lacks any perceptible command of the particulars of governance, the reason for this failure may not have been purely a case of bad brain. When in dialogue with his base, what incentive does Trump have to answer such a question as asked? It may never have occurred to him.
Let's return to Madison Cawthorn, the 24-year-old North Carolina Republican who trounced his Trump- endorsed primary opponent. He has light, coiffed hair; his face is inoffensively photogenic. He is a motivational speaker and a gun-toter; he describes himself as a constitutional conservative, a proven fighter and a defender of "faith, family and freedom." He uses a wheelchair — a 2014 car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Trump endorsed his opponent; Cawthorn beat her by more than 30 points.
Superficially, Cawthorn does not much look or speak like Trump, but he has nonetheless achieved a compelling and Trump-entangled electoral success by performance of an inevitable Trumpian mutation. As Trump did, he perceptibly jarred with traditional images of what a politician is — he's shockingly young and has a visible disability — and, crucially, he positioned himself as an unbeholden political outsider capable of manning a neglected, aesthetic front in the defense of conservative political and cultural values: the online effort to put a compelling and youthful face on conservatism, aimed at the millennial and emerging Gen-Z electorates. With a message discipline the president could never match, he sold North Carolina voters an original but definitively Trumpist pitch: My age and associated savvy uniquely equip me to perform our narratives and values in the face of opposition, especially on social media.
Speaking to Maggie Astor of the New York Times the day after his victory, Cawthorn flitted around some vague priorities — he gestured at the importance of a balanced budget and expresses a desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act and decrease health care regulations as a means to increase coverage — but as he did on the stump, he spoke most about his ability to message differently, more effectively, and to a different constituency than Republicans have in the past. He recycled a favorite stump-speech line: "The main purpose [of my candidacy] is because I believe there's a generational time bomb going off in the Republican Party." Later he connected the dots, relating this warning to his pitch:
The left has gotten very good at social media, whereas the right has kind of trailed behind. You see people like Congressman Dan Crenshaw as being the only Republican member who's very savvy when it comes to social media. I think we need to be able to compete not only on a traditional debate stage or on cable news, but also in the new town square.
Social media are, to begin with, highly aesthetic for a means of political communication, more conducive to performance than the work of governance. Trump, unsurprisingly, makes his home on Twitter, the simplest and most structurally reductive of the social media behemoths. Now Cawthorn is skimming toward Congress on the strength of his own perceived ability to partake in the president's aesthetic project on the president's favorite platform. He's headed to the capital to troll millennials on Twitter.
In a further mimicry of the Trumpian aesthetic, Cawthorn deftly tarred his opponent over her association with powerful Washingtonians. Lynda Bennett — a personal friend of White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who withdrew from the race for the seat in December and resigned from Congress in March — appeared to have secretly coordinated her entrance with his withdrawal to clear her path, which roiled some local legislators, activists and operatives. She stressed her endorsement from Trump and her connection with Meadows; Cawthorn emphasized that Bennett had been handpicked and anointed by these Washington insiders. Early in June, he told the Hendersonville Lightning:
Whenever you allow somebody to help you get into office, you're going to have to pay the piper. One day they're going to knock on the door and say, "Hey, I need you to vote this way." ... If you owe anybody other than the people of Western North Carolina, you're not going to be doing your job right.
That Cawthorn won overwhelmingly, swimming upstream against a Trump endorsement, becomes intuitive when you consider what he had: the unorthodox (and disarming) quality of his appearance; a convincing warning about the Washington baggage of his opponent; and a pitch literally centered on aesthetics, on his ability to publicly affect conservative cultural and political narratives on social media. All this suggests that the same values that animate support for Trump animate Republican voters regardless of Trump's endorsement.
Clearly Trump has a store of credibility with his supporters, but it is less than clear that he can command their attention and loyalty when he's not performing the narratives they expect. Here he may have seemed like simply another outsider — a force aligned with the will of national politicians, at best an unconvincing messenger and at worst a compromised one. North Carolinians, given a choice of two candidates, one more Trumpian than the other, duly picked the Trumpier — the president's wishes be damned.
"Our faith, our freedoms and our values are under assault from leftist, coastal elites like Nancy Pelosi and AOC," reads a prominent banner on Madison Cawthorn's campaign website. It's a classically Trumpian statement, fear-mongering and heavily reliant on symbols, evocative of broadly sinister forces and popular bogeywomen, the sort that has thoroughly pervaded the Republican Party — alarming but at this point unremarkable.
Cawthorn's aestheticized, Trumpist politics are arguably no more than a variation on the original. But Cawthorn is a far more disciplined messenger, and where Trump engages, seemingly intuitively, in the aesthetic rituals his base craves, Cawthorn asserts the performance in its entirety as his explicit mandate — the primary mandate for a likely soon-to-be congressman.
Falasca-Zamponi, the sociology professor, emphasizes a difference between America today and Italy under fascism: Mussolini, operating in a truly dictatorial context, saw himself as the artist of Italian society, a molder of the faceless masses. Trump lacks the intellectual capacity to conceive of himself in the pursuit of a coherent project and does not possess the totalitarian control necessary to demand participation in his aesthetic whims.
This is lucky for the rest of us, but it demonstrates something else: Trump chases his constituency's aesthetic fantasies. He does not dictate to them but is instead dictated to; our democratic context lays bare the widespread, uncompelled eagerness for aesthetics over results.
Which raises its own looming specters, chiefly an electorate ripe for exploitation and a country clearly in danger of further backsliding. It suggests that after Trump is gone, public officials willing to deploy the playbook he stumbled upon will have a sizable audience. Savvy operators could, conceivably, do so much more adeptly. Perhaps someone like Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator who has been among the brashest promoters of Trump's culture wars and domestic militarism. Or Josh Hawley, a freshman senator from Missouri who, like Trump before him, has derived a brand of economic populism stripped of radical economic policy. Each matches Trump's extremism while eschewing his most unrefined bombast by performing, far more strategically, crucial parts of the conservative aesthetic. There's an increasing bounty of such political figures at the national level, to speak nothing of state and local government. Already they're endowed with grassroots mandates and formal political power. As Trump has led the Republican Party into its brave new world, they've watched and waited, surely receiving a comprehensive education in the idiosyncratic tastes of the Trump electorate.
If we divorce our understanding of political events from these central realities of Trumpism, we will continue to be flummoxed by an electorate that isn't being shy about what it wants. Madison Cawthorn's success points not toward the Trump phenomenon's demise, but toward its essential nature and possibly its future.
It suggests the limits of Trump's charisma as an individual, which can sometimes seem limitless, but also the power and durability of the forces that buffeted a C-list celebrity to the White House. We herald the fall of Trump and Trumpism at our peril. Whatever happens this November, at least one of the two is likely to be with us well into the future; Madison Cawthorn is certainly poised to be.