Opinion: How to End Trumpism

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times bestseller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more opinions on CNN.


During an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow, former FBI Director James Comey blamed Trumpism for conservatives’ mistrust of the FBI. However, Comey explained that he wasn’t too worried about the agency in the long run, predicting that at some point the “fever” would certainly wear off.

His comments reflect a common misconception, namely that the continued support of former President Donald Trump within the Republican Party is some kind of aberration that revolves around the person and not the party. Instead of talking about the electoral coalition that propelled Trump to power and now makes him the leading Republican candidate for re-election, the conversation continues to turn to the former president himself. This perspective has informed much of the coverage of the Republican primary, with ongoing discussions about whether one of the nominees will be able to end Trumpism by removing the top nominee.

To understand Trumpism, it’s important to look at who makes up the Republican base. As Ronald Brownstein has so well documented for CNN, Trump’s popularity is rooted in the rural white base of the Republican Party. And in a recent article for The Atlantic, Brownstein examined how the Republican majority in the House in 2023 typically represents districts with older white, non-college educated, low-income voters.

The reason why Trumpism has been so influential is that many of the ideas it espouses fit well with the sentiment of this electorate. The kind of conservative anti-establishment populism that Trump has promoted, which is nationalist, nativist, suspicious, disruptive and deeply hostile to the social and cultural changes that have taken place since the 1960s, has wide appeal to many Republican voters.

It is true that political parties can change drastically. Historians, for example, have traced the long-term change within the Democratic Party that began in the 1940s, when Southern Democrats opposed to civil rights and unionization gradually drifted away from their party and flocked to it. into the open arms of an increasingly conservative Republican Party. and willing to appeal to opposition to civil rights legislation.

For its part, the Republican Party gradually moved away from liberal Northeasterners such as Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits, who had been major forces in pushing the Republican Party toward the center, and veered sharply to the right, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan brought the kind of conservatism that in 1964 (when Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona in a landslide) was considered too radical for the White House.

But these kinds of changes take decades to happen. They are not the result of a candidate winning or losing, nor are they some kind of short-term spell that parties go through and come out of. Switching parties requires building new kinds of electoral support with groups of people who have felt alienated or were once part of the opposition. Change requires generations of new leaders, not a single person, even a president, gradually altering the composition of congressional boards and presidential candidate lists. It requires huge investments in think tanks, magazines and newspapers, social networks and the media, to push the party discourse in new directions.

As Trump himself understood, he was a good fit within the modern party. Although Trump was willing to go places most of his colleagues weren’t, like trying to undermine the outcome of a presidential election, there were deep roots in what he preached long before he took office. The Tea Party, made up of far-right politicians who won a significant number of congressional seats in the 2010 midterm elections, for example, was pushing conspiracy theories, voting restrictions and debt ceiling threats long before Trump. take his partisan style to the highest levels of power. .

Ending Trumpism will require a massive effort by the party to reconfigure its coalition and find leaders who promote a different kind of conservatism than what Trump has to offer. Like former Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, members of the Republican Party will need to be willing to hold their own leaders accountable for the kind of behavior Trump engaged in, regardless of the cost to his own future. Doing so will also require painful and politically risky breaks with party officials and voters who continue to push the party toward its current state. It will require powerful donors to pour their resources into candidates at all levels of government, just as the Koch brothers did during the 1990s and 2000s.

Whether the party really wants to do it is an open question. When opposing the denial of the election or threatening to send the country into bankruptcy constitutes an act of bravery, then it is clear that the party is deep in the Trumpian red. Right now, most seem pretty content with the status quo.