President Donald Trump’s post-election circus of denial casts in bright relief the damage Trumpism has done to conservatism. The ease with which so many Republicans and supposedly conservative thought leaders have parroted his specious election fraud stories underscores a deeper problem: the all-out embrace of grievance politics, which is the rhetorical and epistemological cornerstone of Trumpism.
Victimization, the core of grievance politics, has captured much of the conservative mind, and in case anyone doubted that it could produce real destruction, the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 settled the matter. Trump’s populism has always been more about an aggrieved anti-elitism than bolstering the economic situation of the working class or whatever other worthy cause we have been told repeatedly he was elected to fulfill. By embracing Trumpism, his supporters have discarded the virtues of responsibility and prudence that have long characterized conservatism.
There is a famous Ronald Reagan quote that some Trumpists probably recited in their pre-Trump careers: “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Trumpists have proved willing to disregard and even break laws because they believe themselves to be the victims of a guilty society masterminded by activists and elites.
In a January 6 tweet, removed by Twitter before the president was permanently banned from the platform, Trump proclaimed after his supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!” (emphasis added).