There is an almost eerily palpable silence in place of what was once the near-constant clamor of unfounded claims and exhortations of former President Donald Trump, usually via his bullhorn of choice, Twitter. But the shadow of his influence still looms large, so much so that more than a few political commentators have pronounced, especially after the riots at the Capitol, that despite unquestionably losing the election, in some ways Trump really did win.

What these commentators mean, of course, is that while Trump is out of the White House and even out of sight on social media, Trumpism is still alive and well as evident in the GOP members of Congress who remain loyal to him, the 70% of Republican voters who would consider joining him were he to start a new party, and the 76% of Republicans who still believe the election was stolen from him.

Throughout the four years of the Trump presidency, media commentators long sought to offer explanations for this fierce loyalty that Trump somehow always seemed to command no matter what he did. And as the smoke and debris from the Capitol riots cleared away, "no matter what" increasingly started to feel like literally no matter what. Even now, though momentarily invisible and silent, Trump's presence can still be felt as the impeachment trial gets underway, a trial that most Republicans in Congress voted against.

How does Trump do it despite no longer holding office, despite even being largely silent and invisible (for the moment)? The answer, as we will argue, is something called credibility capital. And to understand the phenomenon of Trumpism, it is necessary to understand what credibility capital is and the extraordinarily powerful way that Trump uses it in a way that is virtually unmatched in U.S. political history.

How credibility capital works

Credibility is the perception, held by other people, of someone being trustworthy, believable and having integrity. The keyword here is perception. While those deemed credible might very well have real integrity, all that is required to build credibility capital with others is that they perceive someone to have integrity. A skillful scam artist could therefore command a high level of credibility capital, and indeed that is how many notorious scam artists have been able to pull off their respective schemes.

Credibility capital, then, is the pool of credibility that an individual or organization has built up among a group of people, and this pool of credibility is continually filled or depleted through the ongoing actions of said individual or organization and how others perceive those actions.

Once an individual builds enough credibility capital, he can establish a self-reinforcing loop, an ecosystem of sorts, in which the accumulated capital influences the way his future actions are perceived by his supporters. He can even render himself virtually immune to criticism from the outside.

Trump accomplished this by simultaneously undermining the credibility capital of the news media while building up his own capital. Since the press now has low credibility capital in the eyes of Trump's supporters, any actions by Trump that they judge negatively are only seen as a plus by those supporters, even if said judgments are backed by objective facts. In the credibility ecosystem that Trump has created, if facts are cited by those with low credibility capital, then the facts themselves also have low credibility.

Against this backdrop, Trump planted the seeds of mistrust in his supporters' minds early by saying, months in advance, that the only way he could lose the election was if it was rigged. When Biden won, all he had to do then was essentially say to his followers, See? I told you so. Because his own credibility capital was high, and the news media's was low, his followers had no trouble believing his word over theirs.

In the minds of Trump supporters, the lack of evidence was not a problem. The lack of evidence was in itself "evidence" since, of course, the perpetrators of a conspiracy would hide the evidence of it. Weeks of hysteria then culminated on a chilly Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, when Trump told his followers, "'ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong." We know, tragically, how that show of strength manifested that day, but it would not have been possible without Trump's other source of wealth: his credibility capital.

Donald Trump (pictured at his inauguration January 20, 2017) denounced his Senate trial as part of 'the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country'
Donald Trump (pictured at his inauguration January 20, 2017) AFP / Timothy A. CLARY

The historical lesson of Joseph McCarthy

A historical figure notable for also having had a high degree of credibility capital despite his increasingly outlandish claims is Joseph McCarthy, the mastermind behind the second Red Scare of the 1940s-50s. For McCarthy, going after public figures who had even more credibility capital than he did was one of the primary causes of his eventual downfall. Among these figures was journalist Edward R. Murrow who was widely revered for his integrity and honesty.

Murrow criticized what he saw as the growing excesses of McCarthyism and then invited McCarthy onto his show, "See It Now," for a chance to respond. While on Murrow's show, Mccarthy attacked Murrow and called him a communist sympathizer and "the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors." This was not well received by the public, and the medium that McCarthy had once wielded to build up his credibility capital, television, was now the medium by which that capital was being undermined.

The other figure that McCarthy unwisely took on was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who led the Allied forces to victory in WWII. Eisenhower was so popular and loved by the American public that he very likely could have run for president as either a Republican or a Democrat, been embraced by either party, and won. McCarthy made accusations that the U.S. Army was harboring communists and that even key Eisenhower appointees were communist sympathizers. When Eisenhower fought back, such was his immense repository of credibility capital that even the once popular McCarthy didn’t stand a chance.

What lies ahead for Trump (and Biden)

McCarthy's loss of credibility capital was a combination of his own excesses combined with pushback from those with higher credibility capital. It's not clear if the same fate may await Trump who has done such a masterful job of undermining the credibility, in the eyes of his supporters, of those with opposing viewpoints. Who, if anyone, would be the contemporary equivalent of Eisenhower, for instance — someone so widely admired so as to have more credibility capital than Trump among his supporters? It is difficult to think of anyone, particularly in the wake of the Capitol insurrection.

However, while Trump may be immune at this point to the kind of sudden, dramatic downfall that McCarthy experienced, a gradual erosion of his influence is conceivable now that he no longer has the bully pulpit he once did. And while Mitch McConnell does not have the same level of credibility capital as Trump among the latter's followers, he is nevertheless widely respected within the GOP establishment. McConnell's moves to purge his party of the once-useful Trump is a sign that we may witness a jockeying for credibility within the GOP. Still, such a gradual erosion of Trump's influence is only a possibility, not a certainty, and as we, unfortunately, witnessed on that shameful day, Jan. 6, anything is possible.

There is another scenario that may seem outrageous right now but, as weeks turn into months, may become increasingly plausible. As order is restored in Washington, as the new administration's ambitious plan for fighting the pandemic begins to bear fruit, and as the nation gets another round of much-needed stimulus checks, an uneventful yet competent Biden presidency may win a surprising amount of credibility capital among the sizable portion of the country that did not vote for him. This doesn't necessarily mean that Biden will usurp Trump as the new credibility capital kingpin.

The pursuit of credibility capital isn't always a contest in which there is a clear winner and loser (though that was certainly the case with our historical example of Eisenhower and McCarthy). Credibility can coexist for opposing parties, and Trump doesn’t have to lose his for Biden to gain it among a portion of Trump’s followers. Moreover, credibility capital can reside within the office itself — that is, if Biden can succeed as a low profile president, that could remove the emphasis on a single personality, which is what occurred with Trump, and place it on the office of the presidency itself, thus restoring a measure of faith in the government.

Only one thing is certain at this point: credibility capital lies at the center of how an erstwhile president managed to sow a historically unprecedented level of mistrust in the democratic process and instigated a devastating act of violence upon the country's epicenter of government. To fail to understand what credibility capital is and how it works is to risk either more of Trump or another Trump-like figure, along with more, and possibly worse, acts of violence that no one wishes to see.

(Rebecca Weintraub is a clinical professor of communication and director of the online Master of Communication Management Program at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California; Steven Lewis is a renowned entertainment industry strategist and News & Documentary Emmy Winner)