It’s an out-of-body experience when the reporter becomes the story. That’s what happened to me last week when Stephen Bannon chose me to telephone—for a friend-seeking conversation that turned into his own self-immolation.
In the course of interviewing Bannon, and subsequently appearing on several TV and radio discussions to assess what had happened, I found myself taking a much closer look at Bannon and his modus operandi. The indispensable guide to the back story is Josh Green’s terrific book Devil’s Bargain, which recounts how Bannon built Breitbart News into an organizing machine that would turn alienated fringe elements into an army of shock troops for Trump.
The right and even some on the left have tried to debunk Green’s book as a love letter to Bannon. That’s malarkey. Green, a superb reporter, gave Bannon plenty of rope and Bannon explained just what unfolded at Breitbart and in the Trump campaign. Bannon did something of the same in his conversation with me.
The grandiose Bannon needs to be taken with a ton of salt, of course. But he is so full of himself that he can’t resist spilling the beans, even to lefty reporters. That’s a big part of what finally proved too much for Trump. In Trumpland, as the Mooch found, you don’t get to upstage the boss.
And let’s take a closer look at those beans. Here is the important thing to appreciate about Bannon: Much of Trump’s anti-immigrant and racist lashing out, and his coddling of neo-Nazis, seems mere spite and impulsivity. But there was a method in this madness, and Bannon was the architect of the method.
At Breitbart, Bannon realized, much as Hitler did in the 1920s, that masses of people, consigned to the fringes of society, displaced from the economy, appalled by the avant garde culture of the era (as in Weimar), could be turned into a political force that would punch far above its weight.
Most alienated white working-class Americans are not neo-Nazis, of course, but Bannon’s dark genius was to connect passive or disaffected people to the far right, and to bridge the established cultural right of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to the neo-fascist right. Before Bannon, Trump could periodically assume the role of a racial liberal. His reality TV shows, as Green’s book recounts, had a large black and Hispanic audience because Trump went out of his way to include minorities as contestants. Bannon persuaded Trump to discard all of that. Long before he joined the campaign, as Green’s book reveals, Bannon was coaching Trump on scapegoating Mexicans and pointing him to Breitbart items to read, which directly influenced Trump’s statements (though Trump was embracing wacko birtherism long before Bannon).
Here’s the point: Bannon, unlike Trump and unlike much of the neo-fascist right, actually had a strategic game plan. Make vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy legitimate politics and tap into a well of feeling that immigrants are taking jobs from white Americans: thus Mexicans as criminals and building the wall.
It made no sense as policy, but it revved up anti-immigrant sentiment and positioned Trump as champion of displaced American workers. Thus rallies energizing the far right. It was pure Bannon. And then create a form of economic nationalism that actually delivers.
Bannon, unlike much of the Trump administration, sought to connect a newly legitimatized racist and nativist backlash to a program of economic nationalism that would provide tangible benefits to a frustrated white working class, not just photo ops at factories. He hoped that the racist part of the grand strategy would bait Democrats into defending minorities while Republicans attracted white workers with economic benefits.
“The Democrats,” he told me in the interview that resulted in his dismissal, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Unlike a lot of random bigots, Bannon cultivated a brand of economic nationalism that had a strategic coherence. He favored a large program of public infrastructure, tax increases for the rich, and a get-tough program with China intended to bring home industrial jobs. He phoned me because that paralleled some of my views, forgetting for the moment that the Prospect and I abhor everything else Bannon stands for.
Trump intermittently channeled the positive part of the Bannon strategy, but mainly at the level of rhetoric. The actual tax, trade, and investment policies he’s promoted reflect the more substantial influence of the corporate wing of the administration, and do nothing for the working class. This will only intensify with Bannon’s departure.
After his ouster, Bannon told The Weekly Standard that “the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” (Well, lets hope so.) Bannon’s strategic view of reactionary economic nationalism suggested a possible majority politics—but this coherence was precluded both by Trump’s personal instability and by the corporate lock on the Republican Party.
Now, we are left just with the bigotry—the growl on the face of the Cheshire Cat—and it remains to be seen whether Trump, out of inertial momentum, will keep doubling down on the bigotry, or to try to mend fences with the corporate right. It also remains to be seen whether Bannon’s role will be to stay in Trump’s kitchen cabinet, or whether he will embrace Breitbart’s current strategy of beating up on Trump. Even with Bannon’s agility, it’s hard to see how he can do both.
In the wings is a more progressive brand of economic nationalism: extensive public investments; promotion of domestic industry; heightening wage standards and worker rights; a more balanced trade policy; and rejection of made-on-Wall-Street trade deals that were really deregulation deals.
During the postwar boom, the Bretton Woods system created the space for a benign form of mixed economy and economic nationalism. The system’s rules constrained the toxic influence of speculative finance and allowed nation states to govern capitalism in a broad public interest. Since the 1970s, the resurgent right has dismantled that model, producing both ideological confusion (If laissez-faire is not optimal domestically why does it suddenly become optimal globally?) and neo-fascist backlash (With New Democrats and New Labor embracing corporate-led globalism, who if anyone is on the workers’ side?).
Alas, even astute media commentators seem to think there is only one sort of economic nationalism, and that it’s bad for the economy. A recent piece by the Times’ Eduardo Porter was titled “Trump’s Choice: Follow the Postwar Order or Blow it Up.” But the postwar order that served ordinary working people was blown up in the 1970s. There is today a three-way fight between the economic establishment, left-populists, and right-populists about what kind of order should replace the present one, which produces both vast inequality and periodic crashes. Most pundits see only a two-way fight between economically correct globalists, and jingoist nationalists.
Tom Edsall, perhaps the single most insightful analyst of the working-class backlash, wrote a Times piece titled “The End of the Left and the Right as We Knew Them.” Edsall’s point is that with globalists dominating both right-wing parties and center-left parties, it’s not clear who if anyone is looking out for the working class.
Bannon has a coherent strategy of how the far right could fill that vacuum. Trump’s gestures in that direction were head-fakes, except for the racism. Bannon will still try to promote that politics from Breitbart, where he will have less influence than at the White House.
Now, more than ever, it’s time for a progressive populism and a progressive economic politics and program to fill the vacuum.