I cannot take Trump seriously as someone who will take governing seriously. He will see the presidency as his own reality show, and will care mainly about his ratings. So one has to wonder which faction among his advisors he will see as more likely to deliver the higher ratings--the Priebus/GOP establishment faction or the Bannon/Alt-Right faction. It's hard to see these two factions living together amicably, so one or the other will play the more dominant role. I'm not sure which one I hope will win.
If Priebus wins, then so do McConnell and Ryan. If Bannon wins, then it looks like we might very well be getting something unexpected. Bannon is a wild card, and so while I think I understand the motivations and agenda of Priebus/McConnell/Ryan--same old carrying water for the 1%--I don't pretend at this point to understand Bannon, his motivations, or his agenda. So we owe it to ourselves to make some attempt to take the measure of the man. And I do so in the spirit expressed by Andrew O'Hehir in an interesting piece on Bannon over the weekend:
According to many people who evidently don’t care for him, Bannon is a racist, a white supremacist or a white nationalist (which are not all the same thing), and may also be an anti-Semite and a misogynist. These epithets may or may not be accurate, but they strike me as giving off more heat than light. They provide very little information about what sort of person the incoming White House strategist might be, or what he might want.
Bannon himself insists that he's not a racist. He will admit that racists and anti-Semites are attracted to Breitbart, and in an interview with Sarah Posner at Mother Jones he calls Breitbart the platform of the Alt Right, and the Alt Right surely comprises racists and white nationalists. But he insists that skin-color racism is not what he, personally, stands for or what Breitbart stands for now or ever. He sees himself instead as an anti-elitist, anti-globalist nationalist and an economic populist, and he delights in saying that the Liberal media don't have a clue as to what he's about. Michael Wolff in a very interesting piece he did recently on Bannon in the Hollywood Reporter talks about how Bannon sees himself as aligning with the interests of downwardly mobile America:
To say that he sees this donor class—which in his telling is also “ascendant America,” e.g. the elites, as well as “the metrosexual bubble” that encompasses cosmopolitan sensibilities to be found as far and wide as Shanghai, London’s Chelsea, Hollywood and the Upper West Side—as a world apart, is an understatement. In his view, there’s hardly a connection between this world and its opposite — fly-over America, left-behind America, downwardly mobile America—hardly a common language.
This is partly why he regards the liberal characterization of himself as socially vile, as the politically incorrect devil incarnate, as laughable—and why he is stoutly unapologetic. They—liberals and media—don’t understand what he is saying, or why, or to whom. ...
He absolutely—mockingly—rejects the idea that this is a racial line. “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist,” he tells me. “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over. If we deliver—” by “we” he means the Trump White House “—we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years. That’s what the Democrats missed, they were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.”
In a nascent administration that seems, at best, random in its beliefs, Bannon can seem to be not just a focused voice, but almost a messianic one:
“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he says. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
Now I don't know enough about Bannon to judge how seriously to take this, but this is not the McConnell/Ryan vision for America. Bannon appears to hate the Republican establishment as much as anybody on the populist Left. We'll see If that's true. If it is, should we expect him to reach out to the Bernie Sanders' populist Left to get, say, his infra-structure plan implemented? Certainly the Ryan/McConnell establishment Right has no interest in supporting such a project. It's plausible because Trump certainly owes nothing to the Republican establishment, and especially to Ryan and McConnell, and I think he would enjoy showing them up. A lot depends on the outcome of the infighting between Priebus and Bannon and our learning who Steve Bannon really is. That will be interesting, if somewhat frightening, to watch.
Because if Bannon turns out truly to be an economic populist, is the cost of embracing that program too great if it turns out that white nationalism will be strengthened by it? He can deny it all he wants, but his brand of nationalism clearly has white nationalist overtones, or Breitbart would not be such a magnet for people with those sentiments. And even if he's personally not racist, he's playing with fire insofar as he and Trump draw on racist passons to fuel support for their agenda.
While supporters of a traditional America and white nationalism are not the same thing, clearly there is some significant overlap between them. Today's NYT piece on white nationalism makes the distinction between traditionalist cultural nationalists and racists:
Several studies of other countries have found that a desire to protect traditional values and culture is the strongest predictor of support for the sort of populism that propelled Mr. Trump to power in the United States.
Many of those voters would not think of themselves as white nationalists, and the cultural values and traditions they seek to protect are not necessarily explicitly racial. However, those traditions formed when national identity and culture were essentially synonymous with whiteness. So the impulse to protect them from social and demographic change is essentially an attempt to turn back the clock to a less-diverse time.
And ends with this warning:
Mr. Trump’s criticism of immigrants and promise to “make America great again” may have tapped into those same cultural anxieties, fueling his success with older and less-educated white voters. (Over all, he won white voters by 21 percentage points.)
Professor Kaufmann argues that anxiety over white identity and anti-immigrant populist politicians can have a symbiotic relationship, each strengthening the other. When populist politicians gain mainstream success, that can make white nationalist ideas more socially acceptable.
“It’s not just a question of ethnic change and people being alarmed over it,” he said. “It’s also a question of what people see as the boundaries of acceptable opposition. It’s about what counts as racism, and whether it’s racist to vote for a far-right party.”
“This is all about the anti-racist norm,” Professor Kaufmann continued. “If it’s weakening or eroding because people think the boundaries have shifted.”
Shifting norms on race are deeply worrying. But I think whatever the vestigial presence of traditional racism in America, it is being stimulated by legitimate pressures flowing from globalization. Globalization has a negative impact on ordinary people both in economic and cultural identity terms. The two do go together in ways that affect ordinary Americans in heartland America negatively while at the same time benefiting coastal cosmopolitans. Ordinary white, working class Americans feel themselves under siege both economically and in terms of their basic identity as Americans. Cosmopolitans mainly see the culture war aspect, but are unaware of how that plays into a very real class war. People who vote Blue are siding with the Global elites whether they are aware of it or not.
It's easy for coastal cosmopolitan Blues to dismiss Trump voters as delusory and troglodytic, but the loss of meaning is deeply real for them. The American meaning story, that has been mostly a white European meaning story, has been under attack during the same decades that they have seen their economic fortunes diminish. Downward mobility is scary, and it's understandable that people experiencing it are angry, and they don't want to hear any patronizing, sanctimonious crap from coastal cosmopolitan Blues about their being racist. Steve Bannon understands this very well, and he's exploiting it very skillfully for his own purposes.
So, yes, many in the Tea Party are not really economic populists. The Koch-Brothers Right is mainly driven by an Ayn Randian ideology that is about as anti-populist as you can get. And yet it has played a significant role in shaping the agenda and thinking of the Tea Party Right because of the way it reinforces a rugged individualist mythos that gives Americans, whether they are ascending or descending, a sense of meaning and identity. I think Bannon is presenting himself as a competitor with the Koch Brothers to be a more effective spokesperson for the aggrieved, populist wing of the Tea Party Right. If we take him at his word he will do it by both providing the meaning-affirming nationalist mythos (MAGA) and deliver, an nationalist economic program--good paying jobs, and "It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution— conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
I don't know if he's serious, but it sounds like a winning formula to me. Bannon gets in a way that cosmopolitan Blues don't that there really is a class conflict dimension to this. And he is looking to exploit it. And if he's successful if he will dislodge the populist wing of the Tea Party from the Kochs and possibly develop a very powerful, lasting right-leaning coalition because the Left, when given the opportunity did not give populists a constructive, progressive channel.
I don't know if I'm right about that, but this much is clear: there are no real power centers on the Left that are competing for the populist vote. Sanders tried and failed; Bannon and Trump tried and succeeded. It may turn out that Trump will align with the Ryan/McConnell establishment elites, but he may not, he may stick it out with the populists who brought him to the dance, and since Bannon is calling the tune, that could be even more scary.
In the meanwhile most liberals in Blue America are not understanding what's really going on. Blue-leaning non-elites will probably tell you that they are appalled by the racism and jingoism of the most enthusiastic Trump supporters, and so that makes them lean more toward the world view of the global elites who are politically correct on those issues. But they are being driven into the arms of the enemy, so to speak, in the same way that many people in heartland American feel they are being driven into Trump's arms.
O"Hehir's piece is a riff on Bannon's self describing himself as a Leninist, which for Bannon means that he sees himself, like Lenin, as a class warrior on a mission to destroy the old order. O'Hehir says that his interviewer "Radosh remembers him saying, 'Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.'” O'Hehir draws some other similarities to Lenin:
Both Lenin and Bannon were thrust into positions of power unexpectedly, before objective conditions appeared “ready,” although the specifics are different in important ways. Although Lenin was not the only public face of the Bolshevik Revolution, he was its acknowledged leader and principal theoretician. No one else could possibly have seized the reins of the newborn Soviet state, or have kept it alive for more than a few months. Bannon is the power behind the throne in a much murkier arrangement, where the outward forms of democracy must be maintained even though the new regime and its supporters openly yearn for a different direction. (You know where I’m going with that — but I won’t use the word!)
That unpreparedness — that sense of a revolutionary movement gathering uncontrollable and unpredictable momentum, in a context of political chaos — had well-known historical consequences in the first instance, even if scholars continue to argue about them a century later. What will the consequences be for Steve Bannon and his free-range figurehead, neither of whom had any reasonable expectation of ending up where they are today?
So yes, that echoes what I had to say about the worse case scenario in a post last week. It could very well play out that way. Or maybe in some way that we simply cannot predict right now. So which would you choose? A Priebus/McConnell/Ryan Trump presidency or the wild card--Bannon/Leninist/Jacksonian one?