In a post last November I wrote a piece entitled "What Kind of America Does Steve Bannon Want?" I wrote about how his view of America seems to be very much at odds with the view held by the Republican establishment, i.e., the world dominated by the Koch Brothers, American Heritage, their creatures in the Beltway legislatures, and Conservative Movement media like the National Review. So I was interested to watch how this would play out--who would win in the infighting between him and the GOP's establishment guy in the Oval Office, Reince Priebus? And while it's very early yet, and we don't know much about what has happened behind the scenes, it looks like Bannon is playing more of a propagandist's role rather than having much of any say in shaping policy.
Personnel is policy, and almost every appointment Trump has made regarding domestic policy is acceptable to the GOP's establishment ideologues and is consistent with their strategy to destroy the Federal government's powers to restrain predatory elites from doing as they please. Where is Bannon's anti-elite, anti-establishement hand in these cabinet picks?
- Betsy DeVos, a billionaire and long-time Koch ally
- Wilbur Ross, billionaire vulture investor at Commerce
- Tom Price, the venal, ethically challenged pick for Health and Human Services
- Steve Mnuchin, another Goldman-Sachs alum at Treasury
- Rick Perry, a truly, deeply clueless fossil fuel industry apologist, at Energy
- Scott Pruitt, another pro-fossil fuel ideologue and climate-change denier at the EPA
- Ben Carson, absurdly the pick for HUD
It would be hard to come up with a list of appointees who could be less populist, less interested in the concerns of ordinary Americans. And then you have Tillerson at state, who while being a rather eccentric pick, is precisely the kind of global elite that Bannon rails against.
So did Bannon have any influence in determining any of Trump's picks? Maybe Jeff Sessions was his idea. I don't know. But otherwise he seems to have had no influence in shaping these most important appointments. Was he outmaneuvered by Priebus, or is it that Trump never thought of him as being involved in policy, but to play a role mainly in papering over anti-populist policies with propaganda that plays to the base?
We've seen neither hide nor hair of Bannon lo these many weeks until the Trump's inauguration speech, and there was his anti-establishment economic nationalism on full display. The NYT's Jonathan Martin announced that this is a clear shot across the bow of the GOP establishment:
While some of his advisers suggested that he would slip back into a more conventional Republican approach, Mr. Trump dropped hints in interviews, Twitter posts and other public comments that he intended to push his party away from its free-market, internationalist dogma on trade, foreign alliances, immigration, infrastructure spending and prescription drug access.
The hints are over.
An inaugural speech delivered with the same blunt force that propelled Mr. Trump’s insurgent campaign has dashed Republican hopes for a more traditional agenda. With his “new decree,” he declared himself modern America’s first populist president — and all but dared his own party to resist his Republican reformation.
Really?! Unless I'm missing something here, this appears to be another classic example of NYT cluelessness. The disconnect between what the speech said and the appointments that Trump has made is jarring. Who among his appointments will oversee this populist agenda beyond the immigration issue? It will be interesting to see if Trump really moves against establishment dogma on free trade. I doubt Tillerson, Mnuchin, or Ross will support him. They would be traitors to their class if they did.
So we'll see. But in the meanwhile my assumption is that personnel is policy, not red-meat speeches designed to distract and entertain the groundlings. I will assume until proven wrong that the right-wing populists who elected for Trump hired the fox to manage the chicken coop, and Bannon's speech is simply a cynical tactic to keep the chickens happy for the time being.
We'll see how this plays out, but it would appear that the Trump m.o., at least for now, is to continue to pretend that he's a populist assuming that his low-info base will believe him simply because he says he is one, while at the same time he pursues anti-populist policies that are totally consonant with the interests and goals of the elites that Bannon insists he wants to discomfit.
So if Bannon continues in this administration, it appears at least now that his role it will be as propagandist not as policymaker. He with Kelly Anne Conway and Sean Spicer will have the responsibility to tell the Big Lies (aka alternative facts) that his base will continue to believe for reasons Hannah Arendt explained years ago.
UPDATE: Trump killed TPP yesterday, so that's clearly a Bannon-supported move and an anti-GOP establishment move. The next thing to watch for is whether he keeps his and Bannon's infrastructure promise, and if he does to whom will he turn to for support? He can kill TPP with the stroke a pen, but he'll need the GOP establishment to back him on a big capital project. How will they pay for it? Will he turn to Dems for support on that?
Maybe. But while I may be proved wrong on this, I think it's more likely that the infrastructure promise is propaganda, and it's more likely that Trump will give up and say that at least he tried, with the idea that the base will blame congress rather than blame him when it comes to nothing.
The fact remains that there is an inherent contradiction between the Bannon economic nationalist program and the establishment appointments that Trump has made, and so far, at least, almost everything that Trump has done so far aligns with the goals of the GOP establishment. If you're a betting man, you'd have to put your money on the establishment types winning out over Bannon on most issues, even if Bannon gets a few crumbs tossed his way now and then.
Nevertheless, it's early, and if I am underestimating Bannon's role in shaping policy, then things will get very interesting indeed.