Is Steve Bannon more dangerous outside the White House than in? And dangerous to whom?
As long as he was in the White House, no matter how much Bannon’s freelancing annoyed President Trump and senior staffers, he was part of the Trump machinery and subject to a modicum of discipline. Now, Bannon is out.
He’s organizing an electoral machine to Trump’s right, and certainly to the right of the Republican Senate leadership—and he hopes to bring that leadership down. For Bannon, the victory in the Alabama Senate primary of former Judge Roy Moore over Mitch McConnell’s favorite, incumbent Luther Strange, was just the beginning.
Speaking after Moore defeated Strange, Bannon declared, “This is a populist nationalist conservative revolt. It’s a revolt against the elites in this country. It’s a revolt against the globalists among those elites.”
Having written up an interview with Bannon in mid-August that helped push him out of the White House, I began thinking that maybe Bannon was happier out than in. A journalist friend confirmed that hunch. So I asked Bannon for a second interview. He was pleased to oblige.
I made a date to come to the Breitbart townhouse, where we spoke for an hour on Thursday afternoon. This time, Bannon was careful to put the conversation on background, but he gave me permission to convey the essence of his views.
Bannon's first conversation with me was animated by his belief that he and I might be allies on the issue of economic nationalism. He continues to look for left-right common ground.
Bannon’s current obsession is to blow up Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Senate incumbents whom he regards as hostile to his brand of nationalism. Bannon believes that if Republicans will just embrace populist economic nationalism, they can become a workers’ party and the majority party for decades to come. He’s been on the road, recruiting primary challengers to knock off Republican incumbents—and carry that populist message.
What does Bannon mean by economic nationalism, and does it really overlap much with any progressive counterpart?
Bannon thinks Wall Street has far too much power and acts against the interests of ordinary workers. Check.
He wants to withdraw from trade agreements that allow cheap labor to compete with domestic labor and prohibit made-in-America policies by labeling them unfair trade practices. Check.
At the same time, however, Bannon is opposed to state-led industrial strategies, which he views as too enabling of big government. He’s for massive infrastructure investment, though it’s hard to see how that could move forward without a major role for government. His view is that small business will come to the rescue.
No checks there.
So while there is some convergence with what progressives have in mind by populist economics, it is far from total. Not to mention the deal-breaker of Bannon’s linkage of economic nationalism with white nationalism.
Another problem with Bannon’s grand strategy is that social conservatives like Roy Moore are right-wing populist on the usual trinity of guns, God, and gays—but are far from economic nationalists. Bannon hopes he can find outsiders who are both social conservatives and Bannon-style economic populists.
The trouble is that this category of Republican candidate is almost a null set. There are none in Congress, and that’s no accident.
For decades, right-wing Republican candidates have gotten elected by marrying social conservatism to big-business conservatism. If Bannon thinks he can break that link, he has his work cut out.
On balance, who is helped and who is hurt by this latest version of Bannon-led far-right populism? To the extent that Bannon links economic nationalism to racist nationalism, it is toxic for the country. In giving a bigger megaphone and governmental power to bigots like Moore, it endangers the idea and reality of liberal democracy.
It’s also hard to see how Bannon’s effort helps the Republican Party. Some of the more moderate Republicans targeted by Bannon and company, such as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, are in swing states. A far-right Republican in Arizona could have more trouble defeating the Democrat in the general election.
Even in Alabama, Moore is too much for many Republican voters. Polls show the Democrat, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, running just a few points behind Moore in the December general election.
It’s also not clear that this Bannon-led schism helps Trump. As much as Trump wants to be the ultimate bomb-thrower, he still needs Republicans in Congress to deliver his legislative agenda. So far, he has failed big time. Open warfare between Trump, Bannon, and McConnell over primary challengers cannot be good for Trump at a time when key legislative priorities such as the tax cut still need to make it through a closely divided Congress
Nor is it good for Trump’s minuscule credibility that his former top strategist, Steve Bannon, keeps making a monkey out of him. After Strange lost, Trump rather pathetically tweeted out this bleat:
In analyzing the Alabama Primary race, FAKE NEWS always fails to mention that the candidate I endorsed went up MANY points after endorsement!
Breitbart, which Bannon chairs, was quick to point out that nothing of the sort had happened.
After Moore’s victory, Bannon said of Trump:
His hardcore base, from Sarah Palin to Ann Coulter to Mark Levin to Dr. Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, the Breitbart crew—all of us were on Judge Moore’s side. There’s a big lesson here: stick to the program.
But Trump is all over the place. He is incapable of sticking to Bannon’s program—or any program. Trump professes to be a populist, but his top aides on the economy are from Goldman Sachs.
The result of a Bannon-led civil war in the Republican Party could well be a GOP even more extremist—and more of a national minority party. In states that have populist Democrats on the ballot, such as Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, it is hard to imagine a Bannon-backed social conservative getting to Brown’s left on pocketbook issues. But centrist Democrats could be vulnerable—if Bannon could truly find some pocketbook populist Republicans.
So, will the Bannon insurgency therefore help the Democrats? Maybe, maybe not. That depends on what the Democrats do.
In theory, Republicans should not be electing senators in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But as long as Democrats offer messages that blend Wall Street, globalism, and identity politics and fail to deliver a politics of class uplift, even extremist Republicans could keep winning. White nationalism is thin gruel economically, but in the absence of a credible alternative it fills the vacuum.
If Bannon’s criticism of establishment Republicans is withering, his contempt for the failure of Democrats to take on their own Wall Street wing is boundless. Democrats, the party of Roosevelt and Truman, of grand public works and strong labor protections, should be making it preposterous for Bannon to pose as any kind of economic populist. The fact that two parties are even in contention over who is the better friend of working people is less to Bannon’s credit than the Democrats' shame.
This post has been updated.