Washington is abuzz with chatter about President Donald Trump’s latest comments concerning his chief ideologist, Stephen K. Bannon, which suggest he may be on his way out. Trump said this:
“I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump said. “I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
Bannon only got involved in his campaign “very late,” Trump says. But as Aaron Blake points out: “Bannon joined the campaign in August for the lion’s share of the general election, taking on the role of campaign CEO.” Indeed Bannon reportedly co-wrote Trump’s dystopian convention speech, which he described as “an unvarnished declaration of the basic principles of his populist and nationalist movement.” Bannon’s blueprint currently remains the touchstone for Trumpist governance, if you can call it that.
Which raises a question: if Bannon is indeed seeing his influence wane, is there any evidence that the stench of Bannonism itself is any less prevalent in this White House? Perhaps Bannon is getting pushed out, but will that change the fact that the Trump agenda continues to reflect the ugliest aspects of Bannon’s nativist nationalism in as pronounced a fashion as ever?
The Trump administration is still fighting in court to try to rescue his ban on refugees (including from Syria) and migrants from Muslim-majority countries — even after Trump bombed Syria out of professed concern for Syrian civilians victimized by the government. The shift to mass deportations is underway: Anecdotal tales are coming in about parents who are yanking kids from daycare out of fear of removal and about longtime residents with no other offenses who are gettingdeported. People who previously were low priorities for deportation now fear that routine check-ins with immigration officials will result in their removal. Trump’s vast expansion of the pool of targets for deportation is creating precisely the climate of fear — and, perhaps, the self-deportations — that it is designed to create.
Meanwhile, Politico reports that the administration is demanding that both funding for the Mexican wall and language restricting funding to sanctuary cities — thus punishing localities that don’t enforce the federal immigration crackdown — must be included in the upcoming spending bill, which could cause a government shutdown. CNN reports that immigration hardliners are in the process of getting installed in key immigration posts. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions just announced that prosecutors must try to charge border crossers with a felony (even though the move’s impact on deportation efforts remains unclear), while declaring: “this is the Trump era.” Reminder: If Bannon does get pushed out, Sessions remains in the perfect position to carry out Trumpism’s worst impulses in the areas of immigration and criminal justice.
It is sometimes argued that Bannon’s decline can be seen in the fact that his “economic nationalism” is losing influence inside the White House. But this misses the fact that there has never been any evidence that his “economic” nationalism has led him to try to get Trump to adopt any particular policies. Bannon allies made a great show of leaking his disdain for Paul Ryan’s health care plan (when it collapsed), but the fact remains that the White House threw its lot in with Ryanism at a critical moment, backing a health plan that would roll back the coverage of millions, including untold numbers of lower-income Trump voters. Bannon pushed that plan among congressional Republicans, and if he has any populist health care alternative to the Ryanism he supposedly disdains, we haven’t seen it.
We are supposed to believe that Trumpist economic nationalism — as shaped by Bannon — embraces a heterodox combination of hard-line immigration restrictionism and pro-worker trade policies and a decisive ideological break with Ryanism when it comes to spending and social insurance for the elderly. But the ambition of Trump’s actual trade agenda is withering, and we don’t even know whether it will help workers. And while Bannon early on talked a good game about infrastructure spending, there’s no indication of any actual plan beyond a tax break and privatization scheme. Meanwhile, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney is now declining to say whether Trump would veto a bill that contained the sort of cuts to Medicare that Paul Ryan has long championed (and Trump opposed).
Perhaps Bannon objects to that posture on Medicare, and maybe future reporting will establish this. But the point is that there’s no particular reason to believe he has any problem with it. The strains of Bannon’s nationalism that have turned up in actual policy are mainly the nativist ones. And whatever happens to Bannon, there’s no indication that those strains won’t continue to shape Trump’s agenda.