Stephen Bannon has proven remarkably talented at creating a media mystique around himself. With his diligent assistance, he has been portrayed as both a virtuoso of deliberately orchestrated disruption and an avenging angel to working-class people (such as his father) who have been betrayed by global and financial elites. Bannon cleverly wields chaos to destabilize those elite foes in service of an economic nationalist mission that borders on Messianism.
But now Bannon is being primarily viewed inside the White House as a destructive force, and other senior advisers are trying to undermine him in the eyes of President Donald Trump himself, according to multiple reports out this morning. Those reports undercut the narrative of Bannon as a Maestro of Disruption, and they also provide an occasion to probe the true nature of his self-ascribed economic nationalism.
The New York Times reports that Bannon’s removal on Wednesday from his post at the National Security Council is part of a broader internal push that may “diminish” his role. His position has been “undermined” by the failure of the immigration ban, which has been blocked by the courts. Trump “initially supported” Bannon when he delivered an ultimatum to House Republicans that they must vote on the GOP health-care bill or else (they didn’t vote), but then Trump handed off health care to Vice President Mike Pence. And Bannon is clashing with Jared Kushner and irritating the Big Man himself:
“Mr. Kushner . has said privately that he fears that Mr. Bannon plays to the president’s worst impulses, according to people with direct knowledge of such discussions.
“Moreover, Mr. Bannon’s Svengali-style reputation has chafed on a president who sees himself as the West Wing’s only leading man. Several associates said the president had quietly expressed annoyance over the credit Mr. Bannon had received for setting the agenda - and Mr. Trump was not pleased by the ’President Bannon’ puppet-master theme promoted by magazines, late-night talk shows and Twitter.”
In practice, Bannonite disruption is upstaging the president and being blamed for the failure of the immigration ban. Recall that allies of Bannon initially cast the ban as a masterful coup. A senior administration official (gosh, who could that be?) recently told Bloomberg that Bannon deliberately arranged the release of the first ban on a Friday so that opponents could stage massive weekend protests that would draw maximum attention. Wow, disruption! In reality, Bannon made a hash of it.
What’s more, Kushner now allegedly believes that Bannon — presumably his combative nationalism — is aggravating Trump’s worst impulses. Politico’s reporting indicates a similar dynamic, in which Kushner sees Bannon as an “ideologue whose advice to Trump is making it harder for the president to win popular support,” and an ally of Bannon sees the clash as one between the “nationalists and the West Wing Democrats.”
Bannon himself has talked a great game about his “economic nationalism,” which is supposed to distinguish him from both the squishy globalists inside the White House and the Ayn Randian limited government Paul Ryan Republicans in Congress. But what has it really amounted to so far?
When the health bill was tanking, allies of Bannon leaked that he saw an opportunity to undermine Ryan, whose bill, Bannon believed, was “written by the insurance industry,” suggesting Bannon and Trump secretly harbor more populist impulses than Ryan on health care. But where’s the evidence of this? The White House fully embraced Ryanism at an absolutely critical moment, throwing in with a plan that would have hurt many lower-income Trump voters and rolled back coverage for millions, violating Trump’s pledge of “insurance for everybody” and his vow not to cut Medicaid, while delivering a huge tax cut for the rich. If Bannon has an actual plan or even a vague vision for a health-care alternative to the Ryanism that he supposedly disdains, we haven’t seen it.
On taxes, Trump will forge ahead with a plan that delivers an enormous tax cut for the rich, and according to Robert Draper, Bannon may also be open to repeal of the estate tax. Populist! It’s possible we may see Bannon’s economic nationalism shape Trump’s coming agenda on infrastructure and trade. Bannon has vowed a massive public expenditure on infrastructure. But we still don’t know whether Trump’s actual plan will amount to much more than a tax break and privatization scheme. Perhaps Trump will get some species of border adjustment tax on imports. But we still don’t know whether Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA will do anything to empower workers — and union leaders are skeptical based on what they’ve seen so far.
Bannon’s economic nationalism deserves more scrutiny. He claims he’s angry at Wall Street elites, but Trump has already moved to gut Wall Street oversight. This is not necessarily contradictory — Bannon believes Wall Street needs to regain its sense of responsibility to workers — but that isn’t a plan, and at any rate, Bannon’s true anti-elite ire seems aimed at administrators and bureaucrats. In practice, this seems to be translating into massive proposed cuts to environmental oversight (that won’t actually restore coal jobs), science and medical research, and programs that spur economic development in Trump country.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, what evidence is there that Bannon’s “economic nationalism” amounts to much more than the nativist nationalism we’ve seen — the travel ban, the immigration restrictionism, the wall on the Mexican border, and the support for assorted right-wing nationalist movements worldwide?