We are headed into what is sure to be one of the most vile electoral battles in recent history. Last week, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former minstrel of malevolence, outlined Trump’s strategy for the midterms in an hour-long interview on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show. Ousted from the White House and from Breitbart, Bannon is more commentator than commander, but his strategy echoed the foul rant Trump delivered in Macomb County, Michigan, in April.
Trump will purposefully nationalize the midterms, and cowed Republicans will fall in line. This will be a “base-plus election,” Bannon argued. Trump will be “on the ballot in every congressional district.” It will be an up-down vote on Trump; “Trump or Pelosi”—impeachment or continue the Trump course.
Trump will reprise the themes of 2016: Trump against the failed political class, America First against the feckless elite globalists, and, of course, the politics of racial fear and division.
Trump will take credit for the economy, touting the benefits of his top-end tax cuts. But, Bannon warns Republicans, “ads on tax cuts alone [are] not going to resonate.”
The key is Trump’s right-wing nationalist populism. Trump will posture on trade, take on the Chinese, stand up for the American worker, and claim that companies are coming back home.
“The wall,” Bannon argued, is central to this. It is more than “totemic.” Immigration “is about not just sovereignty. It’s about jobs,” Bannon said. Trump has limited the flow of “massive illegal immigration,” Bannon claimed (incorrectly), and “that’s why we have the lowest black unemployment in history…and wages starting to rise particularly in agriculture.”
So, Bannon predicted, when the fiscal year ends in September, if the Congress doesn’t include “full funding” of the wall in the continuing resolution, Trump will shut down the government.
Bannon isn’t simply blowing smoke. In April, Donald Trump traveled to Macomb County, Michigan, to deliver a stump speech that turned into one of his more demented screeds. He savaged “liberal politicians who support criminal aliens…over American citizens. Nancy Pelosi and her gang.” After touting his trade and tax policies, he returned to immigration, denouncing “Democrats in Congress, Nancy Pelosi, Schumer for opposing “every effort…to keep the violent criminals like MS-13 the hell out of our country and to stop the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs which are pouring into our country.”
He promised that the wall would be built, and if Congress didn’t pay for it, “we will close down the country.” (Mexico has somehow slipped the bill). And, of course, since then Trump has once more assailed NFL players for kneeling during the anthem, suggesting that they shouldn’t be in the country.
Bannon’s interview took place in Italy, where right-wing populists and left-wing populists (in Bannon’s telling) had just garnered 65 percent of the vote, and united to form a government. He argued that the United States is headed down that path. Indeed, as Bannon sees it, if “Bernie Sanders had more stones,” he would have been the nominee, and we would have seen a Trump-Sanders race.
Bannon argued that the source of the populist upheaval is the failure of “crony capitalism”—a corrupt elite government class. The turning point was the financial crisis when the elites that caused it ensured that they were bailed out, while everyday Americans suffered. “If you owned real estate, stocks or intellectual property,” you enjoyed the “greatest 10-year run in history. The working guy has been stiffed the entire time and that is the revolt that led to Donald Trump,” he said.
Bannon, clearly seeking a way back into Trump’s graces, was fulsome in his praise of The Donald. Yes, the tax cut was skewed to the rich, but it is unleashing the “animal spirits” in the economy. Forget about Trump’s bizarre zigzags on China: “We’ve got China right where we want them.”
One core of “right-wing populism,” Bannon argued, is the massive deregulation that is happening under the radar, aided and abetted by Trump’s judicial appointments. “Deconstructing the administrative state” is “opening up entrepreneur opportunities for working class people, more of a piece of the action for the working class and the lower middle class.”
And that, of course is Trump and Bannon’s big lie. Trump postures as a right-wing populist, but his policies are for and by the corporations and the already wealthy. His tax cut wasn’t simply skewed to the rich and corporations. It gave multinationals a permanent incentive to move jobs abroad, and eviscerated the estate tax, helping to foster dynastic oligarchy. His deregulation doesn’t open space for working people. It is written by corporate lobbyists, and rolls back protections for consumers, workers and the environment. It isn’t an accident that the first executive order Trump signed reversed the “fiduciary rule,” the simple requirement that financial advisers not cheat their clients saving for retirement. Trump’s judges are corporate activists. Their major decisions have protected the corporate move to compulsory arbitration, constricting consumers’ right to join in class actions to protect their rights, and the anticipated ruling in Janus v. AFCSME, designed to cripple public-employee unions.
How do Democrats respond to what will surely be a vile and ugly race-baiting campaign this fall? They don’t do it by following traditional strategies, running candidates on their nice biographies, emphasizing local issues. The election will be nationalized, like it or not.
Democrats shouldn’t echo Madeline Albright’s complaint in her book Fascism: A Warning that Americans have grown “lazy” and don’t realize that “globalization is a fact of life, not an ideology.” Trump on the right and Sanders on the left have exploded the conventional wisdom that America’s globalization strategy, which has served the few and skewered the many, is somehow inevitable and inalterable.
The party also shouldn’t repeat the dulcet refrains of Senator Chris Murphy and the New Democrat Network’s Simon Rosenthal, that Democrats should try to sell the immense progress that has been made with the glorious benefits of free trade, and that “America is not in decline and is in fact doing as well as it has in any point in our history.” Forty percent of the country can’t afford the price of basic goods, and those costs are still rising faster than wages. The soaring rate of suicides and decline in life expectancy for two years running might sober the cheerleaders a bit.
No, the only real answer to Trump’s racist right-wing populism is to take it on directly. Race-baiting politics can’t be ducked; they must be confronted. And Trump’s fake populism has to be exposed and contrasted with the real thing.
The strongest response, as research by Demos has suggested, is to expose the truth. Trump and the Republican Congress are hurting most Americans with kickbacks for the rich, cuts in education, and attempts to roll back health care, Medicare, and Social Security. Then they try to put the blame on the poor, blacks, and recent immigrants, using racial appeals to divide us and distract us from the heist they are running on working people.
Bannon has one thing right: This argument has just begun. The failure of the elite project has unleashed new political movements. “I think it’s a long time,” he argued, “before we bind up the wounds. We got a lot more fighting, a lot more fighting, a lot more scar tissue to go over.”
Trump’s big lie is clear. The ugliness will be baked into Republican campaigns across the country. The question is whether Democrats take up the challenge.