After Steve Bannon departed the White House on August 14, he contacted The Weekly Standard to make a bold proclamation. “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” the administration’s now-former chief strategist said. “We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else.”
Like all propagandists, Bannon has a tendency to exaggerate. But in this case, he does have a point: His departure marks the culmination of Donald Trump’s bait-and-switch presidential campaign. Trump won, in part, because he portrayed himself as an economic populist who would not seek to police the world. Bannon played a key role in pushing those policies, though they never gained much traction in the Trump White House. His departure now confirms President Trump as an interventionist Wall Street Republican. Worst of all, Trump will clearly retain the toxic racial politics that Bannon also championed.
The “Party of Davos,” as Bannon calls it, has won the influence battle inside the White House. Trump’s economic team consists primarily of billionaires, former financial-sector honchos, or both: people like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, and others. Meanwhile, former generals wield nearly unprecedented power in the White House: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and John Kelly, the president’s new chief of staff.
Bannon prided himself as the “keeper of the promises” and tracked Trump’s major campaign pledges on a whiteboard in his office. But it is clear that Bannon wasn’t very successful. He reportedly pressed Trump to keep his campaign promise to avoid foreign entanglements and focus on the need to rebuild America, but Trump has now recommitted himself to the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan by ordering a troop surge that will begin immediately. Trump also escalated the US presence in Syria, redoubled our support of Saudi Arabia’s ugly war against Yemen, has been gearing up for a face-off with Iran, and randomly threatened US military involvement in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
On trade, Bannon championed Trump’s campaign posture against the failed trade policies of the past. He insisted, correctly, that our trade deficit with China was a real security threat, and that the issue shouldn’t be dropped in return for Chinese cooperation on North Korea. But Trump ended up adopting the establishment position and abandoned his charge that China was a currency manipulator. Instead of scrapping NAFTA, Trump has agreed to renegotiate it. His commerce secretary has even suggested that the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which Trump trashed for over a year straight on the campaign trail—might be a template for those negotiations.
Bannon was reportedly skeptical about the bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act that emanated from the Republicans in Congress, arguing that they were “written by the insurance industry.” He wasn’t wrong, but Trump still championed the unpopular legislation, which would have stripped health insurance from millions of people.
On taxes, Bannon voiced support for raising taxes on the rich. The Trump tax plan—such as it is—promises to skew the tax code even more in favor of the very wealthy. And Trump’s budget is simply a blueprint for the kind of austerity that House Speaker Paul Ryan has repeatedly urged: deep cuts in programs for the vulnerable— everything from student aid to affordable housing—while throwing more money at the Pentagon.
To be clear, Bannon was no liberal. With characteristic bombast, he championed the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and was complicit in Trump’s shocking assault on federal regulatory agencies. Nor should we mourn his departure. Bannon’s most dangerous contribution to American politics over the past year was to help mainstream the racist ideas of the alt-right and give them an official spokesperson inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
This, more than anything else, will be Bannon’s legacy. While his positions on the economy and foreign relations were ignored even before he was fired, the racist and nationalist themes in the Bannon playbook are certain to survive his departure. Trump, after all, is the president who saw “many fine people” among the neo-Nazis marching and chanting in Charlottesville.
Inflaming far-right racism will continue to be a key political strategy for the Trump White House. In what turned out to be an exit interview with The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Bannon described the strategy that he and Trump both embrace. “The longer [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” he said. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Having stripped out a lot of the economic nationalism he ran on, Trump is apparently fine carrying on with just the latter.
This is, in many ways, the worst-case scenario. The Party of Davos has won on foreign and economic policy. The right-wing Republican Congress will dominate domestic and budget policy. Trump will continue to waste lives and resources in endless wars without victory across the greater Middle East. He will continue to rack up massive trade deficits, undermining wages and security at home. And he’ll likely continue to go full Bannon on issues of race and immigration.
With any luck, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has noted, the malevolence of the administration will continue to be tempered by its incompetence, and Trump’s evident instability will not result in utter calamities. But he will keep training his fire on Muslims and immigrants, and use race-baiting politics to do real damage when it comes to voter-suppression laws and immigration enforcement. All the while, he will preen about corporate plant openings and make the occasional empty gesture toward an economic populism that would help workers, while signing off on policies that undermine them.
Bannon, for his part, will return to the Breitbart website from whence he came, and will presumably continue to peddle nativist and racist slurs as news while attacking many administration officials as globalist sellouts. Though Trump did indeed surrender on economic populism, Bannon helped build this horrifying Frankenstein.