Steve Bannon’s Nationalism Isn’t About the Economy, Stupid

A man with a lot of economic anxiety. Photo: CBS

Steve Bannon knows what you rootless cosmopolitans think. He’s seen your indignant columns, hysterical petitions, and mean-spirited memes. He’s heard you liken him to Joseph Goebbels, Leni Riefenstahl, and the skin-suit Vincent D’Onofrio wore in Men in Black — and he’s fine with it. You can call him a protofascist monster all day; when the left plays “identity politics,” it only makes him stronger.

Still, he would like you “Fake News” consumers to know that you’re wrong: Steve Bannon may be white and a nationalist, but he’s no white nationalist. Limousine liberals may think that only bigots would question the bipartisan consensus on mass immigration. But Bannon — and the forgotten Americans he speaks for — know that “globalism” has decimated our nation’s middle class. Breitbart’s anti-immigration populism isn’t about protecting a white, enthonationalist conception of American identity — it’s about protecting all Americans’ living standards.

“I don’t need the affirmation of the mainstream media,” Bannon told the mainstream media Sunday night, in an interview with 60 Minutes. “They can call me an anti-Semite. They can call me racist. They call me nativist …As long as we’re driving this agenda for the working men and women of this country, I’m happy.”

“And by the way, that’s every nationality,” Bannon went on to say of the Americans he intends to serve, “every race, every religion, every sexual preference. As long as you’re a citizen of our country. As long as you’re an American citizen, you’re part of this populist, economic nationalist movement.”

On one level, this line is transparent malarkey. Bannon helmed a website that referred to young American Muslims as a “ticking time bomb”; lauded the “glorious heritage” of the Confederacy; and dedicated an entire vertical to spotlighting “Black Crime.” Bannon himself has repeatedly likened the (supposed) immigration crisis facing “the West” to that depicted in the grotesquely racist French novel Camp of the Saints — a horror story that imagines Europe inundated by subhuman, nonwhite refugees, whom the hero must murder en masse, in defense of the righteous “scorn of a [white, Christian] people for other races, the knowledge that one’s own is best, the triumphant joy at feeling oneself to be part of humanity’s finest.”

Needless to say, these are not the preoccupations of someone whose conception of what it means to be an American is colorblind. The idea that Bannon’s opposition to mass immigration is motivated exclusively by economic anxieties has always been laughable.

But the notion that there is, nonetheless, a vital, economic component to Bannon’s worldview — which is to say, that his (soft-core) white Christian nationalism comes with a hefty helping of economic populism — has been harder to dismiss.

In interviews with mainstream outlets, Bannon has frequently challenged the Republican Party’s economic orthodoxies. Shortly after Trump’s triumph in November, the president-elect’s chief strategist told The Hollywood Reporter, “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement … The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.” In July, Bannon leaked word to multiple outlets that he was pushing for Trump’s tax reform plan to raise taxes on the rich; one day later, Bannon’s people informed the Intercept that he was pushing to regulate Facebook and Google as 21st-century public utilities. In one of his last acts as a public official, Bannon (infamously) reached out to a writer at the progressive magazine The American Prospect — explaining that he actually sympathized with the left’s critique of free trade. And on 60 Minutes Sunday night, the former White House official argued that the Pentagon’s $1 trillion nuclear-modernization program should be canceled — and that the money should be reinvested “in Cleveland, in Baltimore, in the inner cities of this country.”

Despite Bannon’s mendacity on other fronts, mainstream commentators have treated his purported economic convictions with credulity. And not without reason: As a matter of political strategy, Bannon’s vision: The conservative economic agenda has no support outside of the Republican base, and even within that base, white identity politics are far more salient than libertarian economics. Opposing public investment in infrastructure — while trying to slash the safety net and taxes on the rich — is not a majoritarian agenda. But getting tough on “illegals” — while soaking millionaires to finance a massive investment in public works — might be. At the very least, the latter gambit is less likely to alienate the culturally conservative, economically left–leaning midwestern whites who provided Trump with his margin of victory.

But if Bannon’s economic agenda makes strategic sense, the way he’s (ostensibly) tried to advance that agenda does not. The right-wing populist once correctly observed that his economic vision would make conservatives “go crazy.” And yet, Bannon has consistently painted the most economically conservative faction in Congress as the vanguard of his political movement. Bannon championed the causes of the House Freedom Caucus when he was just a no-name Breitbart editor. During his time in the White House, he encouraged the president to align himself with his party’s archconservatives — even when this meant breaking promises Trump had made to his working-class supporters on the future of Medicaid. And, now that he’s back on the outside, Bannon has been openly conspiring with the Freedom Caucus to undermine the GOP’s congressional leadership.

Meanwhile, Bannon is arguing that any attempt to work with Democrats is antithetical to his “economic nationalist” agenda. As he told Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes:

There’s one group of people that on the campaign, that said, “All you have to do is do what you said you were gonna do in these major areas. Let’s punch out one thing after the other. You’re gonna keep your coalition together, and we’re gonna add to it over time as you’re successful.” There’s another group that has said, “Let’s compromise, and let’s try to reach out to Democrats, and let’s try to work on things that we can do together.”

If Bannon had any genuine interest in seeing Trump enact a $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus, higher taxes on the rich, public-interest regulation of Silicon Valley giants, more labor-friendly trade policies, and a stimulus for urban America funded by cuts to defense spending, then he would see the Freedom Caucus as an ideological enemy of — and working with congressional Democrats, as a (tragic?) necessity for — his populist movement.

Instead, he encourages his readership to view any attempt to work with Democrats as a betrayal — and to see the most committed congressional opponents of his (putative) economic views as their movement’s natural allies.

As a means of pulling the Republican Establishment left on taxation and public investment, this gambit is incoherent; but as a means of pulling the GOP right on immigration, it’s perfectly sound.

And Bannon’s latest scheme confirms that, for all practical purposes, doing the latter is his real project. The Breitbart head is reportedly organizing primary challenges to Republican incumbents who have proven insufficiently loyal to Trump’s agenda. But on 60 Minutes, Bannon predicted that the GOP’s coming civil war would be fought over an issue where he and the president are on different sides: Trump has said that he would like to see Congress pass permanent protections for the gainfully employed, American-raised, undocumented immigrants who secured work permits through DACA; Bannon told CBS that any attempt to give such immigrants a “path to citizenship” — or even a “path to a green card” — would be unacceptable.

“Doing that in the springboard of primary season for 2018 is extremely unwise,” Bannon warned. “Amnesty is nonnegotiable.”

There may be no better indication of Bannon’s true purpose than his eagerness to make DACA the focal point of next year’s Republican primaries. Few things would poison the potential for Democratic cooperation on populist economic policies like the sudden dispossession of 800,000 Dreamers. What’s more, denying these young people legal status wouldn’t just alienate the center-left — a majority of Republican voters support some form of legal status for this population. If one’s goal is to build a majority coalition for right-wing populism, the expedient move would be to embrace the (already popular) dichotomy that separates the “good, blameless” Dreamers, from the bad, willful “illegals” (i.e., their parents).

Further, if one opposed immigration for non-ethnonationalist reasons, DACA would be of little interest: It is a policy that grants legal status exclusively to assimilated, English-speaking, employed immigrants who have no criminal record, and are paying into Social Security. To oppose this policy on “economic” grounds, one would have to subscribe to the lump of labor fallacy — that there are a set number of jobs in the economy, such that every opportunity that goes to a Dreamer comes at the expense of a native-born worker. But if Bannon really believed that Malthusian notion, he would be pushing for greater access to contraception, since any increase in America’s birth rate would have deleterious effects on wages and employment. The only coherent, race-neutral argument against some kind of Dream Act is an absolutist commitment to rule of law — a case that Bannon can’t credibly make after supporting Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio.

But if Bannon’s goal is to protect white, (((Judeo)))-Christian America from suffering the kind of demographic death depicted in The Camp of the Saints — and/or to monetize anxieties about said “death” through a far-right infotainment empire — then making DACA a litmus test for conservatives makes perfect sense.

When one considers all this, the (self-identified) propagandist’s economic populism starts to look like a smoke screen. In his book on Bannon’s role in Trump’s campaign, Devil’s Bargain, reporter Joshua Green suggests that the heart of the operative’s media strategy was “anchor left, pivot right.” The phrase describes Bannon’s commitment to seeding useful narratives within the mainstream (i.e. “liberal”) media, while mobilizing his base by pushing ever more reactionary propaganda in the right-wing press. Doing this required Bannon to engage the straight media on its own terms. To make the concept of “Crooked Hillary” go mainstream, Bannon and his allies knew that they couldn’t rely on publishing defrosted Vince Foster conspiracy theories in Breitbart; they also needed to get grounded, fact-based reports on Clintonian cronyism printed in credible newspapers. And so they did actual investigative reporting on the Clinton Foundation’s ties to foreign governments, handed it to the New York Times — and helped generate an FBI investigation that would dog the Democratic nominee for her entire campaign.

Perhaps Bannon’s “economic nationalism” is best understood as another attempt to “anchor left.” While Breitbart fans the flames of white enthnonationalism among its far-right readership, Bannon advances a complementary narrative in the mainstream media. On 60 Minutes, the propagandist made his case against the D.C. Establishment in terms amenable to its anchors, railing against the bipartisan failure to arrest middle-class decline or prevent the war in Iraq.

Like the Clinton Foundation scandal, this populist rhetoric lends a patina of legitimacy to a story that the populist right wants told. The right’s fierce opposition to Clinton wasn’t just about raw partisanship and wild conspiracy theories; it was about ethics in philanthropy. The far right’s opposition to immigration isn’t about white racial identity, but rather, economic anxiety.

Of course, in reality, Bannon is not a principled opponent of unscrupulous charitable activity — and there’s little reason to think he is any more genuinely committed to addressing the plight of America’s “working men and women.”

Steve Bannon does not need “the affirmation of the mainstream media” — but when the Establishment press pretends that his nationalism is in any meaningful sense “economic,” it gives him just that.

Steve Bannon’s Nationalism Isn’t About the Economy, Stupid