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What Steve Bannon gets right about Democrats — and wrong about Trump

Bannon’s uncensored interview includes a plan for political success Trump can’t follow.

Trump and Bannon, EK, MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, believes everything is going according to plan.

“The Democrats,” he told the American Prospect’s Bob Kuttner, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. 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.”

Bannon is, at least in theory, right: If the left is focused on race and identity, and the Trump administration is focused on economic nationalism, they probably can crush the Democrats. The problem with the plan is that, in practice, the way the Trump administration gets Democrats to focus on race and identity isn’t by focusing on economic nationalism — it’s by being racist in ways that alienate voters and undermine their economic agenda and message.

But let’s start with what Bannon gets right. There’s good evidence that focusing white voters on racial threats pushes them toward Republican candidates. Take a 2014 study by psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson. They asked one group of white political independents if they knew that California would soon have more nonwhite residents than white residents. Then they asked another group of white political independents if they had heard another highly racialized, but less threatening (at least to white political power), fact — “that Hispanics had become roughly equal in number to Blacks nationally.” And then they compared the two groups’ political opinions.

Even now, the results, as described by the political scientists Chris Achen and Larry Bartels in their book Democracy for Realists, stun. “The people who had been informed (or simply reminded) of the potentially threatening demographic shift in California were significantly more likely to lean Republican. This effect was twice as strong in the West as in the nation as a whole, producing a substantial 11-point increase in Republican leaning (and a 15-point decrease in Democratic leaning).”

In a follow-up study, Craig and Richeson handed some white subjects a press release about “projections that racial minorities will constitute a majority of the U.S. populace by 2042.” The group that read the release “produced more conservative views not only on plausibly relevant issues like immigration and affirmative action, but also on seemingly unrelated issues like defense spending and health care reform.”

This is the argument for Bannonism: Even if the country is becoming more diverse, whites still comprise a large majority of the electorate — 71 percent in 2016 — and if Republicans can consolidate their votes, they’ll win. One way to consolidate their votes, at least in theory, is to focus their attention on the rising majority-minority political coalition, and the threat it poses to their continued political power. For Republicans, a Democratic Party focused on issues of race and identity might thus be a boon.

But can Trump pull the Democratic Party to that message while remaining focused on economic nationalism?

Where is Trump’s economic nationalism?

There was a telling moment in Trump’s disastrous post-Charlottesville press conference. It came at the very end.

“I only tell you this,” Trump said. “There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country. Does anybody have a final question? Do you have an infrastructure question?”

There it was. “Do you have an infrastructure question?” This is what’s become of Trump’s economic message. At the end of his press conference, Trump had to beg the media to ask him about infrastructure. And here’s what happened next:

Q: What makes you think you can get an infrastructure bill?

TRUMP: Well, we came very close with health care. Unfortunately, John McCain decided to vote against it at the last minute. You will have to ask him why he did that. We came very close to health care. We will end up getting health care. We will get the infrastructure. That is something I think we'll have bipartisan support on. I think Democrats will go along with the infrastructure.

Q: Have you spoken to the family of the victim of the car attack?

TRUMP: No. I will be reaching out.

Q: When will you be reaching out?

TRUMP: I thought that the statement put out, the mother's statement, I thought was a beautiful statement. It was something that I really appreciated. I thought it was terrific. Under the kind of stress that she is under and the heartache she is under, I thought putting out that statement to me was really something I won't forget. Thank you all very much. Thank you.

Trump’s wan attempt to pivot to infrastructure was quickly pulled back to Charlottesville. His (banal) comment on infrastructure went completely uncovered in the furor that followed his press conference.

This is the problem with Bannon’s theory: In practice, the way the Trump administration focuses the left on race is by saying and doing racist things. The resulting uproars do Trump no favors — Americans disapprove of how Trump handled Charlottesville by a 55-34 margin — and they distract from whatever economic message or agenda he might have.

It gets worse. Trump’s constant courting of racial controversy has angered and unnerved his congressional Republican allies. The way Trump has held on to their support has been by adopting their economic agenda: tax cuts for the rich, Medicaid cuts for the poor, and a budget that guts every social program you can think of. This isn’t economic nationalism, which might pose a genuine threat to Democrats. It’s the Paul Ryan agenda, which doesn’t. Indeed, Nate Silver argues that nothing has been as devastating to Trump’s approval ratings as his tight embrace of the Republican health care bills.

On some level, Bannon knows there’s a better path for Trump — he’s just not been able to push Trump to take it. Reports from inside the Trump administration suggest Bannon wants Trump to propose a tax increase on the rich, which really would be popular, but so far, he seems to be decisively losing that fight.

The coalition Trump can no longer build

It is possible to imagine a Trump administration that focused on economic nationalism — an administration that began with a bipartisan infrastructure bill and moved on to the kind of populist tax and health reform Trump touted during the campaign. But that isn’t the administration we’ve seen. And it’s not the administration we will see.

The context of Bannon’s call is instructive here. The reporter he called is Robert Kuttner, the founder of the American Prospect, where I used to work. Kuttner’s politics are traditionally labor-liberal — skeptical of unfettered free trade, committed to unions, frustrated by the neoliberal technocrats who dominated the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama White Houses, and repulsed by the Trump administration.

Bannon called Kuttner because he sensed a kindred spirit, at least on trade with China, and he needs allies. “Bannon explained that his strategy is to battle the trade doves inside the administration while building an outside coalition of trade hawks that includes left as well as right,” Kuttner reports. “Hence the phone call to me.”

But Bannon misjudged. Kuttner continues:

There are a couple of things that are startling about this premise. First, to the extent that most of the opponents of Bannon’s China trade strategy are other Trump administration officials, it’s not clear how reaching out to the left helps him. If anything, it gives his adversaries ammunition to characterize Bannon as unreliable or disloyal.

More puzzling is the fact that Bannon would phone a writer and editor of a progressive publication (the cover lines on whose first two issues after Trump’s election were “Resisting Trump” and “Containing Trump”) and assume that a possible convergence of views on China trade might somehow paper over the political and moral chasm on white nationalism.

This is the problem that Trump and Bannon will now face in any pivot to economic nationalism: They have made their brand so toxic that no Democrats can work with them, or want to work with them. At the same time, they desperately need the support of congressional Republicans to stave off investigations and pass even basic bills, and they can’t keep that support if they begin moving toward the populist left on economics.

As always, 2020 is a long way away. Hell, 2018 is a long way away. But so far, it doesn’t look like the Trump administration’s mixture of racial confrontation, White House chaos, and support for whatever congressional Republicans propose is a winning formula. The latest Gallup poll shows approval of Trump at a dismal 34 percent. The latest CNN poll shows Democrats up by 11 points over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot — a lead big enough for Nancy Pelosi to retake the House.

To the extent that Trump retains any strength at all, it’s because the economy is adding jobs at a reasonably fast clip and the stock market is punching to record highs. Polls show the one place Americans retain faith in Trump is his economic management. But that isn’t a result of Trump’s agenda — it’s largely a continuation of Obama-era trends — and if it slows down, he’s in real trouble.

Which is all to say, Bannon’s theory may be right, but his execution is poor. A Trump administration that was laser-focused on both a message and agenda of economic nationalism would be a formidable political force, particularly if they could co-opt liberal ideas on domestic policy and leave the left to oppose Trump on pure race and identity grounds. But that’s not the Trump administration we’ve seen.