The day after Christmas last year, New York Times sportswriter Marc Tracy by chance spotted Steve Bannon in the Atlanta airport and struck up a chat. Tracy noticed a little virtue-signaling from the incoming White House “chief strategist.” Bannon was carrying David Halberstam’s famous history of the hubris that led three presidents to disaster in Vietnam, “The Best and the Brightest.” “It’s great,” Bannon told him, “for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later.”
In a White House fond of superlatives, it would be insulting to call any of its mistakes “little.” Bannon’s mistakes were huge, and they not only led to his ouster, but also the collapse of his grandiose dream: a realigned American political map centered on economic populism.
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Days after Trump’s election, a giddy Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter that he was an “economic nationalist,” and then went on to explain what he meant:
“The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia … If we deliver … we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years … Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement. It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan … It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
Nothing of this vision came to pass. There is no trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, or anything else resembling a “jobs” agenda. There is no multiracial economic populist movement behind Trump; his approval in the latest Quinnipiac poll is 44 percent among whites and 24 percent among nonwhites. And Bannon has lost several internal White House policy fights to his “globalist” nemeses, as Trump has flinched from junking NAFTA, gutting the Export-Import Bank, branding China a currency manipulator or raising taxes on the wealthy.
Where did Bannon go wrong? His first order of business had nothing to with jobs, let alone bridging racial divisions. He played a singular role in engineering the travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, cutting Cabinet agencies out of the loop and purposefully dropping it without warning on a Friday to stoke maximum weekend street protest from the left. Courts balked, and Republican members of Congress complained about the shoddy process. It was Trump’s first political defeat as president, a humiliating own-goal that sowed early doubts about the administration’s basic competence.
In an alternate timeline, Bannon could have encouraged Trump to avoid such racially divisive matters in his first week, as well as steer clear of the always politically treacherous health care debate, and put all his weight behind that trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. Top Democrats had been signaling to Trump since the election that they were open to an infrastructure deal, which need not violate their ideological principles. If there was any chance to erase the old partisan lines and start the new administration with a policy win, this was it. But Bannon apparently didn’t try or wasn’t able to stop Republicans from placing the ill-fated Obamacare repeal at the top of the domestic policy agenda.
Bannon fancied himself a policy wonk and ferocious bureaucratic infighter. He posed for pictures in front of his office whiteboard with a detailed list of bureaucratic to-dos. Just this week he bragged to the progressive populist American Prospect that he was removing people from administration posts who had been blocking his plans for economic sanctions on China.
Yet he didn’t have the chops to rebut substantive arguments. Bannon almost persuaded Trump to unilaterally pull out of NAFTA, until Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue showed Trump a map of where trade-dependent farmers reside: states that Trump won. Trump was swayed, saying afterwards, “It shows that I do have a very big farmer base, which is good. They like Trump, but I like them, and I’m going to help them.”
Bannon thought his trade and manufacturing agenda would be easier to execute. In February, he told the conservative Conservative Political Action Conference that Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was going to usher in a new economic nationalist era. “People are starting to think through a whole raft of amazing and innovative, bilateral trading relationships with people that will reposition America in the world as a fair trading nation and start to bring jobs—high value-added, manufacturing jobs—back to the United States of America,” he said.
But even Trump’s top trade official recently admitted to POLITICO Magazine, “some of the TPP countries don’t want to do bilaterals” because it’s not worth lowering tariffs without wider global market access in return. And while the Trump administration loves talking about the occasional new American manufacturing plant, it has little to say about the likelihood that these plants will be run increasingly by robots.
Attempts to economically punish China have been pushed aside by national security concerns, with State and Defense officials trying to enlist China’s help with the North Korea nuclear standoff. Bannon revealed to the American Prospect that he’s been making the case that “there’s no military solution [with North Korea], they got us” whereas “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that.” Not even Trump, whose personal obsession with “Chi-ee-na” goes back decades, seems to agree; he has refused to fulfill his own “currency manipulator” campaign pledge while he rants about Kim Jong Un.
“They’re wetting themselves” Bannon told the Prospect of his internal opponents, expressing confidence his proposed sanctions on China would soon resurface. But “they” are still in the administration, and Bannon is not.
Bannon was clearly enamored of proposals that challenged partisan orthodoxy, such as when he floated a new 44 percent top tax rate for incomes above $5 million. But he had no capacity to follow through. His trial balloons were laughed off by conservatives, and his association with the “alt-right” made him a toxic negotiating partner for the left. Bannon’s nemesis, economic adviser Gary Cohn, meanwhile, built up a relatively competent team that ran circles around the poorly staffed former Breitbart chairman.
Contrast Bannon with the record of the last Republican White House Svengali, Karl Rove. President George W. Bush’s top political strategist had big dreams of political realignment as well. He saw Bush as walking in the footsteps of President William McKinley, who established Republican dominance at the dawn of the 20th century. During the 2000 campaign Rove said, “[McKinley] understood the new economy. It was a period of rapid industrialization. He also understood the changing demographic. Immigrants were now providing the manpower.”
Joshua Green, before he chronicled the rise of Bannon, summed up Rove’s McKinley-inspired vision in 2007: “Rove’s idea was to use the levers of government to … force a realignment himself through a series of far-reaching policies. Rove’s plan had five major components: establish education standards, pass a ‘faith-based initiative’ directing government funds to religious organizations, partially privatize Social Security, offer private health-savings accounts as an alternative to Medicare, and reform immigration laws to appeal to the growing Hispanic population. Each of these, if enacted, would weaken the Democratic Party by drawing some of its core supporters into the Republican column.”
Rove got further than Bannon did. He actually prioritized what he set out to prioritize. He met with Democrats immediately after the bitter conclusion of the 2000 election to talk education, and the No Child Left Behind Act passed with a big bipartisan vote in the spring of 2001. And he worked with Democrats again in 2003 to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
It was only the second term when Rove took on too much and saw his dreams of Republican realignment vaporize. The sharp Josh Bolten, deputy chief of staff for policy during much of the first term, became budget director and later chief of staff. Rove assumed Bolten’s policy post in the second term, and proceeded to botch Social Security privatization and immigration reform. One official told Green, “[Bolten] was a strong enough intellect and a strong enough presence that he was able to create a deliberative process that led to a better outcome … Formalizing [Rove’s policy role] was the final choke-off of any internal debate or deliberative process.”
Bannon lacked anyone like a Bolten to deftly shepherd policy initiatives, on top of serving a manic president and dealing with a fractious Republican Congress. All he had were Sebastian Gorka, a thinly credentialed counterterrorism adviser whose only duty seems to be going on Fox News, and Julia Hahn, a 20-something former Breitbart writer known for her hair-on-fire hot takes. He had no chance.
Might Trump pursue Bannon’s economic agenda after Bannon is gone? Anything is possible. Simply being surrounded by “globalist” advisers cannot predict the behavior of a president who often revels in doing the opposite of what he is told. But Bannon’s failure almost surely prevents the realization of a broad political realignment in which Trump leads an economically populist rainbow coalition.
Bannon crowed this week that “identity politics” is a loser for Democrats. But his own obsession with identity led him to shelve infrastructure in favor of the travel ban, and arguably racial grievance among whites also fueled the passion to repeal Obamacare. The focus on playing to the white conservative base culminated in Trump’s rationalizing the violent behavior of white supremacists and seeking the protection of Confederate war memorials. All this has poisoned the well. Trump is now irredeemable in the minds of most Democrats and most nonwhite voters, no matter what he offers on infrastructure, trade or taxes.
There were no small mistakes by Bannon. Only huge ones driven by a desire to divide, and an inability to sweat the details. Someday there will be a book about it. It won’t be called “The Best and the Brightest.”