Perhaps the only surprising thing about Steve Bannon’s self-immolation is who he handed the match to: a bearded liberal editor he’d never met named Robert Kuttner.
But Kuttner isn’t just a generic liberal Washington editor — liberals come in various stripes — he’s a leading figure of the labor left, an enemy of Bannon’s neoliberal enemies, and a voice of what’s long been a losing stream of Democratic policy: the Bernie-Warren-Brown camp, the ones who believe that the harm trade has done American workers outweighs the growth that cheap Chinese labor has given the American economy.
Bannon called Kuttner as part of what Kuttner paraphrased as a strategy “to battle the trade doves inside the administration while building an outside coalition of trade hawks that includes left as well as right.”
Bannon, who talks to people you wouldn’t expect him to talk to all the time, isn’t on some quixotic mission to make new friends. He’s playing for — or at least fantasizing about — a major realignment of American politics. He’s been saying the same thing for years to anyone who will listen: that trade and manufacturing are the core issues for working Americans, who also want their sons and daughters back from foreign wars; and that a president who can deliver that will “get 60% of the white vote, and 40% of the black and Hispanic vote and we'll govern for 50 years,” as he told Michael Wolff in the heady days of mid-November.
If you squinted at Trump, as Bannon — who only joined the campaign a year ago — seems to have been doing, you could see him as that candidate. He had been popular, once, with working people of all races. His views on trade, industry, and foreign policy roughly aligned with that new coalition. His own exploitative business and deference to the prerogatives of wealth didn’t, but, well, that’s why you had to squint.
This dream of realignment helps explain Trump’s total inability to work with Congress. In that model, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are the sworn enemies of most of his agenda; Senate leftists like Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown are his likeliest friends. Trump was, Bannon believed, going to reshape congressional politics to his will. "It's everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I'm the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it's the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We're just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.”
“It will be as exciting as the 1930s,” Bannon said.
Well, everyone is talking about the 1930s these days. But they’re not talking about the New Deal. They’re talking about the last time American Nazis felt ascendant. And Bannon has become just the latest American political figure to dream of a class-based politics, and then to founder on the thing that really makes American politics exceptional: its deep racial divisions. Virtually every other industrialized nation developed that politics of class, represented by a powerful Labo(u)r or Socialist party.
Bannon’s rhetoric, if you listen to it right, sounds at times like the Democrats’ European-style dream. The labor wing of the Democratic Party has always sought — with mixed success — to create those cross-racial coalitions. I heard a particularly blunt version of this in West Virginia in 2008: "I'd rather have a black friend than a white enemy," the legendary United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts said as part of the Democrats’ failed pitch for Barack Obama in the state.
Non-presidents like John Kerry and Walter Mondale and their old-line union allies talk less bluntly. Indeed, through the years the words at AFL-CIO rallies grew halfhearted and wooden — about uniting working people across racial lines, around their shared interests. The modern Republican Party is shaped in part by Richard Nixon’s almost effortless response to that goal, a “Southern Strategy” that appealed to the racial, rather than class, resentment of whites. And before the center-left of the second half of the 20th century looked to elevate class over race, the Communists gave it their best shot, emerging in the 1930s Popular Front era as key civil rights allies — which helped doom their appeal to white workers.
Trump showed, arguably, a flicker of this appeal in his election. He did better last November with Latino voters than most observers suspected he would, and his presence on the ballot didn’t drive black turnout the way the Clinton campaign had hoped. His appeal to them was the same as to white workers: Competition with new immigrants is lowering wages; he’d put America back to work.
But Trump grew up in a New York politics in which class was a sideline, race always the main game. He may have blustered about China here and there, but his formative political gambit was a breathtakingly cynical campaign to execute five black boys falsely accused of raping a white woman, the most archetypal race-baiting America can offer. That’s To Kill a Mockingbird, not The Jungle.
Bannon has a bizarre dual role as Trump’s ideologist: He’s the guy selling a new cross-racial coalition; and he’s the chief arsonist of that coalition, using racism as a kind of cultural token for anti-elite politics. The congressional coalition he imagines, in which Democrats cross the aisle to join Trump under the red flag of socialism, is now laughable. Trump has lost Ryan and McConnell without gaining Schumer and Pelosi. And the notion, after Charlottesville, of a cross-racial coalition requires imagining a president so deeply and dexterously committed to reconciliation that you are imagining a different human being.
Bannon likes to excuse Breitbart’s race-baiting as a kind of footnote — white supremacists are “a collection of clowns,” and the issues of race seem to him to be less about their actual substance than about how he can piss off progressives.
Kuttner left his conversation with Bannon wondering about this particular point. “More puzzling is the fact that Bannon would phone a writer and editor of a progressive publication … and assume that a possible convergence of views on China trade might somehow paper over the political and moral chasm on white nationalism,” he said. Bannon might be forgiven by being puzzled that liberals who spent their careers fighting the class war would let a little thing like white nationalism get in their way.
But this is where class-based movements in American politics have always washed up. For race has trumped class. And what Bannon used to talk about as a strategy can probably better be seen now as the excuse, explanation, or diagnosis for a presidency that’s failing.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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