Stephen K. Bannon, President-elect Donald Trump's chief political strategist, has been condemned by critics as a closet racist and anti-Semite — presumably disqualifying charges for a top White House aide.
Bannon and his friends insist he's none of those things. Indeed, reporters have scoured Bannon's past statements in search of a smoking gun (he hosted a daily radio show for several years), and have come up virtually empty-handed.
Case closed? Not quite. In stretching to paint Bannon as an old-fashioned racist, his critics overshot — and also missed the point. Bannon is more complicated, a whole new political beast. And because of that, he's more dangerous than his adversaries in both the Democratic and Republican parties yet realize.
Bannon, for instance, paints himself as post-racial, or at least post-racism. He just doesn't think race is a major issue anymore. "Cities like Richmond and Baltimore and Philadelphia have black mayors, have black city councils, have black police commissioners. How can it be systemically racist?" he said last summer.
His editors at Breitbart News, the conservative website he ran, said Bannon tried to keep overt racism out of the headlines. That said, he allowed plenty of dog whistles. An entire category of articles was tagged "Black Crime," for instance. The comment section was "a cesspool for white supremacists," a former editor complained. Bannon shrugged off any guilt by association. "Are there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the "alt-right"? Maybe," he told Mother Jones magazine. "Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe."
So even if we give Bannon the benefit of the doubt on racism, he's still presided over a website that deliberately indulges in race-baiting, presumably to build its audience. Is that better or worse? You decide.
Bannon's major achievement in the Trump campaign, though, was stitching Trump's jumble of positions into a more-or-less coherent ideology. He began with the basic elements of Trumpism: an immigration crackdown, a border wall, a rejection of free trade agreements and a promise to create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure. Then he knit them together under broader themes: economic populism, anti-globalization and a full-throated revolt against the financial and political elites.
It all came together in an extraordinary speech Trump gave in Florida in October. "It's a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities," Trump said. "It is our corrupt political establishment that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people…. The depths of their immorality is unlimited. Our political establishment has no soul."
All those lines echoed themes Bannon — not Trump — had sounded for years. Now Bannon wants to use the White House to build what he calls "a populist conservative movement" based on "economic nationalism."
In a remarkable interview with the Hollywood Reporter last week, Bannon spelled it out. "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. … If we deliver, we'll get 60% of the white vote and 40% of the black and Hispanic vote, and we'll govern for 50 years."
This is an ideology unlike anything the Republican Party has championed for decades, and it puts Bannon on a collision course with fiscal conservatives like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (whom he loathes). Bannon wants a huge infrastructure program; Ryan doesn't. Bannon wants to protect Social Security and Medicare; Ryan wants to slash them. But it's not just policies where they're at odds. Bannon considers Ryan a tool of the traditional GOP power structure that he wants to "burn down."
Bannon's goal is audacious: a realignment that would make Trump Republicans the dominant party for generations. He's already proved the power of a conservative populist appeal to white working-class voters; Trump won white voters without a college education by a staggering 39% margin. The hope that such a party could unite the alt-right, African Americans and second-generation immigrants, however, seems quixotic.
Still, Trump already has helped white working-class voters feel less forgotten. If he can deliver on his other promises, especially job creation, his hold on that big bloc of votes will only strengthen. That's the political challenge that Democrats — and old-school Republicans, too — really need to worry about.
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