Trump, Bannon, and the Future of Populist Outrage

By John Zmirak Published on January 7, 2018

The split between Donald Trump and his former strategist Steve Bannon might signal the “normalization” of Trump’s politics. Or so NeverTrumpers hope. Mitch McConnell could not be more delighted. In fact, he helped set the trap that helped sink Bannon in Alabama. (McConnell spent more than $10 million of Republican donors’ money meddling in the Alabama primary attacking Mo Brooks, a solid conservative whom Bannon first backed — creating the grim choice between Luther Strange and Roy Moore. I hope losing a Senate seat was worth it to Sen. McConnell.)

But most of the venom that emerged in the exchange between the President and Bannon seems personal. It centers on one man’s frustration with his colleagues inside the White House. None of that matters in the long run. Voters didn’t back Trump against Bush, Rubio, and Christie because of Steve Bannon. He channeled something real. He didn’t invent it.

What ought to interest us is how much of the populism / nationalism that Bannon amped up in the Trump campaign will survive. More importantly, how much of it should?

My old friend Jeffrey Tucker thinks that none of it should and hopes that none of it does. As he wrote recently

What has gone completely missing here is a burning philosophical and ideological dispute between two wings of Trumpism. One seethes with right-wing Hegelian longings for an overthrow of the modern world and a resuscitation of tribalist nationalism (in short, fascism). The other is quasi-liberal at its best, seeking mostly to get government off our backs and unleash merchant-driven enterprise and economic recovery.

I share Tucker’s passion for personal and economic liberty — the maximum of both that can be sustained in the long run. I think that hundreds of years of Western experience suggest that a limited government in a nation-state is the best formula for ordered liberty that lasts.

As an anarcho-capitalist, Tucker doesn’t think governments or borders should exist at all. He favors completely open immigration, even into America as it stands today — complete with massive social programs, which recent immigrants overwhelmingly support. It was mass immigration that turned California from Reagan country into a place so dominated by immigrant voting blocs that it is defying federal law — along the same lines that South Carolina did in 1860. Since the welfare state isn’t going anywhere, it seems obvious that more such immigration will continue to erode, not advance, economic and individual liberty. To put it differently: Why are libertarians moving to New Hampshire for their “free state” project, and not California? It can’t be the weather.

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Let’s say we dismantled the welfare state somehow, and put it beyond the reach of voters to restore it. (Hard to see how.) Then it might be safe to have open borders. People would come for work, and if they didn’t find it, go home. That’s what happened in the 80 years or so that the U.S. accepted almost unlimited immigration. One third of Italian immigrants, for instance, didn’t find work and went home. We didn’t have a welfare state to serve as a kind of glue trap to keep them here. But now we do. So mass immigration simply guarantees a permanent voting majority for pro-choice, big-government leftists.

Back to Bannonism. There were three key aspects to populist nationalism as Bannon laid it out in the campaign and various statements at Breitbart. Let’s lay them out and see how they’re doing or seem likely to do under Trump, without Bannon’s influence:

A Jacksonian, America-First Foreign Policy

By this we mean a “realist” policy that seeks to maximize American interests. This instead of pursuing various ideological projects (global democracy, for the neocons; reparation for Western sins, for Obama-style internationalists).

And this policy seems to be alive and well. Trump avoided the bottomless pit of a U.S. occupation of Syria, as favored by most of the GOP establishment candidates. Instead of pouring our blood and treasure into installing the (mostly fictitious) “Syrian moderate rebels” in power in Damascus, Trump made a deal. Yes, with the unsavory Assad regime, via Russia. But also with the Kurds and their Christian allies.

There is no centralized, tolerant U.S. democracy in Damascus, but then that was never possible — any more than it was in Iraq. But there is also no ethnic cleansing of Christians and other religious minorities. U.S. soldiers aren’t coming home every week in flag-draped coffins. We haven’t spent $1 trillion, or a fraction of that. Meanwhile, Muslim regimes in Riyadh and Tehran are either considering reforms or being pressed to advance them by their people. Amazing what a realistic foreign policy can do to promote our ideals. The Golden Eggs come quicker when you remember to feed the Goose.

An Attack on Free Trade for the Sake of Boosting American Workers’ Wages

This was always the weakest plank in the populist platform. As Jeff Tucker himself has demonstrated (and most economists agree), big tariffs would hurt ordinary workers more than help them. Yes, some manufacturing jobs would be saved for a few more years. But the vast majority of the products that ordinary people buy every day would get more expensive. A trade war could make them prohibitive. Wealthy and upper middle class people could afford to take that hit much better than ordinary workers. It’s a weird kind of populism that hurts the people more than elites. Just as well that this part of populism seems mostly dead in the water.

In fact, until the mid-1990s, most Democrats favored sensible immigration policy and enforcement. That wasn’t a right-wing or populist position. It was just a patriotic one.

Enforcement of Our Border Laws and a Cut in Low Skill Immigration

We’ve already seen the importance of such a move for our other political goals, from protecting unborn children to defending religious liberty. We must keep likely future Democrats out of our country. It’s just that simple.

Beyond electing Democrats, accepting large numbers of low-skill immigrants into our welfare state admits other evils. Radical imams. Terrorist refugees.  Members of MS-13.

The influx of the unskilled taxes our public services, our social programs, and exerts a constant downward pressure on the wages of lower-income American workers. Indeed, cut low-skill immigration and there will still be plenty of jobs for less-advantaged Americans, without an attack on trade. Leave the borders essentially open, and no trade war however savage would do much good.

In fact, until the mid-1990s, most Democrats favored sensible immigration policy and enforcement. That wasn’t a right-wing or populist position. It was just a patriotic one. The Democrats abandoned it for nakedly political reasons. Many Republicans with globalist leanings and cheap-labor donors collaborated with them. Now it’s up to Donald Trump to right the balance on this issue.

But will he? Signals are mixed. Trump likes to make deals, and he’s under significant pressure from family members and establishment GOP leaders to abandon his firm promises on immigration. But a recent report from Breitbart suggests that Trump is standing tall. He’s demanding something real as the price of amnesty for DACA kids and so-called “DREAMERs”: an end to chain migration, funding for a border wall, and other crucial reforms.

Will the president weather the storm, and insist on these sane, patriotic policies? If he does, then there’s no room for a populist insurgency to his right. There will be no need for one. Steve Bannon can go back to producing movies.

But if Trump dumps the core of the platform on which he ran — getting control of America’s borders — then all bets are off. The sense of betrayal that millions of voters will rightly feel could fuel a new nationalist movement that could get really ugly, and live up to Tucker’s worst fears. Let’s pray that the president gets this right.

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