What was behind Steve Bannon’s phone call to a liberal journalist that led to his ouster?
The mad thrashing of the Trump regime continued apace with Steve Bannon’s unexpected comments to Robert Kuttner, a progressive economist and editor of the American Prospect, a liberal magazine based in Washington.
According to Kuttner’s account, Bannon called him out of the blue and proceeded to badmouth rivals in the State Department and Pentagon, dismiss the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville as “losers,” concede Trump cannot do nothing about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and share details of Trump’s plans for a trade war with China.
At a time when Bannon was reportedly in danger of losing his job, the call was odd, to say the least.
The reality is simpler. Bannon is consistent about promoting his “economic nationalist” agenda, which he sees as the key to Trump’s long-term political success. In a week where the White House had hoped to focus on “infrastructure” and President Trump went disastrously off-message with his embrace of white supremacists, Bannon stayed on message.
Bannon has always envisioned Trump realigning American politics by uniting Democratic and Republican voters fed up with “free trade” policies that have hollowed out the American economy. He called Kuttner because the veteran editor is a cogent critic of those policies and consistent advocate of taking action against China for its mercantile policies.
Trump is preparing to take such action against China, Bannon told Kuttner.
“To me,” Bannon told Kuttner, “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”
Bannon shared details of how Trump plans to wage this war: By filing a complaint under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act against Chinese coercion of technology transfers from American corporations doing business there, and following up complaints that China has dumped steel and aluminum on American markets to depress prices and preserve Chinese exports. Bannon told Kuttner that the Section 301 complaint had been prepared, but was put on hold after Trump’s threats to North Korea caused a storm of criticism, not the least from China.
Talking to Kuttner in the wake of Charlottesville was Bannon’s way of pushing this agenda deep in the heart of the liberal left intelligentsia. The American Prospect, which Kuttner founded 20-plus years ago, has been the launching pad for a generation of liberal Washington journalists from Josh Marshall to Ezra Klein. What better venue to show the world—and the American left—that Trump is serious about his anti-free trade agenda?
The idea of a trade war with China is of a piece with two populist proposals Bannon floated last month: raising the tax rate on the richest Americans to 44 percent, and regulating big internet companies like public utilities.
If Trump were actually capable of selling and implementing such policies, they might have the political impact Bannon envisions. But he isn’t. Bannon is a font of clever ideas, but as his wardrobe demonstrates, he is a failure at followup.
Nothing scared Democrats more when Trump took office than the prospect that he was serious about Bannon’s idea of a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that would create a lot of high-paying jobs—and convert working-class Democrats into Republican voters for a generation.
It turns out Trump wasn’t serious. There are lots of proposals for rebuilding America’s infrastructure. There is the AFL-CIO’s plan. There is the Senate Democrats’ Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure. Michael Bloomberg has a plan, the Building America’s Future program. Any of these plans could have served as the core of a jobs program that would have driven a wedge between working-class and corporate Democrats.
Trump and Bannon ignored them all and came out in favor of a recycled Republican proposal to privatize the country’s air traffic control system, a scheme that wouldn’t create any jobs and is opposed by Chesley Sullenberger, the country’s most famous airline pilot.
Now Bannon has taken on the mission impossible of trying to sell Trump’s “economic nationalism” while denying it is tainted by his sympathy for white supremacists. As always, the White House adviser struck a confident tone. He says Charlottesville is a political winner for Trump.
“The Democrats,” he said, “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.”
But if Republican voters like Trump’s response to Charlottesville (and an early poll shows they do), the response of the rest of the country makes it harder—make that impossible—for Trump to sell his brand of economic nationalism.
Trump is now the one focused on race and identity, defending the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates marching with torches and guns. Even during infrastructure week, Trump was not capable of sticking to a jobs message, preferring to tweet Thursday about the “beauty” of Confederate memorials. Bannon’s strategic musings are clever, but not clever enough to hide the fact that his boss clearly cares more about defending white supremacy than creating American jobs.
Kuttner came away from the conversation with a sense of Bannon’s “savvy and his recklessness.”
“The waters around him are rising, but he is going about his business of infighting, and attempting to cultivate improbable outside allies, to promote his China strategy,” Kuttner wrote. “His enemies will do what they do.”
Bannon’s enemies will see that Trump is losing allies, not gaining them. The corporate CEO class has deserted him en masse. The leaders of the armed forces have repudiated his attempt to blame “both sides” in Charlottesville. Cowardly congressional Republicans are averting their eyes, not offering support.
Can Trump escape his troubles by “cultivating improbable allies” on the left?
Bannon thinks so. He closed his conversation with Kuttner by inviting him to the White House after Labor Day. Kuttner, a policy wonk par excellence, may be tempted by the offer of a seat at the policymaking table. He will only get a deck chair on the Titanic.