When Steve Bannon left the White House in August, he told The Weekly Standard he was “jacked up.” Despite lasting less than a year as senior adviser to President Donald Trump, he returned to Breitbart like a conquering hero, dubbing himself Bannon the Barbarian. The site’s editor in chief welcomed him back with a release titled “‘Populist Hero’ Steven K. Bannon Returns Home to Breitbart.” A month later, Bannon laid out a vision for his post-White House life. “I left the White house because Trump needed a wingman outside, helping candidates for the Senate,” Bannon said, in a talk at the Grand Hyatt Ballroom in Hong Kong called “American Economic Nationalism, the Populist Revolt, and Asia.” He added, “This movement could win elections for the next 50 years.”
Last week’s Senate special election in Alabama was supposed to be the first of those elections, establishing Bannon as a kingmaker in the Republican Party. It would have also conceivably established Bannon’s “economic nationalism” as the ideology of a new generation of the Republican Party. As we now know, Bannon’s big bet on Roy Moore, who he stuck with even after he was credibly accused of molesting and preying upon teenage girls decades ago, blew up in his face. Democrats gloated and establishment Republicans fumed, with both groups pinning Moore’s defeat on Bannon.
But Bannon’s stated ideology hardly played a role in Moore’s campaign, which instead revolved around abortion, immigration, and bizarre claims that the United States was better off when it had slavery. Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., Republicans were putting the final touches on a tax reform bill that will likely be a windfall for shareholders (many of whom are foreign) and could result in cuts to the social safety net. Moore’s campaign and Trump’s embrace of Republican orthodoxy on economic issues have revealed the extent to which “economic nationalism” has been deployed by Bannon and others as a cover for uglier political positions.
In Bannon’s version of events, Trump was the candidate who instinctively grasped Bannon’s economic-political program—and won in 2016 by pushing those ideas. Bannon emphasized that he and Trump were leading a revolution, fighting on behalf of native workers to recapture American sovereignty from a shadowy elite, foreign interests, and immigrants. Trump won by rejecting both liberalism and mainstream Republicans, who remain fixated on massive supply-side tax cuts for the wealthy and just as massive entitlement cuts.
Bannon’s version of 2016 is right on a few counts. Trump’s ability to tap into the frustrations of working-class voters, particularly in Rust Belt states that had been hard-hit by outsourcing, undoubtedly helped him win. His decision to tap into nativist (and often racist) opposition to immigration certainly also played a role. So did Trump’s pledge not to touch entitlements like Social Security and Medicare—a promise he has since appeared on the verge of breaking, not only by endorsing a tax bill that Republicans have telegraphed they will use to demand entitlement reform, but also by recently announcing that he wants “welfare reform.” In a pivot to classic GOP rhetoric on the issue, Trump has said “people are taking advantage of the system.”
Bannon bet the farm on Roy Moore, who is hardly an economic nationalist, let alone an economic populist. (Moore’s personal tax policy preference, which was understandably under-covered during a campaign dominated by a pedophilia scandal, is deeply regressive.) Rather, Moore was a dogmatic culture warrior. “Abortion, sodomy, and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Moore said on Wednesday in rejecting his opponent Doug Jones’s victory, an adequate summation of his personal beliefs. But what mattered to Bannon wasn’t that Moore furthered his political revolution. What mattered was that he was vehemently opposed to the Republican establishment, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In this, we can see what it truly means to be a Bannonist. While Moore didn’t advocate the kind of economic policies that Bannon had claimed for his revolution, he was a rabid culture warrior unafraid to take on his own party. Bannonism isn’t grounded in intellectualism; it is merely a more nihilistic variant of the right-wing rebellion that burst into the open in 2010 with the Tea Party. What “economic nationalism” does is lend legitimacy and novelty to what is otherwise a crude revanchism.
With Moore the ruse completely collapsed. Instead of economic nationalism, you had a potpourri of crackpot conservative thinking, which provided cover for a set of economic policies that benefit the wealthy and multinational behemoths. Similarly, there is little economic nationalism to be found in the White House and Capitol Hill. Trump presents himself as a blue collar billionaire, but he is governing like a typical Republican, albeit one hyper-attuned to the culture wars, fighting against liberals and non-white Americans on a day-to-day basis.
In May, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat questioned if Trump ever really believed in Trumpism. In the months that followed, it became clear that he was not interested in adhering to a coherent political philosophy, abandoning trade deals one moment only to throw his support to the Republican Party’s corporate donors the next. But Bannon continued to carry the flag, claiming he would champion those candidates who would upend mainstream Republican thinking. After Roy Moore, it became painfully obvious that economic nationalism was a con all along.