On Tuesday, [Stephen K.] Bannon announced that he was stepping down from Breitbart. It marked the final blow during a week in which he lost President Trump as an ally, then his top financial backers in the Mercers and now his entire media platform. A man who recently set about to reshape the Republican Party after leaving the White House now has basically nothing from which to build such a campaign, thanks to wayward comments about Trump’s family in Michael Wolff’s new book.
The demise of Bannon — the irrelevancy of Bannon — should confirm what many ex-Republicans or nearly-ex-Republicans have been saying: There is no grand, coherent philosophy behind President Trump’s candidacy. The “movement” was a canard. The promise of expanding the party (which is now shrinking) rested on luring masses with economic populism, which was quickly dumped in favor of plans to slash Medicaid and give big tax cuts to the rich and to big corporations. The whole faux populism shtick was built to win a campaign and fund Bannon’s operations, not to use for governing.
Bannon’s disjointed ramblings about civilization, globalism, Christianity and the like were the cotton candy he fed to not-too-sophisticated billionaires. He’d gussy up Trump’s meandering message with the history of the world according to Steve. In speeches and interviews, however, what came out was a slightly more sophisticated version of Trump’s word salads, wherein he would toss around gibberish about the deep state and revolution. More often, it sounded like a college dorm bull session in which garbled history and religious mysticism meet nihilism.
In any event, now that Bannon is gone from the scene, we can dispense with the idea that Trump ever had or needed a philosophy. Trump has long been about Trump, a cult of personality with ample helpings of racism, xenophobia, protectionism and nativism. His only “genius” is in manipulating and conning those looking to justify grievances (usually based on race). His specialty is in stoking white males’ anger over loss of primacy in society. Trump — as we plainly saw in that jumbled immigration session — believes in nothing more than winning, and then garnering praise from the people he has fooled (e.g. the voters who thought he wasn’t going to cut taxes for the rich).
Because Trump is incapable and uninterested in matters of substance, the plutocratic class that backed him has had a field day. (He’ll sell the masses; we’ll get the big tax cuts!) They and the evangelical power-seekers have been able to call the tune on taxes, abortion, gay rights, court appointees, deregulation, etc. What we have is a caricature of the far-right agenda that originally drove the party into the ditch with working-class voters. (Mitt Romney is a raging economic populist compared with this crowd.)
On foreign policy, there is a daily battle between a national security team of rather orthodox thinkers and an unhinged, ego-driven commander in chief obsessed with the idea that if President Barack Obama did something, he must undo it no matter what the current circumstances. Trump’s inclination (whether based on financial or emotional dependency on Russian President Vladimir Putin, we do not know) has to be constantly checked by the pro-America wing of the administration. (Spencer Ackerman now reports, “A senior National Security Council official proposed withdrawing some U.S. military forces from Eastern Europe as an overture to Vladimir Putin during the early days of the Trump presidency, according to two former administration officials.”)
In essence, Trump married the cult of personality with the lingo of white grievance. Upon winning, he gladly let his rich friends shape the agenda. The result has been a far-right economic and social agenda at odds with his campaign message, all buried under a blizzard of Trumpian slogans.The forgotten man and woman, the Trump puppeteers figure, can be bought off with chest-pounding and xenophobia. The bet is that the voters who elected him won’t notice they’ve fallen further behind the rich and the resources that might allow them to catch up have been squandered in a grotesque tax bill.
With Bannon out of the picture, we can see Trumpism for what it is — nasty populist rhetoric and symbolism for the masses, policy for and by the plutocrats. The promise of an expanded GOP with newfound appeal to the working class was always an illusion. Now the guy with the smoke and mirrors is unemployed. There’s some cosmic justice in that, I suppose.