Stephen K. Bannon, the recently deposed architect of President Trump’s nonexistent populist agenda, wishes it was the 1930s.
That, of course, is what he promised to do: to make things as “exciting” now as they were back then. Now, he might not have been talking about the war or the depression or the fascists in other countries, but what he did mean was a politics where racial resentment and economic populism could once again exist side-by-side. Where Republicans could target Muslims for special restrictions and raise the top marginal tax rate to 44 percent; could cut legal immigration in half and undo free trade deals; could stick up for white supremacists and spend $1 trillion on infrastructure. In other words, where the ideological heirs of the Dixiecrats were the ones calling the shots.
They haven’t been for a long time now.
Why not? Well, because our parties have sorted themselves based on race first and economics second. The political history of the past 100 years, you see, has really been the story of the rise and fall of the New Deal coalition. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression brought blacks, liberals, Northern ethnics and Southern whites all together until the civil rights movement drove them apart. It’s true that the Dixiecrats — the Jim Crow-supporting Southerners who left the Democratic Party to form their own, before eventually migrating over to the Republican one — weren’t all in favor of big government, but a lot of them were. Forced to choose between that and racial backlash, however, they chose racial backlash, whether that was calls for “law and order” or denunciations of “welfare queens” or, in the past few years, chants of “build the wall.”
Bannon didn’t want them to choose anymore. He understood that a lot of Republicans don’t care about Ayn Rand-inspired odes to heroic entrepreneurs, or paeans to the Schumpeterian beauty of creative destruction, or how much capital gains are taxed. They want their Social Security and their Medicare. They’re called Trump voters, and they aren’t really represented in Washington. That’s because the money men and interest groups that members of Congress rely on ensure complete ideological conformity on the issue nearest and dearest to the hearts — or rather the wallets — of the donor class: how much they’re taxed. Bannon wanted to change that so people could get Democratic economic policies together with a Republican brand of racial pandering.
The only problem is you can’t. Just look at Bannon’s proposal to increase the top tax rate to 44 percent. Who was ever going to vote for that? Republicans never would when their party’s entire raison d’etre for the past 40 years has been keeping taxes as low as possible on the rich. And neither would Democrats when Bannon had alienated them about as much as possible with his barely disguised attempt to ban Muslims. The same was true of infrastructure. Republicans didn’t really want to do it, and Democrats didn’t want to with Trump. It reduced Bannon to being able to do little more than alternately insist that he wanted to build a rainbow coalition of populists — “we'll get 60 percent of the white vote and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote, and we’ll govern for 50 years,” he rather modestly claimed — and cheer, for example, when Trump said last Friday’s neo-Nazi rally was full of “very fine people.” Bannon never understood that one made the other impossible.
Bannon thought he was a revolutionary, but he was just whistling Dixie.