Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump's former chief strategist, in Paris on May 27. (Thibault Camus/AP)
Opinion writer

Could President Trump rehire Stephen K. Bannon to run his 2020 campaign? Trump recently hinted at this in a newly published interview, saying he’s warming to Bannon again.

There is great skepticism in Trumpworld that the president will actually bring his former chief strategist back in the end. But Bannon has become a symbol of the populist economic nationalism that Trump campaigned on in 2016 and then largely abandoned, so this is really a stand-in for another question: Will Trump try to recapture that populist magic again in 2020? And, if so, how?

Yet in asking this question, many observers commit a serious error. They often do agree that Trump sold out his economic populism by fully embracing conventional GOP plutocracy — corporate tax cuts, the failed Obamacare repeal effort, etc.

But they often ascribe too much potency to the other half of Bannonism — his nationalism on immigration — by arguing that Democrats need to either move substantially toward his restrictionism or perish.

It’s time to stop baselessly regurgitating this line. Most evidence suggests that on immigration, Trump’s agenda is deeply unpopular and vulnerable to challenge, but not in a way that would require Democrats to concede major ground in his direction. Rather, the opposite appears true.

Andrew Sullivan makes the pro-Bannonism case in a piece in New York magazine under the headline, “What Democrats can learn from Steve Bannon.” Sullivan says Democrats have failed to offer any kind of answer to Trump on the asylum crisis, and that they must “junk the wokeness” and move in a more restrictionist direction with “tighter immigration policies":

They seem strangely untethered to the current moment. Or they are merely revealing by their silence that open borders, in a sharp break from Obama, is now effectively their policy.

Worse, they seem unable to attack Trump for his colossal failure in his core campaign pledge. . . .

This doesn’t mean competing with Trump on xenophobia, cruelty, or bigotry. It means laying out a comprehensive immigration plan that tightens asylum laws so they exclude economic migrants, invests massively in the immigration court system to speed up the process, moves the processing of asylum cases to a foreign country, mandates national e-verify, beefs up the border to wall-like impermeability, and then grants current undocumented immigrants a reprieve.

Now there’s an idea: An agenda for the border that “invests massively in the immigration court system to speed up the process” and “moves the processing of asylum cases to a foreign country.”

As it happens, Senate Democrats have already introduced a comprehensive blueprint that would do these very things. It would invest in expanding the number of judges, for that same purpose, and would create a new system for migrants to apply for asylum from home countries, with the aim of dissuading them from making the dangerous trek to the southern border. It also includes major investments in aid to Northern Triangle countries — which Trump nixed — to address the root causes that are driving these migrations.

Meanwhile, most mainstream Democrats support some mixture of legalizing the undocumented while beefing up border security. The security argument is over whether to build Trump’s wall.

As for Sullivan’s suggestion that Democrats should propose to “tighten asylum laws so they exclude economic migrants,” it’s not clear what this means. Your economic situation cannot qualify you for asylum under current law, which requires you to demonstrate credible fear of persecution or torture even to clear the first real threshold to enter into the asylum system.

It’s true that terrible economic conditions, as well as rampant violence and civil breakdown, are key drivers of these efforts to migrate. But if anything, these should lead Sullivan to support Democratic efforts to reinstate financial aid to Northern Triangle countries.

Perhaps Sullivan means there should be new restrictions on the legal right to apply for asylum. If so, let’s have that debate. This is a legitimately complex and difficult problem. But I think the Democratic approach, which would not retreat on our humanitarian commitments and, instead, would devote serious, sustained attention to its root causes via regional negotiated solutions (and not through tariff threats) and views the logistical challenges at the border as eminently manageable, is the better one.

All of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate have co-sponsored that legislation. What’s more, candidates Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro have rolled out plans that do some of those things as well.

The notion that Democrats have offered nothing of any ambition on this is flatly false. Conservatives such as Sullivan should engage with what’s already been proposed. They might find some things to like.

No need to embrace Trump’s restrictionism

What’s more, there is zero indication that Democrats must respond to Trump by embracing additional restrictionism. Contrary facts abound. Democrats just won a major national election all about these questions. Trump took extraordinary steps to make the 2018 House races all about his depiction of asylum seekers as a national security threat, and Republicans across the country ran ads relentlessly demagoguing the issue.

But Republicans suffered their biggest electoral wipeout in the House since Watergate. Democratic post-election polling showed that Trump’s immigration agenda alienated swing voters, particularly suburban women. Even Republicans admitted this.

The crucial point here is that Democrats did not substantially move in Trump’s restrictionist direction on immigration in the course of winning those victories.

Now, one could argue that Democrats didn’t fully engage the issue in 2018, instead making the elections largely about health care. But even if that’s true, as detailed above, this is changing, and regardless, where’s the evidence that in engaging Trump on immigration, Democrats must lurch towards his restrictionism to do so effectively?

There isn’t any. There is a puzzling tendency among pundits to ascribe Trump magical powers on this issue, simply by virtue of his 2016 victory, which has left them in a defensive crouch. But the difference now is that voters have actually seen Trump’s immigration horrors in practice — and are recoiling.

The result is that, in addition to that public revulsion at Trump’s specific cruelties, restrictionist policies are themselves unpopular. Only small minorities nationally support cuts to legal immigration or efforts to make it more difficult to apply for asylum.

One might suggest that Trump could have more success on immigration in 2020 because he’s on the ballot. But while that’s possible among core supporters, the voters Trump badly needs to win back, having lost them in 2018 in part on this very issue — college-educated and suburban whites, especially women —- are likely to prove more comfortable with internationalist (as opposed to restrictionist) solutions to the asylum problem.

Trump very well could win reelection, of course, but if so, it will have more to do with the good economy and the advantages of incumbency. If he wins, it’s highly unlikely to be because Democrats didn’t rush toward Trump’s restrictionism.

But, regardless, at a minimum, those asserting Democrats must do this need to affirmatively back up this case, and engage all these facts that contradict it. Time to show Bannonism the skepticism it deserves.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump is afraid he’ll lose reelection, and he’s in a fury over it

Paul Waldman: Trump actually wants to make the election about health care. Good luck with that.

Marc A. Thiessen: Don’t downplay Trump’s role in the U.S.-Mexico immigration deal. His strategy worked.

The Post’s View: How Trump and Congress can really fix our immigration problems