In a famous 2016 interview, Stephen K. Bannon declared that incoming President Trump would build an “entirely new” movement for the “American working class” built on a “populist” agenda of massive spending to rebuild the U.S. manufacturing base.

“It will be as exciting as the 1930s,” Trump’s former adviser said, suggesting this “economic nationalism” would rival the New Deal’s transformation of government’s role in the economy and its realignment of the two parties’ relationship to the working class.

Joe Biden is set to introduce a new economic plan on Thursday that may end up flipping this script entirely.

The new plan draws a stark contrast with Trump on two fronts — his failure to mobilize a robust federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, and his full-on embrace of GOP plutocracy, which sold out the Bannon promise.

The core of the Biden plan is a pledge to “use the full power of the federal government” to “rebuild U.S. domestic manufacturing capacity” and fortify “supply chains” to ensure availability of “critical supplies” in “future crises.”

It envisions $700 billion in new spending to stimulate demand for U.S.-manufactured products and on research into clean energy and digital technologies. The Post summarizes:

He is advocating a $400 billion procurement initiative to spur demand for American products and services, as well as a $300 billion investment in U.S. research and breakthrough technologies. Half of the $300 billion is in clean-energy initiatives that were previously announced, the campaign said.
The plan also calls for the government to launch a 100-day “supply chain review” that could require federal agencies to buy only medical supplies and other goods manufactured in the United States.

The plan would tighten rules to ensure products purchased by the federal government are comprehensively made in the United States. The review would determine supply chain “vulnerabilities” to reduce dependence on China for — among other things — medical supplies, and create a more robust domestic “stockpile” and “manufacturing capacity” in crisis conditions.

All this highlights Trump’s refusal to marshal federal power behind a testing-and-tracing regimen and the private-sector manufacturing of supplies. Shortages are again causing medical professionals to scramble amid new spikes in cases, and are still impairing capacity to do the testing needed to reopen safely.

Industrial policy

Biden is proposing what’s known as “industrial policy.” This employs government intervention to “reindustrialize” the United States in specific sectors to achieve deliberate national goals, such as supply preparedness for pandemics or greater manufacturing capacity to reduce dependence on imperiled global supply chains.

Samuel Hammond, the director of welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, points out that Biden is filling the hole left by Trump’s abandonment of economic populism and his failures in areas where he has lurched in that direction, such as his ill-fated trade wars.

“The Trumpian approach is purely negative: Throw tariffs up and hope manufacturing jobs will miraculously return,” Hammond told me. “Biden’s approach is to level up American workers and make our supply chains more resilient. Trump just wants to turn back the clock on globalization.”

The Trumpist mythology

In the mythological view of Trump’s 2016 victory, the Biden plan is just the sort of thing Trump would do. As Bannon suggested, Trump would break with the reigning GOP orthodoxy of Koch brothers-style libertarianism and “free” market fundamentalism.

Trump would use government power to rebuild U.S. manufacturing jobs that “globalists” drained from the “forgotten” industrial heartland, and to protect the welfare state (particularly social insurance for the elderly) that Paul Ryan-type Republicans wanted to gut.

The pandemic offered an opening to marshal federal power. But Trump punted on deploying the Defense Production Act: His main mobilization was to marshal his magical lying powers to make coronavirus disappear.

More broadly, as president, Trump fully embraced GOP plutocracy with a massive corporate tax giveaway and an effort to gut health coverage for millions, which continues even amid pandemic conditions.

“Democrats like Biden will always have the upper hand in economic policy, because they actually believe in the power of government,” Hammond told me.

Of course, this also represents a new direction for Biden, who is associated with the more neoliberal and trade-friendly instincts of centrist Democrats. This plan makes real concessions to progressives who have long criticized those priorities.

Indeed, a source tells me Biden advisers consulted with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and her team — who have their own “economic patriotism” blueprint — and deliberately incorporated their contributions.

Yet the very fact that Biden is now moving to fill this space itself flips the script on Trump. It also should force a reckoning among those working to create an intellectual “conservative populist” underpinning for Trumpism.

A reckoning for ‘conservative populism’

The basic take of those intellectuals is that working people are gravitating toward conservative populism because “liberal elites” (and some conservative ones) are all-in with globalization, neoliberal financialization of the economy and identity politics, and working people place higher value on “goods” like stability and community.

Those elites supposedly disdain such values, and have abandoned class politics while ministering only to their new base of “knowledge” workers (the suburban, educated whites who are moving toward Democrats) who are plugged into the globalizing, digitalizing economy.

As Jamelle Bouie notes, this narrative defines “working class” as “white working class.” It airbrushes away nonwhite working-class people who see battles for racial justice as central to the struggle for economic justice — who see racial and class struggle as linked.

But in addition to that, these conservative populists should explain why neoliberal elitist Biden and many “identity politics” progressives embrace a far more robust agenda than Trump in using government power to rebuild the economic foundation of the industrial heartland that liberal elites have supposedly forsaken.

As Hammond notes, some populist conservatives genuinely want government to invest in the working class, but a big chunk of the Trumpian right “sees populist rhetoric as a cover for a fundamentally plutocratic agenda of tax cuts and deregulation.”

Meanwhile, how is it that Biden and many progressives are able to speak both to racial justice issues and to the need for rebuilding manufacturing capacity, if the former is supposed to represent a selling-out of working-class interests?

Trump is supposed to be the ultimate paragon of conservative populism. Yet Biden is filling the vacuum left behind by the fraudulence at the core of that Trumpist vision.

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