As Trump prepared to depart from Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday morning, he hailed his presidency as “amazing, by any standard.”
“We also got the largest tax cut reform in the history of our country by far,” Trump told the crowd of die-hards who had collected to watch his departure. After telling that lie, Trump suggested Democrats would hike taxes on ordinary Americans. In fact, President-elect Joe Biden’s plan only targets income over $400,000.
If we want to take stock of the Trump era, and how far removed that final moment was from the initial promise of this presidency, a good place to start is with an interview that Stephen K. Bannon gave just after helping engineer Trump’s 2016 victory.
In it, Bannon declared that Trump would offer a “populist” agenda of massive spending to rebuild the U.S. manufacturing base, producing an “entirely new” movement for the “American working class.”
Bannon promised a new “economic nationalism” that would rival the New Deal’s success in recasting the political alignment of working-class Americans of all races, but this time toward Trump’s GOP. Bannon declared: “It will be as exciting as the 1930s.”
Now, as the country remains mired in terrible crises that rival those of the 1930s — ones largely created by Trump himself — he just closed out his term with a raft of deeply corrupt pardons, one of which went to Bannon.
That pardon came before Bannon faced trial: Prosecutors had charged him with fraudulently suggesting he wouldn’t personally benefit from a “We Build the Wall” fundraising drive he’d helped organize — yet more than $1 million ended up in his pockets.
In other words, Trump has attempted to secure impunity from accountability for Bannon (who pleaded not guilty) even before the system rendered its verdict on his alleged crime, one that targeted Trump’s own most committed supporters.
Bannon’s trajectory mirrors Trump’s
In an important sense, Bannon’s trajectory mirrors the larger story arc of the Trump presidency. After Trump entered office, it immediately became clear that his populist economic nationalism, which had included vague promises to go after economic elites, would largely be tossed aside.
Trump stocked his administration with plutocrats, and when the big tax cut was being hashed out, Bannon made a perfunctory push for tax hikes on the rich. But Trump’s adviser shelved this effort, reportedly because his main focus was on restricting immigration.
The rest is history: The Trump tax cut didn’t produce anything close to the job-creating investment that it was supposed to. The vaunted promise of major infrastructure spending never materialized. Bannon subsequently got pushed out.
How Bannon came back into Trump’s orbit
Crucial to understanding this trajectory is how exactly Bannon circled back into Trump’s orbit. He gained public attention again by defending Trump’s right to strong-arm a foreign ally into helping rig the election and then by calling for the beheading of Anthony S. Fauci, who had told truths about the seriousness of coronavirus that Trump tried to erase with lies.
Most important, Bannon helped spread Trump’s propaganda about the election, conspiring with Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and calling on Michigan’s state legislature to appoint pro-Trump electors — that is, to help Trump steal the election.
It is all but certain that those moves — defending Trump’s extraordinary corruption, calling for the execution of those who placed their official duty ahead of Trump’s political needs, urging Republicans to help him stay in power illegitimately — helped secure the pardon.
Indeed, The Post reports that the pardon was the subject of “frantic” discussion inside the White House up until the last minute. I guarantee you that those arguing against it noted how obscenely corrupt it would look, which of course it now does.
All this says something important about the future of the movement known as “Trumpism.”
The future of Trumpism
Joshua Green, the reporter who knows more about Bannon than anyone, notes that Bannon spotted a need on Trump’s part, one created by Trump’s incitement of the violent storming of the Capitol. This has led Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to marginalize him in ways that might not have otherwise been attempted.
As Green pointed out, Trump’s pardon might be motivated by “an element of fearful self interest.”
“He recognizes that McConnell and the mainstream GOP no longer have any use for him,” Green told me. “He’s been de-platformed by social media. If Trump is to maintain a political base, it’s basically going to be the sort of people who make up the Breitbart comments section.”
“So I imagine he figures it’s useful to have Bannon in his corner, if only to help him maintain his relevancy,” Green continued.
In short, Trump is now more like the leader of a violent insurgency that is organized around the idea that the election was stolen from him, even as his influence over whatever remains of his once-fearsome broader populist nationalist movement has waned.
Now it’s all sputtering out with Trump boasting about his corporate tax cut as his chief economic accomplishment, even as he pardons the keeper of the Trumpist economic nationalist flame for allegedly using false populist promises to literally rip off his own supporters. For Trumpism, it’s an ugly but appropriate end.