Steve Bannon Is Winning With the Old Communist Party Playbook
There’s a long American history of using special elections to claim a party’s establishment is coming undone—only to fall short of backing up that boast.
The victory of Bible-thumping, gun-pulling, and law-defying extremist Judge Roy Moore over Luther Strange in the Alabama Senate primary is a victory for the self-proclaimed true Trumpists, led by Steven Bannon, who went with the true insurgent over the incumbent the president reluctantly endorsed.
Moore’s triumph is the latest example of the strategy Bannon has used since he was coordinating the East Coast’s Tea Parties—running anti-establishment candidates against mainstream Republican conservatives to push the party in a populist-nationalist direction. It reflects his self-proclaimed Leninist tactic of working every way possible to destroy both the Republican and Democratic establishments. Now, he aims to protect the agenda of Trump, Bannon’s agent of destruction, from the corrupting influence of the establishment inside his own administration.
As Bannon, who see himself as a student of history, may know, his tactics mirror those that gave hope to American Communists in the 1940s, but finally fell short. The CPUSA had established a third party, the Progressive Party, which ran Henry A. Wallace for president in 1948. Their hope was that the unions and others on the left would actually put Wallace in the White House, since Truman was running against Republican Thomas Dewey and racist Southern Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond.
That February, a special election was held to fill a vacancy in New York City’s 24th Congressional District. Four candidates ran: a Democrat, a Republican, a member of the Liberal Party, and a pro-Communist supporter of the Wallace third party, Leo Isacson, who ran on the ticket of the Communist-led American Labor Party. Unexpectedly, and to the great shock of the political establishment, Isacson won.
Isacson’s victory, said Wallace—sounding something like Bannon now—proved that his “so-called third party would be the first party in 1948.” National Democrats panicked, thinking that this race showed Wallace’s strength. They were all wrong. The local victory had no national implications, and was not repeated anywhere else. Wallace was defeated overwhelmingly in November, without winning even one electoral vote.
Likewise, Judge Moore’s victory in Alabama’s very peculiar and particular race this week does not mean Bannon can repeat his success in other states in 2018. As they say, all politics is local.
There are, though, other parallels between Bannon’s strategy and that used by the American Communist Party during the New Deal, from 1935 to 1939 and then from 1941 through 1945. During those years, one part of FDR’s coalition was the American Communist Party. At home in the United States, the party called for a “Popular or Democratic Front” against fascism, uniting Communists with Socialists and Liberals, in support of the Roosevelt administration. The party’s leader, Earl Browder, his biographer James G. Ryan writes, “strove passionately to make the Communists not merely the left’s largest party, but a fully legitimate component of the Roosevelt coalition.” Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes write that “the essence of the Democratic Front policy, a variant of the Popular Front line officially adopted in 1938, was that the Communist Party had agreed to accept a junior and hidden role in the New Deal and labor movements.”
Earlier, in 1936, the party had run Browder for president but publicly he told the party faithful to vote for and support FDR. His own race was simply a means to keep themselves in the limelight, he said, and to have a platform for more forthright programs New Dealers did not yet support. Indeed, so strong was their desire to be viewed as left-wing New Dealers, Browder dissolved the party in 1941, transforming it into the “Communist Political Association,” an advocacy or pressure group. Communists were instructed to work within the two-party system, and to join and influence the Democratic Party.
They succeeded in gaining influence in the industrial trade union organization, the CIO; among intellectuals, novelists, screen writers, and Hollywood actors; and had a majority in some state Democratic organizations. Followers of the party would win seats in Congress, and some secret party members got elected to various positions, including congressional seats. They were particularly strong in California and Washington’s Democratic Parties, and in Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, whose most important activist, Orville Olson, was in fact a secret member of the CPUSA. Throughout the country, hundreds of more Communists functioned in this same manner in the Democratic Party. They either ran for office as “progressives,” hiding their Communist membership, or ran openly as Communists in support of the president while advocating for more extreme left-wing programs in the hope FDR himself, under pressure, would eventually back them.
FDR was open in his disdain for the CPUSA during the Nazi-Soviet Pact that lasted from August of 1939 to June of 1941, as it members called him a fascist and led a famous strike in an airplane factory to slow down military plane production. But after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, he let the party’s cadre gain quiet acceptance in administration and Democratic circles. FDR even freed party chairman Earl Browder, convicted in 1940 of passport fraud, from prison in April of 1942 as a sop to America’s new ally the Soviet Union, and a marker of the importance of the CP in his coalition.
CPUSA members and sympathizers worked in various federal agencies and as aides to congressmen and senators, even writing major New Deal legislation like the National Labor Relations Act. Also referred to as The Wagner Act, in honor of the senator who sponsored it, this important law gave organized labor full recognition and rights, and instituted collective bargaining between employers and unions to represent workers, chosen by them in a secret ballot.
It was written, as was the Social Security Act, by Leon Keyserling, one of the bright young men who rushed to Washington to serve the new reform administration, and who became an aide to Sen. Wagner. He and his wife were both secret Communist sympathizers and members of various party front groups. While he was working in Washington as a reformer, he was privately advocating violent revolution. Writing to his father, he said that while FDR’s victory was good, “the country is recovering too rapidly. A few more years of depression would have promoted violence, and without violence fundamental reform is unlikely.”
Keyserling saw hope, however, “in the certainty of even more serious depressions in the near future.” He then added that “there is no chance for lasting gains to either farmer or laborer save by revolution, and the only materials for revolt are the industrial workers.”
Both Keyserlings hid their real views, and went into governmental work to stealthily advance the revolution by creating laws they hoped would strengthen the working class and give them true class-consciousness. Then, the workers would play their rightful role as the agents of revolution as Karl Marx had predicted.
In the 1940s, the Communists used another strategy, which Bannon echoes today. They ran candidates as independent “progressives” who pledged to enact and support the New Deal and FDR while also pushing for legislation and programs Roosevelt was not ready to support. When they won elections and took stands further to the left than the president was willing to go, they would present those proposals as trying to accomplish what Roosevelt really stood for, but he was unable to enact because of the conservative Democrats in the so-called solid south. One such candidate was a New York congressman from East Harlem, Vito Marcantonio, who continually won in the 1940s as a progressive Democrat, although he regularly supported every CPUSA position.
It didn’t end well for the Communists. The liberal-communist alliance ended with the onset of the Cold War, and the realization that the Soviet Union was not America’s friend. Over time, when the party ran its own independent candidates, they received almost no votes, and their influence came to an end. Mainstream liberals broke with them, and refused to work alongside the Communists as they had in the New Deal years.
What relevance does this have to Steve Bannon whose agenda is populist-nationalist, and not communist, and who does not owe fealty to a foreign government? Bannon admires and views Donald Trump as a vehicle for his agenda in much the same way that Communists in government or Congress during the New Deal viewed FDR. However, Bannon and the other populist-nationalists who came into the administration with him, were soon gone, as the establishment Republicans managed to force Bannon himself and others to leave the White House. That forced Bannon to play an outside game which he seems all too happy to do, and which is where his real strength lies. His objective right now is to destroy the Republican establishment and take over the GOP.
That is most clear from reading the report of the young student journalist, Gabe Fleisher. He wrote on Sept. 25 that in remarks made by Bannon in St. Louis last weekend, at a “Put Americans First Rally,” Bannon went after the entire Republican establishment. He faulted the party’s congressional leadership for failing to support Trump’s “populist, nationalist, conservative message.” Asking the crowd if they knew why, he answered his rhetorical question: “They’re not populists, they’re elitists. They’re not nationalists, they’re globalists. They’re not conservatives, they are liberals.”
Calling Paul Ryan a liberal, who a Bannon candidate opposed for Congress in the Wisconsin Republican primary, is something of a joke. Yet, Ryan’s opponent Paul Nehlen announced he will challenge Ryan again, and predicted that “You’re going to see me where Paul Ryan stood.”
Bannon’s oft-announced goal is to run candidates across the country who support Trump’s populist-nationalist agenda to challenge and defeat so-called establishment candidates in thrall to the Wall Street and “corporatist” elites. To get the country back and make “America First,” will require putting in Bannon’s candidates, who oppose all regular Republicans.
Bannon and his followers, however, still support Trump himself. When the president takes a position opposed to their agenda, they argue that Trump is a dealmaker who knows what he’s doing, and that his heart is with them, not with the elitists he’s temporarily partnering up with. Even when Trump made a show of working with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to protect the Dreamers from his own policies, it only shows how brilliant and strategic a leader he is.
Speaking in Alabama for Roy Moore just ahead of his victory, Bannon told the crowd that the establishment’s “day of reckoning is coming,” and that “we did not come here to defy Donald Trump. We came here to praise and honor him.”
After Moore won, Bannon crowed: “Who is sovereign, the people or the money? Alabama answered today, the people.”
The final answer to his question, though, is still to come, and may well disappoint the president’s one-time chief adviser. Like Isacson’s 1948 stunner, Moore’s victory this week hardly means Bannon’s insurgent candidates will fare so well in regular primaries against more popular elected Republicans in states not dominated by white evangelicals.
Bannon may argue he is fighting the establishment and “the corporatists” from Wall Street who support them, but he may well find, as the optimistic Communists of the early 1940s finally did, that his time for gaining power is shorter than he believes.