Steve Bannon’s departure from the White House was marked by a sense of relief on the part official Washington for about 10 blissful seconds.
Then the realization that Bannon’s liver-spotted hands were back on the controls of Robert Mercer’s pet alt-right propaganda organ hit them, and that bliss turned to despair. Before the White House door could hit Bannon on the backside, he was gleefully capering like a crusty leprechaun that he “had his hands on his weapons” again, and that he’d soon turn his fire on the real enemies of nationalist populism—Republicans and the broadly defined Establishment.
In Bannonism, fights matter more than ideas or accomplishments. The Bannonites aren’t really looking to do anything. They’re looking to be something, and that something is the political equivalent of a surly resident of the local monkey cage, screeching, baring its teeth, and throwing its feces at passersby. The promises of nationalist populism that helped Trump win over disaffected voters are well-known—the swift construction of the wall, mass deportations, torn-up trade deals, and the re-emergence of the economy of the 1950s.
Those promises are increasingly remote, and it’s largely Trump’s fault, but it won’t stop Steve Bannon and his allies from waging a furious blamestorming war against the GOP.
The two dirty secrets of nationalist populism are increasingly obvious. First, it’s not conservative; not even a little. All the fantasies of Trump-Bannon nationalism require a vastly expanded state, with greater powers over the economy and society. Free-market capitalism doesn’t pick economic winners and losers based on the president’s economic nostalgia, and limited-government conservatism isn’t marked a top-down ideological conformity strictly enforced by state media organs.
Second, nationalist populism isn’t a political philosophy or a real governing framework. It’s a con targeting the furious and the febrile, a Facebook click scam disguised as a movement. It’s nothing more than grunting, economically ignorant revanchism against a catalog of imaginary, opera-buffa villains. It requires a constantly expanding catalog of people to blame for an economy that changed more due to technology than a sinister cabal of brown people from faraway lands.
Trump and Kelly dumped Bannon because he was a danger to the presidency. They took the chance that Bannon “outside the tent pissing in” would be less dangerous than allowing him to continue to roam the White House as a free agent, and they might have done so for a simple reason; Steve Bannon’s power was contingent on a conservative media ecosystem that tightly bound Breitbart, Bannon, Fox, Rush, and the other pilot fish of the clickservative media. Their full-throttle amplification of Bannon’s desire to ensure the dismissal of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser didn’t work. Bannon lost battle after battle on trade policy, national security, and immigration. Kelly fired him because the Axis of Adults knew they could, even if it would have only a limited effect, and that Trump would still keep Bannon in his orbit.
Bannon’s removal from the White House doesn’t change Trump. Trump still wakes up every day, an addict for adulation, praise, and worship. Bannon knows Trump’s deep, abiding paranoia and fear never recedes, and that the black hole of his desperate ego is never filled. He knows Trump’s behavior will always prevent him from finding the praise and adoration he needs from the American media and the vast majority of the public.
Bannon knows the drug Trump craves, and it’s a heady speedball of adulation and attention. So Breitbart will give Trump more than Fox and Friends and Sean Hannity can. Bannon will give him the lavish, absurdly overwrought praise about being a hero of the nationalist movement. Trump will never be the subject of their vitriol. He’ll be the damsel in distress, and Steve will be his white knight.
All it will cost Trump is the constant headache of having Breitbart and the constellation of alt-right-friendly news sites wage a never-ending war on Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, and anyone else in Trump’s orbit deemed insufficiently terrified of an imaginary tidal wave either Muslims, Mexicans—or, dear God don’t tell Alex Jones—Muslim Mexicans coming to rape our women, take our jobs, and operate dangerously appealing food trucks. All it will cost is a wink-and-a-nod: “I’m not saying globalist has to mean ‘Jew’ but ‘Goldman? Sachs?’...who are they kidding?”
At varying historical inflection points, nationalists and populists rise from economic depressions, post-war funks, and other moments where the temptations to abandon principle, policy, and that harder work of ethical governance is too strong. That’s when man meets mob, and the People’s Bully, the swaggering authority figure who promises “I am the only one who can fix this” finds people ready to take to the streets.
We’ve seen how the nationalism movie ends in Europe and beyond, particularly when it gets into the racial, ethnic, and religious division so favored by the president’s alt-right allies. It’s not just Europe; after the Rwandan genocide that cost the lives of more than a half-million members of the Tutsi minority group, the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation commission looked at how the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) propaganda network was used to sow the seeds of the genocide.
Their report called the RTLM broadcasts, “... a drumbeat calling on listeners to take action against Tutsis. RTLM spread petrol throughout the country little by little, so that one day it would be able to set fire to the whole country.”
It’s not that Bannon is genocidal. It’s that populist movements and moments tend to devolve into a singular “us vs. them” equation. It’s that the people who are susceptible to the seductions of angry nationalism at the hands of men like Trump and Bannon move from disgruntled and disaffected to furious and fanatic more easily and dangerously than the propagandists driving them understand.