If there’s one good thing to come from Donald Trump’s calls for steel and aluminum tariffs, it may be that it puts to rest the notion that Steve Bannon was somehow the brains behind Trump’s brand of protectionism.
Now, with Bannon not just dispatched from the White House, but (after leaking to author Michael Wolff) also persona non grata with Trump, the president is poised to finally implement tariffs, thus obliterating the trope.
In the wake of the travel ban last year, allegations that Bannon was running the show reached fever pitch. This assumption leads to the kinds of analysis we saw a year ago, which flatly stated that “our real president is not Donald Trump, the man who was elected, but rather is Steve Bannon, a devious malcontent who is very clearly manipulating Trump to his own ends.”
This persists for a couple reasons. First, it is in the best interest of the strategist to implicitly suggest that he was the brains in the operation. This might be especially true of Bannon, who is now forced to live off the land and find ways to generate the attention he so desperately craves.
There’s also a psychological reason: A politician’s adversaries can’t imagine that the idiot in office—whoever that happens to be at the time—could get there on his own. So we attribute super-human powers to some evil genius, assuming that someone else must be “pulling the strings,” as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested of Bannon.
Just as every culture seems to have a creation story and a flood story, every president is assigned a Svengali. How did a dumb peanut farmer get elected president? Must be a sharp young guy named Pat Cadell. How did a dumb movie star win the highest office? Reagan aide Mike Deaver scripted it of course. Behind every Dubya, there’s an Architect—behind every Poppy, an Atwater. “The world always says there’s a Rasputin pulling the strings,” says Republican strategist Dan Hazelwood.
Except, for better or worse, Trump is his own Rasputin. Protectionism might be a really stupid economic idea, but Trump doesn’t need Bannon to convince him to embrace this madness. Before Bannon joined his campaign, Trump was talking about putting “America First” and saying he wanted to “Make America Great Again.”
But it goes back much further than that. Support for protectionism might be the only area where Trump has been truly consistent for decades. Way back in 1988, he went on Oprah and complained: “We let Japan come in and dump everything into our markets…it’s not free trade.”
Now, I’m not saying this belief is necessarily sincere (though it may be). Just that he didn’t plagiarize it—nor is he a recent convert to it. When it comes to understanding people’s visceral emotions, he’s basically a genius. He has an uncommon understanding of visceral emotions. And since the dawn of time, trade has been a very visceral issue. Now, sometimes we think of trade as being boring or esoteric, but it’s really a deep-seated issue that combines two things that get our blood boiling: race and money.
Don’t believe that trade is visceral? A dozen years ago, conspiracy theorists on the right were warning of a “huge NAFTA SuperHighway, four football-fields-wide, through the heart of the U.S. …”
Trade especially resonates with the blue-collar folks who elected Trump. This is because, although free trade makes nations richer, economists must always tack on an important disclaimer and note that “on net balance,” free trade is good. Whenever elites say those words, your ears should perk up, because the implicit assumption is that the people who will be hurt or left behind will be the working-class stiffs.
Complicating this logic is the fact that, in the case of free trade, there are all kinds of working-class stiffs. The ones in manufacturing might get zonked, while a larger number who work in other areas prosper. And the working-class stiffs who like to buy cheap products will pay more for them because of these tariffs. The problem is that the benefits are concentrated, while the costs are dispersed. What that means is that the relatively small number of people who work in the steel industry will notice a huge improvement, while the rest of us might not comprehend why everything from cars to Coke cans cost us more than they used to.
For whatever reason, Donald Trump is poised to implement a protectionist tariff that he has, to some degree or another, advocated for 30 years. This is widely known, yet it has competed with a narrative that suggested that Trump was a blank slate who was being pushed into a populist/nationalist agenda by Bannon.
If he goes through with these tariffs, it’s going to be a tough call as to who is hardest hit: American consumers, or Steve Bannon’s ego. It might mean that you and I have to spend more every time we go to Wal-Mart from now on, but Trump’s latest move proves that the person pulling Trump’s strings has been Trump all along.