As President Trump changed his tune about the coronavirus this past week, shifting on a dime from shrugging it off to calling it “the invisible enemy” America is at war with, he also began referring to it as the “Chinese Virus.”
Using racist or racially inflected language, and waiting for Democrats to respond with fury, is a go-to move for Trump. Remember when people complained about the conditions of the detention centers holding migrants at the border, and Trump tweeted that four congresswomen of color, three of them born in America, should “go back” to the countries they came from? Remember the hysterical pitch he reached ahead of the 2018 elections tweeting about a caravan of migrants?
Steve Bannon explained the strategy, in the 2017 interview that led to his ouster from the administration: “The Democrats,” he told Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
What Bannon was describing was a one-two punch: You distract the enemy —the Democrats and the liberal media—with something the electorate doesn’t care about; and then you feed the electorate something they do care about. Get the left talking about racism, and then supply the electorate with a soaring economy.
It’s a move Trump has used again and again. But while some have caught on to the racism-as-distraction, fewer have copped to the crucial second part – what Bannon called “economic nationalism.” What he meant was the kind of America First protectionism that was the signature platform agenda of Trump’s first term, a new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico and a trade war with China that, ironically, resembled nothing so much as the lefty economic agenda that the Democrats had long abandoned. In his trade war with China, Trump took up actions that labor unions and other liberals have long demanded. And the newly renegotiated trade agreement with Mexico, the USMCA, is by all accounts the most pro-labor, environmentally friendly trade agreement the U.S. has ever entered into.
In other words, Bannon’s move that Trump has adopted wholesale wasn’t just to get the left in a (justifiable) rage over offensive tweets, but to do so while running to the left of them on economics, pulling the rug out from under the Democrats’ feet and allowing the president to scramble the left/right economic divide.
If, in that long ago time before 2016, Republicans stood for American exceptionalism, endless war, free market economics and an aversion to Russia, Trump stands for just the opposite, giving him a lot more in common with Bernie Sanders than with someone like Ted Cruz or Pat Toomey, at least on the economic front. Trump’s approach, beginning with a cut to corporate taxes, and buoying that with pro-worker bottom-up measures, was a kind of Americanized version of the Scandinavian democratic socialist model touted by Sanders (Sanders ironically voted against the new NAFTA—one of just 10 senators who did—because he said it didn’t go far enough environmentally).
Trump’s reaction to the coronavirus has followed suit. Last Friday, President Trump announced he would be waiving federal interest on all student loans until further notice. And on the same day he started referring to it as the “Chinese Virus,” The Washington Post reported that the White House would act on calls to send cash directly to American families. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the Fox Business Network that plan was to send payments totaling $500 billion directly to Americans, $1,000 for adults and $500 for each child, with another infusion in six weeks if the emergency persists.
And Thursday, Trump said that the government might demand equity in businesses it helps save, saying that “People are coming for money .. in some cases where they did certain things including buying back stock... maybe I view that a little differently as someone who didn't.”
Compare this to the bank bailouts that accompanied the recession that the Democrats presided over in 2009, and you see what Bannon was talking about.
There’s a longstanding debate about whether Trump’s supporters are motivated by racism or economic strife. Without wading too deeply into that argument, it’s at least interesting that Bannon, the architect of Trump’s White House victory, believed that to beat the Democrats, racist tweets were a way to steal an economic platform from the left—in other words, they were not the endgame but a way to distract the enemy and steal what should have been their plan all along. The tweets weren’t for the base—they were for the media.
We should not allow the president to distract us from his glib response to the coronavirus over critical weeks, putting countless American lives at risk. But Bannon’s theory that the Democrats lose when they allow the Republicans to run to their left on economics deserves serious attention. It should be a wakeup call.