Steve Bannon’s Autobahn

You can’t fight Herrenvolk populism with weak-tea liberalism.

Illustration by James Clapham

There is no doubt that Steve Bannon is a bulging sack of shit.

With his chin fuzz and sloppy gray mane, he looks like an alcoholic stepdad grimly watching a History Channel special on Rommel in the desperate hope of an erection. In Bannon, President Trump has found his very own jack-booted Wormtongue. He will whisper darkly about “race realism” and the evils of birth control.

His ascent to the White House should indeed send chills down all of our spines. But what’s dangerous about Bannon isn’t that his loony, far-right politics have reached such high places. After all, that’s practically an American tradition.

Have we already forgotten about Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana, who reenacted Bill Clinton’s supposed assassination of Vince Foster with a pistol and a cantaloupe? What about Reagan’s secretary of the interior James G. Watt, the man who banned the Beach Boys from playing on the National Mall because they attracted “the wrong element”? Ultra-right John Birch Society president and conspiracy theorist Larry McDonald came to Congress in 1975 — during that supposed era of reasonable bipartisan consensus. A few years later, he urged the nomination of Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess for the Nobel Peace Prize on anticommunist grounds. Before he made his way to the Senate, Ted Cruz declared a war on dildos, stating in a legal brief: “There is no substantive due-process right to stimulate one’s genitals for non-medical purposes.” And in 1980, Ronald Reagan stood just seven miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi — where three civil rights activists were murdered in a conspiracy involving the county sheriff’s office, the local police, and the Ku Klux Klan — and promised to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.”

If terrifying right-wing loonies at the levers of state power could bring about the Fourth Reich, it would’ve happened decades ago, during a truly raging wildfire of American class conflict, at the behest of powerful oilmen like Clint Murchison Sr, who rumor has it funded the American Nazi Party, and Texaco chairman Torkild Rieber, who helped cinch Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War with shipments of much-needed oil and a telegram that read, “Don’t worry about payments.” Despite fascist sympathies in high places, none of these uber-powerful slimeballs tilted our constitutional oligarchy into fascism.

So “far-right racist” doesn’t make Bannon particularly unique or worrying. It’s how devastatingly well he understands liberalism’s failures and how willing he is to craft a fraudulent and reactionary program for those who’ve only experienced decline during the Clinton and Obama years.

Like a mutant weed growing out of a shit-covered pile of compost, Bannon has cultivated his particular brand of reaction entirely within the decomposing corpse of American liberalism. In no other soil could it ever have blossomed.

Summing up the Democratic Party’s embrace of Silicon Valley and finance, he gloats: “[The Democrats] were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.” For the most part, he’s right: the Democrats abandoned — even went to war with — labor, embracing the professional classes instead. Bannon’s rise on the back of a candidate who barely won more votes than Mitt Romney was only possible with the collapse of turn-of-the-century liberalism and its agents in the Democratic Party. Bannon (and Trump) would be nothing and nowhere without that implosion.

In a Hollywood Reporter interview that appeared shortly after Trump’s surprise victory, Bannon outlined his agenda for America — something he calls “economic nationalism.”

We’re going to build an entirely new political movement. . . . It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. . . . It will be as exciting as the 1930s.

Except it won’t look anything like that. Trump and the Republican legislature are no more likely to enact Bannon’s program than Obama was going to launch a Green New Deal. Trump’s actual infrastructure plan consists of nothing but tax credits. Private investors might jump on pipeline expansions, but they won’t be interested in overhauling municipal water systems.

This is hardly the Tennessee Valley Authority, which modernized and developed the most backward regions of the United States, despite being an “unprofitable venture” for the private sector. The New Deal, which Bannon cites as inspiration, wasn’t a mere giveaway to construction and building-trades hustlers like Trump’s proposal or even like much of Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Instead, it employed Americans with public oversight. Between 1935 and 1943, the Works Progress Administration hired 8.5 million men and women, not to mention the 3 million who worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As the Hurricane Katrina fiasco demonstrated, without effective federal regulation and oversight, infrastructure cash alone creates a race to the bottom in terms of wages and workplace protections. In December, a worker died at one of the new affordable-housing units going up in New York City. Unions had demanded that all workers be covered, but de Blasio’s City Hall wanted to “maximize production” rather than pay union wages. And now someone is dead because that worker was not adequately protected. Whatever projects Trump launches, workers’ pay, safety, and well-being won’t matter. They’ll be just as disposable as the tens of thousands of employees the president has already scammed throughout his miserable career.

Nevertheless, what Bannon said about negative interest rates creating the perfect opportunity for a massive infrastructure upgrade is true. (Even the increasingly worthless Paul Krugman agrees on this point.) And yet President Obama — who ushered in ARRA when interest rates were even lower — refused to fully fund a plan to rebuild the country when he had the perfect chance.

Obama’s economic adviser Christina Romer estimated at least $1.2 trillion was needed to pull the country out of the Great Recession. His political team, fearing the t-word (which apparently does not frighten Bannon), whittled it down to less than $800 billion, much of it tax cuts. But even Romer’s initial estimate was far too conservative — she later said the country needed at least $2 trillion in stimulus money. Obama shunned a New Deal, and now a reactionary is riding into office promising the Herrenvolk version.

What made the New Deal effective — and nothing like ARRA or Trump’s proposals — was that millions went from unemployed to employed within a matter of weeks. It prioritized well-paying jobs for workers, not handouts to construction tycoons. Labor union militancy, much of it shaped by the Communist Party, made this possible. As much as we might loathe Obama for having no plan to revive the American working class, we should never have believed he or the Democratic Party would. Liberalism failed in the twenty-first century not because of any new developments but because it always had wild deficiencies, even at the peak of its powers. It was only worth a damn when there was a radical labor movement for it to co-opt and, reluctantly, invite into a political coalition.

Without working-class militancy, there was never going to be a new New Deal under Obama. And there certainly won’t be one under Trump. Does the Donald have a plan to spur a new wave of unionization with his very own Wagner Act? Or a proposal to go after the “donor class” Bannon claims to despise?

Of course not. Trump’s already targeting union leaders from his Twitter account and inviting corporate America into his administration with unparalleled vulgarity. He wants to make a working-class paradise by bringing back manufacturing jobs that can compete with developing-world wages. It makes Obama’s food stamps and Uber economy look like 1970s Sweden.

A true right-wing “economic nationalism,” on the model of early twentieth-century fascism, is a dead letter in twenty-first-century America. The Republican Party may be the hard right of our ruling class, but it’s still a thoroughly capitalist ruling class — no Prussian dueling scars or epaulets these days. And these dull, business-minded captains of industry have no interest whatsoever in a new New Deal, reactionary or otherwise. Neither TVA nor autobahn. They’re far too bourgeois for anything like that.

As is both Trump and, for all his rustic bluster, Bannon. Despite his common-man shtick, Bannon worked at Goldman Sachs before turning Hollywood financier and growing rich off Seinfeld. His screenwriting partner claims Bannon once proposed limiting the vote to property owners. He’s more Federalist snot in the mold of Alexander Hamilton than reactionary Jacksonian. Behind his supposed working-class economic program lies the same shitty elitist views he pillories in liberals. Just like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bannon once wrote his very own rap musical. Like every rich, right-wing asshole, he plays GI Joe in public — or Julius Streicher, if the mood is right — before settling in with a nice bottle of Amarone in a climate-controlled beachfront property.

Bannon’s ambitions make gruesomely clear that liberalism and the Democratic Party in no way represents the left-wing obverse of conservatism and the GOP. And liberals, deep down in their hearts, understand this. They have no true ideological counterpoint — no real program and certainly no vision for changing society for the better. Michael Wolff correctly diagnosed Bannon as “embodying more than anyone the liberals’ awful existential pain and fury.” This doesn’t just refer to his disgusting comments — it includes his fiery ambition, something the Democratic Party has altogether lost. And even at its absolute best, liberalism’s aspirations were only a watered-down, cheap knockoff of the utopian dreams of communist and socialist activists.

Trump winks and smirks at Nazis while the Democratic Party can barely disguise its contempt for Scandinavian social democracy — “whatever that means,” as Clinton said. Finland’s government-provided baby boxes are as likely to elicit howls of contempt from Democratic Party officials as a golden hammer and sickle. Leading left-of-center pundits now seem to regard liberalism’s most popular quasi-social-democratic achievements — Social Security, Medicare, the Wagner Act — as little more than the tainted products of a racist, sexist past. Meanwhile, the party’s leadership spent the better part of last year slandering its most popular politician — only very recently and reluctantly a member of that party — as a wild-eyed demagogue.

Despite the outcry over the Breitbart News connections, Trump stood by Bannon and didn’t so much as flinch when his white nationalist associations were splashed across front pages around the world. Bannon’s position as senior counselor and White House chief strategist remained secure. And yet the most ambitious, leftmost member of Obama’s inner circle, Van Jones — a one-time card-carrying Maoist who was supposed to lead the green jobs initiative — was forced out within nine months. Why? A video surfaced in which Jones called Republicans “assholes” as did a signature on a silly 9/11 truth petition. Bannon, in contrast, was once charged with beating his wife, with a police officer as witness.

With Trump’s rise alongside liberalism’s popular decline we have the clearest manifestation of what Perry Anderson calls the United States’s “all-capitalist ideological universe”:

A mental firmament in which the sanctity of private property and superiority of private enterprise are truths taken for granted by all forces in the political arena. . . . There will tend to be more elasticity to the right of its center of gravity than to the left, since the basic belief system lends itself to stronger articulation, and readier appeal, in unalloyed rather than dilute form.

Just as buttoned-down conservative Robert Taft (the Paul Ryan of his day) privately pushed Joe McCarthy to go as far as he needed to, the Republican Party made their peace with Trumpism in a matter of weeks. We’ve yet to see that rightwards elasticity snap back. The GOP establishment may initially fear what lies farther down their end of the spectrum — and a few politicians like Charlie Crist or the Bushes might cry “uncle” — but eventually, like The Thing, they will consume the threat and shape it just as it shapes their party in turn.

No such relationship exists between the Democratic Party and the socialist left. Liberalism without labor is far worse than worthless and a Left without Marxism even more so. Affirmed right-wingers like Bannon have always understood this.

He calls himself “a Leninist,” and much like Grover Norquist, keeps a bust of V. I. on his desk. It’s not ironic in either case, and it never has been. For them, Lenin represents both the trophy of a conquered ideology — something like a safari pelt — and an admission of revolutionary inspiration and discipline. They aren’t mocking Lenin — they’re mocking the Left for abandoning Marxism. Even David Brooks has chided the twenty-first-century left for discarding anticapitalist critique:

The Left no longer has Marxism or any other coherent intellectual structure . . . no rigorous foundation to rely on, no ideology to give it organization and shape. . . . It undermines the power and effectiveness of modern politics more generally.

They can’t even hide their glee.

The Right — not the Democratic Party — wants to remake this country from top to bottom. And socialism and Marxism are its true opponents. If we’re going to fight Trump and Bannon, that’s how we do it. The racism Trump both conjured and campaigned on goes beyond very real bigotries — its promise has a material lure: jobs, loans, and property values.

But you can’t fight Herrenvolk populism with weak-tea liberalism. A paltry means-tested welfare state just flips white-supremacist programs and policies “for the deserving us not the undeserving them.” Both fit comfortably in the ruling-class politics of divide and conquer as opposed to the broad solidarity they fear. How can we expect the public to rally around something like Medicaid when huge portions of the working and lower-middle classes don’t qualify for it? Universal social democracy — a more transformative program than the one Sanders campaigned on — is called for. We’re in the midst of a reckoning with the neoliberal consensus. The Right has made their play, and now we have to make ours.

So let’s return liberalism to its rightful place — as dinner-table etiquette for the elite who are gobbling up the country and making peace with Trump and Bannon as we speak. Because that’s all liberalism is today and all the Left will be if we continue to borrow so much from it, consciously or unconsciously.

While etiquette can get people to wipe their mouths and use polite words for impolite concepts, it can never transform society. It can never defeat creeps like Bannon.