Watching the triumphalist parade of Trump Administration officials at CPAC this week, it would be easy to believe that American conservatism has reached new heights of lasting power. Republicans now control not only Congress and the Presidency, but the majority of governor’s mansions and statehouses nationwide.
But that would be deceptive. It’s not just that Trump’s White House is in turmoil over its Russia controversy, its own infighting and its innumerable missteps after taking office. It’s also that the entire ideology on which Trumpism is built is a desperate defensive posture.
Yesterday Steve Bannon gave a rare public appearance in which he once again stressed his core political philosophies concerning nationalism versus globalism, and the need for nationalist cultural resistance to global corporate power. These would be almost progressive-sounding themes, if they weren’t belied by the Trump administration’s pro-corporate economic choices, and if they weren’t strongly tinged with white supremacy, prejudice and anti-cosmopolitanism. And they would sound impressive, if they weren’t the product of inherent weakness and desperation.
Bannon wants the nation-state, as a defined cultural entity, to reassert itself over the multicultural melting pot of a smaller and more interconnected world. His goal is to disconnect: to disentangle America from its multilateral alliances and trade deals, to deconstruct that administrative state that he sees as thwarting domestic business interests and protecting immigrant populations, and to disengage the country from nation-building abroad.
The problem, of course, is that Bannon’s is a deeply racist vision that presumes a cultural identity of America that is white, male, libertarian, rural, self-reliant and distrustful of foreign entanglements. It ignores the story of America that has always existed alongside that vision: a land of immigrants, a rich diversity of ethnicities and nationalities combining to create cultural melanges and technological innovations (enabled in part through government assistance) unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
Bannon and his followers know that the latter story has been gaining dominance over the former. California is the world’s 6th largest economy as Hollywood and Silicon Valley dominate the world’s culture and technology. New York City is in many ways the capital of the world, and Washington DC has become a hip, culturally diverse metropolis. A nation that only a decade ago watched Howard Dean derided as a sushi-eating, latte-drinking weirdo now has a Starbucks and a Japanese restaurant seemingly on every other corner, even in exurbia.
Conservative white America is in a demographic death spiral, and Bannon knows it. That’s a concern if you’re the sort of white American who derives a strong part of your identity from being white. It’s a problem if you’re the sort of person who sees the default American as a John Wayne archetype, and who sees American identity as having less to do with Ellis Island, microchips and fusion restaurants, and more to do with cattle ranches, steel mills and coal mines. The latter America is definitely declining due to a combination of demography, automation and globalization, while the former is ascendant. Bannon is on a desperate and futile mission to stop that cultural transformation from happening–and not for the noble reason of wanting to help and protect the rural workers affected, but for the darker and more prejudiced reason of wanting to keep conservative white culture in an artificially dominant position over America’s more diverse, more liberal and more economically productive urban centers.
Bannon and Trump can’t actually make that happen: the trends are beyond their ability to control. Automation is killing much traditional blue-collar work, and is set to invade every sector of the economy. Renewable technologies are fast replacing legacy fossil fuels. The only real solution for workers whose communities have long depended on those jobs is a socialist intervention in the form of government jobs programs, retraining and perhaps even a universal basic income–but those industries will not be returning in their former capacities. Whites will be an ethnic minority in America within two generations–and only a slim majority of whites are conservatives even today, while minority populations are liberal.
The Republican Party has depended on white rural resentment for the last half century. But the only hope for a cultural conservatism of white rural resentment lies in a desperate Hail Mary pass: deporting millions of undocumented immigrants before they can have more citizen children; preventing any future immigration from non-white, non-Christian countries; and deconstructing the governmental, social and economic networks that help sustain and empower both educated urban centers and minority communities. The Trump agenda is massively disruptive because massive disruption is the only thing that can save Bannon’s conservative white cultural supremacist vision for the country.
And if they can’t change the economic and demographic face of the country enough to win a majority of votes, the next step is simply to remove the institution of democracy itself through voter suppression, media intimidation and other authoritarian tactics. It’s in essence the political logic of apartheid.
But never forget that the logic of apartheid is not one of strength, but of weakness. Bannon and his friends know they cannot win on the merits, and they know that unless they act quickly and dramatically, they cannot win over the long term. That makes them dangerous, but theirs is a position of weakness, not of strength.