Kushner, Cohn and Their Wall Street Friends Are Not Moderates or Centrists

When discussing the Game of Thrones backstabbing feuds in the White House, it is common for the media to describe Bannon and his friends as far-right extremists in conflict with results-oriented “centrists” like Trump’s son-in-law Kushner and Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn. This Axios story is typical of the genre:

Steve Bannon, the engine and soul of President Trump’s hard-edged approach to his first months in office, is increasingly isolated and will be forced out unless he can adopt a more cooperative approach, a top source told me.

On both style and substance, Bannon got crosswise with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who are pushing for a more competence- and results-driven focus for the West Wing.

In their view, Bannon is too inclined to want to burn things down and blow things up. They want a more open process driven by the interests of the president, not ideology.

Of all the narratives in media, this is probably the one that frustrates me the most. Super-rich men in real estate and finance who are vaguely socially accepting, interventionist in foreign policy, and insistent on tax cuts are not “centrists.” They are just as deeply ideological as Bernie Sanders or Steve Bannon, and in fact their ideology is less popular among voters than either of the “extremes.”

Broadly speaking, no one is more unpopular than Wall Street types and landlords. Few policies are more unpopular than tax cuts for the rich. Americans are tired of foreign wars. Opposition to job offshoring and trade policy that hurts American workers is strong in both parties.

Bannon and his coterie of open racists are fond of calling Goldman tycoon Gary Cohn “Globalist Gary”–an attack that is dismissed in many quarters as thinly veiled anti-Semitism. It almost certainly is, but there is also no question that globalist neoliberalism is an incredibly unpopular ideology right now on both the right and the left. The Trumpist alt-right and the progressive left both despise the hegemony of corporate power and crony capitalism that has decimated low-skill labor and hollowed out the economy in developed countries. The biggest difference is that the alt-right wants to preserve the hegemony of white males, while the progressive left wants a universal socialism.

But the ideology universally rejected by voters in America and around the world is one in which rootless wealthy financiers predate on their own societies for maximum profit under the veneer of global, color- and gender-blind meritocracy. A world in which the only permissible distinction between “right” and “left” is not about the fundamental structures of the economy, but the degree to which those left furthest behind in the glorious new world of instability may or may not be partially subsidized with sops to their dignity like paid child leave.

Yet that very ideology is the only one legitimized by mainstream media as “centrist” and normal, which in turn has led to political revolt on both the right and the left. But make no mistake: Kushner, Cohn and friends are neither normal nor centrist in any way. David Roberts expressed this most ably in his seminal piece on how politics works in the modern era:

Third, in practical coalitional politics, the “center” will tend to be shaped not by rational thinking but by money and power. If there is any space left for bipartisanship in US politics, it is around measures that benefit corporate elites.

The right-wing base has a coherent position on climate change: It’s a hoax, so we shouldn’t do anything about it. The left-wing base has a coherent position: It’s happening, so we should do something about it. The “centrist” position, shared by conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans, is that it’s happening but we shouldn’t do anything about it. That’s not centrist in any meaningful ideological sense; instead, like most areas of overlap between the parties, it is corporatist.

Bannon and his alt-right allies are terrible, bigoted people who endanger the lives and welfare of millions. But they’re not more extremist than their toxic, neoliberal corporate-friendly opponents in the White House. In fact, they have more legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and their policies are the more popular.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.