It's Not a Revolution, Nor is it Bannon's
In the weeks since he was unceremoniously scraped from the sole of the President’s black oxfords, former senior advisor Steve Bannon has taken to the campaign trail in support of a series of insurgent Republican primary campaigns. Thus far, the most prominent notch in his belt is that of former Judge Roy Moore’s campaign for Alabama Senate. Moore is well-known for race-baiting, ignoring rulings from higher courts, islamophobic hate-speech, and attributing natural disasters to divine retribution for the sin of homosexuality. A real trophy for Bannon’s shelf.
Ross Douthat is one of the more interesting voices in conservative media. Truly conservative but original and moral. As such, he is generally one of the most effective critics of the post-Reagan conservative movement and the Republican Party in general. In his most recent column for the New York Times, entitled “Bannon’s Revolution,” he addresses Steve Bannon’s life after leaving Donald Trump’s orbit.
Douthat makes a compelling argument against Bannon’s strategy. He argues that campaigning for candidates who will join the House and Senate for the sole purpose of tearing down the Capitol column by column is old hat. He argues that this sort of strategy is just rehashing the Tea Party years that polarized Congress, made it less effective, led to a paralyzing split in the party, and left it in disrepair. Douthat contends, instead, that Bannon would likely be better served by looking simply for a leader for the sort of noxious ethno-populism that drove Republicans to comfortable legislative majorities and a Presidential victory. Douthat thinks Bannon’s ideology has already achieved its victory but collapsed into the void left by an utterly incompetent and vacuous figurehead.
“Which is not to say that Bannon is delusional. He and his allies are the latest to recognize the void at the heart of the Republican Party, the vacuum that somebody, somehow needs to fill [...] The Bannon crew got the furthest, in the sense that they got the most unlikely figure imaginable elected on something resembling their platform.”
“But now they, too, need to reckon with a reality that has confounded every kind of Republican reformer since Barack Obama was elected: Our politics are probably too polarized, our legislative branch too gridlocked, and the conservative movement too dysfunctional and self-destructive to build a new agenda from the backbenches of Congress up, or even from the House speaker or Senate majority leader’s office.”
The most curious aspect of Douthat’s piece, however, is that he omits the particular power of Bannon’s ideology. Bannon may be wasting his time on a congressional insurgency at least in part because that insurgency is unnecessary. Douthat describes Bannon’s modus operandi as “big talk about populism, plus a dismissal of the white identitarians and racists drawn to his flame as just incidental idiots” but with little to show for it but a repeated and pronounced “return to empty, race-baiting culture war”
Leaving aside that Trump was an unusually powerful force for unique reasons, Bannon’s ideology flung a man into the presidency who had no interest in policy, ideology, or the presidency itself. That is an ideology with peculiar potency. Douthat implies but fails to say explicitly that, while politics are too polarized to build a movement from the roots up, they’re just polarized enough and for exactly the right reason to thrust Bannon’s movement immediately to the highest branches. That reason is the continued salience of racism and white masculine identity politics, and Bannon’s strength lies in its deliberate leverage for political gain.
In the run-up to the Civil War, the Republican Party was the home of free-soil abolitionists, the Democratic Party was split between pro-slavery Unionists and radical secessionists, and the Constitutional Union Party played temporary home to former Whigs unable to stomach the abolitionist aims of the Republicans. Following the Civil War the parties snapped into violent focus with the Republicans the home of freedmen, moderates, and radical progressives and the Democratic Party, particularly in the South, the home of white supremacy and insurgency.
From the collapse of reconstruction in 1877, the Democratic Party was the almost exclusive home of militant populist racial resentment. The Democratic left allied with the segregationist South on labor liberalism during the Great Depression and the white wall in the Democratic Party began to show faint cracks. When a decade of Civil Rights legislation culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights bills and Barry Goldwater campaigned for president as a Republican, openly courting disaffected segregationists, that solid south shattered. For fifty years the Republican Party leveraged Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy to pick up its pieces, with less-scrupulous liberals grasping for all they could hang on to. Since that time, according to Ian Haney Lopez, the Republican Party has become an increasingly white party, particularly with respect to its lawmakers (98% of Republican state legislators, for example, are white). The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has become progressively less white as it has abandoned its more cynical racial strategies.
Douthat hints at and, as evident in much of his decade or so of commentary, is fully aware that this racial resentment is the appeal of the Bannon revolution and the wing of the party it represents. The partisanship, though, is irrelevant. Over the longer arc of history, the voters that the Republican Party courts in its primaries follow, not Republican politics, but the sort of racial antagonism and cultural resentment exemplified by the likes of Roy Moore, Corey Stewart, Steve King, Chris McDaniel, and Steve Bannon.
Douthat – though he wrestles with this often – fails in this piece to explicitly state the obvious. The Republican Party isn’t hollow. Quite the opposite. The Party has a full, rich, and vibrant core animated by one of the oldest political traditions in the country. The Party, at its core, is a party of white resentment, backlash, intransigence, regression, and cultural protectionism. It does not lack a heart, but rather its head and arms and feet – its leadership and establishment and intellectuals – have not yet come terms with the coalition that their most cynical allies have been building. They will soon, and many already have. If they falter someone else will. The force of white anger is there, Republican Party or not. It has always been there, Republican Party or not. It will be there whether the Republican Party comes to reject it or not. Steve Bannon is just working to make sure they embrace it with open arms. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t accept Douthat’s advice.