By Justin Gest
Without his chief strategist the president will still have the ‘alt-right’ credentials they built together to mobilize and transform the Republican base
Intrigue swirls around the future of Steve Bannon at the White House in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s management of last weekend’s attacks by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
While reports suggest that Bannon’s job as chief strategist is in the balance amid external calls for his dismissal and internal rivals pushing for his ouster, he has remained, largely because of the power he wields as a symbol of the “alt-right”movement inside the Trump administration.
The New York Times has reported that Congressman Mark Meadows, leader of the House’s Freedom Caucus, warned the president that he would lose his base without Bannon. The result is a stalemate. Bannon has managed to hold his following over the head of Trump, and so he has stayed his own execution.
However, Trump’s concern that Bannon’s departure would deprive the administration of its bonafides among the energetic alt-right reveals just how insecure the president is of his status with this constituency.
In fact, polls suggest a hard core of unwavering support for Trump that will not suddenly abandon him with the loss of a strategist, whom Trump once uncharitably called “a guy who works for me”. If Bannon is sacked, Trump will still have the alt-right credentials the two built together to mobilize and transform the Republican base.
There’s another reason why firing Bannon wouldn’t be a huge loss: his work is largely done.
Before the 2016 election, many white Americans felt marginalized – relegated in the country they once defined. Many, particularly those in post-industrial regions, had lost once stable jobs and their income has declined. Far worse for many, they felt like they had lost their sense of political clout and social status in American society.
During three years of polling and fieldwork in white working-class communities leading up to Trump’s election, I found this marginality anchored by three key sentiments – that many white Americans feel outnumbered, excluded and discriminated against.
In data from the nonpartisan, nationally representative American National Election Study (Anes) survey in 2016, white working-class people are more likely to deny the advantages that white people continue to possess, and express a sense that they are subject to unique disadvantages that reinforce their externality. A near majority of white working-class people – white people without university degrees – believed that being white made no difference to their fate in today’s society.
Rather, white working-class people were more likely than others to believe their whiteness hurt them. The sample of people were asked: “How many disadvantages do white people have that minorities do not have in today’s society?” Compared with the rest of those surveyed, white working-class people were far less likely to say “none”.
However, white working-class people reveal a greater sensitivity to discrimination in all forms – as it hinders their own pursuits, but also as it hinders other constituencies. Still, they perceived discrimination against black people, Hispanics and women far less than non-white people, and perceived discrimination against white people and Christians more than all others.
When compared with non-working-class white people, a greater share of white working-class people believed that losing jobs to minority candidates was “extremely” likely. They were also more likely to believe that “whites working together” is “extremely” important.
In his time on the Trump campaign and in the White House, Bannon cultivated this frustrated undercurrent and channeled Trump to address their sentiments – ushering in a renaissance of white identity in the US that harnesses the latent energy in a constituency that has disoriented the Republican party and American politics. For white communities with nationalist grievances, the Trump administration’s list of “achievements” looks like this:
- 24 January 2017: Withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
- 25 January: Heightened immigration enforcement and broadened the category of people subject to deportation.
- 25 January: Ordered the construction of a border wall and the tripling of border agents.
- 25 January: Ordered the removal of funding from so-called sanctuary cities.
- 26 January: Ordered a weekly list of crimes allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities.
- 27 January: Suspended the US Refugee Admissions program.
- 27 January: Ordered a ban of people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
- 6 March: Ordered a ban of people from six Muslim-majority countries.
- 18 May: Triggered the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).
- 19 July: Convened a commission on voter fraud that will demand voter data from states, at the risk of disenfranchising minority voters.
- 1 August : Ordered an investigation of “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions”.
- 2 August: Supported bill to cut all documented immigration into the US in half.
- 15 August: Declined to specifically condemn neo-Nazis and white nationalists after terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.
- 17 August : Criticized the removal of “beautiful” Confederate monuments in the American south.
Each of these actions have been undertaken without the support of Congress and, in many cases, without the support of the courts. In fact, many have yet to be enacted because they await court approval, were declared unconstitutional or require the appropriation of money by Congress. Others require no such checks.
Rather, they have made use of presidential authority to execute policies that bypass institutional deliberation to do what was once unthinkable – rendering them a spontaneous, miraculous quality to those on the alt-right who buy into Trump’s messianic self-image.
Even if they are not implemented, they also have a symbolic quality that shows white people with cultural anxieties that the administration empathizes and stands with them.
No doubt, Bannon still thinks there is more to do. We know this is true, because we have seen the list on his whiteboard.
Many of his goals can be checked off. However, he has well-documented (and neatly scribed) ambitions to curtail immigration further, overhaul the tax code and, according to his recent interview with the American Prospect, “the economic war with China is everything”. However, these broader goals are impossible to pursue without judicial approval or cooperation from a skeptical Republican party, and therefore less feasible. In other words, the low-hanging fruit in his “economic nationalism” agenda has been picked.
Bannon’s most attainable, sustainable – and most frightening – achievement is white Americans’ renewed sense of racial consciousness; a sense of shared destiny that was once shamed as unpalatable and ignored by mainstream politicians. He has wielded pervasive fear about demographic change into immense, cathartic political capital in support of Trump and his crusade against political correctness, foreigners and other threats to the historic American social hierarchy.
In the Anes survey from 2016, when a nationally representative sample of white Americans was asked, “How important is being white to your identity?”, the proportion who said “extremely” important nearly doubled from 2012 to 2016. While the increase was not as dramatic among white people without a university degree, they were more likely to report the “extreme” importance of their whiteness at both junctures.
More than anyone else in the Trump administration led by military brass and plutocrat CEOs, Bannon sensed this groundswell of frustration, fear and racial consciousness. His agenda persuaded many people in swing states to turn against the Democratic party in the 2016 election, and it has forged an indefatigable core of support that will stay with Trump through the next general election and beyond.
Viewed in this way, in seven destructive months, Bannon has done what earlier strategists like David Axelrod and Karl Rove took four years to achieve.