The truly off kilter thing about the politics we're experiencing these days... well, how many FB posts and Twitter stories start that way, actually? I have one friend who insists we have to make clear, always, how not normal this moment this is... yet I feel (still) the not normal part pretty much speaks for itself. Every day it seems, is a new round, of "What is this?" and "Why is this happening?"
I wondered, for a hot moment, if the arrival of John Kelly as Chief of Staff really did signal some sort of new phase - as if, somehow, 6 months of an Administration constitutes a "phase" - and while that idea seems out the window (such a short time, too!), losing Sebastian Gorka and... what was his name? Bannon? did seem like a shift, if not to us, then surely to the ardent believers of... whatever it was Steve Bannon and folks like Gorka were trying to sell.
There's nothing I find quite so ludicrous in all of the politics of the "Trump right" than the notion that Bannon serves, somehow, as the movement's "deep thinker." Trump, obviously, has no fixed ideology, no clear core of beliefs to animate him except, apparently, "mine" and "more." Bannon, it was suggested, filled that (vast, gaping) emptiness with something termed "economic nationalism" and some sort of "America First" approach to our standing in the world - even more oddly, as if the concept were somehow new and untried. As I suspected, without Bannon, much of this grand spell making has collapsed like a house of cards (no, not "House of Cards" - which seems cheerfully quaint to watch now that the madness has taken over DC).
Much of what Bannon was trying to sell - which he has taken back, incoherently, to Breitbart and plans of further electoral mischief on the right - would be interesting if he knew even a smidge of what he was talking about. Though aimed at domestic prejudices, like anti-immigrant fervor and class resentment, Bannon crafted a worldview that was disgusted, most, with a kind of global groupthink that has, admittedly, seized much of the developed world's political establishments. Corporate and "global," the Establishment view favors epic trade agreements, easy cross border "free" trade, and rationalist approaches to international conflict, preferably addressed in coalition.
And for the good it's done - isolating a number of bad actors; providing, yes, a steady stream of inexpensive goods for mass consumption across international markets; crafting several interesting and even effective diplomatic solutions to complex issues (such as the Iran nuclear deal) - it's worth pondering what it hasn't: wealth is ever more concentrated in the hands of a few; those isolated bad actors (Russia) have little choice but to fight back by any means necessary; and truly intractable international problems (such as Syria) simply won't bend to international plans. More to the point, Bannon and various European actors have identified an equally pernicious weakness: in the absence of a healthy debate between traditional Left and Right, those who feel unrepresented, or poorly treated in this scenario have little choice but to go to the edges and extremes of political discourse.
Trump, in this scenario, may serve as the international example of what can happen when a nation doesn't pay enough attention to the threat posed by extremism. Since his election, France has rejected Marine LePen, while Germany and England returned women leaders to familiar roles while serving their parties with double digit losses in seats and political support. In Germany, this has Angela Merkel struggling with a resurgent far right; In England, while nationalism has folded in on itself, a youthful far left has arisen to reject Teresa May's muddled middle, yet lacking anywhere near the support to claim a majority of its own.
In part, Europe's troubles are uniquely their own, the fallout of creating an EU superstructure over nation states whose populations don't necessarily see the utopian benefits initially promised. In that, "Brexit" is simply the abreaction of the nation least committed to the ideal in the first place. But one could point to Sweden, for instance, which has routinely rejected diving head first into the common currency, or the non-Brexit, messy, will-they-or-won't-they nailbiter elections various countries have had accepting or rejecting provisions of EU membership over its lifespan. Fundamentally, even unsurprisingly, the EU doesn't necessarily sell itself, despite what the intellectual class insists to those who Just Don't Get It.
If this sounds like I'm getting on board the Bannon crazy train, think again. Bannon's incoherent mix of rejecting trade deals, reliance on racial tensions and resentments, and vague notions of closed border bliss make no sense and serve little purpose but to pump up fear and and anger and internal conflict. Blinkered notions of "nationalism" are worse, it turns out, than no answer at all. And Bannon's extreme incoherence is yet another indication that the real rot here is within the American conservative movement, which long ago gave up intellectual arguments and policy development in favor of sloganeering, populism and finger pointing. Even "moral decency," the old tropes of the religious right, have fallen away.
By removing Bannon and Gorka and others, like Flynn, who represented a truly frightening prospect for American leadership here and abroad, Trump probably managed to take himself from genuinely dangerous to merely hopelessly ineffective. Yes, he's appointing judges, eviscerating recent regulations, and threatening so much worse. But resistance, rejection, and Trump's seemingly endless skill to mess himself up are providing something of a backstop to the ground under us completely giving way. Right now, blinkered and bruised as it is, my own sense that we can survive this and fix what he breaks remains largely intact. I don't blame anyone for rejecting me as too Pollyanna for belief... but we're gonna need something to hold onto in this turbulent, chaotic, time. I choose to believe much of this, while bad, is temporary. But that hope, in the end, rests on faith in people to find a better way out of this. And that, even I'll admit, seems especially elusive just now.
It's worth remembering that at the heart of the dissatisfaction with globalism, free trade and international economics is rage and disappointment that is real and unlikely to go away... and that's because the dissatisfied are, in ways large and small, right about the problems they see. The economic injustices are real, the mistreatment of the masses is real, the obliviousness to the suffering of those being hurt is all too real. We do need a greater sense, among the "smart set," the Establishment, those doing somewhat better than those worst off... some awareness that debate is not just an intellectual exercise, that anger left to fester is toxic, that failing to do something is not just stasis, but an actual failure.
Whatever the heck is happening, whatever it is Steve Bannon hoped to accomplish, it's no good to pretend that this is just about racist know nothings being fed a steady diet of lies and misinformation. Discontent abounds. Very real economic pain is all too visible, should one choose to look. Revolutions have been built on a whole lot less. And the damage that yet can be done letting problems fester isn't like anything we've seen so far.