WASHINGTON — As President Trump and Joe Biden debated on Tuesday evening in Cleveland, Steve Bannon was not huddled with other campaign advisers backstage, scrolling nervously through Twitter. Nor was he watching from a flatscreen in the White House. He doesn’t have a West Wing office anymore, having been dismissed from his job as the president’s senior political strategist in the summer of 2017. His relationship with Trump since then has been one of rifts, reconciliations and, most recently, fraud charges related to fundraising for a border wall that Bannon was building because Trump could not.
It is difficult to imagine someone more attuned to the forces that coalesced in the strange brew called Trumpism. In 2016, Bannon was his campaign chairman, the brewmaster gleefully stirring cultural resentments, political grievances and economic woes into a potent mix. If others in the Republican Party ran from the deplorables, Bannon embraced them. He still uses the term, with obvious affection, to describe the hard-core conservatives who make up Trump’s base of support.
At the same time, he saw the debate as a missed opportunity for Trump to make the case to people who are not already committed supporters — even if he believes that the president nevertheless “won the debate” (most polls say otherwise).
“Would I have liked a little more populism? Maybe,” Bannon conceded. There were no overtures to forgotten Americans on Tuesday night, of the kind that marked the 2016 campaign.
“I think Trump did fine,” Bannon added. “I think he left a lot on the table. He could have hammered a lot more.” The self-described fire breather saw Trump as “very on the trigger” and eager to attack Biden but unable to give the attacks any substance. The debate quickly devolved into an exhausting fusillade of insults and jabs, largely (if not entirely) because that was the game the president wanted to play.
Speaking from New York City — which he described as disconcertingly deserted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — Bannon called for Trump to engage in “a lot more explanation of his populist program” during the next debate. (He spoke to Yahoo News before it was reported that Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus. The fate of upcoming presidential debates, like much else, remains unclear.)
Touting a populist program may have been easier to do in 2016, when that program was understood as a political vision. Today there is a record, and it includes both a tax cut that largely benefits wealthy individuals and corporations as well as ongoing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would lead millions to lose health insurance.
“I think you’ll see a lot more of the populism,” Bannon predicted of the second debate, which is still scheduled to take place on Oct. 15 in Florida. “And the economic nationalism.”
Several times during the conversation, Bannon expressed dismay that Trump did not discuss his recently unveiled initiative for Black Americans, a $500 billion program called the Platinum Plan. Instead of discussing that plan’s proposal to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist organization (and to treat antifa militants the same way) and treat lynching as a “national hate crime,” Trump’s big headline-making moment at the debate was his refusal to denounce white supremacy and his disconcerting call for one far-right group, known as the Proud Boys, to “stand down and stand by.”
“Obviously, a lot of us wish it was a little harder,” he said of Trump’s flaccid condemnation of racism. “It’s absolutely categorical. Ethno-nationalism, white supremacists, should definitely be denounced. I don’t think there’s any question about that.” Trump left plenty of questions, including with many Republican members of Congress. The questions were not accompanied by answers. The news cycle moved on.
Bannon has been described as a hate-monger of virtually every variety. He rejects that charge and always has. That will make a difference to some but not to others, who will never forgive him for the anti-Semitic comments he allegedly made to his then wife, for the routine eruptions of prejudice he presided over as chief executive of Breitbart News, and for the role many believe he had in convincing Trump that there were “very fine people on both sides,” as the president put it, after racist rioters caused three deaths in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
He talks about growing up in north Richmond, Va., which was a Black neighborhood then and is a Black neighborhood now. His father still lives there. He just turned 99.
Far more than Trump ever could, Bannon understands that populism has to be tailored to the populace. Without people, you are just another street-corner preacher, decrying free trade and open borders. He understands that the association between populism and right-wing nationalism is toxic. And so he backs away, calling the Proud Boys a “group of clowns” and white supremacy ideology “total nonsense.”
One wants to know whether this is genuine conviction, even if only of a Johnny-come-lately kind, or just an attempt to spin a disastrous debate performance. The genius of Bannon is that it is impossible to tell. Most of the time, that is. When he calls Breitbart News a “platform for the gay community,” one suspects the man knows he has gone too far.
At the same time, Bannon practically implores Trump to drop the Mayberry fantasy that has become a cornerstone of his law-and-order appeal to suburban whites. “I’m not so sure there’s suburban housewife votes to chase,” Bannon says.
He thinks that economic opportunity is a far more potent message than law and order, especially a time when millions are unemployed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. He thinks Trump can attract Hispanic voters who “like strong leaders” and African-Americans who want the kind of economic opportunities that are, or at least were, the mainstay of Republican platforms.
“That’s where I think the votes are,” Bannon says. Not in the suburbs of Milwaukee and Charlotte, but in the very cities that Trump has routinely written off as cauldrons of anarchy. He does not have much time to win them back.
Frequently depicted in media reports as an unrestrained firebrand, Bannon is in fact quite strategic in what he says and whom he says it to. Sometimes he wants to blow things up. Once in a while he wants to build them back up again. It was the latter imperative that led him to commandeer Trump’s 2016 campaign as it seemed to be entering its last wheezing breaths.
He doesn’t talk to Trump anymore; much as the president is his own man, he doubtlessly grasps that consorting with an accused tax cheat is not a look one wants when running for president. Still, top campaign official Jason Miller is among Bannon’s closest associates; Bannon and Trump are less a couple divorced than a couple separated. The battle they fought and won four years ago is simply too significant to allow for any personal enmity.
Which doesn’t keep Bannon from pushing Trump to do better when he debates Biden again in two weeks. “I think he ought to stop some of the interruptions,” Bannon says, and “dial it back a little bit.” Trump will “field strip” Biden the next time they meet, Bannon predicts. If, of course, the president’s coronavirus diagnosis allows them to meet at all.
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