The pundit class has had a field day with Trump guru Steve Bannon’s first ever TV interview, aired recently on “60 Minutes.” Certainly it was hard to resist mocking his goblin-like appearance and his shrugging off the stoking of racial and religious animosities among Americans. And if, like me, you are no fan of Donald Trump, Bannon’s unswerving loyalty to a dishonest president also seems worthy of contempt.
But if all you took from his interview were reasons to despise Bannon as a malevolent demagogue, then you again missed the plainest explanation for the Trump phenomenon: economic nationalism. It’s not a new analysis, but Bannon pointed out that many of the criticisms of how the U.S. economy operates at the expense of working people were shared by Bernie Sanders. That helps explain Sanders’ appeal as well.
Yes, it is a traditional populist message, but we now live in a time when so many Americans not only feel disconnected from the centers of power in the country, but rightfully feel betrayed and even hopeless. This needs to be much better understood if either of the two major parties is ever again to find their moral centers.
Why are working people disillusioned? As someone who grew up among working people and saw the soul-crushing effects of a gradual but radical transformation of our economy over the past 40 years, many of these complaints make sense.
▪ Globalist trade accords and policies that have sent key industries overseas, depressed U.S. wages and robbed workers of bargaining power.
▪ The overall shift of what we used to think of as the heart of the economy from people who make things (manufacturing, trades, agriculture) to people who financialize debt and speculate on the trade of assets and do so without any concern for its impacts on workers.
▪ The continual war on and subsequent erosion of organized labor.
▪ The total lack of accountability among those who play havoc with the economy—how many bankers and CEO’s directly responsible for the recent devastating recession have been punished with imprisonment for criminal activities?
▪ The rise in predatory practices among nearly every professional class from lenders to lawyers to health care providers.
▪ The unrestrained greed allowed by deregulation and tax breaks and consolidation of whole sectors ranging from media to transportation to technology.
▪ The brutal abandonment of any notion of national solidarity buttressed by egalitarian beliefs, which has led to the obscene concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent and the hoarding of everything that resembles success in America by the top 20 percent. The ladder of opportunity has been hauled up and replaced with empty promises about the values of striving and self-respect.
▪ The institutional shift in higher education from learning to training and with it, the much higher costs of obtaining degrees. This has led now to a full generation of graduates shouldered with often unbearable loads of debt.
I could go on about the travails of working people in our country, but the point is there are many reasons why so many people feel like they don’t matter to the country’s ruling classes. Too many reasons why ordinary Americans feel trapped and even obsolete.
What Bannon did (and does) for Trump was to focus the discontent of working people on the rhetoric of resentment. Blame immigrants, blame people who’ve had to struggle for their rights (women, people of color, LGBT), blame any easy target as long as it grabs people’s attention and gets their vote. Such tactics have been successful, but they are disgusting and, quite frankly, un-American. It baits people on the left and leaves them squabbling in small conflicts while neglecting a larger vision to construct and fight for.
There is, however, a truly liberal opportunity here; economic nationalism is a message that can lift working people from their anger and apathy.
As a liberal, I believe government can be a force for good and fairness and justice. But it can’t be any of those if it continues to cater to the few at the expense of everyone else. It can’t deliver on the inspiration of our founding principles in a plutocracy. We won’t live up to our professed ideals by continuing to embrace elitist notions of who is deserving.
If we truly want a government of the people, by the people and for the people, as Lincoln stated it, then we will have to nominate and elect people who understand what a raw deal the current economy is for most Americans. We can also seize back the idea of patriotism by demanding a government that fights for industries and jobs even when it conflicts with the agendas of the donor class. It’s hard for people to feel proud of their country when their government acts in ways counter to the interests of its workers. Economic nationalism is populist idea whose time has come around again. Will anyone advance it into more than simply a strategy to win elections?
Adam Hill represents the 3rd District on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.