President Trump is said to be unhappy with all the attention chief strategist Steve Bannon is getting as the alleged architect of his nationalism. But how is Bannon-style nationalism and populism faring under Trump?
If the reports about billionaire investor Peter Thiel souring on the president are true, perhaps not so well. The Silicon Valley titan is often described as a libertarian, but Thiel's pre-election case for Trump was closer to the politics of Pat Buchanan than "Parks and Recs'" Ron Swanson.
"Just as much as it's about making America great, Trump's agenda is about making America a normal country," Thiel said last year. "A normal country doesn't have a half-trillion-dollar trade deficit. A normal country doesn't fight five simultaneous undeclared wars. In a normal country, the government actually does its job."
After the West won the Cold War, former Reagan ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote an essay titled "A Normal Country in a Normal Time," in which she argued "It is not within the United States' power to democratize the world," "the time when Americans should bear unusual burdens is past," and "Most of the international obligations we assumed were once important are now outdated."
That sounds a lot like Trump. It doesn't sound much like his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.
The latest paroxysm of Trump-Bannon talk was triggered by journalist Joshua Green's new book, Devil's Bargain, which the president no doubt understands as positing Bannon as his Karl Rove à la "Bush's Brain."
But Green actually makes a couple of more sophisticated arguments: that people with a coherent political philosophy (like Bannon) or detailed policy platform (like Jeff Sessions or Stephen Miller on immigration) used Trump as a vehicle for their nationalist variant of conservatism and that Trump might have been able to "build on the diverse, entrepreneurial image of his TV show" if he hadn't gone along with it.
The first argument is indisputably correct. Trump has been complaining about foreigners taking advantage of the United States and the economic impact of bad trade deals since at least the 1980s, but he vacillated on foreign policy and followed the conventional wisdom on immigration.
Like a lot of Republican primary voters, Trump was an instinctive nationalist. Also like a lot of Republican primary voters, those instincts didn't reliably translate into specific policy content but made them more open to arguments for immigration restrictionism.
Those arguments were shut out of George W. Bush's administration and would likely have been kept out of the White House under Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or John Kasich (though Ted Cruz and Scott Walker flirted with them before Trump took off). So it is understandable that Republicans who wanted to advance such arguments would look to Trump.
"Trump is a great advocate for our ideas," Green quotes Sessions as saying to Bannon. "But can he win?" The reply from Bannon: "One-hundred percent."
Lo and behold, Trump is president of the United States and he is backing a bill that would ultimately cut legal immigration in half.
Green's second argument is more dubious. Washington's last serious attempt to reduce immigration and make skills more important than family reunification came under the leadership of an African-American Democratic congresswoman who had been active in the civil rights movement. Barbara Jordan chaired former President Bill Clinton's immigration-reform task force.
African-American academic Carol Swain argued in her book The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration that some immigration reforms along these lines could undercut the appeal of the emerging racist groups that currently travel under the "alt-right" banner.
Labor unions, civil rights groups and environmental organizations have stopped questioning whether continuous mass immigration is, as Stephen Miller put it, an "unalloyed good for the economy," but their rank-and-file supporters aren't uniformly on board.
Other elements of populism and nationalism are even more readily accessible to a rainbow coalition of voters. Back to Thiel. "The highly educated people who make public policy explain that cheap imports make everyone a winner, according to economic theory," he said. " But in actual practice, we've lost tens of thousands of factories and millions of jobs to foreign trade."
There are a lot of black and Hispanic workers for whom those words might resonate. During the 1990s, Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader joined Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in fighting against North American Free Trade Agreement.
"We have been at war for 15 years, and we have spent more than $4.6 trillion dollars," Thiel also said. "More than two million people have lost their lives, and more than 5,000 American soldiers have been killed. But we haven't won."
That's a message that could reach a lot of people who don't normally vote Republican.
"[T]his is the only country where you have to pay up to 10 times as much for simple medicines as you would pay anywhere else," Thiel remarked. "America's overpriced healthcare system might help subsidize the rest of the world. But that doesn't help the Americans who can't afford it, and they've started to notice."
This argument might appeal to more people than any Republicans made during their abortive attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.
The group of voters who see themselves as globalization's losers and who are resentful of political elites is larger and more racially diverse than the audience mainstream movement conservatism has attracted. Global competition for labor has put downward pressure on the wages of an American working class that is itself disproportionately black and Latino.
Trump's embrace of birtherism did more to doom what Green describes as his potential to "perform better among minority voters than any Republican since Dwight Eisenhower," losing the goodwill he had accumulated as a celebrity and host of "The Apprentice." (Though it should be conceded that birtherism did not harm him with Republican primary voters or the working-class whites who delivered key battleground states that looked out of reach in the general election.)
While Trump's subsequent rhetoric suggests he would never have been able to deal sensitively enough with racially charged issues unless heavily scripted to make political supporters out of his black and Latino fans, his embrace of birtherism predates when "anti-immigration zealot" Bannon is said by Green to have "eagerly encouraged Trump to do everything he could to build a political movement around white identity politics."
It is Trump, admittedly like some other white cultural conservatives before him, who has made the appeal of a pro-American nationalism and populism more narrow than it needed to be. And if he is a failed president, Republicans will be less willing to try Sessions-style immigration policies. A number positions that have had difficulty penetrating the Republican mainstream despite significant grassroots support could become more toxic than ever before.
For the populist right, that would be a bad bargain indeed.