Robb: Why Trump chose Steve Bannon

Robert Robb
Robert Robb

From the political notebook: The left is trying to create a super-colossal stink over Steve Bannon’s appointment as chief strategist and senior counselor in Donald Trump’s White House. I suspect this is equal parts genuine outrage and crass political calculation, trying to taint and discredit the Trump presidency before it even gets started.

Regardless, it is unsurprising that Trump should want Bannon in the White House.

I’ve never read anything on, so I don’t know whether it is as vile as depicted.

Bannon says he’s a nationalist, but not an ethno-nationalist. That’s a slippery distinction, even in the United States.

It is true that the United States was founded on universal principles regarding the relationship of the individual and government. Unlike other nation-states, we did not evolve from ethnic or tribal affinities.

However, as Samuel Huntington, among others, has pointed out, there was at the founding a dominant culture within which a government built on universal principles was rooted. It was British and Protestant.

While there were waves of immigration, over time newcomers assimilated into the dominant culture. It lost its British flavor and the country became more religiously pluralistic. But, until very recently, the remnants of our Anglo-Protestant origins remained culturally dominant.

That’s being leveled by the forces of secularism and multiculturalism. The election of Trump is in part a reaction to that.

There can be economic nationalism untethered to the loss of the dominant Anglo-Protestant culture. Protectionism and autarky can stand alone. As can non-interventionism, or raw national-interest realpolitik, in foreign policy.

However, the populist nationalism that fueled the Trump victory was grounded, in significant part, in a sense of loss of a familiar dominant culture. Protectionism and immigration were Trump’s primary issues. And immigration clearly has ethnic dimensions, about which Trump was frequently unsubtle.

That doesn’t make Trump’s supporters a basket of deplorables. But it does mean that there is a measure of ethno in Trump’s, and Bannon’s, nationalism.

Bannon was the one who convinced Trump to make increasing support within the white working class his path to the presidency. Virtually everyone else thought that the country’s changing demography made that impossible.

But that was the path Trump pursued, campaigning hard in the closing weeks in industrial states, despite polls showing him well behind with time running out.

Trump didn’t materially increase white working class turnout. It remained about a third of the electorate.

But he did increase his share of that vote, particularly in those industrialized states. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried whites without college degrees by a convincing 25 percentage points over Barack Obama. Trump carried them over Hillary Clinton by a thunderous 37 percentage points.

That led to improbable victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, and thus the presidency.

It’s hardly shocking that a President Trump should want the architect of that victory beside him in the White House.

My guess is that Bannon’s role has been exaggerated. The conventional Reince Priebus is chief of staff, top of the organizational chart. Bannon is off to the side, as chief strategist.

His job, presumably, is to keep his eye on the white working class constituency that made Trump president, to ensure that the Trump administration satisfies them politically.

That has some troubling dimensions. But it is not, per se, evil.

Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic.