Steve Bannon’s Therapy II: The Bookend of the Reagan Era?

To recap briefly from part one: In Steve Bannon’s world, we are at the end of an age, the end of a forth turning of American history, completing a cycle that began during the Great Depression and World War Two.  He saw this “Greatest Generation” of heroes lead to a Golden Age of Capitalism of the 1950s, only to be spoiled by liberal baby boomers of the 1960s leading to Civil Rights Movement, war protesters, feminism, and the moral decay of the narcissistic Woodstock generation.  While Reagan saved America from Communism, these Woodstock degenerates would help destroy America with their hedonism, selfishness, multiculturalism and godlessness.  They are basically the New Democrats.  Bannon, politically awakened after the 2008 crash, which he saw as the fault of Wall Street’s managerial class of libertines, got a hold of a book called “The Forth Turning,” and bought into a prophetic vision that the millennial generation was given the short end of the stick economically and culturally.  Left with a gutted economy in the heartland, unattainable and expensive education, and the moral decay of Hollywood libertinism, drugs, secularism and multiculturalism, had no opportunity.  Bannon’s prescription is to save the Millennial Generation from the pernicious effects of globalization which opened the doors to these sins.  Bannon’s therapy prescription is to close the borders, return the nation to economic isolationist integrity, boom the economy, and rally the nation to a Judeo-Christian crusade against Islam, and possibly against North Korea and the conflict zone in the South China Sea.


The trouble with this theory is basically it’s a political ideology that bears little resemblance to the real world and is replete with laughable factual errors.  Occupy was not a theatrical stunt of George Soros and the specter of Saul Alinsky any more than Woodstock did not cause Wall Street greed.   Reagan did not win the Cold War, the Soviets fell apart due to their own mismanagement.  Capitalism did not liberate the Soviet Union – it led them to great poverty while benefiting a corrupt oligarchic capitalist class.  And there is not even such thing as a homogenous culture called the West, despite his insistence.  Bannon’s apocalyptic millennial generation are very different than real millennials – who are racially tolerant, multicultural and protean.  They are much more interested in the social democratic political philosophy of Bernie Sanders than Steve Bannon.

After the election, there were a number of articles out that argued about the historic role of a Trump presidency.  Already historians were classifying Trump’s legacy according to various historical frameworks.  A predominant question has been, given the neofascist pretentions of Trump’s coup within the Republican Party, his economic nationalism, seemingly having an ax to grind with globalization and free trade agreements like the TPP, pushing his isolationist America First agenda and ostensible concern for the working class, is this the end of neoliberalism as we know it?

Political scientist Corey Robin wrote in an article at N+1 that Trump’s presidency is much more prosaic than the wild Orwellian panic that has been setting in among liberals.  It’s less late Weimar/Early Nazi Germany and more radical kleptocracy.  What he proposes uses a political framework from Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s now classic study The Politics President’s Make, where it is proposed that American history, besides the swing between the parties in election cycle, goes through larger cycles in which there is an ideological consensus.  The recent larger cycles were FDR’s New Deal liberalism, which countered the Republican’s decrepit Gilded Age previously, started in 1932 going until 1979.  Reagan represented a reset to the political order, which has been conservative, has lasted to the present day.  Presidents in these eras could be of either party, but they align themselves with the according political consensus.  Clinton and Obama were corporate New Democrats, aligning themselves with the Alan Greenspans and Larry Summers of the world.  In the New Deal Age, Eisenhower and Nixon worked within the consensus of the liberal state.  Nixon himself, who favored desegregation, passed OSHA, established the EPA, the clean water and air acts, wage controls, established nuclear détente with the Soviets, and opened relations with China, seems nearly moderate in comparison to today’s republican consensus.  Douglas Schoen, in The Nixon Effect, called him “the last liberal president,” and it’s kind of true considering the paradigmatic way of understanding these political eras.

The new leaders of political eras Skowronek calls “Reconstructive” leaders, who set the tempo for years to come.  “Articulators” are leaders who deepen and extend the theme of the political paradigm.  Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush are examples.  “Preemptive” presidents are ones who try to change the political order, but are so against the consensus, their program is suppressed, so they end up appeasing the paradigm or get impeached (Nixon, Clinton, Obama).  But there is a final category of presidents in this theory, a political mood of “Disjunction,” which occurs when a political era begins to wobble.  Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter are the recent examples.  It’s an age of anxiety, and the political leader at the time decries the government’s bloated bureaucracy and corruption, promises to fix it, and attempts at first to save the regime, in which they are indebted for their own political assent.  Robin writes, “But the regime is too dissonant and fragmented to offer the resources these presidents need to transform it. They find themselves in the most perilous position of all – hated by all, loved by none – and their administrations often occasion a new round of reconstruction.”  But the disjunctive era is one in which the president will try to revive the old ways, but be trapped as the consensus mood seems to evaporate.  He will either not be radical enough or he could chose to capitulate to changing circumstances, like when Carter appointed Paul Volcker to the fed in 1979, ushering in neoliberal monetarism, unable to find around him the ability or political will to prop up the bloated, dilapidated New Deal administrative state of his time.

These regime eras tend to be large pendulum swings in history.  When the Gilded Age needed reform, the government stepped in with social controls of New Deal liberalism.  When the New Deal/Great Society state was too bloated, Reagan promised to deliver Milton Friedman’s dream by privatizing and deregulating.  Now we have a mania for privatizing and deregulating, and a stunning return of Gilded Age social and class inequality.  A return to New Deal liberalism has been presented by the Democratic Party usurper, Bernie Sanders.  But what the country chose instead was Trump, who proposes a different kind of fix through economic nationalism.  Only the concern for the working classes has evaporated now.  His administration shows only a rabid concern for the billionaire class.

Trump is trapped in the White House.  He cannot enact Bannon’s economic nationalism in a global system where billionaires richer than Trump are making a killing.  Resisting globalization has other economic and political costs.  The way that Trump is trapped on the attempt to repeal the health care law is a perfect example of this.  He will pay politically if he cannot repeal the Affordable Care Act, a predominant campaign promise.  Yet if he does, he will hurt his base.  He will fail if he does not build his famous wall.   But if he builds it, it’s functionally a pointless racist wall that has effectively pissed off everyone.  He’s seemingly trapped by facts and reality, constantly getting trapped in his own lies like his claims of wiretapping, voter fraud, fake poll numbers and even faker news, while his surrogates – Conway and Spicer – have the daily diligence to Trumpsplain his web of lies.

Robin leaves it open as to what kind of President Trump is.  Will he strengthen Reaganomics, or Reconstruct a new political order to fulfill Bannon’s forty-year prescription?  The real answer relies on a number of factors, both presidential, in congress, the public, and the economy.  But by witnessing how Trump is trapped, and that he doesn’t seem to grasp how government works, how nations work, or seem to understand the real state of the economy, coupled with changing attitudes in the political base and within each party, I think he’s a disjunctive president.  He and Bannon are not the harbingers of a new order, but the dying gasp of the old one both politically and generationally – the last of neoliberal baby boomernomics.

Economist Richard Wolff put this very well – he noted that he and other anxious economists “have never seen an economy this boxed in.  It has nowhere else to go.”  Capitalism has always been about growing, adapting, using crises to reinvent itself, finding new resources and markets.  But the economy is in a very strange place, and the recovery from 2008 has been, if anything, highly uneven.  A bunch of money was printed, and 90 percent of it went to the top 1 percent.  This wealth is not productive, however.  It does not “trickle down,” not in production and not in credit.  It hasn’t contributed to consumer goods, not enriched the lives of the millions of working people.  The middle class is gutted.  Infrastructure is crumbling.  Public institutions are being dismantled.  Yet America manufactures nothing.  Retail stores (Macy’s, Sears, Kmart, Radio Shack, among others) are closing shop.  Many jobs are being lost to automation, a trend about to be accelerated.  Everyone has credit problems or school debt.  Productivity is up but wages have been stagnant or declining for decades.  Yet the ruling political class, whether Republican or Democrat, right now has no policy to help with any of these problems.  Instead, it’s more of the same broken ideas – energy policies, health care policies and tax policies that only benefit the wealthy.  It’s the same decrepit tactic they’ve been trying for the last forty years of this dying political order.  It reminds me of Joseph Tainter’s thesis in The Collapse of Complex Societies – dying societies, like dying political orders, try to fix their problems with the same things that have been making them sick.

Obama did not, or could not fix these issues for several reasons, but from the historical perspective, he came at the wrong time, in an era when the attachment to the neoliberal ideology was still strong, still working.  He did not seek a New Deal type change, but instead for a pragmatic approach, seeking modest repairs to the financial system and a free market healthcare plan, always remaining friendly to the idea of a free market.  He in effect, postponed some of the deeper economic fissures effecting the body politic.  Obama here is a preemptive president largely in line with the neoliberal Reaganomics consensus that the Republicans had to invent a radicalized straw man version of Obama, the Kenyan Muslim Socialist usurper, to run against.

So, to return to our question – is Trump the Disjunctive president of our political time?  Skowronek seems to think so in his interview with The Nation.  So to Julia Azari’s in her article at Vox proposes that Trump represents the bookend to the Reagan paradigm.  Scott Limieux in The New Republic isn’t so sure, thinking that the Republicans are cohesive enough to withstand the pressures of party fragmentation.  After witnessing the Republican fail at the Affordable Care Act repeal and replace amid partisan bickering and backstabbing, they don’t appear cohesive when it counts.   Limieux also, I think, over-estimates the progressive legacy of Obama as a kind of New Deal Democrat – an argument that tragically doesn’t hold water.  And I also think Limieux mistakes polarized politics and partisan gridlock with this larger concept of eras of political consensus.  As I argued in an earlier post, “Big Daddy’s Mendacities: Or, Whatever Happened to Class Consciousness?,” what we have today is a struggle of classes without economics.  This is how universally accepted neoliberalism has become.  It’s become so universal that simulations of opposition have to be created in order to appear to have oppositions.  The parties instead busied themselves with culture wars and identity politics.

The concern going forward is the fundamental question – where is the social and political structure to propose any opposition to the decadent Trump order of the decaying neoliberal paradigm?  The election is not so much of a Trump victory as a Clinton loss, a decadent Democratic party unwilling to unchain itself from its own donor class.  Chris Hedges often bemoans the loss of the liberal class – the corporatization of the media, schools, churches, the weakness of trade unions and all the old liberal establishment is structurally weak, or has been appropriated by the donor class.  There may be a grassroots activation at this moment, but there is no political opposition on the march save for the insurgency of Bernie Sanders, who is the most favored politician in America but remains frozen outside the Democratic establishment.

I recently joked that Sanders, if he cannot break through the ice of the Democratic Party, instead of splitting politics with a new left party, he should run as a Republican – which would realign politics for sure.  In any case, a new political alignment is bound to happen because the signs are there – the parties are boxed in, and the economy appears trapped in a corner.  My predictive scenario, in one version of tea leaf reading, goes something like this: consumer confidence will peter off and then the credit house of cards will start to show fissures, which will catch up to bursting the stock bubble.  At that time, Trump can chose to be a Hoover or a Carter to fulfill his disjunctive roll.  He can either be stubborn and not use the bully pulpit to step in, or perhaps be hamstrung by the party and partisan bickering, becoming a lonely unpopular political pariah, a punching bag for a new movement to arise as the winds start blowing the other way.  Or, he could try to ameliorate his position by beginning to work with the opposite party – pass legislation for a sane health care plan, help workers rights and trade unions, create an infrastructure stimulus, and raise the minimum wage.  Beyond partisanship, this would actually be a brilliant move for Trump.  But I don’t see this latter option happening because his party is sclerotic, and he’s surrounded himself with true implacable ideologues.  For all the talk of the wall, I see an administration that has walled itself in.

Skowronek advised in an article in The Nation that a big transformational shift is really difficult to accomplish.  They occur really when there is a true breaking point in politics.  It happens when there is “irrefutable evidence that there is no viable alternative.”  Only then can there be a shift in the political orthodoxy.  And it isn’t even just about the Trump administration, but the entrenched interests of the corporate managerial class and the deep state.  It’s a kind of political brinksmanship.  This is what is required to the extent that the old political order has to be seen as completely bankrupt and tone deaf.

Another symptom is the two party system will start to evaporate as party orthodoxies are shaken.  The election of Trump defied all the known rules of politics in the modern age.  It signals the changing of the trade winds away from Regan/Bush-conservativism and Clinton/Obama-liberalism.  Although the Republicans have the keys to the Presidency, the Court and the Congress, they themselves are as fractured within as the Democrats.  Their inability to seal the deal on a health bill signifies a party without a coherent direction, out of synch, and certainly without any new ideas.  And for the Democrats, it’s remarkable how the consensus around Hillary Clinton just kind of took the ground right from underneath her.

Meanwhile the corporate establishment and deep state’s interests on both sides is digging in against the populist groundswell.  And this is the concerning point as the narrative of democracy’s simulacrum of liberal versus conservative crumbles to be replaced by a narrative of class struggle where economics has been reinserted – the managerial elite versus the 99 percent.  It’s poised, it seems, for a feisty struggle.

***

NOTES

“Is Donald Trump the Next Jimmy Carter?”  In New Republic.  Jan 23, 2017.

Azari, Julia. “Trump’s Presidency signals the end of the Reagan era.” In Vox.  Dec. 1, 2016.

Robin, Corey. “The Politics Trump Makes.”  In N+1.  Jan 11, 2017

Kreitner, Richard.  “What Time is It?  Here’s what the election tells us about Obma, Trump, and What comes next”.  In The Nation.  Nov 22, 2016.

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