Bannon Pulls a Mooch

Okay, this is really weird. Steve Bannon, apparently still on the outs with Trump to some degree, decided to call up a liberal journalist and spill his guts about a whole bunch of things. Some of it includes confirming some palace intrigue stories and his own plotting to get rid of his adversaries in the Trump administration. On China and North Korea:


Far from dressing me down for comparing Trump to Kim, he began, “It’s a great honor to finally track you down. I’ve followed your writing for years and I think you and I are in the same boat when it comes to China. You absolutely nailed it.”

“We’re at economic war with China,” he added. “It’s in all their literature. They’re not shy about saying what they’re doing. One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path. On Korea, they’re just tapping us along. It’s just a sideshow.”…

Contrary to Trump’s threat of fire and fury, Bannon said: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” Bannon went on to describe his battle inside the administration to take a harder line on China trade, and not to fall into a trap of wishful thinking in which complaints against China’s trade practices now had to take a backseat to the hope that China, as honest broker, would help restrain Kim.

So he basically just told the world that Trump’s macho posturing about a military response to North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship is all B.S. And it’s a bit surprising. I would have thought Bannon was pushing a hawkish line on North Korea, but he told Kuttner that he thinks it’s just a distraction from the economic nationalism that he thinks Trump should really be pushing. Of course, Trump isn’t going to sanction China economically because all of his products are made there and they would retaliate against him personally.

“I’m changing out people at East Asian Defense; I’m getting hawks in. I’m getting Susan Thornton [acting head of East Asian and Pacific Affairs] out at State.”

But can Bannon really win that fight internally?

“That’s a fight I fight every day here,” he said. “We’re still fighting. There’s Treasury and [National Economic Council chair] Gary Cohn and Goldman Sachs lobbying.”

“We gotta do this. The president’s default position is to do it, but the apparatus is going crazy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s like, every day.”

Bannon explained that his strategy is to battle the trade doves inside the administration while building an outside coalition of trade hawks that includes left as well as right. Hence the phone call to me.

There are a couple of things that are startling about this premise. First, to the extent that most of the opponents of Bannon’s China trade strategy are other Trump administration officials, it’s not clear how reaching out to the left helps him. If anything, it gives his adversaries ammunition to characterize Bannon as unreliable or disloyal.

Yeah, that was my first thought as well, that Bannon made a big strategic mistake here. Trump is going to see this as disloyal, as airing the “inside baseball” going on at the White House, and he already reportedly believed that Bannon had been leaking negative information about Jared Kushner, HR McMaster and others to the press. This is a really baffling decision for him to make and one that I can only believe makes it less likely that he’ll win those internal battles, or even keeps his position much longer, not more.

He dismissed the far right as irrelevant and sidestepped his own role in cultivating it: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.”

“These guys are a collection of clowns,” he added.

From his lips to Trump’s ear.

“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

A collection of clowns that he and Trump have both actively courted and who enthusiastically supported him during the election. And they love that economic nationalism that Bannon preaches because it goes perfect with their racial and ethnic nationalism. The audience for such populist ignorance is exactly the same. But this is not “identity politics” going on. The ones playing identity politics here are Bannon, Trump and the racists, not the Democrats. Now we’re talking about Nazis, the KKK and actual murder and terrorism. That’s a whole different thing from arguing about affirmative action or racist policing, at least in the minds of most people.

This isn’t going to help Trump, it’s going to hurt him. It’s already hurting him, especially as Republicans step away from him after his utterly bizarre handling of the Charlottesville situation. And Bannon’s attempt to distance himself from those people is simply laughable. He is the one who gave them their online media platform, something he has openly admitted in the past.

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