Politics is undergoing a sea change. Long-held notions of the role of government are being challenged by populist thinkers and movements. Does this populist agenda signal a permanent shift in our politics or is it a passing phenomenon?
At Friday’s Munk Debate at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, Stephen Bannon, a former strategist for U.S. President Donald Trump, and David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, debated the following resolution: Be it resolved, the future of Western politics is populist, not liberal.
Table of contents
For the resolution: Stephen Bannon
Steve Bannon can expect to be greeted by protests when he arrives in Toronto on Friday night for a Munk Debate opposite David Frum about whether populism represents the future of politics.
His role in the event has been controversial from the time it was announced because of the pivotal role Mr. Bannon has played in the rise of right-wing nationalism in the U.S. – first running Breitbart News, on which he provided a launching pad for the alt-right, and then as President Donald Trump’s top strategist. And calls for his invitation to be rescinded grew louder in the past week following two outbreaks of violence tied to the far right: the mailing of pipe bombs to prominent critics of Mr. Trump, and the massacre of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
But based on an interview in advance of the debate, Mr. Bannon will brush off any attempts to associate him with conservatism’s most extreme actors. And he may not engage the way that Mr. Frum – who has said he is participating in order to hold Mr. Bannon to account for the sort of nationalism he has helped spread – is hoping.
Over the phone from Nevada, where he was trying to mobilize supporters of Mr. Trump in advance of next Tuesday’s mid-term elections, Mr. Bannon instead repeatedly returned to his preferred theory of the moment: that conservative populism’s tent is on the verge of being dramatically expanded, including to some of the minority groups he has been widely accused of helping vilify.
He has not disavowed “nationalism,” a term most Western politicians avoided until he and others helped return it to the lexicon. He defined it as “putting the nation, its citizens and its interests first.” While acknowledging that it causes unease in Europe because of its historical association with war and genocide, Mr. Bannon described himself as “very comfortable with the word nationalism” and also “the concept of nationalism.”
Nor does he make any bones about being a hardliner on immigration, at one point citing with apparent approval Mr. Trump’s recent comments on using an executive order to end birthright citizenship.
But Mr. Bannon kept returning to the concept of “economic nationalism,” which he sees as a form of populism so appealing to the masses that an emerging fight between left-wing populists and right-wing populists will determine who sets the policy agenda for decades to come.
At one point in the interview, Mr. Bannon – who tends to speak in rapid-fire paragraphs – offered a concise and narrow explanation of what he was talking about: “The centre of economic nationalism, the centre of populism, is to bring high-value-added manufacturing jobs back.”
At other points he was more expansive and abstract, talking about “the little guy” having awakened since the 2008 economic crisis to being dismissed as “units of production and consumption” by government in cahoots with “the Party of Davos – that kind of scientific, engineering, managerial, financial, cultural elite.”
“I’m very worried that there’s continued concentration on the tech side, continued concentration on the pharmaceuticals side, continued concentration on the media side,” he said, invoking his time on Wall Street in the 1980s to suggest the deck has since become more stacked. “I came out of [Goldman Sachs’] mergers and acquisitions department – I am stunned, stunned by the concentration of economic power we’re having with big government … We’re for the representation of the working class and particularly the lower middle class, to say that they have a voice. And I think that that is a deconstruction of the administrative state, particularly in combination with state-controlled capitalism.”
Asked how the President he helped put in office is doing at fulfilling that agenda, Mr. Bannon offered qualified praise.
“Well listen, okay, it’s a process,” he said. He was pleased by the NAFTA renegotiation, which he claims “sets up a geostrategic manufacturing counter to East Asia … to bring high-value-added manufacturing jobs back not just to the United States, but also to Mexico and Canada.” He supported Mr. Trump’s corporate tax cuts “because it made us competitive with Germany and China.” And he was encouraged last week to hear Mr. Trump promise further tax cuts for the middle class because it will appeal to the “little guy” voters.
Mr. Bannon also contends that the “inertia” of government makes it difficult to move swiftly. “It’s like turning around a battleship or an aircraft carrier,” he said, invoking another past career as a naval officer. Like British politicians struggling to turn Brexit into reality, he lamented, Mr. Trump is up against an institutional “nullification project” trying to block or delegitimize his agenda.
Then there is a Republican Party that still has “a big misalignment” between what he considers a mostly populist support base and a “donor class” that still calls many of the shots. Mr. Bannon said he recently set up a tax-exempt campaign organization aimed at developing policy sophistication on the populist side – the absence of which, he suggested, has made it harder to win arguments with establishment Republicans.
At times in the interview Mr. Bannon appeared to be less concerned with right-wing economic nationalism supplanting the established order than with any form of economic populism doing so. He was full of unprompted praise for the left during this U.S. election year – “they’ve got the fight and energy and focus of the Tea Party of 2010, which I was part of” – and spoke almost fondly of Bernie Sanders. And he described Italy as the current “centre of the universe,” because inexperienced left-leaning populists have paired with right-wing nationalists to try to run the government, creating an anti-establishment “marketplace of ideas.”
But because he envisions populism ultimately triumphing one way or another, he also paints a picture of a battle for dominance between a populist left that wants more state ownership and intervention, and a populist right that wants less. “Whoever gets this right,” he said, could wind up with two-thirds of the electorate behind it and “essentially govern the country for 50 years.”
When Mr. Bannon raises examples of where this sort of potential is already being realized, some of them – such as Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made opposition to immigration and the preservation of Christianity his calling cards – seem at odds with his insistence that it’s mostly about the economy.
Even likelier to raise eyebrows among many familiar with Mr. Bannon’s career in public life to date, is his theory of which voters Trump-aligned populists can steal from the left to build a big, winning U.S. coalition.
“If you follow what I’ve been doing with economic nationalism – our populism is trying to carve out 25 per cent of Bernie’s people, what we call the economic nationalists over there,” he said. “Also, we think we’re gonna get one-third to 40 per cent of the African-American working class and middle-class vote. And the same with Hispanics.”
They’re not yet prepared "to pull the trigger with Trump,” he conceded. “But even a Kanye West … you’re starting to hear this now, African-Americans say ‘hey, why does the Democratic Party completely own our vote?’ ... I think as long as Trump’s policies focus on bringing back manufacturing jobs, focus on raising wages – which has not happened yet, it’s just the beginning stages – as long as he focuses on that, we can have a realignment.”
If that theory seems incongruous with the political identity Mr. Bannon helped Mr. Trump construct – and with Mr. Trump just this week releasing an advertisement that suggests his country is being flooded by violent Latin American criminals – Mr. Bannon takes bigger leaps.
An architect of Mr. Trump’s travel ban on certain Islamic countries, and having himself spoken about a “global war” against “Islamic fascism,” Mr. Bannon said in the interview that Muslim Americans could find a place aboard the populist nationalist train.
He cited Mr. Trump’s first foreign trip as President beginning in Saudi Arabia (a decision many analysts have attributed to picking sides in a regional power struggle with Iran, and investment considerations). “It’s symbolic for his first trip to be in order … Riyadh first, Jerusalem second, Rome third,” Mr. Bannon said. "That was all of a piece ... to send a signal of ‘hey, not only are we open to you, we understand that you’re going to be a part of America, and we’re going to show engagement.’”
If any of this represents a shift in thinking, he’s not having it. “No, absolutely not," he said, arguing that he has never been the bigot that his critics have claimed.
Never mind what people may draw from his associations with current leaders, or the platform he provided at Breitbart. He has long held that “ethno-nationalism is ridiculous.”
“Not only is it stupid in theory,” he said. “It limits what you can accomplish.”
– Adam Radwanski
Against the resolution: David Frum
Conservative commentator David Frum argues that taking away platforms from Mr. Bannon – such as cancelling the Munk Debate – would not make the erstwhile Trump strategist’s ideas go away.
Since he was elbowed out of the White House more than a year ago, Mr. Bannon has become an adviser to far-right governments from Hungary to Italy, and similar parties in France, Germany and Sweden. Even the campaign of Jair Bolsonaro, the homophobic anti-immigration legislator who won Brazil’s presidential election last weekend, has sought his counsel.
“Steve Bannon campaigned with the newly elected president of Brazil. He’s a central organizing figure in an international movement of authoritarian nationalist parties that are gaining power across the European continent. I wish it were true that this kind of politics is on its way out. It is not,” Mr. Frum said in an interview this week.
He contends it is necessary to answer Mr. Bannon’s arguments to motivate people to defeat his brand of politics.
“The reason to speak on a public platform opposite Steve Bannon is not to change Steve Bannon’s mind or to engage with him. It is both to answer what he has to say for an engaged public and, one hopes, to mobilize awareness of the risks of this kind of politics through directly exposing and answering,” Mr. Frum said.
Part of the difficulty with confronting Mr. Bannon’s politics has been his successful appropriation of the populist label, a term that positions his politics as an oppositional force to the world’s elites.
Mr. Frum offers a more expansive definition for the movement with which Mr. Bannon aligns. Not only is it nationalistic and authoritarian, he says, it is also kleptocratic: Unlike the dictatorships of the 20th century, which were driven by grand ideologies, he contends the primary motivation of today’s authoritarians is self-enrichment – Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who may indirectly control the world’s largest fortune, being a prime example.
“The important thing to understand about this so-called new populism is that it doesn’t speak for the people of the nation as a whole. It only works by subdividing the nation, defining some of the nation’s people out of the people and then claiming to speak for the rest,” Mr. Frum said.
If such new political parties succeed in ultimately overthrowing the current liberal democratic international order, Mr. Frum argues, the world will be poorer, more violent, more corrupt and more technologically backward as government’s resist scientific progress.
He does, however, give Mr. Bannon one thing: He understood early on how vulnerable the liberal order was after the 2008 recession, the European debt crisis and the mass migration from the Middle East as Syria’s civil war raged.
Mr. Frum also acknowledges his own role in one of the most catastrophic policy decisions that helped lead to the rise of Mr. Bannon’s brand of politics: the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As a speechwriter for then-president George W. Bush, Mr. Frum helped craft the messaging that sold the war, most famously in the “axis of evil” State of the Union speech.
“The reckoning has been painful,” he said of the war. “It’s one in a series of grave errors – along with the financial deregulation of the 1990s in the United States, the decision to adopt the Euro currency in Europe and the failure to halt the flow of migration into Europe – that has enabled this,” he said of the rise of nationalist authoritarian politics.
Mr. Frum is blunt about how little forethought was given to the invasion: He says it was even impossible to pinpoint exactly when the decision to attack was made because there was no real process for considering the pros and cons.
“Important decisions, important things that should have been planned just never seemed to have been planned. There was no real plan about what happens after you overthrow the regime. Those are real failures,” he said. “I wasn’t a principal, but I was a part of it. And it had real consequences.”
Mr. Frum’s role in the Iraq invasion made the choice of him as Mr. Bannon’s debating partner almost as controversial as the decision to bring in Mr. Bannon: How can you argue that Mr. Trump is a bad president without precedent when you worked for a commander-in-chief whose decisions led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,400 Americans?
Mr. Frum essentially argues that Mr. Bush was well-intentioned and trying to do right by his country, but made bad decisions on Iraq. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is purely self-interested, he contends, and is attacking every democratic safeguard meant to check his power.
“If you didn’t like George Bush, there was never a moment when you couldn’t have confidence that by political action you could replace him and put the country on a different course,” he said. “The most important goals of the Trump presidency are to prevent that effort: People are being prevented from voting when they have a legal right to do so. There’s a sustained effort to intimidate the press both directly and by inciting these lone actors against it. And there’s an attempt to shut down all the institutions of accountability around the presidency.”
Mr. Frum contends that Mr. Trump – who has called critical media “the enemy of the people” and mused about political violence on the part of his followers – bears at least some of the blame for the events of the past week in the United States, when pipe bombs were mailed to prominent Trump critics and a gunman killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
“The line between Trump’s rhetoric and the pipe bombing, which killed nobody, is quite direct. The pipe bomber was a previously non-political person who got very excited about Trump in 2016 and targeted precisely the people Trump had singled out as his enemies and the enemies of the people,” Mr. Frum said. “The President’s rhetoric deserves a lot of the blame for that.”
On the Pittsburgh shooting, Mr. Frum contends the link is less clear: While Mr. Trump has made comments with anti-Semitic implications, it is not certain he even understood the undertones of his own words.
“What Trump has done is, certainly, he’s emancipated a lot of the darkest impulses in American society,” Mr. Frum said.
Thwarting Mr. Bannon’s politics involves reforms around the world to deal with the social dislocation he is exploiting, Mr. Frum argues. In France, he contends, a cutting back of labour and business regulations would improve the job market for young people. In the United States, meanwhile, a stronger social safety net would make it easier for people in precarious employment to live off their earnings.
“Broadly, what we need everywhere is more economic growth, stronger middle class, more confidence in technological and scientific progress,” he said.
Mr. Frum also argues that there has to be some way to slow down the rate of immigration, which is pushing people toward nationalist and authoritarian political parties.
“Here’s the paradox of immigration: that the economies that seem most to need it because their birth rates are low are the societies that can cope with it least well,” he said. “We have had a debate about immigration that has been driven since the 1990s overwhelmingly by the needs of the economy, by employers, without regard to the need to guard social stability.”
Despite authoritarianism’s successes – whether in Brazil, Hungary or Russia, to name just three countries where such governments have won electoral victories over the past year – Mr. Frum contends liberal democracy will prevail because people will ultimately realize how bad the alternative is.
“I share Lincoln’s faith that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time and that the resources of human good sense and human decency are powerful. We’re seeing that this week in the wake of this terrible darkness for the United States … that almost all people react in a way that’s fundamentally good,” he said.
Marking 2010 as the start of the rise of nationalist authoritarian politics, Mr. Frum said: “One of the positive things that may emerge from the experience since 2010 is a rediscovery of the worth of what was built between 1945 and 2010. A reminder of, for many faults, mistakes, what an extraordinary human achievement that was, and an inspiration to renew it and repair it.”
– Adrian Morrow
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