Buckley and his allies opposed the “well-fed right” and the Eisenhower administration and favored the more radical and revanchist elements orbiting around McCarthyism and the burgeoning conservative movement. Then, 25 years later, well into maturity and middle age, the movement Buckley helped birth sent Ronald Reagan to the White House.
The proverbial ink on Bannon’s resignation was barely dry when the media began reporting his plans to mount an insurrection against the “Republican establishment” in Congress and the “globalists” in the White House.
Bannon has now decamped to Breitbart to wage “war” – his words – on the forces in Washington that have prevented Trump from turning the Republican party into a populist movement of economic nationalism, and even on Trump if he strays from the path. A source close to Bannon analogized the coming struggle to the French Revolution.
Since Charlottesville, pundits and historians have wondered whether we’re headed for a civil war. With Bannon’s exit, it’s clear that we are. Only it won’t be between North and South or right and left. It will be within the Republican party itself.
The question is: will it be like the war Buckley launched, a purgative struggle as a prelude to a new era of conservative power and rule? Or will it mark the end of the Reagan regime, unveiling a conservative movement in terminal crisis as it strives to reconcile the irreconcilable?
In his war against the Republican establishment, Buckley repeatedly raised the populist banner, speaking on behalf of the forgotten (white) man besieged by liberalism in the academy, the media, the civil rights movement and the Eisenhower administration.
The founding statement of National Review declared the conservative “out of place.” Buckley wasn’t pleading powerlessness. His was a claim to power, for that badge of exclusion, Buckley shrewdly realized, made the conservative “just about the hottest thing in town.”
So long as the left had the frisson of rebellion and the right the stench of the firm, conservatism was doomed. If conservatives could affirm their identity as “the new radicals,” they could take over the Republican party and transform the country.
For more than a half-century, conservative politicians and movement activists have been reading from Buckley’s playbook. The words have changed – once it was segregation and school prayer; now it’s immigration and Confederate statues – but the script has remained the same: we are the party of the outsider, exiled from our country, trying to take it back from pointy-headed professors and liberal elites.
With the help of that script, conservatives stopped the Equal Rights Amendment and transformed the right to an abortion into a provisional privilege of the geographic few. Schools in the South are today more racially segregated than they were under Richard Nixon, and the United States is more economically unequal than it has been in nearly a century.
Right-wing populism, in other words, has served the cause of privilege. Can it continue to do so, as Bannon and Trump seem to believe? Various signs suggest it cannot.
For starters, right-wing populism isn’t that popular. Richard Nixon, who first rode the hard-right racial populism of the conservative movement into the White House, was reelected with 61% of the popular vote. At the height of their power, Reagan and George W Bush received 59% and 51% of the popular vote, respectively.
Trump came into office with 46% of the popular vote, and his approval ratings in the opening months of his presidency have consistently been the worst of any modern president’s at this moment in his term.
And while the Republican party won five out of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, in the last 25 years, it has won only three out of seven presidential elections – twice without the popular vote, something that had not occurred in this country since the 19th century.
It’s true that the Republican party controls all the elected branches of the federal government, all the elected branches of 25 state governments and the legislatures of seven other states. Yet less than two years before the election of Reagan and the Republican realignment of 1980, the Democrats also led all the elected branches of the federal government – and by far greater margins in Congress than the Republicans do today – and all the elected branches of government in 27 states and the legislatures of nine other states.
By the standards of modern presidential history, Trump and Bannon have remarkably little to show for their wild ride of revanchism. There’s one supreme court justice, whose ascension owes far more to the savvy maneuvering of Mitch McConnell than to any right-wing populism of Trump or Bannon, and a host of regulatory measures that can be overturned by a Democratic successor.
These measures can do great damage, but as an index of presidential accomplishment, they’re unimpressive. Legislatively, the record is barren, with little sign, thanks in part to Trump’s Charlottesville remarks, of changing any time soon.
With his departure, Bannon claims “the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over”. Trump’s “ability to get anything done – particularly the bigger things, like the wall, the bigger, broader things that we fought for,” he adds, is “gonna be that much harder.”
But that narrative of his exit disguises how pyrrhic Bannon’s victory has been, from the very beginning. Virtually none of the signature elements of the populism Bannon claimed to be fighting for – the border wall, massive infrastructure, higher tax rates on the wealthy, trade wars with China, higher tariffs – is anywhere near coming to fruition.
And while Trump has managed to ramp up hardcore immigration measures (though his deportation rate is nowhere near what Obama’s was, even at its nadir), his legislative proposal to cut immigration in half is, by most accounts, dead on arrival, even among Republicans.
In the wake of the Charlottesville controversy, Bannon laughed at liberals and leftists who called for taking down Confederate statues. “Just give me more,” he told the New York Times. “Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”
As he explained to the American Prospect, “the longer [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ‘em. I want them to take about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Ironically, as the Republicans flounder in their attempt to get anything done – much less enact a program of economic nationalism – Trump emits tweet after plangent tweet about “the removal of our beautiful statues.” It is the Republicans, in other words, and not the Democrats, who are saddled with identity issues, while their economic program (on healthcare, the debt, and taxes) remains stalled.
Before he left, Bannon’s parting words to Trump were to resist the siren calls of so-called moderates, who were pushing him to soften his stance on things like Charlottesville. Moderation would never win over Democrats or independents. The best thing was to appeal to the base: “You’ve got the base,” Bannon said. “And you grow the base by getting” things done.
But appealing to that base is precisely what is preventing things from getting done. As one top Republican strategist told the Wall Street Journal: “By not speak out against” Charlottesville and the white supremacy of the Republican party, “it is bleeding into the party, and that is going to make it far more difficult to pass anything.”
The right-wing racial populism that once served the conservative cause so well is now, as even the most conservative Republicans are acknowledging, getting in its way. Whatever the outcome of the civil war Bannon intends to fight, it’ll be waged against the backdrop of a declining rather than an ascendant movement, with the tools of yesterday rather than tomorrow.
That is why, having had seven months in the White House to prosecute his populist war on the Republican establishment – something Buckley and his minions could only dream of in 1955 – Bannon now finds himself staring into the abyss of a website, hoping to find there a power he couldn’t find in the most powerful office of the world.