What We Didn’t Learn From Stephen Bannon at CPAC

I suggested that White House counselor Stephen Bannon visit CPAC to discuss his philosophies of politics and governance.  Instead, he did a joint appearance with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus that seemed mostly designed to suggest a united front in the face of consistent reports that the two are more like frenemies.

Bannon did make some comments about the priorities of the Trump administration.  Those comments, however, may raise more questions than provide answers.

Bannon, coming from a media background, broke the administration’s lines of work into three “verticals“: national security, economic nationalism, and “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Regarding national security, Bannon mentioned the executive orders on travel and immigration, the budget, ISIS, and possibly “what General Mattis and these guys think” (which may or may not be something discrete from the aforementioned items).

This description suggests Pres. Trump and Bannon still prioritize the threat of terrorism over threats posed by other major powers like Russia and China.  Although the threat of terrorism remains quite real, the nationalist approach Trump and Bannon may lead to the breakout of a major global conflict within what Russia or China come to see as their spheres of influence.

In the past, Bannon has suggested that Russia is a kleptocracy, but one motivated by nationalism and Judeo-Christian values of some sort.  The second part may be gravely mistaken.

The Trump administration also seems to think it may be able to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, which seems quite unlikely.

Russia is supporting nationalist and separatist movements in the West because Putin thinks it benefits Russia, not because he thinks it creates an alliance against ISIS or Iran.  Whatever Trump and Bannon think their priorities are, they will eventually be forced to deal with the fact that Putin seems to have different priorities.

Bannon’s relative silence on this point nevertheless caused me to reflect further on two points raised by the administration’s seemingly nationalist approach.

First, it is one thing to reject the last Bush administration’s occasionally Wilsonian neoconservative foreign policy, but it is quite another thing to undermine the alliances and institutions that kept us out of a nuclear war and world war since the end of WWII, just because they seem “globalist.”

Second, regarding the debate at National Review over nationalism vs. patriotism, it is one thing to ask, “Why is it a bad thing if people like their flag?” and another thing to ask, “Do we care whether Russia annexes the remainder of Ukraine?”

The Trump camp always rejects the label of isolationism; they have yet come up with a convincing argument that their rhetoric does not point in that direction.

It is true that Trump has appointed a number of people who do not share the Trump/Bannon view on Russia, NATO, etc.  The problems that arise from this are: (1) the admin’s uncertain voice breeds confusion that may raise the odds of foreign provocation; and (2) we may not truly learn which faction truly dominates until the Trump admin faces a crisis, as most admins do.

Regarding economic nationalism, one wishes Bannon recognized what hokum this is, but he seems quite committed to it.  He called Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP trade deal one of the “most pivotal moments in modern American history,” and we can only hope that’s Trumpian overstatement.

What dumping the TPP mostly means is that many of our Asian friends and and allies (incl Australia, New Zealand and India) will end up working out the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with China.  While China may not dominate that process, it will put China inside that tent and the U.S. outside it, with economic ramifications and potential influence on national security also.

This dynamic will make favorable bilateral agreements more difficult, much as the EU governs European trade policy.  Also, the EU has been increasing its trade with China, so this is already shaping up poorly.

In addition, as Jonah Goldberg noted over the weekend, economic nationalism is in tension with Bannon’s third vertical, the deconstruction of the administrative state.  As Goldberg notes: “Economic nationalism taken to its logical conclusion is socialism, with pit stops at corporatism, crony capitalism, and the like.”

Trump and Bannon may not be socialists, but neither were the Five Families, according to Coppola.  As Jay Cost has observed, protectionism historically results in political partiality, gamesmanship, and corruption.  There’s little to suggest this time would be different.

I am all for Bannon’s proposed deconstruction of the administrative state.  But if economic nationalism creates swollen bureaucracies at Treasury, Commerce, Agriculture, Transportation, Customs, the ITC, and CFIUS, is the administrative state really being deconstructed?

Moreover, Trump’s proposal to create an “American desk” at Commerce to oversee trade issues at best duplicates the cabinet-level U.S. Trade Representative and at worst weakens Trump’s influence on trade policy.

The deconstructive goal also raises questions about Trump’s appointments.  Some, like Scott Pruitt at EPA, seem more consistent with this philosophy than others.  Nevertheless, whether a cabinet comprised of people largely without cabinet experience (in domestic policy, anyway) will be able to tackle the Deep State effectively is an open question.

Moreover, the administrative state largely represents the problem of Congress abdicating much of its legislative power to the executive.  The deconstruction of these agencies is largely a matter for Congress, not the administration.  And whether any administration will ultimately embrace Congress retaking its power from the executive is yet another open question that is raised by Bannon’s CPAC appearance, but left unanswered.

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