One of Steve Bannon’s problems is that he learned some wrong lessons from 2016. He thought that Trump’s election proved that the political establishment was so unpopular that there was no such thing as a populist candidate too repugnant for the voters. It turned out that the election of a candidate as vicious as Trump was more the exception than the rule. Tying the populist cause to Paul Nehlen’s antisemitism and to Roy Moore’s combination of bigotry, senility, and hebephilia turned out to be a tactical error (to say nothing of a moral error.)
Bannon also misjudged the constituency for center-right populism. Trump didn’t win because of the social-media posts of half-ass Internet Nazis. He won because millions of mostly working-class, white, economically moderate Obama voters shifted toward the Republican column. They did this because Trump talked as if their problems were real and could not be solved by another round of tax cuts for the rich. But these voters can’t eat white-identity politics. Candidates ranting about Israeli influence or being nostalgic about slavery family values hurts as a matter of raw politics. And thank God for that.
Bannon had a chance to take on the Republican establishment, but it required discipline and some measure of decency. It required combining his talents for publicity and fundraising with candidates of character.
Between them, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz got about 70 percent of the Republican presidential-primary vote. That is a lot of people who are hostile to the “Swamp.” Most of those people are, like David Brat (who came out of nowhere to beat Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor), unknown. An effective Bannonite infrastructure would have sifted from among that vast number of disaffected Republicans to find the candidates with the least baggage and then invested in a little training to help them (who would — whatever their positive qualities — tend to be novices) appeal to the widest possible electorate. That is what the hated Republican establishment does. That is its biggest advantage. It makes an effort to spot and nurture talent.
Instead of doing that, Bannon decided it was easier to ally with grifters and lunatics who had preexisting brands. The result is that a “populism” of Paul Nehlen, Roy Moore, Joe Arpaio, and Steve Bannon looks worse than no populism at all.
There are still decent populists. Utah Senator Mike Lee has taken an interest in the struggles of the working class. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has dissented from the GOP establishment on immigration. Between the two of them, one can see the outline of a populist conservative agenda. They also have the added advantage of actually being senators (unlike Roy Moore.)
Lee and Cotton are unusually well-credentialed men, but an effective populism would give them congressional allies who are drawn from ranks of everyday American life. Not everybody can be a Harvard Law grad turned Army infantry officer, but the vast pool of Republicans who dissent from their party’s lobbyist classes contains better, saner people than the Nehlens and the Moores. These better populists have to be found and nurtured. Maybe that will be a job for a better and saner successor to Steve Bannon.