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Can we avoid the Bannon Trap?

February 1, 2017

I’m one of those people who said “don’t worry, the Remainers will carry the day”, and then “I’m sure we’ll end up negotiating a relationship with the EU almost as good as membership”; and then “Trump –  surely they won’t vote for him?”, and finally “Wait and see, his bite won’t surely be as bad as his bark?”… So what do I know?

Nevertheless, ignorant or naive as I seem to be, this blog post is my expression of unease at the fervent anti-Trump fever that’s sweeping parts of the world and the twittersphere. Not that I don’t oppose a great deal of what Trump claims to stand for (though I must admit I still doubt he really does), but because I fear that by opposing him we risk strengthening his hand, at least in the short term. This is the Bannon Trap.

Trump was elected on a wave of anti-elitism, and as such has been bracketed with le Pen, Farage and the Brexiteers, and others. The genius of these populist figures, it seems to me, is that they get their opponents to do most of their campaigning. By creating a straw person – the sneering, liberal elitist who has captured all the gains of globalisation and cares more about the welfare of faraway foreigners than about you or me – they can stand back and let those very liberal elitists do the hard work by protesting against the seemingly self-evident truths the populists have coined.

But they don’t just stand back. In classic populist fashion, they produce speeches, tweets, TV spots – and now, presidential decrees – carefully designed to provoke precisely the kind of outraged reaction among those who oppose them that reveals them as members of a single bloc of elitists who are standing in the way of a fairer society. As traitors, indeed – as we can see from Trump’s claim that he fired his Attorney General because of her “betrayal” – rather than for upholding the rule of law which he has said he’ll restore. No wonder the branding of UKIP, the Trump campaign and other similar causes seems so crass and clumsy: not only is that intentional – to show that they don’t care about that slick, metropolitan branding s*** –   but it’s also unnecessary to develop a slick brand if you define yourself in terms of who is ranged against you, rather than what or who you are….

Trump’s supposedly personal midnight tweeting is no doubt also part of the same tactical approach. I’d be amazed if Trump himself is creating or tweeting those messages: they’re straight out of a Goebbels playbook, and no doubt there’s a team of people answerable to Steve Bannon, which drafts them, get them approved within the Trump Team hierarchy, and then puts them out there for all to read. It’s just another simple but clever way to get the elite all riled up about the idea of a president elect or a president sending such obtuse and oafish tweets. I can imagine a room full of hyped up young men (I bet they’re all men) outdoing themselves trying to come up with the most liberal-provocative statement yet.

How happy they must be now. Every time TV stations broadcast yet more footage of President Trump signing yet another executive order – most of which are drafts, and/or temporary in nature and no doubt designed to be modified in the course of the next few months – they rub their hands with glee at how this will push the elite – not just in big US cities, but around the world, for God’s sake! – out to protest, showing themselves up for the out of touch bunch of globalistas they are.

No matter that few of these sham “policies” will actually work. No matter than they may be counter-productive even in terms of Trump’s own rhetoric. Right now their purpose seems largely political: to rile up the opposition and let core supporters see their enemies for who they are – and to make real, the rift which Trump’s team has projected onto American society.

Of course, the “liberal elite” is no more a homogeneous bloc than are the diverse people who support Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, etc. But it serves the populists’ purposes to make it seem as though they are, and a simple way to do so is unite them in opposition to the oafish and abnormal behaviour and pronouncements emanating from the White House. Provocation 101, as it might be called if taught at political insurgency school.

So if, like me, you oppose what Trump appears to stand for – and what Steve Bannon and others in his team really do seem to stand for – you are confronted by a cleverly laid trap: you’re damned if you do react, and damned if you don’t. Either you react and are labelled as elitist, or you keep quiet and leave the way open for policies which will do harm. The Bannon Trap.

If this is right, where does that leave those who oppose Trump? I’m not saying people should stop responding to and criticizing Trump and his ilk, but his tactics do make it hard to oppose him without providing him with yet more oxygen.

I tweeted a few weeks ago – not long after the US election – that the UK and the US both (still) had strong institutions which should be resilient in the face of these populists. After the last week or so of Trumpery, I was challenged on Twitter as to whether I now had cause to change my mind and be less sanguine. It’s an important question and I hope I don’t turn out to be wrong in saying I have not changed my mind.

Brexit and Trump have shone a light clearly enough in parts of the USA and UK – on the margins, if you will – where people have not had a fair chance to participate in the gains of economic growth, where they feel ignored, and where resentment is real. But Trump and Brexit have happened within our political and societal institutions, not outside them. The Brexit referendum was devised by a democratically elected executive and approved by Parliament, and Trump was elected within the rules of a great democracy. Surely those institutions still contain mechanisms with the capacity to allow us to try and put this problem of unfairness right. I am confident that neither Brexit nor Trump will achieve this, but the political and societal systems from which they have emerged, and which have thus enabled such a clear light to be shone on the problem, can perhaps allow others to do so. That is resilience.

If so the key to responding effectively must be to take on the hard work of figuring out – with the participation of those affected and resentful – what those long-term political solutions might be, and argue within our political system for them to be adopted. To take on Trump and the Brexiteers on their own ground, as it were. (As has been said: take them seriously, rather than literally.) I don’t think this means turning our back on liberal economic and political ideas, but it does mean doing more to mitigate the harm which such ideas have caused, and will cause, to those for whom the benefits are harder to access. This will take time and will not be easy.

And in the meantime, I have a (still perhaps naïve) faith that what seems like a political crisis may yet drive newspapers and other traditional media to get their mojo back. They certainly need to. The courts in America are already being used to challenge Trump by the states and civil society.

There are also signs that an opposition coalition of sorts may emerge in the USA which extends beyond the ‘liberal elite’. Already Trump is causing resentment within his senior ‘team’ at the way he is sidelining them as he makes policy announcements which touch on their areas of competence. Either they will quit, or force him to adopt a more collegiate approach. (And if forced to be collegiate, perhaps he’ll quit…).

Nor can I imagine his relationship with Republicans in Congress remaining easy for long. They are quiet for now, in the main. But plenty of their swing voters will get riled up too, and the mid-term elections season in the USA starts as soon as the new president takes office – i.e. now. Who knows, maybe the unintended consequence of all this populism will ultimately be the resuscitation of one of the main institutions of modern day democracy: the political party.

In the meantime, even if I’m right about the Bannon Trap, all those who feel disempowered and therefore the need to tweet, take to the streets etc., will not and probably should not stop. But I’d like to think that once we get over the fact that things have changed, and Trump starts policy development in earnest, engaging with and compromising with Congress, opposition voices will move beyond being against what Trump is saying, and get back onto the more familiar ground (for the liberal elite!) of formulating policy ideas which might actually make a difference for the people whose sense of exclusion and alienation has brought Trump to office. Heck, he might even borrow some of those ideas.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. navigation360 permalink
    February 2, 2017 3:46 pm

    Many good points Phil, also made by some other reflective commentators. Two questions: 1. Are the Trump tactics comparable with these of violent extremist groups, who also do very provocative things to create outraged reactions (beyond proportion to other sources of death and damage at least in Western societies), that they actually can turn into confirmations of their narrative. 2 The constant flip flopping on narratives, the challenging of facts, the discrediting of sources of information, which also seems part of the Trump camp strategy, in the end is going to leave people confused about what is believable and what not… We already see that happening. That is from the script of Political Provocation Advanced Level: a strategy to increase your power and control because nobody trusts any source of information anymore… I share the hope that our political institutions will be resilient enough, and that indeed there has been a long-standing unhappiness building up in significant sections of the population that has been overlooked and ignored. While the recent political ‘shocks’ bring that too the foreground, which is positive, the game style which destroys the little of evidence-based political reasoning we had, can do lasting damage? What do you think? Koenraad

    • February 2, 2017 5:06 pm

      yes, agreed – I think it’s classic leninist-stalinist vanguardist approach which has been so effectively used by various Islamist movements for the past 30 or more years: create a reaction which ‘proves’ your point. And on your second point too, although some commentators have said it’s just incompetence, rather than conspiracy… I guess we will know a few months from now. And I actuially do have a lot of sympathy with those who feel the liberal elite is out of touch: the progressive replacement of values- and ideology-based politics with data-driven “think-tank” policy has always seemed like it was heading for a cul de sac. When Winston Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK, he once said that he would probably never know if the policies he introduced were effective because it might be ten years before one could tell, and by then there would be so many alternative factors and explanations that it would be impossible to figure out what had caused what… and that by then he’d probably be out of office anyway…. But now the expectation is that think tanks and clever government departments can answer such questions within weeks…. It’s almost as though Plato finally got his way. Whatever happened to the wonderful idea of muddling through? (Oh yes, that was an elitist idea, too!)

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