Listening to Steve Bannon on stage at CPAC last week was a painful but necessary way to get in touch with what the Trump White House has on its collective mind.
Moderates are alarmed at the expressed hostility to a free press, but may entirely overlook the still more sinister sub-text. When Bannon railed against the “globalist and corporate media” he was drawing on language that the far, far right “Nazi” fringe understands is anti-semitic.
Under Bannon’s thumb, “America First” has become a favorite slogan of Trump accolades, a direct descendent of the same phrase used by Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh before the U.S. entered WWII.
Later at CPAC, Donald Trump doubled down on the dread in his own anti-media speech in which he ominously suggested that he is going to “do something” about media outlets that are at odds with his preferred narrative.
Excluding the New York Times, CNN, Politico and others from a press “gaggle” at the White House on Friday afternoon, may indeed represent the opening salvo in delivery on his threat.
Trump has repeatedly referred to the media as “the Enemy of the People.” When challenged, he says he is only referring to the “fake news” media; but then he lists among those who promulgate “fake news,” sources like the New York Times and Washington Post that have a sterling reputation for accountability and pointedly praises the most questionable outlets which justhappen to have a bias in his favor.
A great piece in the New York Times takes a closer look at this “Enemy of the People” phrase, tracing it to legendary Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Post-Stalin, even hardliners like Kruschev avoided the phrase, recognizing it as a bridge too far.
Russian scholar Mitchell A. Orenstein points out that Donald Trump seems to deliberately repeat this kind of Soviet era language because it inflames his supporters as it renders the words meaningless for opposition purposes:
“He is only alienating them, and they are the people he wants to alienate anyway,” Mr. Orenstein continued. “His base sees comparisons with Stalin as just more evidence of the liberal mainstream media going haywire.”
Moreover, by using such a loaded term in such a cavalier fashion, the president “is in the process of rendering it meaningless,” Mr. Orenstein said. “It becomes just na-na-na-na-na,” he added, because nobody really thinks Mr. Trump will bring back the guillotine.
Returning to Bannon’s CPAC speech, he used the term “economic nationalism,” and that, too, merits deconstruction for all it may portend. An excellent article in the Washington Post examines the practical economic consequences of pursuing a course of economic nationalism. When taken to it’s logical conclusion, with all the deregulation and protectionism Trump would like to impose, the policy favors sectors that can prosper in global isolation. Sectors like fossil fuel energy and housing become “winners,” while others like tech and higher education are the losers. The result would be a dumbed-down America, fed on “alternative facts” and ripe for the kind of third-world political chaos that Bannon would dearly love to see.
But for those like Donald Trump who have no patience with book learnin’ and studied history, “economic nationalism” sounds superficially like a good thing. The fact that “nationalism” has long been code for the racist/xenophobic view of “us over them,” lifted straight out of the Third Reich’s playbook, means nothing to them.
Focussing on the “economic” preface to Bannon’s nationalism pretty much misses the point.
Like “white nationalism,” “economic nationalism” seeks a new world order in which the interests of a single homogenous group are placed above the well-being of everyone else, eschewing any moral or ethical responsibility for the greater good. Efforts at shutting down immigration, deportation and suppressing the minority vote, which are also on the agenda of the Bannon/Trump world order, serve to further isolate and elevate the privileged population.
“Nationalism” of any kind is not to be confused with patriotism, which is love of country. Nationalism is an expression of contempt for the rights and interests of any people other than those who are recognized as belonging to the dominant population, whether it addresses exclusion as a cultural or a national matter.
It’s as if this administration is, through its choice of isolationist language, pulling up the drawbridge on diversity and intellectual growth. Mr. Trump perhaps forgets how much our economic prosperity was built on risk taking, immigrant ingenuity and a open-armed national persona.
If Trump has his way, America is about to get a lot smaller, colder and poorer.