Steve Bannon’s Revenge

The anti-Trump response seems bent on outdoing the president’s excesses.

Steve Bannon at the White House. Photo: CHERISS MAY/ZUMA PRESS

By William McGurn

When Steve Bannon phoned an editor at the American Prospect and unloaded on his White House colleagues, he effectively issued his own pink slip. His offense was particularly egregious because it came right after the president had brought in a new chief of staff to end West Wing behavior like Mr. Bannon’s.

But on his way out Mr. Bannon said something interesting. “The Democrats,” he told Robert Kuttner, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Mr. Bannon’s words, like Mr. Trump’s remarks during his ill-fated post-Charlottesville press conference two weeks ago, have been interpreted as smiling on white supremacists. Even some of the president’s own top appointees have felt compelled to put space between themselves and Mr. Trump over his comments about a protest that saw a young woman who was counterprotesting fatally run down by a protester’s car. Still, Mr. Bannon invites the question whether the spectacle of mobs targeting public statues they don’t like and suppressing the speech of those with whom they disagree really advances the Democratic cause.

Let us stipulate two points. First, President Trump did attack the neo-Nazis and white nationalists in his press conference. He further called the driver who ran down 32-year-old Heather Heyer a “disgrace” and a “murderer.”

Second, the president also rambled, which contributed to his bungling any distinction he hoped to make between Nazis and KKK marchers on the one hand from any others opposed to tearing down the park’s statue of Robert E. Lee.

For Democrats, this Trump Tower press conference was an Aha! moment: The president is dog whistling to racists! For the press, it vindicated their abandonment of even the pretense of objectivity in all things Trump. As for the self-styled Antifa movement, it helped justify Sunday’s effort in Berkeley to deny the First Amendment rights of yet another protesting group.

Mr. Trump was also mocked for asking whether statues of George Washington would be next on the chopping block. We now have our answer: Since Charlottesville vandals have attacked a bust of Lincoln, a monument to Christopher Columbus and a statue of St. Junípero Serra. Oh, yes, a Chicago pastor has asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel to take down a statue of Washington from a park because he was a slave owner.

Undoubtedly more is to come. But if Mr. Bannon is right, the anti-Trumpers behind it all might not be making the point they think.

A recent Reuters poll shows 54% of Americans want to keep the statues in place. Surely this majority does not reflect any national love for the Confederacy. More likely it means that, whatever their feelings about Gen. Lee or President Trump, the American people recognize those banging on about “hate” are not really pushing tolerance and inclusiveness.

Which feeds Mr. Bannon’s point. In his phone call with Mr. Kuttner, he referred to the KKK, Nazi and white identity marchers as “a collection of clowns.” But he also appreciates that the anti-Trump movement isn’t helped when it is revealed that the woman who toppled a Confederate statue in North Carolina is a member of the Workers World Party that backs North Korea.

Turns out Mr. Bannon has some odd bedfellows here. Take Ohio Gov. John Kasich. While blasting the president’s pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio on “Meet the Press” Sunday, he also suggested the Democratic Party is squandering a “golden opportunity” to win elections because Americans don’t know what Democrats stand for “other than the fact that they don’t like Donald Trump.”

Ditto for Bernie Sanders. Like Mr. Bannon, Mr. Sanders appreciates that identity politics is a loser for Democrats. He says the Democratic Party won’t stop “losing elections” until it changes direction and focuses on an economic agenda that speaks to American working families and the young.

With all this, the received wisdom, especially after the failure of the Republican Congress to repeal ObamaCare, is that the GOP is in the midst of a collapse that may cost them their majorities in Congress come 2018.

Maybe. But it won’t be easy to find the good Democratic candidates necessary to gain the 24 seats the party needs in the House. As for the Senate, 10 Democrats are up for reelection in states that went for Mr. Trump, against only one Republican in a state carried by Hillary Clinton.

During his campaign for the presidency Mr. Trump infamously declared, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” If it ends up that Charlottesville doesn’t do the president any lasting damage, it won’t be because of any genius. It will be because as bad or uncouth as Mr. Trump may be, he has a knack for bringing out even worse in his opponents.