So, it looks like President Donald Trump is well on his way to upending the existing liberal world order to replace it with what no one knows. He undermines NATO, talks tough to long standing allies in Europe, talks soft on Russia and Vladimir Putin, pulls out of the Paris Climate Accord, and by exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership leaves the field open for China to dominate Asia.
He’s either crazy or alarmingly ignorant, maybe both, many have concluded. He doesn’t have a sense of how the world runs, he has no idea of history, he decides on a whimsy, leaning one way and then the other in the space of days, sometimes hours. His presidency is chaos central by all appearances, right? But what if there is method in this seeming madness? It’s possible.
Some analysts point to the fact that Trump, under the guidance of the formidable Steve Bannon, has decided to focus on holding on to his base of support. It may be somewhere between 38 and 40 percent of public opinion but it is thus far an unwavering core of supporters who want to rid America of anything that carries even a whiff of liberal values and of everything that Barack Obama put into practice. It’s a ritual purification — social, political and ideological — of America that they crave. Only then can America be great again in the image they have in their memories.
Trumps primary aim may be financial or brand-burnishing hubris. But he hates to be a loser, and Bannon, his ideological guru, has piloted him to victory twice: once in the Republican primaries and then in November’s general election, against heavy odds. By all accounts, Bannon remains the most influential adviser in Trump’s White House. Call him Svengali, Rasputin, Darth Vader, whatever. But Trump appreciates Bannon’s strategic brain, even to the extent of going against the wish of daughter Ivanka, as reportedly happened in the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. If he follows Bannon’s line, he can win again, Trump probably believes.
Bannon in his alt-right ideological mind knows that Trump must hold on to that 38-40 percent support base right up to the 2020 presidential election. If he can once again swing a relatively small percentage of voters away from the Independents and socially resentful white Democrats, he can put Trump over the hump yet again through the Electoral College, despite coming up short in the popular vote.
Millennials, who overwhelmingly lean progressive, may form a formidable segment of voters in the next election, but they are likely to cluster in cities along the coast and a few inland urban agglomerations. The midwest and the south, as long as the latter still remains decisively red, can give Trump and Bannon a spell of eight years in which to take back America.
That’s why staying in the Paris Accord did not make strategic sense to Bannon and Trump. Americans, by a ratio of five to one according to a recent poll, support U.S. participation in the Accord, reported Peter Baker of the New York Times. Yet, when you dig deeper into the poll, you find that people who say they support the accord do so superficially. A Gallup survey shows that only two percent of Americans believe the environment or pollution to be the most important issue facing the nation. It is not an issue on which Trump can risk angering core supporters.
But what about America’s diminishing role in the world? That’s probably an irrelevant question for Trump or Bannon. Preserving and nurturing the current international liberal order in which the United States is by far the leading nation is not important if your long term goal is to create a Fortress America that will trade only on its own terms and will intervene in global crises only when after it evaluates such intervention in pure self-interest. NATO in such a scenario is just a bunch of nattering nabobs. Far better to strike a silent deal with Russia so that the two great powers can carve the world into zones of influence. China can dominate Asia and Europe can look after itself as long as they don’t distract the U.S. from its vital effort to restructure itself.
That, judging by his published material and declared ideological bent, is what Bannon sees as the only way to preserve white Christian preeminence in the long term in a society that is rapidly changing in both culture and color. Trump agrees, as long as it doesn’t hurt his wealth or ego.
Can it work? Probably not. It’s like a King Canute enterprise. But that’s a different story.
Gautam Adhikari is a Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress, Washington DC.