Update, Aug. 18, 2017, at 2 p.m.: This article has been updated to reflect news of Steve Bannon’s departure from the White House.
Shortly before Steve Bannon was booted from the White House, we caught a glimpse of his contradictory nature. In an interview with left-wing labor journalist Robert Kuttner, Bannon insists he is a class warrior who wants nothing more than to forge a pan-ethnic coalition of working-class economic nationalists that can defeat the smug globalists of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. In conversations with his friends in the White House, meanwhile, he describes Donald Trump’s equivocating response to white-supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville as a shrewd way to fire up the president’s base. Ben Smith of Buzzfeed has drawn out the contradictions between these two Bannonisms in a recent column, making the point that there’s no rational way to reconcile them. He’s right.
But what would happen if we teased apart the seemingly disparate approaches championed by Trump’s erstwhile chief strategist? The answer is that we’d get two entirely different visions for the Republican future.
There’s one point on which both Bannons agree, which is that there is no going back to Reagan-era Republicanism. The basic formula for the Grand Reagan Party is that we must keep fighting for tax cuts for the rich (because they create jobs), shrinking the welfare state (because public aid breeds dependency), cutting Social Security benefits for those under 55 (because entitlements are out of control), boosting military spending (because the world is a dangerous place), and increasing immigration levels (because we love the huddled masses yearning to breathe free … and we need cut-rate farmworkers and engineers). It is vitally important that we balance the budget, Reagan Republicans believe, which is why we must slash Medicaid spending. But it’s also crucial that we cut taxes, which will unleash entrepreneurs, spark an economic boom, and lift all boats.
As much as Jeff Flake might long for this kind of neo-Reaganism, Trump—under the influence of the svengali-like Bannon—has demonstrated that GOP voters have mostly moved on from it. That leaves us with two other possibilities, each of which reflects a different brand of Bannonism.
The first would be a Republican Party rooted more firmly in white identity politics. Imagine Republicans winning not by making gains among non-white voters but rather by doing even better among whites. If a future Republican presidential candidate could match Trump’s numbers among non-college-educated white voters and Romney’s numbers among college-educated whites, she’d be hard to beat. For this to work for the GOP, the whole map would need to look like the Deep South, where Republicans routinely win 70 percent or more of the white vote.
What would be the ideological orientation of a Grand White Party? For one thing, the GWP would want to curb non-white immigration, to put the brakes on America’s fast-moving demographic transformation. And it would take a softer line on entitlement spending, not least because older Americans are a disproportionately white, Republican-leaning constituency. On foreign policy matters, the Grand White Party would be more skeptical of foreign intervention, seeing it as a waste of money and time.
Could a Grand White Party succeed? It’s possible, at least for a little while. If Democrats campaign on expanding means-tested benefits and raising taxes on high earners, a Grand White Party could argue that Democrats are in effect transferring resources from well-off white families to poor non-white families. If Democrats at the state and local level push desegregation efforts that would bring poor non-white families into suburban neighborhoods currently dominated by well-off white families, a Grand White Party would push back aggressively.
One challenge for a Grand White Party is that college-educated whites and non-college-educated whites often have clashing sensibilities and political priorities. To really ramp up support among college-educated whites, the Grand White Party might have to take stances on social issues that non-college-educated whites would find alienating. On the other hand, the fact that so many evangelical Republicans have rallied behind thrice-married serial groper Donald Trump might mean that paeans to traditional morality have faded in importance.
There is another challenge involved in building a Grand White Party, which is that many white voters would be uncomfortable seeing themselves as part of a whites-only party, so they’d need the party to at least pay lip service to being more racially inclusive. You could argue that this is where Republicans find themselves right now.
What will happen to a Grand White Party as the Latino and Asian electorates continue to expand at a rapid rate? One possibility is that Latino and Asian identities will grow more rigid and racialized, and that Latino/white and Latino/Asian conflicts will intensify. Under these circumstances, the white electorate might shrink, but a combative Grand White Party might compensate by securing a still higher share of embattled white voters. It’s also possible that a growing number of Latinos and Asians might come to identify as white, thanks to intermarriage and assimilation. Such a development would shore up an otherwise shrinking white electorate.
There is another alternative for the GOP, though, one that resonates with the Bannonism we saw in his conversation with Kuttner. This version of Republicanism—the Grand Middle Party—would build on a longer-term development, which is that while Democrats increasingly represent affluent college-educated professionals and the non-white working class, Republicans are increasingly the party of the white middle class. A Grand Middle Party would build on this white middle-class base by incorporating a larger number of Latino, Asian, and black middle-class voters.
To do this, however, Republicans would have to embrace a radically different approach to domestic policy. A Grand Middle Party would be more skeptical of mass less-skilled immigration than a Grand Reagan Party. Unlike the Grand White Party, however, it would couch its skepticism in terms of its commitment to helping Americans of all colors and creeds, including lawful working-class immigrants and their children. The goal of a Grand Middle Party immigration policy would be to recruit skilled immigrants who can help shrink America’s poverty problem by paying the taxes we need to finance schools and social programs.
Instead of fighting for tax cuts on the rich, a Grand Middle Party would take a more populist approach. One idea would be to exempt most middle-income families from federal income taxes and replace the lost revenue with a broad-based consumption tax, like those used in Canada and Australia. While a Grand Middle Party would fight measures such as an unconditional basic income that have gained favor on the left, it would embrace work-friendly programs like wage insurance, subsidized apprenticeships and summer jobs, and paid-leave benefits for working mothers, the latter of which is an idea backed by Donald Trump of all people.
If these policies sound like ideas Bill Clinton might have championed, you’re onto something. If the most recent Democratic primaries have taught us anything, it’s that the Democratic Party has changed since the 1990s. On the one hand, younger Democrats have moved sharply to the left, especially on cultural issues. On the other hand, in the post-Trump era, Democrats are consolidating support among members of the cosmopolitan business elite, who tend to find Trumpism repellent. As affluent voters join the Democratic coalition, it’s possible that the party will grow more averse to old-school economic populism. A Grand Middle Party could step into the populist void a more 1 percent-ish Democratic Party leaves behind.
As much as Steve Bannon claims to want something like a Grand Middle Party, he and Trump have been adhering almost exclusively to the Grand White Party playbook, with little success. The debate in today’s GOP is almost exclusively between those who favor a Grand Reagan Party and a Grand White Party. If something like a Grand Middle Party is ever going to emerge, it seems, it will be after Trump fades from the political scene.