So said Stephen K. Bannon,Donald Trump’s chief strategist, in a wide-ranging interview with my colleague Kimberley Strasselpublished in these pages on Saturday. Later in the interview Mr. Bannon inveighed against “the policies of globalism,” which, he said, had “severely hurt” the interests of America’s working and middle classes of every race.
Over the weekend, several friends told me they found the interview reassuring about Mr. Bannon. I found it chilling.
Start with economic nationalism, a shopworn idea commonly associated with Latin American governments such as Juan Perón’s Argentina. In its milder form, economic nationalism means state subsidies for national-champion companies, giant infrastructure projects, targeted tariff protections for politically favored industries, “Buy American” provisions in government contracting, federal interventions against foreign takeovers of “sensitive” companies.
The U.S. already does much of this on a bipartisan basis, so let’s assume that Mr. Bannon’s notion of “economic nationalism” doesn’t end by demanding that federal workers drive American cars. What else might it mean?
In France, it has meant bailouts for failing industrial giants like Alstom. In Japan, it has meant 800% tariffs on imported rice, decades of blowout spending on airports, roads and bridges, and chronic hostility to immigration. Russia passed more protectionist measures in 2013 than any other country, according to the Moscow Times.
What do these and other countries that practice variants of economic nationalism have in common? France, where the state accounts for 57% of the economy, hasn’t seen annual GDP growth top 3% since the turn of the millennium. Japan, which has the world’s oldest population along with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio, experienced no fewer than five recessions between 2008 and 2015. Russia’s GDP contracted by 40% between 2013 and 2015. Its economy is now half the size of Great Britain’s.
Economic nationalism, in other words, means economic ruin—along with all the political favoritism, crony capitalism and inefficiency that Americans usually associate with Solyndra, the Synfuels Corp., or the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Mr. Bannon wants to double down on this winning formula.
Mr. Bannon also says he’s “America first,” which—see if you can spot the difference—either is or isn’t “America First.” Either way, the animating impulse behind “America first” is that there are some Americans who put their country second, or last, presumably behind their ethnic loyalties, ideological affinities or economic interests. America first isn’t a policy program or a political motto so much as it is an accusation of disloyalty. What real American, after all, wouldn’t put “America first” in his political priorities?
Mr. Bannon’s answer, along with that of the alt-right movement he has proudly championed through his Breitbart website, is “the globalists.” The globalists are supposed to be the bankers at Goldman Sachs who paid Mrs. Clinton her handsome speaking fees. They are editorial writers at this newspaper, who champion the virtues of free trade and a liberal immigration policy. They are the “warmongers” demanding sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine.
But the truth is that Wall Street bankers, recently naturalized immigrants and even mainstream journalists have as much right to advocate a view of the American interest as Mr. Bannon and his fellow travelers. That’s the American way, which disavows traditional concepts of nationalism in favor of a broader ideal of citizenship—identity defined primarily by participation and aspiration, not ancestry. Nationalism may be a fine idea for Japan or Iceland. America is exceptional because it’s built on a different premise.
As for Mr. Bannon’s admiration for nationalist movements, that might explain the odd way in which Breitbart has deployed anti-Semitic tropes to denounce “globalist” Jewish writers such as the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum while being stalwart in its support for Israel. Whatever the case, the distinction between nationalism and ethno-nationalism is a slippery one.
As my colleague Bari Weiss pointed out in a recent article in Tablet, the foremost figure of today’s alt-right, Richard Spencer, dreams of “a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.” Mr. Spencer’s vision may not be Mr. Bannon’s. But the newfound political power of the latter will inevitably open channels for the former.
In “The Second Coming,” Yeats asked, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The answer, it may yet turn out, is the likes of Steve Bannon and his ugly litter of neo-nationalists.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.