In the Trump era, the US needs parliamentary politics more than ever
Just a month or so after he was ousted from his post as White House chief strategist, Stephen Bannon is back on the warpath.
Recent reports revealed that the former Donald Trump whisperer and ultranationalist ideologue is spearheading an effort to support a slate of primary challenges against sitting Republicans seemingly opposed to his agenda.
"The anti-incumbent effort could dramatically reshape the 2018 primary landscape if it materialises," noted Politico. "It would pit a group of pro-Trump primary challengers against sitting lawmakers who are perceived as more mainstream."
Then, in an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes on Sunday evening, Bannon railed against the party leadership, which he thinks has stymied Trump's campaign promises and failed to push through key legislation, including the repeal of Obamacare, that the White House seeks.
"The Republican establishment is trying to nullify the 2016 election," said Bannon from his Washington townhouse, which doubles as an office for the far-right Breitbart website. "They do not want Donald Trump's populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented ... It's as obvious as night follows day."
He also suggested that Trump's low approval ratings are only because of his inability so far to start building the long-promised wall on the Mexican border - an insight that reveals how little Bannon cares for the opinions of those outside Trump's base.
The interview makes it clear that the ideological fault lines within the GOP are only likely to widen. When confronted by interviewer Charlie Rose on the centrality of immigration to American history, Bannon angrily rejected the lecturing of "a bunch of limousine liberals" and offered a theory that conveniently mirrored his anti-immigration, protectionist views.
"You couldn't be more dead wrong," Bannon began. "America was built on her citizens ... Look at the 19th century. What built America [is] called the American System ... [It was] a system of protection of our manufacturing, financial system that lends to manufacturers, and the control of our borders."
NPR's Steve Inskeep, an author of an excellent history of early 19th-century America, took Bannon to task with a breezy and interesting fact check. "He's right that Americans built a powerful country in the 19th century," Inskeep concluded. "But that country was diverse, fed off immigration, was constantly changing, and was not really walled off from the world. Any suggestion otherwise is factually wrong."
What's more politically relevant is the extent to which such Bannon views fly in the face of decades of Republican orthodoxy in Washington, where leading GOP politicians, including President Ronald Reagan, once championed immigration and free trade. Anti-immigrant sentiment, of course, has been fuelling the American right wing for some time now, but the white nationalism peddled by Bannon and his allies simply can't be embraced by the entire Republican Party.
Indeed, the rise of Donald Trump exposed the extent to which the GOP is an unhappy coalition of a number of different political factions. Last year, the Economist helpfully mapped out what US politics might look like if it followed a parliamentary form of democracy.
The Republicans were divided between a large populist party, led by Trump, and two smaller ones - a centre-right establishment party and a more religiously minded Christian party. (The Democrats, too, had their own divisions between traditional liberals and social democrats, who clash on a whole host of issues as much as they may agree on others.)
In Bannon's mind, the rest of the GOP needs to get in line with Trump's populist faction, and his planned insurgency over the next year is aimed at coaxing Republicans into his ultranationalist fold. Because of the nature of two-party politics, that could theoretically happen if Trump embraces Bannon's line.
"In the two-party system, Republicans in Congress need Trump as much as he needs them. As a result, Republicans, whether or not they think Trump is a narcissistic, amoral pathological liar, are stuck with him. So are voters who want conservatism without Trump," noted Vox earlier this summer. "Going forward, this trap will only make politics more ugly."
Such "ugliness" has been with the American political system for years now and underlies the cynicism and gridlock widely seen in Congress. It's even led some wonks to ask whether the United States could benefit from proportional voting and a parliamentary system that breaks the two-party duopoly and better tethers the executive to the legislature.
"The fact that a prime minister is held accountable to the legislature is a very good thing for governance," wrote Akhilesh Pillalamarri in the National Interest last year, before Trump's election. "First, it means that the executive and his or her government are of a like mind with the majority of legislators, because prime ministers come from the party with a majority of seats in the parliament, usually. The gridlock evident in the United States, where the president is of a different party than the majority of Congress, is far less likely in a parliamentary system."
Of course, such reform isn't going to happen. But it's telling that parliamentary democracies in Europe, so far, have better weathered the right-wing populism of the minority than the United States. Parliamentary elections in France and the Netherlands subdued the challenge of far-right candidates and returned centrists to power. A similar outcome is almost certain in Germany in a couple of weeks. In all of those cases, when given a choice between centre-right parties and more extremist ones, a majority of voters opted for the former. In the United States, those choices don't really exist, and the lines are more awkwardly blurred.
Bannon, who once described Trump as "a blunt instrument" for his agenda, sees a very different political future for the United States. "The only question before us: Is it going to be a left-wing populism or a right-wing populism," he told CBS. "And that is the question that will be answered in 2020."
- The Washington Post