Donald Trump’s victory last month was a generational triumph: the largest and most resounding victory for the right since the election of Ronald Reagan. Not since the 1980 election has the Republican party enjoyed such a symbolically potent electoral victory. Reagan’s victory marked the dawn of a new political era; it was the final death of the New Deal coalition, which had dominated the mid-twentieth century, yet it had grown stagnant and stale. Unable to provide policy prescriptions that resonated with a majority of Americans and unable to intellectually justify their hold on power, Republicans were overwhelmed by a surging conservative movement helmed by the charismatic Reagan. This victory was secured in no small part thanks to the intellectual firepower provided by movement conservatives, most notably William F. Buckley and his National Review. In the years leading up to 1980, Buckley Conservatives succeeded in reorienting conservative thought along their lines including encouraging free trade and small government, and promoting a powerful America on the world stage. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Buckley conservatism was unmatched in its dominance, even forcing the Democrats to hew right to remain electorally viable.
Establishment conservatism, faced for the first time with a genuinely liberal administration under President Obama, began to buckle. Overwhelmed by Tea Party radicalism throughout the Obama years, the moderate center of the GOP slammed ever more towards the right. If Obama’s election engendered a buckling, the election of Donald Trump, a man antithetical to the ideals of the Buckley Conservative, truly represents the marginalization of the breed. He spurns trade, espouses isolationism, and openly appeals to racial animus, stances which galvanized the creation of the ineffectual right wing Never Trump movement.
In the past, I have spoken about how I view Donald Trump as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, Trump will leave an outsized intellectual mark on the face of American politics. Trump’s victory represents the ascent of a new kind of right wing. Far from its purported roots in conservatism, Trumpism is revolutionary. His victory is a victory for the very elements that Buckley sought to expunge from the conservative movement. Trump’s appointments of Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions illustrate the nature of this ideological tectonic shift.
The Reign of Bannondorf
Within a week of his victory, Trump made his first pair of appointments. For Chief of Staff, he selected RNC chairman Reince Priebus, the man responsible for sanitizing Trump and ensuring the GOP establishment remained behind their nominee. The muted reaction to Priebus’ appointment was especially drowned out by the uproar over Trump’s decision to appoint Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist, a position which makes him equal to Priebus as White House number two. Immediately following Bannon’s appointment, both liberals and conservatives erupted with outrage decrying Bannon’s appointment as empowering the most dangerous elements in the Trump coalition. While a controversial move, it was hardly a surprising one. Bannon’s ideological tutelage was instrumental to Trump’s success and Trump merely repaid that support in kind, giving Bannon tremendous power over the most important piece of real estate on Earth.
Steve Bannon is, to say the least, an interesting guy. A former Naval officer, alumnus of Harvard Business School, investment banker with Goldman Sachs and early investor in Castle Rock Entertainment, Bannon has had a long and diverse career. More recently, Bannon took control of conservative media outlet Breitbart News after its founder, conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart, died in 2011. Under Andrew Breitbart, the eponymous website was a bastion of establishment conservative thought and became well known for its embrace of guerilla journalism aimed at liberal activist groups. Under Bannon, the substance of Breitbart News began to change. It moved away from its traditional conservative roots towards a policy platform more in line with European far right populists, focusing increasingly on economic nationalism, nativism, and intense animosity towards social justice progressives. By undergoing this evolution, Breitbart News became the premier outlet for the alt-right movement, a nebulous faction of hard right elements locked out of the political mainstream by the Buckley consensus. During the 2016 elections, Breitbart News emerged early as a vocal pro-Trump outlet. Bannon’s support of Trump was not well received by many of the movement conservatives who staffed Breitbart, leading many of its senior staffers, most notably Ben Shapiro, to quit in a public row in mid 2016. These movement conservatives strongly objected to Bannon’s embrace of alt-right elements, of whom they held an extremely low opinion. After the Trump campaign fired campaign manager Paul Manafort due to his conflicts of interest with Russia, Bannon was brought on to act as “Chief Executive” of the campaign, providing high level strategic guidance. For his loyalty and his role in guiding Trump, Bannon has now been empowered as the number two in the Trump White House.
For many across the political spectrum, the most objectionable element of the Trump campaign was his weaponization of overt racial animus, a tactic considered by many to have been expunged from “polite politics.” The expulsion of segregationists and anti-Semites from the conservative movement proved to be one of Buckley’s greatest achievements but with the ascent of Bannon, this bipartisan agreement to avoid appeals to white identity is now a thing of the past. Inflammatory as such appeals are, there can be no doubt that Bannon and Trump have found political paydirt. Bannon is the Buckley of our age; his ideas move people in ways that Buckleyism is no longer able. For the right, Bannon represents the changing of the guard. He represents the empowerment of alt-right ideas and the migration of European-style far-right populism to American shores.
Ride for Redemption
If Steve Bannon represents the future of the Republican party as it shakes off Buckley’s intellectual legacy, Senator Jeff Sessions, tapped by Trump for Attorney General, very much represents the right wing past Buckley conservatism sought to move beyond. Sessions is easily one of the most reactionary members of the Senate, taking the hardest of hard right positions on almost everything imaginable from drugs to immigration to race. Sessions was one of Trump’s earliest supporters, donning a Trump hat at an Alabama rally in August 2015. Now, like Bannon, Trump has rewarded Sessions for his loyalty by appointing him to run the Department of Justice. While there is plenty about Sessions worth discussing, his stances on race relations are what set him apart from the conservative mainstream. Sessions’ history on these matters would be funny were it not so dark. In 1986, he was denied a federal judgeship by a Republican congress for racially inflammatory remarks (he called a white lawyer working for the NAACP a ‘traitor to his race’). He also defended the Ku Klux Klan, finding no problems with the literal face of racism in America until he learned that they smoked Marijuana. This is the man who, come January, will be responsible for addressing civil rights issues, dealing with the Black Lives Matter movement and handling calls for judicial and police reform.
There is nothing new about Sessions or his ideology. He is very much the archetypal Southern reactionary who for so long held sway over American politics. Sessions is the latest face of a tradition as old as America. The darkest example of this tradition is the Southern Redemption of the late 19th century. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Democratic party and its white supremacist paramilitary allies fought and won a battle against the racial progress of the Reconstruction era. I expect Sessions to do all within his power as attorney general to turn back the clock in a similar fashion. The tentative legal reforms which have been allowed to make headway under the first black President will now be at the mercy of a modern day redeemer.
In Sessions and Bannon, we can see the synthesis of past and future rightism in the Trump administration. There is a clear compatibility between the two. Bannon’s alt-right ethno-populism synthesizes quite nicely with the barely concealed white supremacy which guides Senator Sessions. Taken together, these two represent a great intellectual upheaval on the right, a shaking off of Buckley’s ideas. Intellectually, the Trump administration will be the intersection where past and future synthesize, with potentially painful results for all who do not fit in their vision of either.