Ethnic Nationalism and Economic Growth

Trump’s close relationship with ethnic nationalists is one of the most unusual features of his political agenda. Barrels of ink have already been spilled on the topic, and I don’t really have the time or energy to rehash the whole story at the moment.  Instead, I want to flag something very specific that I find deeply troubling.

Shortly after the election, David Farhenthold and Frances Stead Sellers published an excellent article examining Steve Bannon’s on-air interviews with Donald Trump before Bannon officially joined the Trump campaign. While the entire article is interesting,  they recount a specific exchange that piqued my interest:

Last November, for instance, Trump said he was concerned that foreign students attending Ivy League schools have to return home because of U.S. immigration laws.

“We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said. He paused. Bannon said, “Um.”

“I think you agree with that,” Trump said. “Do you agree with that?”

Bannon was hesitant. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think . . . ” Bannon said, not finishing the sentence. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

Trump said he would build a border wall, but still wanted to let highly educated foreign students who graduate from U.S. colleges to be able to stay in the country.“I still want people to come in,” Trump said. “But I want them to go through the process.”

Bannon said: “You got to remember, we’re Breitbart. We’re the know-nothing vulgarians. So we’ve always got to be to the right of you on this.”

(Washington Post, November 15, 2016)

Steve Bannon is one of Trump’s top political advisors, holding an agenda-setting role in the Trump Administration. After his appointment, Bannon was strongly criticized for being a “white supremacist,” which strikes me as a misleading term in this context. I think it is safe to say that Bannon is an “ethnic nationalist” and he knows it. Only days after the election, Bannon was reaching out to nationalist movements in Europe, in many cases before the Trump Administration had contacted those nations’ elected governments.

Ethnic nationalism is a coherent ideology that is distinctly opposed to the universal values and emphasis on freedom associated with American liberalism. I would argue that Democrats (social liberals) and Republicans (economic liberals) have been united by a shared set of liberal values, even when they seemed irreconcilably opposed to one another. One of the geniuses (or perhaps fatal flaws) of the American political system has been its ability to confine debate within a relatively narrow slice of the available ideological spectrum.

Traditionally, both parties have favored policies oriented towards promoting economic growth. Those policies may have had devastating consequences for specific communities, but in general they provided more wealth overall – an unambiguously good thing for people motivated by an often unexamined “utilitarian consensus.”

But ethnic nationalism approaches the political calculus from a very different perspective. Policies are judged on the basis of the benefits they provide to a favored class, not to the benefits they produce overall. A policy that increases inequality faster than it diminishes net wealth would be equally desirable, provided it disproportionately benefits the favored class.

Which brings me back around to Bannon’s observation that “two-thirds or three-quarters of CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or East Asia.” Bannon’s response to prosperous pluralism is that we’re “more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” One can debate till dawn whether Bannon’s view is racist (I consider it unequivocally so). But as we move deeper into the era of Trump, we’re seeing the rollout of policies that are deliberately designed to create winners and losers.

It will be important to ask, who are those policies designed to serve? Many policy outcomes may violate the unexamined consensus that “more wealth = more good.” It seems pretty clear to me that senior policy advisors close to Trump simply reject that normative value at the outset. If a policy disproportionately benefits their favored group, it may be judged a “political good” even if it imposes massive costs on disfavored groups.

Couple that with Bannon’s pledge to “deconstruct the administrative state” and you can anticipate policies will be released whose main purpose is to delegitimize or dismantle programs, that may later be revived in a more discriminatory way.

For those inclined to oppose the Trump Administration and its agenda, it’s important to bear in mind the longer time frame. Too often, political criticism appeals to self-evidence – a policy is bad because it will harm people. Many political actors play a longer-term game. To effectively oppose their plans, one has to be aware of their long-term objectives and identify the “soft spots” of the plan where intervention could be effective.

One way to do this would be to target specific low-profile projects (like expanding runways to accommodate increased deportation) that are designed to lay the groundwork for future plans. It is also important to identify and forewarn groups who haven’t been targeted yet, but are already being lined up in the Administration’s crosshairs. To outside observers, every day may seem to bring a new scandal. The Trump Administration is waging a war of attrition on the field of our attention spans. While those controversies are often genuinely important and upsetting, opponents will also have to keep their eyes on the ball. The groundwork for tomorrow’s scandals is already being laid.