Trump advisor Steve Bannon didn't set off too many alarm bells in August when a Daily Beast article quoted him self-describing himself as a "Leninist" who wanted to topple and smash the state and the establishment.
But since Trump's inauguration, Bannon's comments and characterization of the American political, corporate, and media establishment have become flash points. His speech at the CPAC conference in suburban Washington, D.C. Thursday, finally provided a better understanding of what he would actually like President Trump to accomplish.
In short, Bannon is just the latest and most potent critic of the political class. What's set him apart is the fact that he's turning that criticism into action. And it's making a lot of people very nervous.
Before we define just who makes up that political class and what it allegedly does, it's important to note the enormous jump Bannon has made into the spotlight. Since the election, he's become the latest in a long line of close presidential advisors or family members who have been demonized as Rasputin-like figures with undue access and influence over the president.
For President Obama, that figure was Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. For President George W. Bush, it was Vice President Cheney. For President Clinton, it was Hillary. President Kennedy was alternatively accused of listening too much to his father Joe and/or younger brother Bobby. You get the point.
But unlike any of those other demonized "powers behind the throne" of the past, Bannon has no experience as an elected official or even working for one. That's what made his past and present comments about disdain for the established government structure that much more believable and terrifying to many people.
So what and whom does Bannon disdain, really? At CPAC Bannon described the news media as a foe but basically implicated others like corporations and globalists as being the enemies of President Trump's "economic nationalist agenda."
That message clarified the administration's priorities and underscored growing signs that the real divide in America is between average citizens and the political class. In other words, the most serious divide in America may not be the classic Republican vs. Democrat/conservative vs. liberal schism we've all accepted for so many decades. The real dichotomy in this country may be between the voters and many of the inaccurately-named "public servants" who work and act without any real public oversight.
The best expert to define the political class and how much it is truly at odds with the rest of us is former pollster and media businessman Scott Rasmussen. In his 2012 book, "The People's Money," he detailed the many ways official Washington agencies and bureaucracies work against the public's desires regardless of political affiliation. Rasmussen also was among the first to note that the 2016 presidential election became a referendum against that establishment.
The argument Rasmussen and others have articulated for years pinpoints so many of the issues the Trump administration has addressed right away. Let's list some of them and put them in that context:
1) Rescinding TPP
Candidate and now President Trump kept talking about how the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal was a "bad deal" for American workers and companies. But even if it were a "good deal," it's important to note TPP and NAFTA are two examples of the political class making major decisions without any or much input from the public. And in the case of TPP, there are still several aspects of the deal that are a virtual secret. Global trade deals are almost always negotiated in secret by career bureaucrats. When the domestic public is kept so in the dark about these kinds of deals, Bannon's accusations of being up against "globalist" enemies starts to have persuasive power.
2) Immigration orders
The polls have been mixed about the Trump administration's immigration and travel ban against people from seven Muslim countries with undue ties to terrorism. But the administration believes it is acting not just for the good of the American public, but with its strong approval. The same is true for building a stronger border wall and boosting deportation efforts against any illegal immigrants who commit any crimes.
3) Repealing Obamacare
Support for the Affordable Care Act has spiked in recent weeks, but no national poll has ever put support for Obamacare at the crucial 50 percent level. Think of that; a law that affects us in the most personal of possible ways never even had half the nation's support. In fact, its passage was the main reason for the massive carnage the Democrats who backed it suffered in the 2010, 2014, and 2016 elections. Obamacare is the epitome of political class acting without popular support.
4) Transgender rights
America is a much more compassionate and inclusive society than the news media and many foreigners give it credit for. But the Obama administration's move to punish states that don't provide transgender-friendly bathrooms in schools and other public buildings was clearly a bridge too far. How many PTAs in the U.S. would vote in favor of spending the money to build pr designate a transgender bathroom in their elementary school? How many parents would want access to their kids' high school gym locker rooms to be up to whatever gender a given high school student is identifying as that day? Again, you can argue offering these protections to transgender people is the "right thing to do," but a government bureaucratic minority making that decision for the entire country without ballot box or even judicial approval smacks of political class overreach.
5) Nominating Judge Gorsuch
And that dovetails nicely to perhaps the most potentially potent anti-political class/smash the establishment/economic nationalism Trump administration move of all. The nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court may seem like a no-brainer gift to the conservative Republican base. To some extent it is that, but there were several other conservative-friendly judges on the Trump short list. What really distinguishes Gorsuch is he is a decided and clear opponent of bureaucratic overreach. His written decision in a case from just this past August addressed the so-called "Chevron" doctrine that allows federal agencies to make unilateral decisions and carry out enforcement on the private sector. Gorsuch's concurring opinion in Gutierez-Brizuela v. Lynch, even sounded very Bannonesque here:
"There's an elephant in the room with us today. We have studiously attempted to work our way around it and even left it unremarked. But the fact is... executive bureaucracies (are permitted) to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers' design. Maybe the time has come to face the behemoth."
And it should be noted that while President Trump has publicly praised the late Justice Antonin Scalia so many times, he decided to nominate Gorsuch to replace Scalia when the one issue Gorsuch most differed with Scalia over was the Chevron doctrine.
So sure, when it comes to the transgender rights and Obamacare issues, it's easy to see President Trump and Bannon acting along those old Republican vs. Democrat lines. But look closer and you see the one enduring rule in everything the administration has done so far is really an assault on the non-partisan political establishment.
Republicans didn't want a repeal of TPP. Republicans didn't make any public issue about Justice Scalia supporting Chevron. And Republicans famously had abandoned talking about illegal immigration as much of an issue before Donald Trump made it a central theme of his campaign. This is the real reason why so many career Republicans from Senator John McCain to GOP commentator William Kristol remain so resistant to Trump. In fact, Kristol went so far as to tweet that he prefers the "deep state to the Trump state":
And there will be more "smashing" of the political class, or at least attempts to do so, to come. The best example of that would be simple tax reform with fewer or no loopholes. Republicans have said they support that for decades, but given the chance to do it for six years with a GOP Congress and a Republican President in the White House from 2001-2007, that so-called desire never got anywhere. And just Friday, President Trump signed a new executive order calling for each federal agency to establish task forces to identify which of their regulations are "burdensome to the economy."
Whether the White House delivers on those tax and regulatory promises or is able to successfully follow through on the other issues listed above is obviously something we don't know right now.
But just taking on the establishment, whether it's government bureaucracies or the news media, is something that speaks to that large non-political class segment of America. Perhaps you've noticed that President Trump has started to speak about how all he's doing is representing what the American people want.
And after the immigration orders, the rescinding of the transgender bathroom rules, etc. the question about this smashing of the state can no longer be: "Are these guys really serious?"
No one can legitimately be still asking that question. The only real question to ask now is how long the change-starved public will continue to want this kind of change and how much the establishment will succeed in getting the public to change its mind and decide that it supports some of these bureaucratic realities.
Because as with all "smashings," there will be collateral damage that will make some non-political class people suffer. The millions of potential "Obamacare orphans" who may suddenly lose coverage is one major example.
But if the longstanding dislike of official Washington that preceded President Trump and Steve Bannon endures, much of the new White House's agenda will be popular despite any personal dislike for both the president and Bannon as individuals. Perhaps Bannon is taking a cue from that same political class when he figures he and the president don't need to be liked in order to get things done.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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