Former chief strategist and campaign manager Steve Bannon's departure from the Trump White House surely does not mean an end to the demagogic racial politics in which Donald Trump has trafficked for decades.
It does, however, seem to mark the final eclipse of the notion that Trump would move beyond demagoguery and construct a vision of "nationalist" economic policy that would differ in a meaningful way from standard-issue pro-business Republicanism. Bannon, on his way out the door, appeared serious about this idea — phoning up progressive magazine editor Robert Kuttner to try to find common ground on trade policy and explain that "to me, the economic war with China is everything."
Kuttner's view of why this is unworkable stems from skepticism that "possible convergence of views on China trade might somehow paper over the political and moral chasm on white nationalism."
Julius Krein, who tried to position himself as a rare pro-Trump intellectual who favored the then-candidate's brand of nationalist politics during the 2016 campaign, gave up the ghost in a New York Times op-ed last week. He denounced "never-ending chaos" inside the administration and "unforced errors," arguing that Trump's "only talent appears to be creating grotesque media frenzies — just as all his critics said."
Ross Douthat as early as May flagged indications that Trump "never really believed in Trumpism himself." As Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry wrote that same month, the president certainly never seems to have taken the time to flesh out what "a Trumpist philosophy" that would feature skepticism of trade, immigration, and foreign intervention, a moderate social conservatism, and support for government activism to benefit the working class" would look like in details.
The reality, however, is that "economic nationalism" has grave flaws as an ideology beyond Trump's racism, lack of policy knowledge, and personal indiscipline. The idea that the United States as a whole is locked in zero-sum economic competition with other countries or that average Americans could become wealthier at the expense of foreigners is simply wrong.
At best, it's an analytical error born of bias or confusion about relative versus absolute living standards. At worst, it's a con job — an effort to distract middle- and working-class Americans from very real questions about the domestic distribution of economic resources by casting aspersions on foreigners.