Explaining Trump I — Steve Bannon, Consigliere

To understand Trumpism, you have to know who Steve Bannon is and what he believes. In an interview published in the The Hollywood Reporter in November after the election he is quoted as saying two things that jump out at me and beg to be unpacked and explained. The quotes are, 1) “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist,” and 2) “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia.”

Steve Bannnon, Senior aide to President Trump and proud economic nationalist

He proudly wears the nationalist label and consciously disparages economic globalists. Both are incredibly interesting. In the 21st century, educated Westerners aren’t supposed to promote nationalism. It is generally accepted that nationalism is a bad thing that led to the twentieth-century wars in Europe. Since the end of WW II, Westerners could be patriotic but not nationalistic.

This leads to the other quote about globalists. This is the most baffling for me. The American government was focused exclusively on getting the world to accept free-market capitalism and liberal political institutions. This is what the Cold War was all about. This is why we went to war in Korea and Vietnam (and, illegally, in Cambodia) and what Nixon’s detente with China was all about. Let’s not forget, America won the Cold War.

I live in Hanoi, Vietnam which is a modern communist nation. I can buy Coca-Cola, Pepsi, 7-Up and eat at Burger King, KFC, Subway, Dairy Queen and Domino’s. More than 90% of the population in the country uses mobile technology and the youth are connected to the outside world. America lost the battle in 1975 but free-market capitalism won the war. To the extent that capitalism and some form of representative government go hand-in-hand, a model of government has been institutionalized here. It is a form of illiberal democracy, with only one political party it can’t be anything but illiberal. However, the stated purpose of what Americans call the Vietnam War was to bring the American way of life to Southeast Asia. It has been a tremendous success.

Yet, this very success makes Bannon upset. It doesn’t make sense. We went to war to bring consumerism and governmental transparency. One is doing far better than the other, but both exist. When the Vietnamese leadership decided in 1986 to institute Đổi Mới, they effectively said they recognized that Western capital culture was inevitable. One-party politics is not like Western liberalism and pluralism but there are politics in this country. People are not afraid of going to prison for ‘re-education.’ That era has passed. Formoso happened and people took to the streets and got arrested and Facebook was blocked but the rallying cry “tôi chọn cá” (I choose fish) can be found on avatars and people post critical comments. The startup community worked with the VN government and effectively blocked Article 292 which would have created a lot of legal issues for online businesses. People circulated a petition, the television news programs aired stories critical of the law and a genuine political debate was occurring in the Public Sphere. I am not saying it is like a pluralist representative democracy, but there is a space for politics.

So, what is Bannon’s objective? Since the end of the 1940’s, America has been most interested in spreading the American way of life and America won. Even China in 2017 is more like America than the China of 1977, even with the “Great Firewall” locking out thought and competition.

Why does he find it so aggrieving that America won the Cold War and brought Western consumerism to Asia? This is what America wanted. Liberals don’t like the spread the Western culture because it is cultural imperialism but Bannon feels that it is a zero-sum game where the Asians got a middle-class and Americans got screwed. Again, the baffling thing is that America won. We wanted Southeast Asians to have American consumer lives and that is what has happened. Why does this make him so mad? What does he want in its place?

I wish I knew the answers. I have zero insight into what the goal is.

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