STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Senator Jeff Flake's dramatic speech yesterday delivered two messages. One is that a conservative Republican said he could not tolerate President Trump. The other message was this. Jeff Flake didn't think he could win re-election. He was facing a primary challenge in Arizona and felt he would lose on the issues.
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JEFF FLAKE: If I could run the kind of race I'd like to run and believe I could win a Republican primary, I might go forward. I'm a traditional Republican - limited government, economic freedom, free trade, pro-immigration. And that's a very narrow path right now in a Republican primary.
INSKEEP: Trade and immigration - two issues where President Trump has been working to shift the Republican Party. These are signature issues for Steve Bannon, Trump's onetime adviser who's now devoted to defeating Republicans like Flake. Just the other day, Bannon was in Arizona campaigning for Flake's primary opponent.
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STEVE BANNON: It's an open revolt, and it should be. These people hold you in total contempt. When they attack a Donald Trump and a Dr. Kelli Ward, it's not Donald Trump and Kelli Ward they're trying to shut up. It's you they're trying to shut up. They think that you're a group of morons.
INSKEEP: Kelli Ward - that's Flake's primary opponent. Now, we called two people who've been talking with Steve Bannon. Chris Buskirk runs the publication American Greatness and is a friend of Bannon. Robert Kuttner co-edits The American Prospect, which is on the political left, but Bannon has called him to talk from time to time. We hear Kuttner first on Bannon's efforts to reshape the party.
ROBERT KUTTNER: If you take somebody like Roy Moore, who Bannon helped get elected...
INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, he won a primary in Alabama and could be headed for a Senate seat.
INSKEEP: Go on.
KUTTNER: So he's kind of the model of who Bannon is talking about, the sort of person he's going to run against other incumbent Republicans. Now, he's very much a traditional-values conservative, maybe a racial conservative, too, or even a white nationalist. But he doesn't have a populist bone in his body, if by populism you mean economic nationalism, you mean going against the corporate agenda, you mean tax cuts for regular people rather than for billionaires.
And if you look at Trump's cabinet, it's the most billionaire-laden cabinet in the history of the country. And so the tightrope act that Bannon is trying to pull off is really very tricky because there just aren't enough socially conservative Republican candidates out there who are also economic nationalists in any meaningful sense other than cheap symbolism.
INSKEEP: Chris Buskirk, do you think Steve Bannon is having trouble finding Republican candidates to support who really believe what he seems to believe?
CHRIS BUSKIRK: I think that there is an element of truth to that because I think this is an evolving category. We're seeing, right now, the Republican Party and the American right changing, trying to get back, really, to its pre-World-War-II roots, which was to say that we believe in a - say, a strong manufacturing base here in this country. We believe that maybe tariffs can be a good thing sometimes if it leads to a higher employment, to higher wages for American workers.
Economic nationalism is just something that hasn't been talked about a lot. So when you look at some of the candidates out there - well, let's take a Kelli Ward. If you go back 10 years ago and say, well, is Kelli Ward talking about this? Well, no. But is she talking about it now? The answer is yes, and that's because people on the right are waking up to the need for a change in policy.
KUTTNER: Let me say something about manufacturing, if I may.
KUTTNER: Let's say we agree that we need to bring back strong manufacturing in the United States. You would have to get much, much more aggressive about thwarting China's industrial policy, which is sort of pillaging the heart of American manufacturing. Now, where's Bannon on that?
Well, there, the one face of the Trump administration - Bannon and Lighthizer, the special trade representative - bumps into the other face - Mnuchin and Cohn, Goldman Sachs. So I think the two contradictory faces of the Trump administration and the two contradictory faces of Mr. Steve Bannon bump into each other and cancel each other out.
BUSKIRK: I think that Bob is right about that. I think that there is a conflict inside the Trump administration what - where you do have the Lighthizer-Bannon wing of the Republican Party on the one hand, and you do have this Goldman wing on the other. That is not a conflict that was put in place by Trump on purpose. That is a conflict that is at the heart and soul of what the debate inside the Republican Party is all about right now. It's, which way do we go?
KUTTNER: And I would agree with that. But if you blow up that alliance, you have even less of a majority party because that's the politics that's worked for the Republicans since Reagan. I guess the other thing I wanted to say was that if you unpack what economic nationalism really means and drill down below the level of slogan, there's really no there there in terms of what Republicans are willing to promote because they're against most of the instruments that would create decent blue-collar jobs, bring back manufacturing, have an infrastructure program. You're not going get anything like a majority of Republicans supporting that.
BUSKIRK: Yeah, I don't know about - I think that's evolving. I really do. I think there's a change going on on the right on some of those issues. I think that the old consensus on sort of, you know, anything labeled free trade is good - I just think that's going away.
INSKEEP: How powerful do each of you believe Bannon to be?
KUTTNER: I think Trump is scared of him. I get the sense from Bannon that they still talk, even though Bannon feels free to kick him in the shins when it's expedient. But I think there's worry on his part - Trump's part.
INSKEEP: Chris Buskirk?
BUSKIRK: Yeah, I think - I don't know how to quantify how powerful he is, but I can put it this way. I think Steve Bannon speaks for sort of where the center of the Republican base is at this moment, and that is a place where - realizing that some of the old Republican catechism just doesn't work.
INSKEEP: Where does race and racism, if you will, fit in when you think about Bannon and his objectives?
BUSKIRK: I don't think it plays a role at all. Bannon has said over and over again that he is first and foremost an economic nationalist. That's the way he sees the world. I think that's the way the president sees the world, which is, what's good for America? And I just don't think they think in the categories that the left so often thinks in, which is sort of race, gender, you know, the sort of - the whole litany of identity politics, when they look at the world around them.
KUTTNER: Well, I would disagree. I mean, I - it's obvious that Trump is playing to racial resentments on the part of white people, particularly downwardly mobile white people who've been taking it on the chin for the past 40 years.
There's a kind of good-cop-bad-cop act going on here where people who profess to be more high-minded say, oh, no, we're talking about American greatness, we're talking about manufacturing, and if - you know, if somebody else out there is talking about racism, well, that's them, it's not us.
INSKEEP: Chris Buskirk, I'll give you the last word.
BUSKIRK: One thing that Bannon has been very clear about is this - is that the first party that gets to a politics of we, meaning an identity politics that talks about American citizenship first, regardless of race, is the one that wins. I think that's what he's working on.
INSKEEP: Chris Buskirk and Robert Kuttner, thanks to you both.
KUTTNER: Thanks for having us.
BUSKIRK: Thanks, Steve.
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INSKEEP: Two men from right and left who've talked to Steve Bannon - Chris Buskirk runs the publication American Greatness. Robert Kuttner co-edits The American Prospect. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.