Notes midterm elections politics

The Munk Debate On The Rise of Populism

Debate: The Rise of Populism

Steve Bannon (left) David Frum (right)
Steve Bannon (left) David Frum (right)

The Motion

The first question was “will populism replace liberalism in the future of politics?” Seventy-two percent said “no”. The follow-up question that the moderator asked was interesting, “is there a chance you will change your minds after tonight?” but the response to that question by the audience was astonishing. 43 percent of the audience said that they would not change their vote after the debate. But as it turns out, many still did.

Bannon and Frum had an engaging debate ahead of the U.S midterm elections, but things didn’t go so smoothly. At the start of the debate, Bannon was heckled by a female audience member. The moderator called for an roll of applause to sidestep the situation. She didn’t comply and was eventually asked to leave.

The Highlights

Opening Statements

Steve Bannon

In 2008, the elite said that anarchy and chaos would result if there was no bail out. The Soviets and Al Qaeda couldn’t bring U.S to its knees. No one was able to do that but the elite class did it, the financial, corporate, political elite.

Their solution? Create money and bail themselves out. The Federal Reserve balance sheet was 800 billion dollars before the crisis went up to 4.5 Trillion after the bail out. The little guy bore the burden. In the last ten years, if you owned stocks you had the best period in history. It was a disaster for everyone else.

Donald Trump didn’t cause this, neither did the populists. They were a result of the disaster, not a cause of it.

Seventy percent of the American people believed that the country was in decline – in foreign policy, education, healthcare.

Donald Trump turned that around. (audience laughs)

The elite have left a financial wasteland and decoupled from the middle and lower class. That is why Europe is becoming more populist. Economic nationalism doesn’t care about your sex, gender, background. The jobs are coming back. The revolts in Europe and Latin America are picking up. We are at the start of a new political revolution. It’s either populist nationalism, giving the little guy a piece and breaking up crony capitalism, or is it the Jeremy Corbyn brand of populist socialism.

The party at Davos and the elites have blown too many calls. The rise of China, the seven trillion dollars spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, the deregulation of the financial markets that led to the financial crash. Most of you tonight who work in finance know we are headed towards a new crash.

David Frum

Why are we here? what are we trying to achieve? We are here to engage in the most important challenge that liberal democratic institutions have faced since the end of Communism. Bannon is a historic figure, influencing Brazilian and Italian politics, advised Trump and managed to turn his campaign around. Breitbart transformed conservative politics into a new movement. This was all Bannon.

I want to do two things.

First, I want to speak to those who are undecided. Do Trump and Bannon offer me anything? I want to show that It offers you nothing. It doesn’t care about you or respect you.

Second, I want to speak to those of you who resist Trump’s politics. I know how worried and fearful you are. I want to reassure you. This is not the only time democracy has faced thugs and bullies and would-be dictators. This isn’t the first time these people have plucked themselves in as the wave of the future. They were wrong then and are wrong then.

The last group of people I want to speak to. Those who see what Trump’s politics are and are excited. Many people are excited by tearing everything down, by seeing the destruction of everything. I want to say to them, you will lose. You have been winning for five years, but you will lose, you will be on the wrong side of history. Your children will disavow you.

We have a definitional problem. Big words: Liberal, Populist. It’s strange that I’m on the liberal side of this debate. I am a conservative, but both liberals and conservatives want to conserve the liberal heritage. We are trying to conserve a state that does not steal, a media that does not lie, a court that respects all, votes that are available to everyone – even if those counting the votes fear that those who are voting may vote against them.


What is populism? It claims to speak to the people. But it subdivides people. It gives reasons for people to disintegrate. Those people don’t matter, our people do. Trump did this. Said he got fifty two percent of the women’s vote. But not true, it was fifty two percent of white women.

Why will populism fail? At bottom, one reason. This new populism is a scam, a lie, it is nothing. It’s not that so many of its leaders are crooks, although they are. President Trump is a crook, Victor Orban Is a crook, Marie le pen is a crook. Orban is looting Hungary. Le Penn is stealing parliamentary funds, and is funded by Russian money, and Trump is running the most unethical administration in U.S history, enriching himself as he does.


But I mean it in another way. It is a scam in its own terms. trump runs the economy the way he ran his family businesses. He inherited a lot of money, has proceeded to dissipate it, and is telling everyone what a great job he’s been doing. Trump took credit for 250k jobs created in October 2018. But under Obama, there were 26 months where 300k jobs were created. It’s not Donald Trump’s doing. But here is what he is doing.

The biggest trade deficit with China since the great recession.

Illegal immigration that is running faster than in the two years he took office.

Liberal democracy is stronger than it was. It has built the best societies the world has ever seen.


Steve Bannon

This is the oldest trick in the book. Smear the deplorables. Hilary tried this. It didn’t work.

The reason Trump rose is because of the administration you worked in. You keep saying that there are so many thieves in the populist movement, the reason you call them that is because those people you mentioned have been winning. You call it illiberal democracy because Orban is winning with seventy-percent of the vote, Di Maio and Slovini are winning. Trump wins with over 300 electoral votes. (Jeers)

Under Bush, we saw the rise of China. We saw the de-industrialization of the U.S. All the factories left. If you read J.D Vance’s Hillbilly’s Elegy, the great sociological study of the deplorables, you’ll see that the shipment of these industrial jobs correlated with an opioid crisis. They took away people’s self-worth and dignity.

The second was the great decisions and the seven trillion dollars (Brown university research) on their analysis of the cost of the wars that we still haven’t won. And we’re still there. Seven trillion since the last financial debacle. The populist movement is not racist. Obama found it easy to create jobs, because he didn’t know the difference between 800 billion dollars and 4.5 trillion dollars. It’s easy to create jobs when you flood the market with liquidity and destroy a primary Judaeo Christian value of the American family: saving. You cannot save anymore. You don’t have a pension plan. That’s the work of the great elites who see the populists as a bunch of racist xenophobes. But these deplorables are the back bone of our country and of Canada too.

David Frum

I worked under Bush and Bannon voted for Bush twice. I met Bannon when we were working on a Hollywood movie, and he sent me a limo (kindly enough). That’s why I’m surprised to see him become the champion of Populism.


Frum concedes the points Bannon made, about how Liberal Democracy has undermined itself through the wars it has engaged in. But the failures of a good system are not a good reason to turn to an evil one. The populist movement sees the fissures and wants to exploit them, we don’t, we want to fix and renew. The choice is not whether things were handled well. They never have. It is between destruction and renewal, freedom and non-freedom, a society that respects all people, and a society that excludes many people – and makes this suppression the basis of the nation.

Steve Bannon

Fascism looks to worship the state. We are the anti-fascists. We want to deconstruct the state. It is not deregulation, it is taking the leviathan apart bit by bit. Economic nationalism is putting your country first, and not having the maximization of shareholder value, but citizenship value. If populism was so bad, how did we get the new NAFTA deal? The point of NAFTA is to create a geostrategic manufacturing base that will counter East-Asia. And not allow China to game the system through Mexico. The supply chain will start to come back.

David Frum

The way Trump deals with trade is laughable. His son-in-law went on Amazon, found an interesting video by Peter Navarro who has a PhD in Economics but no citations. Now Navarro is responsible for U.S trade. NAFTA was only prevented from being destroyed, but nothing good came out of it. The world is interconnected, the only way to prevail is work together. Trump negotiates by bullying people, not by win-win deals. Even if NAFTA is more beneficial to Canada and Mexico than the U.S, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work together.

The central question is: should human beings compete or cooperate?

Steve Bannon

I’m not behind these movements, I’m only the interconnective tissue. None of these populist leaders want to destroy the E.U, they just want to have sovereign nations. They want to make the EU into a collection of sovereign nations working together. Why, suddenly, is the nation state and nationalism scorned and demonized? People want to have control as citizens and that’s through nation states. Trump gave that back to the American people, even if you ridicule him. The economic recovery did not come from Obama. Obama bailed the elite – socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.

The millennials are like 18th century Russian serfs. They’re not going to own anything, they live in the gig economy, no pension plans or careers. But they’re better fed and in better health. The millennials will see the logic of the populist movement. David, you’re angry because traditional republicans can’t win elections.

David Frum

The markets have just had the worst month since 09. Since the bottom of the recession, 1.2 million manufacturing jobs have been creating. 2/3rds by Obama, and 1/3rd Trump. Trump is a continuation of Obama but with more tariffs and more inflation and higher interest rates. The new financial crisis will come, not because of Bernanke, but because Populism is appealing to emotions and not results or the future. Trump accuses the democrats of wanting to turn the U.S into Venezuela but his policies are like those of Juan Peron’s Argentina. With high tariffs, and high inflation. The U.S is running a trillion-dollar deficit in the coming fiscal year. That’s a bigger deficit than Bush’s in the first Gulf War. The populists feign being the guardians of the future, but the future is on our side. The populists only know how to hate, and hate doesn’t build.

Steve Bannon

This whole thing about hate. Trump supposedly hates Muslims. Where is the first place he went (Saudi)?


The Islamic world reached out to us. The Obama administration was engaged with Iran not the Arab world. The summit in Saudi Arabia wanted to address three question. How do you stop terrorism by cutting off the financing? How does the Arab world come together as one with Israel to stop the expansion of Iran? We must come to some semblance of modernity; how can we do this?

Trump went there, how is he accused of hate?

In 2014, ISIS had 8 million people under slavery. Trump came together with the Muslim world to destroy it. It was the start of a partnership, to stop the expansion of Hezbollah and Iran. Yet Trump is smeared as Islamophobic. It’s the actions that matter. Listen to the signal, not the noise.


The mid-terms are coming up. Trump’s election was being hard on China, and demonizing the media and the elite, how is this strategy not powerful?

david Frum

We’ll see if it’s powerful. But Trump won because he campaigned as the one republican who campaigned for American health insurance. On Dr.Oz he said, “We’re going to come up with health care plans that are so good for the country , and so much less expensive, and is much better” with no detail.


Now these efforts have been a disaster. Trump has blown it up.


If Trump doesn’t maintain both houses, it’s the end. This is in your words, Steve Bannon.

Steve Bannon

This is the beginning, if we lose the house of republicans, Trump’s programs will undoubtedly come to a halt.

Look at Brexit, two years later, they’ve gotten nowhere. Of course, there’s going to be a lot of resistance. You’re going to have to win election after election for this movement to rise, and Trump’s voters understand that.

The entire debacle on healthcare in that first year was 100 percent the republican establishment, they didn’t have an idea on healthcare. and the tax cut – same thing. we were going to start with the border adjustable tax that Ryan has worked for seven years on. in 90 days, that got blown up and we had to do the tax plan we had – of which by the way, I argued in the oval office for 44 percent tax rate of people that make over 5 million dollars a year. And I was blown up by the progressive democrats that were in the administration, the wall-street guys, who forced in the big tax cuts which president Trump has now realized was not actually the best thing to do. That’s why he wrote the middle-class tax cut last week. (Laughter and jeers)

You know, it takes a while. He’s getting his sea-legs. (More laughter)

It doesn’t start on day 1.

David Frum

The best defense of Donald Trump is that the job is just too hard for him.

He looks cruel and bigoted and hateful, and he’s never run a large enterprise or paid his debts, so this is expected. If you are not good at building coalitions and making concessions, you will not succeed.

Steve Bannon

Trump is taking the liquidity out of the market, not flooding the market. He is trying to rejuvenate NATO. The U.S can’t bear the entire burden. It’s a trillion-dollar bill. We can’t afford to do that. Trump is saying that the American security guarantee must stop, we’re not looking for protectorates. We need to see our allies step up. I haven’t seen a bad decision from Trump yet. (Jeers and laughter)

David Frum

Bannon wore the uniform of the U.S and his daughter wears it now. and he descried Trump family’s meeting with agents of the Russian state in Trump tower as borderline treason. You might believe in the US tradition relationship with our traditional allies, but president Trump doesn’t.

Steve Bannon

Trump is trying to save it. He’s saying that people must (NATO countries) put up 2 percent of their GDP. When we stepped in, we put 30 billion just for operational readiness. Trump is more engaged in the Persian gulf, NATO, South-China sea, than any president. We don’t want the kids of the deplorables to die for other countries’ security. But he’s saying that we’re not an imperial power, we’re a revolutionary power.

David Frum

This force that you’re talking about is one third non-white, and not Trump supporters. They get forgotten.

Trump made clear that if it’s up to him, we don’t defend NATO countries – like Estonia. All the parties that you support are funded by Russia, they have sinister connections. Trump doesn’t have his country’s interest at heart.

Steve Bannon

Trump knows that 30-40 percent of the army is African-American. 1.8 million African americans who voted for Obama didn’t for Hilary.

David Frum

If they thought that African Americans would vote for them, they would allow them to and not make it so difficult for them. Black voter turnout went down. Fewer people also voted for Clinton than Kerry, that’s harder to explain, unless you consider that they’re making it harder on black people to vote.


You were a proponent of the travel ban against Muslims.

Steve Bannon

The one upheld by the Supreme court? That travel ban?


You’ve been involved in rallies that call democrats evil and unamerican. Do you not think that political violence and white supremist terror hasn’t resulted from that?

Steve Bannon

No, there is no correlation between the rhetoric of our movement and violence. The first individual was mentally in, and the other guy thought trump was too pro-Israel. The rhetoric on the left is just as bad, the opposition party media will not report it.

I made a film, Trump at War. the first five minutes is a prologue, I took on Lemon’s greatest hits. It’s not that Trump’s a racist, you’re a racist. then I put a footage of Antifa beating up people with red caps. The left media never talk about Antifa. Don’t tell me that people like Hilary Clinton and Eric Holder, who said if they go low kick ‘em. The violence by the democratic left is far worse than our movement.

David Frum

Bannon previously said we must differentiate between the signal and noise of the president. I wrote for a president, and what a president says is what a president does.

I am not saying Trump is accountable for that crime in Pittsburgh. It’s what he didn’t do decently afterwards. He couldn’t find words. That’s a personal failing though.

But the pipe bomb was by someone who got obsessed with trump in 2016, and all targets were trump’s opponents.

Steve Bannon

Trump never made them targets.

David Frum

There are disturbed people in the U.S, presidents set the tone and give permission.

Steve Bannon

This is not about George Soros being Jewish (not being targeted for that reason), it’s not about the illuminati, or the free masons, or the protocols or the elders of Zion. The party of Davos. There’s no hidden conspiracy, it’s in your face. Look at the anonymous op-ed that was proud of the republican who said, “we’re the steady state.” The establishment consider us clowns, an island of misfit toys. They wanted to destroy Trump since the day he won. They rejected him.

Donald Trump is a transformative historical figure. It’s what he’s doing from a legislative point of view. The left know they need to stop him, they know how influential he will be.

Closing Statements

David Frum

If Trump and the republicans lose, it’s not because of the left or the ANTIFA. Trump will lose because the people (especially women) who voted republican historically are going to say, “enough, this is not me.”

And the populist movements across Europe never get majority, they get 1/3rd of the vote. They manipulate media and take over courts to exert power in anti-democratic ways. That’s what Trump is doing in the U.S.

Populism is not popular, it is subdividing the nation. We are here to talk about where we are going in the future. The forces that prevailed in the worse conditions of the 1940’s will prevail today. future belongs to people who will cherish not want to destroy the future.

It is dealing with environmental challenges, social challenges, and equality. We should build a world of mutual respect, not domination by others.

Steve Bannon

That was Very good David, and irrelevant. Judge trump by his actions, hold him accountable. But it’s the little guy against the elites. The future will obviously belong to populism, either left-wing or right-wring. It’s going to be about deconstructing the state and opening up the power of capitalism or more state intervention? That is going to be the future. The resistance will be Bernie sanders and co.

Look beyond the noise. We will bring in the African American vote. a third of Hispanics agree with Trumps’ border policies.

Trump is a very imperfect instrument. I can understand David’s frustration and angst as one of the senior administrators under Bush.

Look at the people that ran against Trump In 2016, it was the strongest field in the history of the republican party. Trump ripped through them because he talked about trade, the radical idea of Free Trade, particularly when you’re going against a totalitarian mercantilist society like China. He talked about the de-industrialization of this country. He talked about what mattered. That’s why people voted for him. During the election, he was the tribune of the people and she was the guardian of a corrupt and incompetent elite.

The revolution, civil war, great depression, world war two. This is the fourth turning. America is not an idea, it is a nation. our strength is the deplorables, not the constitution. They’re not racist xenophobes, and they will lead us through the great turmoil to come.


The audience changed their vote from 72 percent that said “no” to the motion “the future of politics is populist.” After the debate, 57 percent said “yes” and 43 percent said “no.”

But after the debate, the organizers posted that the votes had been wrongly tallied. A link to the post. 

The Wrong Vote
The Wrong Vote

There was no change in the tally. The debate ended in a draw.

Bannon’s argument was that the frivolousness with which money has been wasted by the U.S government over the years has led to populism. The establishment’s involvement in countless wars, and the financial collapse of 2008 are realities that were hard to ignore by people, even by the vocally anti-Bannon audience. Restoring nationalistic sentiment and returning to people their lost voice in the face of globalism, is a sentiment that resonated with the disenfranchised “deplorables.” Further, enforcing fair trade agreements with China, who was not abiding by the rules, and getting NATO nations to step up their involvement, were major factors that resulted in Trump’s 2016 victory.

Frum’s argument was that it was wrong to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We know that governments have failed in the past, but that’s expected. Governments have always failed, but that doesn’t negate the marked progress that has been made. The financial system works despite its flaws. While inequality has gone up, poverty rates have gone down over time. People might now own less and face higher uncertainty, but they also live in a world with more possibility.

Populism fragments societies and disrupts peace and progress. It breeds hatred among people, who become more interested in exploitation than cooperation. Its leaders are not looking for solutions, they’re anarchists, and they pose the greatest challenge to liberalism since communism. The promises that were made prior to the elections were not delivered on after the elections. And as usual in politics, his opponent found many scapegoats.

It was a good debate, and while Frum had many solid points throughout, Bannon was impressively unfazed throughout. There was one moment, where instead of jeers or laughter, a feint applause was heard. He turned to the crowd and cheekily remarked, “Thanks, mom.” He got a big reaction.

Bannon told a compelling story and he supported it with facts. He gradually got the audience to listen rather than heckle him as the debate went on. Many seemed to realize that despite Bannon’s many questionable statements and his blatant disregard of a truly worrying reality, his arguments were coherent and logical. But Frum outlined the problems of populism clearly and the reactions that are caused by anger and fear, are rarely ones that will eventuate in the right long-term choices.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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