Steve Bannon, the ethno-nationalist former head of right-wing media outlet Breitbart, is “emerging as the most powerful person in the White House,” Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman noted on Wednesday. “That’s not the problem; somebody has to occupy that perch. The problem is what Bannon wants to do with it.” What Bannon wants to do, as Donald Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, is to persuade the president to adopt and execute his far-right ideological vision. This might prove easy enough, but not for the reasons usually given.
Prior to Bannon’s ascension, many expected other figures—Vice President Mike Pence or Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—to be the dominant influence in the new administration. While Pence likely had a say in promoting socially conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to be Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Bannon’s hand can be seen in many early Trump moves, such as the dark “America First” inaugural address (Bannon and fellow ethno-nationalist Stephen Miller reportedly co-wrote the speech), the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, and last week’s executive order on immigration, which was the first step in fulfilling Trump’s promise of a Muslim ban. Another order re-organized the National Security Council to allow Bannon to take a leading role in advising Trump on foreign policy while sidelining the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence.
“If there was any question about who is largely in charge of national security behind the scenes at the White House, the answer is becoming increasingly clear: Steve Bannon,” Foreign Policy reported. “Even before he was given a formal seat on the National Security Council’s ‘principals committee’ this weekend by President Donald Trump, Bannon was calling the shots and doing so with little to no input from the National Security Council staff, according to an intelligence official who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution.”
Under Bannon’s influence, the Trump administration is shaping up to be much more ideologically extreme than many people were expecting. “[Bannon] has spectacularly grand ambitions, to transform our country and its place in the world,” Waldman wrote. “His is an ethno-nationalist vision in which America leads a clash of civilizations, and there’s little reason to think he’d be at all displeased if that clash engulfed the entire globe. There’s also little reason to think that Donald Trump would mind.” The implication here is that Trump is merely an empty vessel for Bannon’s far-right ideology. That’s not quite the case. Rather, the two men share several core beliefs, the only difference being that Trump’s beliefs aren’t part of some broader, coherent ideology. But that may well change.
On meeting Trump for the first time in November, Barack Obama said, “I don’t think he’s ideological. I think ultimately, he is pragmatic.” The outgoing president was articulating a widespread hope that the fiery Trump of the campaign trail was just for show. This theory is now discredited, as Trump has made clear he intends to keep many of his most hardline promises, including the border wall and the Muslim ban.
The idea that Trump is a pragmatist is not without foundation. He’s not a typical ideologue. He doesn’t think in terms of ideas or doctrines, and indeed all evidence suggests he’s incapable of abstract thought. Unlike previous presidents such as Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, or Obama, Trump is not much of a reader; he reportedly does not read books at all. Unlike Ronald Reagan, Trump has no long-term relationship with the conservative political movement and its network of magazines and think tanks. He’s an instinctive politician, and very flexible on issues that many people consider crucial, hence his flip-flops on abortion (he was pro-choice for most of his life, and became anti-choice to satisfy the Republican Party) and health care (he’s praised universal health care, but now supports Paul Ryan’s gutting of the system).
But Trump’s lack of real passion on most issues hides his consistency on a few crucial ones: He’s long been a protectionist and foreign policy unilateralist. He’s also been a sort of unthinking racist. The Post’s Waldman spelled out these convictions quite convincingly:
If you look back on the last few decades of Trump’s statements on public matters, a few things stand out. First, there’s his consistent belief that America is being taken advantage of and bested by crafty foreigners; you’ll notice that whenever Trump talks about trade or foreign affairs, he puts it in personal terms of physical domination, shame, and humiliation. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” he says. When another country sells more of its products to our consumers than we sell to theirs or takes a military action we don’t like, Trump says, “They’re laughing at us.”
Second, there’s a clear strain of racism in Trump’s ideas, from his insistence (to this day!) that the exonerated “Central Park Five” were guilty, to his portrayal of areas with large numbers of African-Americans as hellholes of violence and misery, to his original proposal for “a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” — which he made eight months before bringing Bannon on as CEO of his campaign.
As it happens, these issues overlap neatly with paleo-conservatism, a fringe tradition on the American right and precursor to today’s alt-right. Unlike other likeminded Republican politicians, Trump has had no real contact with the thinkers on the right. Nixon praised Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, while Reagan repeatedly paid homage to William F. Buckley and other intellectuals in the National Review circle. Trump, by contrast, is an idiot savant who apparently came up with a rudimentary form of paleo-conservatism on his own, without being aware of the deeper thinkers that shared his disturbing worldview.
But it is precisely Trump’s lack of familiarity with the conservative intellectual landscape that gave Bannon the opportunity to be so influential. When Trump first started campaigning, he had a notable lack of allies on the right. He was widely disdained by magazines like National Review and the Weekly Standard, and by conservative national security experts and many elected Republicans. Even after he won the GOP nomination, he remained distrusted by many in his party on issues like trade and relations with Russia. Trump needed all the allies he could find, and in Bannon he found someone who shared his basic worldview and could articulate it. When Bannon took over the Trump campaign as CEO, Trump gave up his free-flowing digressive campaign rants and instead offered much more coherent “America First” speeches, which clearly came from Bannon and Miller.
Bannon likes to compare himself to political figures who exercise power secretly, behind the throne. “Darkness is good,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan.” Bannon has also compared himself to Thomas Cromwell, the henchman who carried out some of the most gruesome orders of King Henry VIII in Tudor England. He certainly resembles Cromwell in being an éminence grise, a shadowy advisor whose power derives from sharing the same basic outlook as his lord and master. Trump has a genuine belief in his “America First” agenda, and he has very few people he can trust to carry it out. Bannon, for now, appears to be the person Trump trusts most, which makes the chief strategist the second most powerful person in the White House.
But this also poses a risk for Bannon. There’s a widespread expectation that Trump will be an Apprentice president, telling staffers “you’re fired” left and right. (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for one, is hoping that Trump will eventually purge his current staff.) Trump, who is nothing if not unpredictable, could also abandon his “American First” dreams—whether in the face of popular opposition, or due to disappointment with the results—and Bannon’s days as the power behind the throne will end. As Cromwell learned, no one who serves a king can expect loyalty in return: Henry VIII had his courier beheaded.
The opposite looks just as possible, though: that Trump begins to truly believe in Bannon’s ideological worldview. If the glue that holds their relationship together is shared core beliefs, then the president has every reason to hold on to Bannon till the bitter end. Trump takes much pride in the fact that he’s no ordinary politician, that he’s not beholden to the Republican Party, that he’s inspired “a movement.” If that’s so, then Trump needs Bannon, because Bannon is best equipped to take Trump’s inchoate, rudimentary instincts and turn them into a coherent political philosophy. The late Andrew Breitbart famously praised Bannon as the “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party.” But now that Bannon is in the White House, the more apt Nazi comparison would be to Joseph Goebbels, the ideologist and propagandist tasked with the essential work of giving ideological coherence to his leader’s rants and blabber.
Goebbels was never fired, nor did he quit. He stayed by Adolph Hitler’s side until the very end.