Wednesday 20 September 2017

Bannon's new world order: 'alt-right' champion is using Trump to turn his ideology into US policy

US president's strategist likens himself to Henry VIII's Cromwell, write Frances Stead Sellers and David A Fahrenthold

Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In November 2015, Stephen Bannon - then the executive chairman of Breitbart News - was hosting a satellite radio show. His guest was Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke, who opposed President Barack Obama's plan to resettle some Syrian refugees in the United States.

"We need to put a stop on refugees until we can vet," Mr Zinke said. Mr Bannon cut him off. "Why even let 'em in?" he asked.

Steve Bannon with Donald Trump
Steve Bannon with Donald Trump

Mr Bannon said vetting refugees from Muslim-majority countries would cost money and time. "Can't that money be used in the United States?" he said. "Should we just take a pause and a hiatus for a number of years on any influx from that area of the world?"

In the years before Mr Bannon grabbed the world's attention as President Donald Trump's chief White House strategist, he was developing and articulating a fiery populist vision for remaking the United States and its role in the world.

Mr Bannon's past statements, aired primarily on Breitbart and other conservative platforms, serve as a road map for the controversial agenda that has shaken the global order during Mr Trump's first two weeks in office.

Now at the centre of power in the White House, Mr Bannon is moving quickly to turn his ideas into policy, helping direct the biggest decisions of Trump's administration: the withdrawal from a major trade pact; a ban on all visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries; and - in an echo of that conversation with Zinke, who is now Mr Trump's nominee for interior secretary - there was a temporary ban on all new refugees.

The result has been intense fury from Democrats, discomfort among many Republicans, and a growing sense of unease in the world that Mr Trump intends to undermine an America-centred world that has lasted 70 years. This sense of turmoil, welcomed by many Trump supporters as proof the new president is following through on his vow to jolt Washington, reflects the sort of transformation Mr Bannon has long called for.

That worldview, which Mr Bannon laid out in interviews and speeches over the past several years, hinges largely on his belief in American "sovereignty".

Mr Bannon said countries should protect their citizens and their essence by reducing immigration, legal and illegal, and pulling back from multinational agreements.

At the same time, Mr Bannon was concerned the US and the "Judeo-Christian West" were in a war against an expansionist Islamic ideology - but they were losing the war by not recognising what it was. Mr Bannon said this fight was so important, it was worth overlooking differences with countries like Russia.

It is not yet clear how far Mr Bannon will be able to go to enact his agenda. But his worldview calls for bigger changes than those already made.

The 62-year-old is a former Navy officer and Goldman Sachs banker who made a fortune after he acquired a share of the royalties from a fledgling TV show called 'Seinfeld'.

At Breitbart, Mr Bannon cemented his role as a champion of the alt-right, the neo-Nazi anti-globalism movement.

He also forged a rapport with Mr Trump, interviewing the businessman-candidate on his show and then, in August 2016, joining the campaign as chief executive.

Now, Mr Bannon has become one of the most powerful men in America.

He has compared himself to a powerful aide to England's Henry VIII - an aide who helped engineer a world-shaking move of his era, the split of the Church of England from the Catholic Church. "I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors," Mr Bannon told the 'Hollywood Reporter'.

Mr Bannon's worldview becomes apparent in a review of radio interviews he conducted while hosting a Breitbart radio talk show, as well as speeches and interviews he has given since 2014.

In his public statements, Mr Bannon espoused a basic idea that Mr Trump would later seize as the centrepiece of his campaign. While others saw the world rebounding from the financial crisis of 2008, Mr Bannon just saw it becoming more divided by class.

The elites that had caused the crisis - or, at least, failed to stop it - were now rising higher. Everyone else was being left behind.

"The middle class, the working men and women in the world...are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos," Mr Bannon said in a 2014 speech to a conference at the Vatican in a recording obtained by BuzzFeed. Davos is a Swiss ski resort that hosts an annual conclave of wealthy and powerful people.

What he wanted, he said again and again, was "sovereignty". Both in the US and in its traditional allies in Western Europe.

On one of the first Breitbart radio shows, in early November 2015, Mr Bannon praised the growing movement in Britain to exit the European Union. He said the British had joined the EU merely as a trading federation but that it had grown into a force that had stripped Britons of sovereignty "in every aspect important to their own life".

He has been supportive of similar movements in other European countries to pull out of the union. Mr Trump has echoed those sentiments in his first few days as president.

It is a remarkable shift in US policy. After decades of building multinational alliances as a guarantee of peace, now the White House has indicated it may undermine them.

On a March 2016 episode, Mr Bannon said restoring sovereignty meant reducing immigration. In his radio shows, he criticised federal H-1B visa programmes that permit US companies to fill technical positions with workers from overseas.

"Engineering schools," Bannon said, "are all full of people from South Asia, and East Asia...they've come in here to take these jobs."

He said American students "can't get engineering degrees; they can't get into these graduate schools because they are all foreign students. When they come out, they can't get a job".

"Don't we have a problem with legal immigration?" asked Mr Bannon repeatedly.

In another show, Mr Bannon had complained to Mr Trump that so many Silicon Valley chief executives were South Asian or Asian. This was a rare time when Mr Trump - normally receptive to Mr Bannon's ideas on-air - pushed back. "I still want people to come in," Mr Trump said. "But I want them to go through the process."

So far, Mr Trump has made no changes to the high-skilled visa programme. This week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the Trump administration may re-examine the programme.

Even as Mr Bannon was calling for a general retreat from multinational alliances, however, he was warning of the need for a new alliance - involving only a subset of the world's countries. The "Judeo-Christian West" was at war, he said, but didn't seem to understand it yet.

'There is a major war brewing, a war that's already global," Mr Bannon said at the Vatican in 2014, at a time when Isil was gaining territory. "Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is - and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it - will be a day where you will rue that we didn't act."

Mr Bannon has been clear that this war should take priority over other rivalries and worries, including tensions with Russia.

"I'm not saying we can put [Russia] on a back burner - but we have to deal with first things first," he said.

If Mr Bannon succeeds, his own comparison, to England's Thomas Cromwell, might be apt - to a point.

"The analogy - if it's going to work - is that Bannon has his own agenda, which he will try to use Trump for, without his master always noticing," said Diarmaid MacCulloch, a professor of history at Oxford University.

But Cromwell was later executed, after Henry VIII turned against him. For a man like that, Prof MacCulloch said, power is always tenuous: "It's very much dependent on the favour of the king."

Irish Independent

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