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Trump and Bannon Are Implementing Netanyahu's Playbook on Radical Islam

The presidential adviser sees himself as a Thomas Cromwell, the revolutionary conniver who fashioned modern nationalism.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.
White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 31, 2017.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The most immediate and popular analogy for Donald Trump’s influential adviser, Stephen Bannon, is Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, the promiscuous mystic who was at the side of Russian Czar Nikolai II - and, much more so, his wife Alexandra - in the years before the Communist Revolution. Bannon himself, in an interview to the Hollywood Reporter a week after the presidential election, prefers to see himself as Thomas Cromwell, the English statesman who engineered Henry VIII’s first divorce and oversaw the English split from the Catholic Pope in Rome. Besides their proximity to the powerful, Rasputin and Cromwell shared the same gruesome fate: The Russian was poisoned, shot and drowned by Russian aristocrats hoping to keep the Czar in power while Cromwell was beheaded and his head stuck on a pike near the Tower of London, mainly because Henry thought his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who Cromwell had suggested he marry, was far too ugly.

For many years, Cromwell was considered a conniving if talented technocrat who operated in the shadow of his rival, the Catholic Saint Sir Thomas More, canonized in the popular play and movie “A Man for All Seasons.” From the mid-20th century, following the publication of Geoffrey Elton’s "The Tudor Revolution," Cromwell was increasingly viewed by historians as a central figure, the architect and executor of the English Reformation. A much more positive and wholesome image of Cromwell’s has emerged in the past few years in the wake of Hilary Mantel’s books and the BBC series “Wolf Hall,” which aired in Israel as well.

Cromwell’s revisionist upgrade upset many historians. Mantel’s book and the TV series, it was said, downplayed the wanton destruction and mass deaths caused by Cromwell in his crackdown on the Catholic churches and monasteries. The Daily Telegraph compared Cromwell to the Taliban and Islamic State: His fervor to smash anything Catholic resulted in the destruction of 97% of all the artistic artifacts that existed in England in the mid-16th century. Historian Simon Schama described Cromwell as a “detestably self-serving, bullying monster.” He may have been a good family man, Schama added, but so was Heinrich Himmler.

Even though Bannon grew up Catholic and Cromwell was the Church’s enemy, the reformation carried out by the English lawyer played a critical role in defining modern nationalism, which Bannon worships. Cromwell broke the allegiance of the king of England to the external, extra national Pope in Rome and bestowed unqualified and independent sovereignty on England and its king. For Bannon, who has enthusiastically endorsed Brexit, who fiercely opposes international organizations and multilateral trade treaties and who champions American nationalism - not white nationalism, he claims - Cromwell is a source of inspiration. Coupled with his ability to leverage the King’s power in order to change history, even at a price of leaving scorched earth behind him, Cromwell then becomes a true role model for Bannon.

Bannon’s statements over the past two years, from the time he was CEO of sensationalist right-wing website Breitbart, have been scrutinized again in recent days. They indicate that the man who has most influence over the world’s most powerful leader believes in absolute truths, apocalyptic visions and a life or death War of Gog and Magog, which will start very soon, if it hasn’t already. In this regard, Bannon’s rhetoric doesn’t belong in Cromwell’s 16th century reformation but in the Crusades that took place 500 years earlier, in which a Christian holy war provoked Muslims to rediscover militant jihad. If you listen to Bannon, the situation is now reversed: Forces of Islamic darkness are already on their way to demolish the West, whose resilience has been eroded by atheists and liberals. Bannon and Trump are sounding the battle cry that will wake the world, before it’s too late.

This world that Bannon refers to is the “Judeo-Christian West,” which is fighting for “Judeo-Christian values.” The term “Judeo-Christian,” which was originally coined to denoted Jews who had converted to Christianity, has become de rigueur in recent years in the parlance of American politicians, mostly from the conservative and Christian right. The link between the two parts of the term has raised objections among Jewish historians, who point out that the Christians were responsible for the overwhelming part of anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews throughout history, and among Orthodox Jews, who view the two religions as contradictory rather than complementary. George Orwell, who has been under the spotlight recently because of the uncanny similarities between his book "1984" and news headlines, is credited as having been the first to define “Judeo-Christian” as denoting a shared “scheme of morals.” But the term that was originally intended by Christians to be inclusive of Jews is now used mainly to be exclusive of Muslims. Islam, according to Bannon and others of his ilk, is beyond the pale.

Bannon is scathing and harsh when he talks about Islam and its collaborators. He once speculated that Barack Obama was a fifth columnist for Islam because he refused to engage in an existential war against it. He called George W. Bush “one of the dumbest presidents we’ve ever had” because he called Islam a “religion of peace” after the 9/11 terror attacks. It’s not a religion of peace, Bannon said, but a religion “of submission.” The West is already engaged in a war with “Fascist, Jihadist Islam” but it just won’t admit it, he states. In Bannon’s eyes, radical Islam is a darker force than Nazism.

The New York Times claimed this week that Trump is bringing a “dark vision” of Islam to the White House, but the true carriers of this vision are Bannon, along with National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn and Senior Advisor to the President Stephen Miller. They speak about Islam in the same way as figures from the extreme right such as Pamela Geller, David Horowitz and Frank Gaffney, reportedly the originator of the proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Gaffney has been effusively praised by both Bannon as well as Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who preferred to savage Gaffney’s critics at the Southern Poverty Law Center instead.

But it’s not just with Dermer that Bannon finds common language: he seems certain to get on famously with Dermer’s boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, as well. In his book “A Place among the Nations” Netanyahu asserts - in a statement that would spark howls of protest if it were uttered by Trump today - that “Islamic fundamentalism is a cancerous tumor that poses a serious threat to Western Civilization.” Bannon wouldn’t have said it better, or more directly. Sometimes, it actually seems that Bannon is actually quoting Netanyahu. Both claim a historical continuity of Islamic hostility and wish to destroy Western civilization from the time of the Prophet Muhammad until this day. Both cite the Battle of Tours in 732, in which the Franks defeated the Moors, and the Battle of Vienna, in 1683, in which consolidated Christian forces rebuffed the Ottoman Empire as decisive turning points that should inspire the modern West.

In another book, "Fighting Terrorism," published in 1996 and updated in 2001 after the al-Qaida attacks, Netanyahu - who fancies himself a latter-day Churchill - gave practical suggestions how the West can win. One of these will sound very familiar: “It’s time to put an end to the era of unfettered immigration for all,” he wrote. “Terrorists from the Middle East and other places have turned the United States, Germany, Italy and other countries into terrorist sanctuaries.” This is the plan that Trump put into action this week, with Bannon behind him. The president and his aides claim - sometimes, though not always - that the restrictions on accepting refugees and stopping immigration from seven Muslim countries are meant to improve national security, and not to discriminate against Muslims, but no-one really believes them because of their campaign pledges to institute a blanket ban on Muslims and because of the terrible implementation of Trump’s executive order. In airports around the U.S., people were stopped and questioned because of their names, their looks and their countries of origin: If they’d been Jews, everyone would have said they were being singled out and branded. Muslim and Arab Americans had an atrocious week: their continued presence in the United States, even with passports and citizenships, seems more precarious than ever before.

Netanyahu for once stayed out of trouble and didn’t tweet that the restrictions on Muslims were “a great idea,” as he did about Trump’s wall with Mexico, but he’s the last person who could or would object. In fact, even without a poll, one can surmise that most Israeli Jews would understand and even sympathize with Trump’s actions. American Jews, on the other hand, were appalled, and their negative reaction was then compounded by what seemed to be the White House’s deliberate omission of Jews from its Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. If this trend continues, the gap between Israeli and American Jews will grow ever wider: Hugs and kisses between Netanyahu and Trump during their February 15th meeting - or worse, between Netanyahu and Bannon - will repel most, though not all, American Jews.

For them, “Judeo-Christian values” include support for immigrants, defense of minorities, care and compassion for the downtrodden and underprivileged. For Bannon, Netanyahu and far too many Americans and Israelis, compassion is reserved only for people who look and think like you, as everyone could see in the pampered evacuation of the Amona outpost this week, which was buffered by promises to build thousands of new apartments in the territories. When Bannon says “Judeo-Christian,” he is preparing for war; perhaps the term should be changed to “Israelo-Christian” so it can be more exact.

But the main problem is that the man charged with being commander in chief and leading the West to its Götterdämmerung battle with Islam, which - judging by this week - will begin with Iran, is a president who is turning out to be even more impulsive, capricious and outrageous than even his worst critics could imagine. In two weeks he has managed to fight with Mexico, anger China, terrify Europe and even insult Australia - for no good reason. The combination of inexperience, extreme beliefs and reckless management is a recipe for disaster. Perhaps Bannon should realize that even if Islam is really out to destroy the West, the clear and present danger is that his boss will get the job done much faster.

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