So how is it that Donald Trump won the American presidential election? According to Joshua Green, author of the bestselling book “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Nationalist Uprising” (Penguin Press), the key to the explanation is simple: Steve Bannon. He’s the person who made the impossible possible, and the possible actual.
Of course this is not an explanation Donald Trump would accept. And the thing is that Bannon apparently did not reject it vigorously enough, something that added to his problems in the White House. Green’s book helped induce Trump to oust Bannon from his job as White House chief strategist.
No commander-in-chief likes the intimation that someone else is pulling the strings. And in this case, the talk started soon after the election, when Time magazine ran a frightening picture of Bannon on its cover, dubbing him “the great manipulator.” It continued in the form of a theory that there is such a thing as “Trumpism,” as distinct from Trump himself, and that Trumpism is actually “Bannonism.”
The announcement of Bannon’s dismissal in August 2017, a year after his star rose in Trump’s campaign, was undoubtedly a persuasive example of typical Trumpism: “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” Now he’ll learn “that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look. Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country.”
That’s all nonsense, of course. For one turbulent year, Bannon was a senior partner and close confidant of this president, the most controversial the U.S. has had in many years. And he seems to have understood the upheaval better than others, including Trump himself. A conversation with Bannon is therefore perhaps one of the few existing keys – there aren’t many – to understanding what drove this upheaval, and what continues to drive it, if indeed there is a coherent force behind it all.
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It wasn’t hard to make initial contact with Bannon. An acquaintance from right-wing circles introduced us by email, after she was persuaded that there was no malice behind the inquiry. Bannon himself replied promptly and kindly. But even after more than 10 exchanges, I wasn’t able to set up anything concrete. He is infamously disorganized. I was about to pack and return to Israel when, at the last minute, an email arrived from Alexandra Preate, his right-hand woman, who has followed Bannon through fire and water, to the White House and back. Preate wanted to know what the subject of the intended article was. Then came a phone call from one of his associates, Raheem Kassam, a young British Muslim of Indian origin, who was formerly editor-in-chief of Breitbart UK and adviser to British politician Nigel Farage. He asked whether I would send my questions in advance. I said yes, but that I couldn’t promise not to ask other things as well. The meeting was set for the place known as the “Breitbart Embassy,” a brownstone townhouse in Washington D.C., a stone’s throw away from the Supreme Court building, and long Bannon’s headquarters and residence.
We sat around a heavy table in the “embassy” basement. A small stack of copies of Green’s book sat on the mantelpiece. Contrary to the protective impression I got from his aides, Bannon doesn’t come across as cautious, though his experience with journalists has not always been pleasant, to put it mildly. He speaks with intensity and rapidity, moving from one topic to another without losing his train of thought, gradually creating the sense that everything is interconnected: Behind the simple exterior of things, a vast clock is ticking, and if we don’t wake up in time, we will discover, too late, that it had been counting down to the demise of Western, Judeo-Christian culture. Accordingly, even though Bannon is not necessarily the most modest person in America, he actually doesn’t think that he is the reason for Trump’s victory. Nor is Trump the reason. Yes, the right people were in the right places. And he’s one of them. But the forces that generated the upheaval were vast and impersonal. They sometimes seem even metaphysical: Listening to Bannon you get a sense that the problem is not just that America has ceased to be great. It is that it has ceased to be itself.
“There is no capitalism for the rich in this country,” Bannon says. “We have socialism here. Socialism, for the very wealthy, and the very poor. And we have a brutal Darwinian form of capitalism for everybody else. That’s why Donald Trump is president.” The very poor receive welfare services from the state, while the very rich are bailed out from financial trouble by the same state. After Obama bailed out the financial system in 2008, saving it from collapse, the architects of the disaster paid no price, and got no punishment. Whose money was it that saved them? The taxpayer’s money. “The little guy pays,” Bannon says. Working people, many of whom lost their homes and savings, to cover for the mistakes of the rich. And those multitudes of working people – there was no one to bail them out. The globalist elite took care of itself. The result is that, “one percent of the country own 40 percent of the wealth. The concentration of wealth It’s not a conspiracy. It’s in your face for everybody to see.”
On Saddam’s couch
Stephen Kevin Bannon was the third of five children in a Catholic family of Irish descent, born in 1953. His mother was a homemaker and his father a telephone technician. They sent young Steve to a Benedictine-Catholic military high school for boys. It was in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. There he received a classical education.
All those elements – Irishness, Catholicism, Southernness, exclusively boys, classical education, and Richmond, too – don’t add up to an easy liberal optimism or confidence that history has reached its end and we can now rest. Bannon’s worldview is tragic and bleak. For him Judeo-Christian culture’s conflict with Islam didn’t begin yesterday. It started with the inception of Islam, when it began to spread. We in our time are heirs to the same challenge Charles Martel faced when he blocked the Muslims from conquering Europe in the year 732 at the Battle of Tours. The challenge has since changed form, and maynow appear in the guise of mass immigration, but the essential conflict has not disappeared, and we cannot afford to let our guard down. Good will is not going to cut it.
The dangers inherent in Islam became concrete for Bannon during his navy service, following his graduation from Virginia Tech College in 1976. He was in the Persian Gulf during the American-hostage crisis in Iran, as an officer on a destroyer that escorted aircraft carriers. It was from that perspective that he saw the preparations for President Jimmy Carter’s failed operation to rescue the hostages. That debacle led him to abandon his parents’ political home – they were Kennedy Democrats – and become a supporter of the hawkish Ronald Reagan. His encounter with the alienness of Iran and afterward of Pakistan, persuaded him that the struggle with Islamic civilization was only going to grow more acute.
As chance would have it, one of Bannon’s daughters also served in the American military in the Persian Gulf. Above the mantelpiece in the Breitbart Embassy is a photo of her in camouflage fatigues, sitting on Saddam Hussein’s throne in one of his palaces, which became an American base. “Now I can die a happy man,” Bannon says, looking fondly at the picture.
After returning from years at sea, Bannon aspired to pursue a military career in the Pentagon, but quickly realized that the road to the post of secretary of defense would be long and slow. He left to study business administration at Harvard (graduating cum laude) and then landed a prestigious job with the Goldman Sachs investment bank. But he was restless, and after a few endeavors in different fields he went to Hollywood. For a time he was involved in producing movies, moving from entertainment into political films. His 2004 film “In the Face of Evil” was based on the book “Reagan’s War,” whose author, Peter Schweizer, Bannon would later recruit to write a book about the Clintons. This would become, as we shall see, a central piece in the effort to torpedo a potential Hillary Clinton presidency.
Through filmmaking he gravitated closer to Tea Party circles, and even made a movie about Sarah Palin, who for a time seemed to him like she might be able to lead the populist movement he began dreaming of. In Los Angeles he also met Andrew Breitbart, who was building his own alternative right-wing news outlet. So the contours of the palette of skills he acquired began to come into focus: Classical education, a global and military perspective, business school and business experience, and the film industry, from which it was easy to jump to political journalism.
He first appeared on the national political radar in October 2015. And even then just as a momentary blip. Joshua Green, long before “Devil’s Bargain,” identified him as the head of a far-right battle planned aimed against both the Democratic and Republican establishment, aimed equally against Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, who was then a leading Republican candidate for the presidency. Bannon declared ideological war against the entire American political elite. The piece Green wrote about Bannon for Bloomberg Businessweek was titled, “This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America.”
Still, Bannon remained relatively unknown until the evening on which Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of the eccentric right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer, catapulted him into the heart of the Trump campaign.
It was August 2016, less than three months before the election. Clinton was well ahead in the polls and constantly widening the gap. Trump’s campaign seemed like it was heading for collapse. The rats started to desert the sinking ship, hoping at least to save something in the Senate and House elections. And then Rebekah Mercer arrived by helicopter at the estate of Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets football team, who was hosting Trump. She had a message to deliver to the candidate, and she wanted to deliver it in person: Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway would be taking control of Trump’s campaign from now on. The candidate didn’t argue.
'The left is in total meltdown,' he says. And they know why. Because this is just the beginning.
Rebekah Mercer and her father are major donors to the American hard right, including some Steve Bannon projects. The Mercers originally backed Ted Cruz. But some of what they did would have been useful to any Republican candidate, and this now included Trump. To the extent that Clinton was right in saying that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” working against her, the Mercers were its funders and Bannon the effective strategist behind it.
There are people in the American right who had made careers out of attacking the Clintons. They did not impress Steve Bannon. In his view, none of this would be effective if it didn’t break out of the right-wing echo chamber to influence center and moderate-left voters. And to accomplish that, other means – more restrained, more fact-based – were called for. Bannon himself didn’t leave his post at the head of the militant Breitbart News Network (to which the Mercers were also generous donors) but he looked for additional channels as well.
Long before Trump was ever a candidate, Bannon approached Peter Schweizer, who had already written an investigative book on the shady connections of capital and politics in Washington. With funding from the Mercers, Schweizer started working on what would become the 2015 book “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.”
The plan worked, at least partially. In the wake of Schweizer’s revelations, The New York Times published a major investigative report of its own on one of the stories he exposed, confirming his main findings. Other mainstream media followed suit and helped the book break out of the confines of right-wing media, which is often dismissed as conspiratorial and irresponsible.
“Clinton Cash” begins with such questions as these: How did it happen that Bill Clinton earned at least $136.5 million between 2001 and 2012, in the period when his wife was a senator and then secretary of state? How did the Clintons jump in one decade from being virtually "broke" (as they said of themselves at the end of Bill's presidency) – to the status of multimillionaires?
The book doesn’t exactly answer those questions. Schweizer only documents coincidences of time and proximate events, and leaves it to the reader to connect the dots. But the dots are so dense that there’s not much left to connect. And therein lies the book’s power. It shuns not only conspiracy theories, but shrill tones in general. And indeed, as Bannon predicted, this made the book credible in the eyes of respectable media on the left and center. When the book appeared, it already had the imprimatur of The New York Times, the Washington Post and many other outlets of the “opposition party,” as Bannon calls the mainstream media.
What the book unearthed was truly stunning. The story that The New York Times picked up, for example, begins with a Bill Clinton visit to Kazakhstan in the private jet of a Canadian millionaire named Frank Giustra. After Bill and Giustra dined with the country's despotic billionaire president, Giustra surprisingly obtained a license to mine uranium in the country. He then contributed generously (more than $30 million) to the Clinton Foundation, merged his company with another, which gained access to American uranium, and was financially taken over by Russians, with the approval of the U.S. government, including its State Department – headed by Hillary Clinton. In the meantime, Bill received half-a-million dollars from a Russian bank that was involved with these uranium stocks, for a lecture he gave in Moscow.
The book caused limited, but still palpable, damage to Clinton’s candidacy. And now, having been planted smack dab in the middle of the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon was in a position to reap some of his own vision’s fruits.
Total metaphysical confidence
In August 2016, when Bannon appeared on the scene of the presidential race, Clinton was so complacent that she took a two-week break from campaigning, spending some of that time in the Hamptons. Bannon now reconstructs what she thought, in his view, at that time, when she “came off the beach,” as he put it, to respond to the changes in the Trump team: “Trump knows he’s going to lose by a historical margin, and he brings this mad bomber from Breitbart? We’re going to take the House and the Senate and the Supreme Court,” he says in her name, adding, “They had it all worked out for the next 50 years.” But then “she came off the beach,” because she thought she spotted an opportunity. She made a speech in Reno, Nevada, linking Trump to Bannon, Bannon to the alt-right and the alt-right to racism and Islamophobia. Here, she thought, was a chance to expose the true face of the Republican candidate! This “new low,” as she called it in her book “What Happened,” offered an opportunity not to be missed.
“I sat there with all the young guys [from the Trump campaign], and we’re looking at the TVs,” Bannon recalls, “and I said, ‘She comes off the beach to talk about Steve Bannon and Breitbart?’ Are you kidding me? I told the guys: It’s over – we’ll crush her.”
In other interviews, with The American Prospect and with Charlie Rose, Bannon explained why that speech boosted his confidence so much. He wanted the Democrats to go on playing the identity-politics game. Let them keep shouting “Racist!” They’re just digging their own grave. Because Americans, he explained, are an immigrant nation and mostly, in fact, they are not racists. If the Democrats keep playing the race card, the campaign would evolve something like this: Trump will say that the Mexicans are taking Americans’ jobs, that they are making wages fall. He will rage against them with his trademark bluntness. Hillary will respond with the standard Democratic reflex: The way Trump talks about Mexicans is racist, she will say. The voter whom Bannon is targeting will look at both candidates and say to himself: Here’s a candidate who’s talking about my problems; and here’s a candidate who says that it’s not nice to talk about my problems. No brainer. Such ordinary Americans will fall right into Trump’s lap. Now there’s a basket to collect the “deplorables.”
It would be the same with terrorism and Islam. Trump will refer to “Islamic terrorism”; Hillary will call him an Islamophobe. The ordinary American will ask himself which of them will be better at dealing with terrorism – the one who talks about it, or the one who’s afraid to call it by name.
“I told Trump,” Bannon says, that if she continues in this vein, “100 percent metaphysical certitude – you will win. One hundred percent.”
Bannon seems to have discovered something that for members of the American intelligentsia is not only strange, but practically incomprehensible: Racism is not an issue that interests the majority of Americans. The economy, not racism, was the issue of the election. What truly interests Americans is not the Mexicanness of illegal migrants, but the illegality of so much Mexican migration. “The Democrats,” Bannon told an infuriated Robert Kuttner at The American Prospect a few days before he was sacked from the White House, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
'We have socialism in this country. For the very wealthy, and the very poor. And a brutal Darwinian form of capitalism for everybody else.'
“Economic nationalism,” Bannon says now, “doesn’t care about your race, it doesn’t care about your ethnicity, it doesn’t care about your religion, it doesn’t care about your gender, it doesn’t care about your sexual preferences. It only cares about one thing: You’re a citizen. We’re going to maximize the value of citizenship.”
Those who maintain that arguments about racism necessarily underlie the arguments about migration eliminate the possibility of a substantive argument on the subject of citizenship and of illegal migration. And those who have nothing of substance to say about these central issues won’t get far, in Bannon’s view. Which is why he thinks Bernie Sanders was never a threat. “With Bernie,” he says, “it’s a pillow fight.” Anyone who talks about the economy without talking about immigration can at best strike next to the target. But he can’t win, Bannon believes.
“Economic nationalism” means a double struggle against the forces that depress the wages of American workers: illegal immigration, and the export of jobs to China and the developing world through trade agreements from which the elites profit. In other words, it’s a struggle that focuses on the critical nexus between the economy and borders. It is therefore also a struggle to reinvigorate an international order in which nation-states are the pillars of stability. It is a fight against globalism, internationalism, “the party of Davos,” the EU, and other international organizations that compete for sovereignty against nation-states. This is not an abstract issue for experts. This is something ordinary Americans feel instinctively because it hurts them in their pocket: They see the jobs disappearing; they see the factories closing; they see their wages dropping with the influx of the cheap labor of illegal immigrants.
Bannon saw that the Democrats had no idea what was happening around them. Without noticing, they’d become the definitive party of the elite. They stopped seeing “the little guy.” And they hooked their social policy to the sham of identity politics. Political correctness is a game of the elite, for the elite, by the elite. Clinton may have thought she was extending her protection to the downtrodden when she talked about diversity, but the real downtrodden were more disgruntled by the loss of their savings. So, when Clinton depicted Trump’s voters as racists and denigrated them, or some of them, by branding them “deplorables,” she stepped on a land mine.
She meant to say that Trump’s voters are abusive to marginalized groups, but she herself seemed to be abusive, or at least contemptuous, of those who were less fortunate than she. Bannon isn’t one to overlook a rhetorical gift like “deplorables.” He adopted the term warmly, in the same way that black rappers appropriated the N word. Who paid for the bailout of the rich bankers from the crash of 2008, he asks today. The “deplorables,” of course, he says.
Not a political force
None of this means, of course, that there are no racists among the right-wing Americans who voted for Trump. On the hard edge of the right there are all kinds of dark streams, whether overt or covert, of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners. You have people like David Duke and Richard Spencer, and the loathsome types who constitute their milieu. In the rest of the right wing, the attitudes toward those extremes range from hidden identification to limp acceptance, through lack of interest and burning hatred.
Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Breitbart News, where Bannon worked for quite a spell, belonged to the last category: burning hatred. He spent a considerable part of his time fighting against the attempt to brand the whole conservative movement with what he thought was truly and utterly deplorable: racism.
The Bannon school is in a way the opposite of Breitbart’s. Bannon doesn’t do battle against those who identify his views with the far edge of the racist right. Bannon once dismissed Duke and the neo-Nazis as “clowns.” They are not a political force, in his view. They’re a curiosity. In the eyes of some of his critics, that stance is unforgivable. It’s probable that this derisive approach is exactly the way he unnerves like Hillary Clinton. And it defies the tactics of framing the debate in such a way that anyone on the right would have to first sign a disclaimer.
Many people are unwilling to forgive Bannon and Trump for what they see as short-of-forceful condemnations of self-declared neo-Nazis. Following the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville a year ago (in which a member of the white-supremacist movement ran over and killed a woman who was protesting against the rally), Trump initially condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” The point, on this view, is not that there’s nothing to deplore also about extreme left-wing organizations such as Antifa, or that many of the Trump and Bannon critics shouldn’t be castigated for maintaining an odd silence when anti-Semitism appears on the left. But in the face of overt Nazi racism, it’s necessary to be as clear as Kristallnacht with all one’s might and without hemming and hawing.
Trump directly condemned those white supremacists in the end, apparently under pressure from his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. But some thought it was too little, too late. His adversaries in the Hillary Clinton camp rolled their eyes contemptuously. If they’re really not racists, up there in Trump Tower, why don’t they set themselves apart more clearly?
With regard to anti-Semitism, Bannon rejected the criticism from the outset. Andrew Breitbart himself was a Jew, he said. The site employed Jewish journalists. Bannon himself recruited Milo Yiannopoulos, who sometimes identifies as Jewish (his maternal grandmother was Jewish), to Breitbart. Breitbart News’ support for Israel has always been consistent, loud and unapologetic. So is Trump’s support for Israel. And then there is also the fact that Trump's daughter converted to Judaism. So, what anti-Semitism are we talking about? How can anyone even imagine such a thing? “Hey, I’m a Christian Zionist myself,” Bannon told me.
As for the accessions of racism in general Bannon thought it could be not just deflected, but turned against the accusers. In a sense, this was true for the Trump campaign even before Bannon. He seems only to benefit from accusations of racism, and not for any immediately obvious reasons. Consider his announcement of his candidacy. It’s hard to remember now that the initial concern around Trump was that the media and the public would simply ignore it. After all, he’d flirted with the idea so many times before, that now the danger was that no one would take him seriously. But the media didn’t ignore him. Far from it. Why? Because on the occasion of the announcement itself, he went into a rambling denunciation of Mexican immigrants. They were not Mexico’s best sons and daughters, he said. “They’re rapists,” he declared. And then he added a feeble disclaimer, “And some, I assume, are good people.”
'The Russians are part of the Judeo-Christian culture. We don’t need to pick a fight with them. The cold war has got to be brought to an end.'
If there was ever a danger that Trump’s candidacy was going to be ignored, it disappeared then and there. The entire media echoed with reports that the presidential candidate had branded Mexicans “rapists.” The attempt to delegitimize Trump transformed him into a candidate, and afterward into a leading candidate. This is what would keep happening, exactly like it did with Hillary’s “deplorables” comment. Accordingly, Bannon fanned the flames, instead of dampening them. Let his candidate lash out. All the more. Let him hammer home the controversial slogans. It won’t hurt him in the least.
That thesis faced its ultimate test when an old off-screen segment from the “Access Hollywood” television program suddenly surfaced. In it, Trump told the show’s host, Billy Bush, that he would “grab [women] by the pussy.” Now even the Trump camp thought that everything would come crashing down. It was no longer a matter of good manners, it was encouragement to rape. Anyone who thinks that women can be referred to like this must want to turn them back into chattels, into the slaves of violent patriarchs. Or so it appeared.
But it turned out Trump’s voters, including many women, did not think that there was any such connection between words and actions, between symbol and reality. They apparently didn’t think that Trump, as president, would, for example, reduce the punishment for rape. They didn’t think there was a connection between what he would do as president and his “locker room talk,” as his defenders immediately characterized his repulsive remark. And they didn’t think he was about to revoke women’s rights (though many undoubtedly hoped he would take action against Roe v. Wade, but that’s not because he’s rude to women, but rather as part of his alliance with the conservative religious right).
There was indeed momentary panic in the Trump camp, and, as Joshua Green notes in his book, even Trump, “who made it a point never to apologize for any offense, took the unprecedented step of expressing remorse in a hastily produced ninety-second Web video. ‘I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,’ Trump said to the camera.” But immediately afterward, he went on the offensive, as usual. Even Bannon was astounded that his candidate didn’t feel even a slight tremor of shame. The strategy was, again, to drive a wedge into the weak hinge of political correctness: the conception of words as equal to deeds, and view of symbols as if they were reality. He might not speak nicely, Trump admitted. But Bill Clinton, who did speak nicely, sexually assaulted women in the real world, and his wife then bullied and silenced them, he said. That’s a lot more serious than the boastful talk of men’s locker rooms.
A week later, according to the polls, all of that turned out to have constituted a slight blip on the graph. Everything returned to normal. Clinton had led in the polls before, and she maintained her lead now, but there was no dramatic crash. It was a shattering moment, because it exposed a disparity and raised a nagging suspicion: Perhaps the media is addressing the wrong issues? Maybe it doesn’t know how to measure what people actually think? Is it possible that all its polls – all of them almost to the last! – are wrong? Bannon was positive: Yes, the polls are wrong. No, the media had no clue.
America in decline
In the hardest days of the campaign, when Trump’s prospects seemed to be nil, Bannon kept tabs on the statistics and polls of the Democratic Party. What stood out, in his perception, was that 75 percent of those polled thought that America was in decline. But even more important, two-thirds thought that this was absolutely unacceptable. And if so, they needed to be offered an alternative. The elites can ridicule Trump as much as they please, Bannon thought, but he hit on something dramatic with the slogan “Make America great again.” Trump was here, according to Bannon, to do just that: stop this decline.
And can he do it? His critics say he shoots in every direction, without any method.
“He is completely consistent.”
Take the sanctions on Iran, I say to Bannon. They’re harsh sanctions, even toward those who trade with Iran. Excellent. Many Israelis are pleased, myself among them. Because European firms are being forced to leave Iran, even if Merkel and Macron want to maintain the agreement. But if at the same time, you raise tariffs against Europe, you’ll push European firms out of the United States and back to Iran.
Bannon dismisses this with a wave of his hand. In his view, Trump is changing the rules across the globe, and they’re the same rules everywhere. Even if the engine sputters at the start, like in a test-run, it will soon warm up and synchronize. Everyone will understand that you can’t mess with him. Trump is showing, if a translation into Israeli parlance is required, that the United States will not be anyone’s sucker.
So does this mean that at heart, you’re an isolationist? Is Trump an isolationist?
“At least a third of the populist movement are isolationists,” he says, and then qualifies: “Trump’s America First doctrine means that where the United States has security interests, it also cares about the security interests of its allies. Take the Middle East, for example. The two important things that Trump did at the start of his term in the region were the war on ISIS and the Riyadh summit [in May 2017].”
But placing ISIS at the top of the order of priorities was one of the Obama administration’s strategic mistakes. Obama effectively became a partner of Iran’s against a very vocal terrorist organization, instead of restraining the more cogent source of terrorism, namely Iran itself. Or worse, he thought that if he made Iran a regional policeman, it would become more moderate. Didn’t this administration repeat that mistake at the outset by declaring ISIS such an important enemy?
“No,” Bannon says. Trump, he recalls, took a completely different approach. In his inaugural address, which Bannon himself had a part in shaping, Trump stated: “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”
When Bannon read those lines, which Trump wrote himself, he tried to dissuade the president-elect from using them. It’s a very large check that you’ll have to make good on, he and another adviser told Trump. But Trump insisted. And, according to Bannon, even though the president waged a bitter war on ISIS, he placed that policy in a different context from that of Obama. At the Riyadh summit, Trump accomplished three things, in Bannon’s view. “Number one is no more games. No financing of radical Islam terrorism. Whether that’s a mosque in Gaza, or the importation of radical Islamist Jihad into Western Europe. No more games. This stuff can’t be financed. Number two, Islam is going through [an] issue with modernity, and Islamic states themselves have to work against radicalization. The West can help, but it’s up to you guys,” Trump told his Arab interlocutors. “And [Egyptian President] al-Sissi, and the Saudis, and UAE said, ‘Yes, we’re going to do this.’ The third was the beginning of some sort of military alliance against Persian expansion.”
The new axis of evil, he believes, is Iran, China and Turkey. Turkey will turn out to be the worst of the lot, as Erdogan 'believes he's a world-historical figure.'
The nuclear agreement, Bannon notes, freed $150 billion for the Iranians to develop offensive capabilities across the entire Middle East. Now that the sanctions are squeezing them, large numbers of Iranians are rising up and will start to ask why, with a 40 percent unemployment rate in Iran, the regime is continuing to invest in military capabilities for long-distance operations such as developing Hezbollah’s forces. How does that serve the citizen in Iran?
How about North Korea? It started with threats and ended with hugs, but there’s still no nuclear disarmament.
“Denuclearization is the goal. That’s what he said. It’s worth remembering that in the meantime, the sanctions [against North Korea] haven’t been lifted. We’ll see. But North Korea is a sideshow. It’s not important. It’s a client state of China’s. The problem is China.”
Bannon takes out a small notebook and pen and draws a triangle. The three vertices are the new axis of evil: Iran, China and Turkey. Turkey, he says, will turn out to be the worst of the lot. President Erdogan wants to establish a caliphate in the spirit of the Ottoman Empire, and so, behind the scenes he is pushing for international control in the holy places of Islam. “He believes in his heart of hearts that he is a world-historical figure,” Bannon says.
Our conversation took place before the July 16 Helsinki summit, and did not center on Russia. But from what we know about the meeting since, it was consistent with the approach Bannon outlined before the summit took place. I asked him whether Russia is a potential ally or a potential enemy. “The Russians are part of the Judeo-Christian culture,” he said. “We don’t need to pick a fight with them. The Cold War has got to come to an end. We can’t be fighting everyone all the time.”
What the U.S. needs to do, he believes, is avoid pushing the Russians into the arms of the Chinese (which is critical for Israel with regard to the Iranian problem, where Russo-Chinese collusion could prove very problematic) Just as Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon wanted to improve relations with China in order to isolate Russia, Bannon wants to improve relations with Russia in order to isolate China. That’s something Trump understands deeply, he says.
And the Russians’ meddling in the election campaign?
“Ted Kennedy – it’s an open thing, it’s in a bunch of books – he went to the Soviet ambassador here in Washington D.C., about how they can assist Carter to beat Ronald Reagan, because they thought Reagan was a madman.”
That’s all Bannon has to say on the subject, which he considers, it seems, quite marginal.
Full steam ahead
Almost from the first day the Trump administration was in power, a battle erupted for the ear of a president known to be particularly capricious. As the (mainly gossipy) book by Michael Wolff, “Fire and Fury,” reported in detail, the tug of war between Bannon’s anti-establishment populism and the Republican establishment (in the person of Reince Priebus) was difficult enough, before both realized how difficult it would be to contend with the faction suspected for being New York-style Democrats, in the person of Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. Family are not likely to be fired. So for the first few months chaos reigned supreme.
Ideological rigidity and biting sarcasm didn’t help to ensure Bannon the stability of the status he’d enjoyed during the campaign. The flood of leaks from every direction, including his, didn’t advance the different agendas of the leakers but undermined the standing of all of them. The merry-go-round grew dizzier and dizzier around a hot-tempered, easily offended president, and ultimately it was Bannon and his people who fell off.
But Bannon didn’t miss a beat, announcing that he would continue to support Trump’s populist revolution from the outside. He will in all probability not reject an offer to return to the White House staff, and it’s clear that he’s learned that if he’s frustrated by Trump’s management style it will be sounder policy to keep that to himself. I wasn’t able to extract one word of criticism of Trump from him in a conversation that lasted more than two hours.
Isn’t it problematic that he behaves so emotionally, and hardly ever retracts or apologizes?
“That’s his style. It’s a matter of style.”
But why lie?
“He has his own house style.”
Lying isn’t a matter of style.
“Every president has his own style. Obama had a different style: He looked you straight in the eye and lied to you about the nuclear agreement with Iran.”
But why lie? 'Trump has his own house style.'
According to Bannon, the populist revolution is moving full-steam ahead in domestic realms as well. “The left is in total meltdown,” he says. And they know why. Because this is just the beginning. The Supreme Court is changing and will play a central role in what Bannon calls “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” the bureaucratic system that in his view has usurped power and colonized the processes of decision making that belong with elected officials. But all that is on the way out, he believes. And now the end of the doctrine of judicial supremacy and the judicial activism that flowed from it is also in sight. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia, in Bannon’s view, signified the end of an era, and Justice Neil Gorsuch's appointment heralds a new one.
Where George W. Bush (who Bannon thinks was the worst president in the history of the United States) failed, Trump will succeed. He will change the face of the Supreme Court for many years to come. He will also fill 140 vacancies in lower federal courts. This will be a systemic overhaul.
Indeed, Bannon avers, the Trump presidency is a transformative presidency. America will not go back to being what it was. Or perhaps, more accurately, he believes it will return in some ways to its mythical self, when the market was truly free and the “nanny state” had not yet come into being. Free and equal citizens will compete fairly in a truly competitive market, in which small businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit thrive. That’s the heart of the revolution, as Bannon envisions it. “It’s about giving the little guy a piece of the action.”
And for that the state needs to be retracted and the political sphere reduced?
“Absolutely. The main two differences between right-wing populism here and in Europe is that in Europe, even my right-wing brothers in Italy, they still look to the state for solutions. The question there is just who controls the state. Here, right-wing populism under Trump, Trumpism, is fundamentally different. It strives to take the state’s long tentacles out of the lives of working citizens.”
Wouldn’t that mean reducing people from citizens to consumer-subjects?
“Not at all.” For Bannon, freedom is largely, freedom from the political. “We are for entrepreneurial capitalism,” he says. “What we oppose is crony capitalism and what we call state capitalism, where a handful of big companies is in cahoots with big government. And they keep out the entrepreneur. We’re all about the little guy, whether he’s a shopkeeper, or some college kids in their room trying to start a business.”
Isn’t that a naïve portrait of the modern free market, though?
“Not at all. 65-70 percent of jobs are created by small businesses.”
What about social benefits? Who will look after health insurance? Isn’t universal state-sponsored health insurance, European style, the most reasonable arrangement for such a rich country as the U.S.?
“Companies will have to compete for the rights they offer workers, and the workers will come to companies that offer the most attractive benefits.”
But is that how it really works?
What about the state level?
“Hey, I’m a federalist.”
A smile. I get a feeling the question has been asked of him before. “Well, not in the Confederate sense, of course. I think of states as laboratories.” They try different things and see if they, or maybe others, will like them. The people of Vermont will do for themselves what the Texans won’t. States can enact various laws and levy various taxes, and citizens can choose where to live. New York State has a high taxation rate. Which is why, in Bannon’s opinion, people are leaving it.
But can we turn back the wheel? Take the internet, for example. When it was launched we were told that it was a return to totally free competition. Everyone can create a site and publish his opinions on it or sell his products without a middleman, invent an application, sell handmade jewelry or compare prices. It was supposed to be a free-market paradise. But what happened? Google and Amazon, Apple and Microsoft swallowed up all the little guys. So who is this little guy? Does he actually exist?
"This is the reason I opposed the Time Warner-AT&T merger. I think this kind of consolidation of [economic] power in the country is scary. But then people say you need this to compete with the world, and I say, bullshit. Only if we let the world unfairly compete with us, which you see in those [international trade] agreements. It’s all inextricably linked.”
But if you want to dismantle the giant monopolies, and also retract the state, which means reducing regulation, won’t you trip yourself up? Because, without state regulation, who will prevent huge mergers?
“I am definitely not against all forms of regulation. I am not a libertarian and I am not a nihilist. And I am also not in favor of dismantling the FBI or the CIA.” (Indeed, Bannon opposed Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey.)
With regard to anti-Semitism, Bannon rejected the criticism from the outset: 'Hey, I’m a Christian Zionist myself'
But perhaps the “deconstruction of the administrative state” is also a danger to the institutions of democracy? Where does the deconstruction stop? Who will guarantee that Bannon’s populism won’t slide into dictatorship, say, as happened in South America? What guarantee is there that leaders who speak directly to “the people” will not void the parties, the separation of powers and the powers themselves of content?
“I am an originalist.”
Originalism means adherence to the literal language of the Constitution. In other words, originalists oppose any change in the original structure of the American republic, with the exception of Constitutional amendments, as set forth in Article 5 of the document. This means, by and large, institutional minimalism at the federal level.
It’s unlikely that clinging to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution will allay the fears of those who were alarmed when they saw Bannon storm the White House with Trump and immediately issue an executive order, without any legislative procedure, banning the entrance into the United States of people from seven Muslim-majority countries. As is Bannon’s habit, both the order and its announcement were couched in contrarian language, maximally provocative, in order to knock the president’s political rivals off- balance. Just like Bannon advised throughout the campaign. Let them scream and stomp their feet. Let them call Trump “racist,” and “bigot.” Just look them in the eye and never flinch. Trump would thus make clear he was here to change the rules, not to abide by the elites’ restrictive niceties. And there’d be an extra benefit. It would tear the mask of hypocrisy and cowardice off the face of the established political classes.
But then it turned out that provocations that work on the campaign trail aren’t always best for getting things done in the Oval Office. The order immediately encountered judicial appeals and stayed stuck there until recently, when the Supreme Court – the new Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court – greenlighted it. So maybe it is better, after all, to line up your forces carefully before dropping bombs.
Bannon came to the White House with a lot of credit. His supporters believe that he transformed Trump’s instincts into a coherent doctrine, a series of positions on domestic and foreign policy, that overall can be termed “populism” or “economic nationalism” or “Trumpism” (or, in a whisper, “Bannonism”). And it was he who insisted, against all odds and all polls, that this agenda would bring Trump victory. When it turned out he was right, he acquired the status of a wizard, or at least a master of manipulation, as Time magazine said of him. Nor is there any doubt that within Trump’s close circle during the first months, there was no ideologue comparable to Bannon, neither in intellectual heft nor in charisma. But additional – some would say different – skills are needed in the White House. Trump aides were aghast at the seething ideological waters into which Bannon pushed Trump even before the president had warmed up his chair in the Oval Office. Doubts surfaced about the place of such a rigid ideologue so close to Trump’s ear, a proximity over which there is a brutal Darwinian struggle in every White House.
Bannon talks much about the decadence of America's political elites. In his view, in almost every realm, their policy is no more than acceptance of what he calls “managed decline.” In this way they resigned themselves to globalization, to the decline of American power, to illegal immigration, to unfair trade agreements and much else. The best they dare hope for is managing this process of decline. As an Israeli, the first example that came to mind for me was the Iranian nuclear project. The Obama administration accepted a slow decline toward the military nuclearization of Iran, and made do with managing the decline: framing the process with an agreement, placing it under review, perhaps even effective scrutiny. But Obama had no intention of halting the process itself. Along came Trump with what Bannon terms “creative destruction.” He denied the necessity of the decline, tore the agreement to shreds and started to impose aggressive sanctions on Iran.
For Bannon, the term “creative destruction,” which had long since become part of the folklore of capitalism , transcends the economic sphere. It also designates his attitude to the bureaucracy he despises and to the flaccid policies of previous presidents. It’s the opposite of the attitude of “managed decline.” Still, the term also resonates with voices from the hard European right: violent vitalism as an antidote to the “decline of the West,” which Oswald Spengler feared, instinctive nationalism as the remedy to liberal feebleness, the ties between blood and soil in contrast to the contractual conception of the democratic society. All these associations undoubtedly played a part in the panic Bannon stirred in his opponents, who portrayed him, sometimes to his delight, as the dark knight bringing chaos in his wake.
It’s difficult to say how closely that image reflects his concrete plans, because Bannon’s rhetoric, too, shifts between militant interviews and quiet conversations, like the one we held in the Breitbart Embassy, in which he sought to place his views methodically on a factual, rational foundation. In his militant moods, the populism he talks about sounds like the revenge of a torch- and pitchfork-wielding mob straight out of “Frankenstein.” In his quieter moods, he describes populism as the struggle of decency against injustice, a wave from which every honest citizen can benefit, minorities included as a matter of course.
But the question is ultimately not one of style but of degree: How far will Trumpism’s creative destruction go, and where exactly will it stop? The God of ideology is in the details of politics.
But whatever Trump does, he will not acquiesce to “managed decline to unacceptable outcomes.”
China is one case in point. The political class, in both parties, has “told us for 25 years that the rise of China is like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It’s physics. There’s nothing you can do about it,” Bannon says. “In fact, the only thing we can do about it is take them off the banking system. Or keep them out of the capital markets.” But this leads to unacceptable outcomes. It takes jobs away from Americans, it weakens America world-wide. It de-industralizes the U.S. “Trump showed in the last 90 days that there are any number of weapons we can use to blow them up. One is tariffs. They said we can’t do 10 billions of tariffs, that would be too much for any American president. He’s done a half a trillion. And then another 400 billion. And if that won’t work, maybe there’s more. Then there is the biggest weapon, the one he announced [at the end of June]: to stop all Chinese investment in this country. They can’t invest in any technology company here. They can’t just take our innovations anymore. And if this is tightly enforced, they can become a Third World country in 10 years.
“Because they are taking, and I’m not talking about stealing – they steal, too, but that can be dealt with – I am talking about taking our technology, because they are partners through their government funds, in investments in American companies that develop [these technologies]. We are giving them these things. Why? Because all kinds of geniuses here and in Western Europe think that if we trade with them freely, if we let them share in the market, they will become like us, democrats and liberals. Bullshit. They are not like us. The Chinese did something historic. They raised 350 million people from working poverty into the middle class; and they raised another 400 million from abject poverty to working poverty. That’s a vast improvement in the living conditions of three quarters of a billion people. But who financed that? We did. We and the rest of the West.
“Because we exported all the jobs to them. There is no reason for there to be poor people In America. No reason. Except for the fact that the elites reconciled themselves to managed decline to unacceptable outcomes. That is, they are acceptable for the elites, because they profit on the way down just like they profited on the way up. The outcomes are unacceptable to the deplorables. They are the ones that pay the price. Then along comes Trump. And he shows China the iron fist but also the velvet glove.”
If you ask Bannon what changed since he was banished from the center of action, the official answer, perhaps in contrast to the personal one, will be: nothing. The populist revolution is proceeding apace: Trump’s plan, whose existence and methods continue to be denied by the media, is steaming ahead in full throttle. And Bannon will continue to support it, albeit now from the outside. Wherever Trump goes on Air Force One, Bannon will also go, by other means of transportation, and he will go on disseminating the message from the outside, explaining it, promoting it, defending it. After all, populism (or Trumpism) is bigger than him and bigger than Trump.
There are some, even in the American right, who think that Bannon is trying to impose his ideas on Trump by persuading the media, and hopefully Trump himself, that they share the same views. Some of them think Bannon was ejected precisely because this is not the case. This would mean that he will not be coming back into the administration anytime soon.
The truth, though, probably lies somewhere in the middle. And not because the truth is an average between contradictory arguments, but because when one examines Trump’s concrete policies, beyond the roiling emotions and the daily noises of the media, there seems to be a considerable correlation with Bannon’s vision. One possibility is that the two are in agreement, even if they reached their conclusions in different ways. Another possibility is that it’s all just a long string of coincidences. But it is also likely that Bannon who had Trump’s ear for a long stretch of the campaign, influenced him considerably. Or perhaps it’s a combination of the three. In any event, it appears that Bannon’s delight in the success of the “economic nationalism” revolution is not just a PR stint. Much is going as he wanted it to.
I tried to insist on hearing something that would nonetheless be critical of Trump. In the books and in media leaks Bannon had quite a few critical remarks – witty and acerbic – over time, concerning what went on in the White House. But the sarcasm has faded completely. Is there nothing, I ask him? It was all rosy and pink? Short silence. A smile. And then: “Maybe he shouldn’t have called me ‘Sloppy Steve,’” Bannon says. But that was 80 percent humor and only 20 percent resentment. “Sloppy Steve” is the term Trump invented for Bannon because of his defiantly careless appearance: cargo pants and a few shirts on top of each other, sometimes with a jacket, sometimes without. Not the standard look for a chief strategist at the White House. Probably, if it were the first step toward a return to the White House, Bannon would even be ready to wear a suit. He doesn’t deny that he would like to return. That is, to the degree that it has to do with Trump’s White House; to return to the White House himself, as president, is not in the cards now. Bannon did not say anything that would hint in such a direction, of course. But where the more distant future is concerned, it’s too early to guess. He’ll be only 65 this November. The future is still before him. And we have certainly not heard the last of him. That you can bet on.