The future of Bannonism

TWO days after he ceased to be President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon explained why he had welcomed The Economist to his house on Capitol Hill for a chat. “You’re the enemy,” he said, adding disdainfully: “You support a radical idea, free trade. I mean it, that’s a radical idea.” As he returns to his former job, running Breitbart News, a bomb-throwing right-wing website, Mr Bannon wants to make clear that he still loves a scrap. “In the White House I had influence,” he says several times during a long discussion. “At Breitbart, I had power.”

Among the particular opponents he has in his sights, said Mr Bannon, seated in a dining-room decorated with Christian iconography and political mementos, are congressional Republicans (“Mitch McConnell, I’m going to light him up”), China (“Let’s go screw up One Belt One Road”) and “the elites in Silicon Valley and Wall Street—they’re a bunch of globalists who have forgotten their fellow Americans.” Despite his departure—voluntarily, he insists, though his resignation is reported to have been demanded of him—Mr Bannon says he will never attack his former boss. Yet Breitbart will caution Mr Trump to stick to the populist nationalist course Mr Bannon charted. “We will never turn on him. But we are never going to let him take a decision that hurts him.” The website offered an early taste of this in its disparaging coverage of Mr Trump’s “flip-flop” decision to send more American troops to Afghanistan, which was announced on August 21st and Mr Bannon strongly opposes (see article).

It is a measure of the awe Mr Bannon inspires in America’s media that such fighting talk has largely been taken at face value. Yet he is plainly diminished. In the early months of Mr Trump’s presidency, he had equal footing with the chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who was ousted last month, and launched some of the administration’s most audacious endeavours, including one to deny visas to many foreign Muslims. Yet his populist agenda (dominated by a trifecta of ambitions, to reduce immigration, recreate jobs in manufacturing, especially through trade policy, and withdraw American troops from foreign wars) has since faltered.

Mr Trump, as his announcement on Afghanistan illustrates, has turned to other advisers. They include his businessman son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his national-security adviser, H.R. McMaster, with whom Mr Bannon battled. As Mr Bannon returns to America’s 244th-most-popular website, these mainstream figures are in the ascendant. Yet his hold over the media is understandable. Because Mr Bannon’s influence on America has been immense.

Though not well-known when he was hired to run Mr Trump’s campaign last August, he had already shaped the celebrity-tycoon’s politics. As an attention-seeking New Yorker and host of ���The Apprentice”, a reality-television show, Mr Trump had national name recognition and some liberal views, including on gun control and immigration. Particularly for the Republican he sometimes claimed to be, he also had a large following among non-whites. According to a bestselling book on the Trump-Bannon partnership by Joshua Green, a journalist, Breitbart and its boss were instrumental in convincing Mr Trump to relaunch himself as a right-wing populist nationalist, contemptuous of the politically correct establishment.

As Mr Trump’s campaign chief (his third in two months, the campaign having been roiled by scandals) Mr Bannon urged him to redouble that effort. “The American people understood his foibles and understood his character flaws and they didn’t care,” he says. “The country was thirsting for change and [Barack] Obama didn’t give them enough. I said, we are going for a nationalist message, we are going to go barbarian, and we will win.”

Nothing delights Mr Trump like vindication, so it was natural that he would reward Mr Bannon with a plum job in his administration. His main task was to ensure the president kept his campaign pledges, which Mr Bannon scrawled on whiteboards in his West Wing office. Persuading Mr Trump, against the advice of other courtiers, to jettison the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the Paris climate accord were two of his successes.

For Mr Bannon, who went from a working-class Virginian family to careers in Wall Street and Hollywood, those agreements epitomised the folly of globalisation, which he considers disastrous for American workers and avoidable. He hardened this critique after returning to America from a spell in Hong Kong; China, whose gaming of WTO rules Mr Bannon considers tantamount to an “economic war” against America, remains at the heart of it. A zealous Catholic who believes in the inevitability of civilisational conflict, he considers China’s growth to be an additional, overarching threat to America, which it must therefore dial back. “I want the world to look back in 100 years and say, their mercantilist, Confucian system lost. The Judeo-Christian liberal West won.”

Mr Trump shares Mr Bannon’s disdain for trade deals, his zero-sum view of the world and his contempt for rivals. He has few fixed positions otherwise. The president has derided and championed immigration, which Mr Bannon considers an adjunct of globalisation; he has supported and scorned military intervention, which Mr Bannon thinks a ruinous elite dalliance. This contrast, between the ideological Mr Bannon and the malleable president, gave rise to a caricature of Mr Bannon as a malevolent Svengali. Yet Mr Trump’s devotion to him was always contingent on Mr Bannon’s ability to deliver wins.

A wayward pupil

The president has, if not fixed intellectual differences with Mr Bannon, different predilections, including his slavish regard for the military and business elites now stocking his cabinet, whom his former adviser derides. (“What did the elites do?” asks Mr Bannon. “These are the guys who gave us happy talk on Iraq, who let China into the WTO and said it would sign up to the rules-based order.”) When some of Mr Bannon’s early schemes failed—including the shabbily planned travel ban, now snarled up in the courts—Mr Trump turned increasingly to his more conventional advisers, including Mr Kushner and Mr McMaster. On trade and security in particular, they have edged him towards the mainstream. Whereas Mr Bannon urged the president to withdraw from NAFTA and Afghanistan, for example, he has launched a modest-looking review of the former and will send more troops to the latter. Increasingly isolated, Mr Bannon’s departure from the White House was predicted.

Yet he will have a lasting influence on the administration, for three reasons. First, it retains several kindred populists, who will pursue the agenda he laid out, including Stephen Miller, a policy adviser, and, on immigration, Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general. Another, sometimes, is the president. Despite some signs of moderation, Mr Trump still hates trade agreements, as he reminded his followers in a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 22nd. He said he would “probably” withdraw from NAFTA “at some point”.

Mr Bannon’s influence will also endure in Mr Trump’s conviction, which he encouraged, that the president is answerable only to his supporters. This was darkly illustrated by Mr Trump’s equivocating response to the recent white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, which Trump voters appear untroubled by and Mr Bannon defends in the same cynically partisan fashion as he shrugs off concerns over the racist undertones of some of Breitbart’s coverage. “I think he handled Charlottesville well,” he insists. “The Democrats are irrelevant on this.” Both men, similarly, are wont to blame the rancour their divisive politics causes on the media—a tactic Mr Trump also deployed in Phoenix, where he accused “crooked” journalists of “giving a platform” to the white supremacists he was so reluctant to condemn.

The third way Mr Bannon will remain relevant is, as he says, through his foghorn role at Breitbart. Admittedly, the website might not be able to keep Trump supporters at the same pitch of fury it managed when corralling conservatives against Mr Obama. It is easier to oppose an embattled president than to defend one. But with Republican congressmen emerging as Mr Trump’s most important opponents, and mid-term elections due next year, Breitbart will in particular try to intimidate Mr Trump’s Republican critics—and thereby remind the president who his friends are. “I am an ideologue, that’s why I am out,” says Mr Bannon. “I can rally the base, have his back. The harder he pushes, the more we will be there for him.”

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