Democracy Dies in Darkness

Opinions

Stephen K. Bannon has won

June 17, 2018 at 7:22 PM

Stephen K. Bannon in Prague on May 22. (Martin Divisek/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock)

He was fired 10 months ago, but Stephen K. Bannon has won.

Truculent, anti-immigrant nationalism; disdain for the “deep state”; disparaging democratic allies while celebrating dictators: These are now the pillars of President Trump’s rule. In his administration’s policy, foreign and domestic, and in the compliant Republican Party, Bannonism is ascendant.

Corey Stewart, the xenophobic, Confederate-celebrating Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Virginia, is cheered by Trump as the face of this new party. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), tweeting on behalf of old principles, is a total outsider. Supposed leaders such as Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the Senate and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) in the House fall abjectly into line.

This is the victory not only of a Trump personality cult, as it has been described, but also of an ideology, one closer to Putinism than Reaganism.

To realize how thorough is the rout, it helps to think back to spring 2017 — when such an outcome did not seem inevitable.

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Since meeting with Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore, President Trump has described the North Korean leader in some surprising ways. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Back then, you may recall, some of the “crazies” — such as national security adviser Michael Flynn — had left the White House, and supposed pragmatists had taken charge: H.R. McMaster for national security, Gary Cohn for economics, Jared and Ivanka for — well, for general reasonableness.

There was talk of working with Democrats on infrastructure. Trump wanted to help the “dreamers,” those blameless young immigrants brought to this country as children. It seemed that existing international agreements — NATO, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Paris climate accord — might be preserved, with some face-saving adjustments. Trump was still the politician who had spoken tolerantly on LGBT issues.

Now, any hint of compromise with Democrats has been purged. The White House defines itself and prepares to motivate its voters by the “enemies” it constantly creates, refines and rediscovers, including African American athletes, the press (“Our Country’s biggest enemy,” in a recent Trump tweet), Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“very dishonest & weak”), and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (directing a “Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats”). Also: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Democratic leaders in the Senate and House, former FBI director James B. Comey, his own attorney general, his deputy attorney general . . . The list will never end.

But Bannonism is not just a snarling attitude. It encompasses a contempt for democracy and a respect for authoritarianism. When Trump refused to sign a statement of solidarity with the world’s other six leading industrial democracies and then proceeded to slather praise on North Korea’s dictator (“a tough guy . . . a very smart guy”), this was not just a sign of personal pique or favoritism: The U.S. president raised questions in the minds of other leaders about whether the concept of the West itself can survive his presidency.

It encompasses an “America First,” for-me-to-win-you-have-to-lose philosophy now being implemented in tariff wars against virtually every U.S. trading partner.

It encompasses a contempt for immigrants, for outsiders of any kind. Certainly it is possible to support lower levels of immigration without being a racist. But to countenance the deliberate policy of tearing away small children from their parents that we are seeing today on the U.S.- ­Mexico border is consistent only with a worldview that deems Mexicans and Salvadorans somehow less human, less worthy, than white Americans.

And it’s no coincidence that Trump, who boasted about being the first Republican to say LGBTQ in his convention acceptance speech in 2016, has, as The Post’s James Hohmann noted last week, tried to ban transgender people from the military, removed protections for transgender inmates, employees and students, failed to acknowledge Pride Month and disbanded the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. As in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, this revival of bigotry dovetails with an effort to woo the conservative Christian establishment.

Finally, Bannonism encompasses contempt for the government itself. Trump has served this well with his constant disparagement of the Justice Department and the FBI; his at times insultingly unsuitable appointments (such as his personal physician to head the mammoth Department of Veterans Affairs); and his generally cavalier attitude toward staffing. Even today, 17 months into his first term, fewer than half of the 667 key positions tracked by The Post in collaboration with the Partnership for Public Service are filled, and for almost 200 there are no nominees.

How has Bannonism prevailed without Bannon? In part, with the help of true believers who remain in the White House, including Stephen Miller (on immigration) and Peter Navarro (on trade).

But another answer came from Trump himself, who said after Bannon’s firing: “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. . . . Steve was a staffer.”

Even discounting for Trump’s normal petulance and self-aggrandizement, there may have been an element of truth in what he said. The anti-democratic, protectionist, anti-immigrant, pro-authoritarian administration that has now taken shape, in other words, is not only Bannonism. It is raw and unvarnished Trumpism, too.

Read more from Fred Hiatt’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Fareed Zakaria: Bannon’s clever idea to save the GOP from brutal midterms

David Von Drehle: Thank you, Steve Bannon

Marc A. Thiessen: Steve Bannon, you just elected a Democrat in Alabama

Robert Kagan: Faster, Steve Bannon. Kill! Kill!


Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. Previously he was a local reporter in Virginia, a national reporter covering national security and a foreign correspondent based in Tokyo and Moscow.

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