The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Steve Bannon is the most powerful person in the Trump White House. That should terrify us.

As nationwide protests against President Trump’s immigration mandate rage on, he put chief strategist Stephen Bannon in an unprecedented national security role. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Most presidents have a chief political adviser, and this person is commonly portrayed as a sinister Svengali character, wielding unaccountable power behind the scenes as he whispers into the president’s ear. The fears that accompany that story are sometimes overblown, as ordinary policy and political actions the opposition objects to are cast as a twisting of government’s power to nefarious ends.

But not this time.

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s senior strategist, is emerging as the most powerful person in the White House. That’s not the problem; somebody has to occupy that perch. The problem is what Bannon wants to do with it. He has spectacularly grand ambitions, to transform our country and its place in the world. His is an ethno-nationalist vision in which America leads a clash of civilizations, and there’s little reason to think he’d be at all displeased if that clash engulfed the entire globe. There’s also little reason to think that Donald Trump would mind.

I’m sure conservatives will say, “Didn’t you liberals say the same kind of thing about Karl Rove during the Bush administration?” The difference is that Rove merely wanted to destroy the Democratic Party and bring about a permanent Republican majority. Bannon is much more ambitious: he wants to destroy the American ethos of multiculturalism, the very idea of the United States as a melting pot united not by racial and ethnic identity but by a set of ideals. And that’s before he even looks overseas.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

He’s off to an excellent start. Not only has Bannon quickly become the most influential Trump policymaker, he even got the President to put him on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, elevating him above the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence. Karl Rove never got that privilege; even in the Bush White House, the idea of a political hack with a post on that committee was a step too far. At the moment, it looks like Bannon is the dominant voice in every policy area, foreign and domestic.

For some insight into what Bannon is hoping to accomplish, let me draw your attention to few articles that have come out in the last day or so. First, Frances Stead Sellers and David Fahrenthold explore Bannon’s philosophy by looking at his speeches and tapes of the satellite radio program he hosted while running the far-right website Breitbart. Bannon expressed a desire to restrict not just illegal but legal immigration, and spoke of a global conflagration:

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,” Bannon said at the Vatican in 2014, at a time when the Islamic State 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.”

This war is going to waged both in foreign lands and here at home. Bannon expressed his dismay that legal immigrants competed with native-born people for jobs. He asked repeatedly: “Don’t we have a problem with legal immigration?”

Now let’s turn to a piece in USA Today, in which the reporters also listened to Bannon’s radio show. They found him spouting insane false stories (“Talk to us about this mosque on the North Pole”) and comparing Islam — not terrorists, but the religion itself — to Nazism and communism. “You could look in 1938 and say, ‘Look, it’s pretty dark here in Europe right now, but there’s something actually much darker. And that is Islam,’ ” he said. Here’s more:

On Breitbart News Daily, Bannon’s words often centered on the idea of a global clash of civilizations.
“To be brutally frank, I mean Christianity is dying in Europe, and Islam is on the rise,” he said in an interview in January 2016 with a Breitbart reporter.
In November 2015, Bannon told his listeners it was time to have an “adult conversation” about national security.
“Some of these situations may get a little unpleasant,” Bannon said. “But you know what, we’re in a war. We’re clearly going into, I think, a major shooting war in the Middle East again.”…
Concern about brewing conflict, he said, was a fundamental concept behind Bannon’s media enterprise. “Our big belief, one of our central organizing principles at the site, is that we’re at war,” he said.

Bannon’s vision of the white Christian west besieged by those who would destroy it does not solely concern itself with Muslims, even if Bannon sees them as the primary threat. “You have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China,” he said. “They are motivated. They’re arrogant. They’re on the march. And they think the Judeo-Christian West is on the retreat.”

Now let’s talk for a moment about Trump’s executive order temporarily banning all refugees and barring migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. It’s easy to imagine this as just the first in a series of moves that Bannon plainly hopes will not only restrict future immigration but even push out immigrants who are already here. Bannon and policy aide Stephen Miller were key drafters of that order, which was kept secret from the departments that would have to implement it. Once they finally got to see it, the Department of Homeland Security concluded that the order “did not apply to people with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders,” CNN reported. “The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President’s inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon.”

After a torrent of negative publicity, the administration backed off that interpretation a bit. But there’s more on its way. As The Post reported Tuesday:

“The Trump administration is considering a plan to weed out would-be immigrants who are likely to require public assistance, as well as to deport — when possible — immigrants already living in the United States who depend on taxpayer help.”

The idea that this would be some kind of budgetary initiative to save money is laughable; it’s obvious that they’re exploring every possible avenue to keep out new immigrants and deport as many who are already here as they can.

It’s tempting to think about Bannon’s influence as the product of a relationship in which Bannon is a puppet master, manipulating Trump into things he wouldn’t otherwise do. But that’s not quite right, because there’s no indication that Trump disagrees with any of Bannon’s ambitions. If you look back on the last few decades of Trump’s statements on public matters, a few things stand out. First, there’s his consistent belief that America is being taken advantage of and bested by crafty foreigners; you’ll notice that whenever Trump talks about trade or foreign affairs, he puts it in personal terms of physical domination, shame, and humiliation. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” he says. When another country sells more of its products to our consumers than we sell to theirs or takes a military action we don’t like, Trump says, “They’re laughing at us.”   

Second, there’s a clear strain of racism in Trump’s ideas, from his insistence (to this day!) that the exonerated “Central Park Five” were guilty, to his portrayal of areas with large numbers of African Americans as hellholes of violence and misery, to his original proposal for “a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” — which he made eight months before bringing Bannon on as CEO of his campaign.

Trump’s talk of building border walls and keeping out dangerous foreigners was never really about security. It was always about culture, the idea that those people aren’t like us and are changing the country in ways that make us uncomfortable, so if we can toss them out then we can turn back the clock to the way it was when certain people’s primacy in our society was so complete that no one questioned it. Who better to shepherd such a movement than the leader of the premier white nationalist news site on the Internet?

Likewise, Trump’s vision of all international interactions as zero-sum, in which we only win if others lose and we should only look out for ourselves, fits neatly with Bannon’s project to undermine and/or dismantle the international alliances, institutions and arrangements — political, military, and economic — that have dominated the global order since World War II. When Bannon whispers into Trump’s ear, he’ll find a ready audience.

Donald Trump may be all impulse, but Bannon is a visionary. And now he has the chance to implement that vision — nativist, ethno-nationalist, and preparing for a global clash of civilizations. Just wait until you see what he has in store.