The reclusive mastermind behind President Trump’s nationalist ideology and combative tactics made his public debut Thursday, delivering a fiery rebuke of the media and declaring that the new administration is in an unending battle for “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist and intellectual force behind Trump’s agenda, used his first speaking appearance since Trump took office to vow that the president would honor all of the hard-line pledges of his campaign.
Appearing at a gathering of conservative activists alongside Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Bannon dismissed the idea that Trump might moderate his positions or seek consensus with political opponents. Rather, he said, the White House is digging in for a long period of conflict to transform Washington and upend the world order.
“If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken,” Bannon said in reference to the media and opposition forces. “Every day, it is going to be a fight.”
He continued, “And that is what I’m proudest about Donald Trump. All the opportunities he had to waver off this, all the people who have come to him and said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to moderate’ — every day in the Oval Office, he tells Reince and I, ‘I committed this to the American people, I promised this when I ran, and I’m going to deliver on this.’ ”
Bannon and Priebus shared the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference for 25 minutes in a buddy routine that inspired flashbacks to Oscar and Felix in “The Odd Couple.” They strove to prove that they are not rivals in Trump’s competing power circles, as has been reported, but rather partners working from 6:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. each day, often in the same office suite, to muscle through Trump’s desired changes.
Bannon framed much of Trump’s agenda with the phrase, “deconstruction of the administrative state,” meaning the system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president says have stymied economic growth and infringed upon U.S. sovereignty. Bannon says that the post-World War II political and economic consensus is failing and should be replaced with a system that empowers ordinary people over coastal elites and international institutions.
At the core, Bannon said in his remarks, is a belief that “we’re a nation with an economy — not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.”
Bannon repeatedly used the phrase “economic nationalism” and posited that Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement was “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history.”
Nigel Farage, the British politician who led the successful Brexit movement in the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union, said in an interview at the conference that Bannon has the right vision to reorder world powers.
“I’ve never met anyone in my life who has such focus and is so clear in the direction that he intends to go in,” Farage said. “Steve is the person with an international perspective on all of this. He’s got a good feel for the direction that he wants to see across the West.”
Bannon’s language goes beyond Reagan-era Republican talking points about cutting regulations and lowering taxes. It also sidesteps key elements of the state that Trump has pledged to maintain or expand, such as the Defense Department, Medicare and Social Security, two huge federal entitlement programs.
Bannon used some terms that are more often heard on the political left as negative labels, such as “globalist” and “corporatist.” Such words are rarely heard in a traditional Republican platform and underscore how Trump’s populism and suspicion of the world economy are in some respects similar to that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist.
“They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed — adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has,” Bannon said.
Yet some of the most powerful officials crafting Trump’s economic policies have deep roots in the global, corporate realm. Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross was a billionaire investor; Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was a hedge fund manager; and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn was president of Goldman Sachs, to cite three. And all are being tasked with carrying out an agenda that includes standard GOP fare, from cutting taxes for the wealthy to rolling back banking regulations.
Nonetheless, Bannon’s appearance at CPAC signaled a profound shift in the conservative movement’s center of gravity toward Trumpism. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, suggested during her appearance that by the time Trump addresses the group on Friday morning, the conference would be known as “TPAC.”
Bannon and Priebus were interviewed jointly on stage by Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC. Priebus celebrated Trump’s administration as “the best Cabinet in the history of Cabinets,” and Bannon said that many nominees “were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction.”
Bannon has emerged in the minds of many Trump opponents as a mysterious and menacing puppeteer, portrayed as a harrowing Grim Reaper on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” He is best known for being the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a conservative news site. Bannon once called Breitbart a “platform” for the alt-right, a small movement whose adherents are known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.
Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland (D) said Bannon is a “dangerous person driven by an authoritarian ideology who, I fear, has more influence than anyone in the administration.”
“This is a mean, vicious, intolerant group,” Strickland continued. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my political life.”
Bannon’s path to the West Wing is complicated. Bannon, 63, grew up in a working-class household of Catholic Democrats in Richmond. He served in the Navy and then climbed the ladder in finance, graduating from Harvard Business School and working at Goldman Sachs.
He then transformed his career and appearance, growing his hair long, dressing in black and becoming an antagonist to the global political and financial elite. A documentary filmmaker, Bannon championed former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as a conservative heroine. And he helped revamp Breitbart into a media colossus on the right that argues as much with the Republican establishment as it does with liberals.
David Bossie, a longtime conservative strategist who was Trump’s deputy campaign manager, said Bannon is “a modern-day Newt Gingrich.”
“He recognizes that the conservative movement over the last 10, 12 years has missed the sharp edge of the sword,” Bossie said. “He will be that sword.”
After donning a dress shirt and tie Thursday morning for a White House meeting with corporate executives, Bannon changed into a black shirt (open collared, no tie), black blazer and khakis for his visit to CPAC. At one point, Priebus looked at Bannon and quipped, “I love how many collars he wears. Interesting look.”
Bannon and Priebus declared war against the media, taking their cues from the president, who tweeted last week that news organizations were “the enemy of the American People.”
“I think if you look at the opposition party and how they portray the campaign, how they portrayed the transition and now they’re portraying the administration, it’s always wrong,” Bannon said, referring to the media as the opposition.
Priebus agreed, saying that he thinks the biggest misconception about the Trump administration in its first month is “everything that you’re reading.” He and Bannon were defiant about their partnership, insisting that reports of power struggles were wrong.
Priebus said he most admires Bannon’s doggedness and loyalty, while Bannon said he appreciates Priebus’s steady nature. “I can run a little hot on occasions, but Reince is indefatigable,” Bannon said. “I mean, it’s low-key, but it’s determination.”
Still, Bannon’s power center in the White House is quite different from that of Priebus, the former Republican National Committee chairman. Bannon has found a kindred spirit in Stephen Miller, the conservative ideologue who is Trump’s senior policy adviser. One of his assistants is Julia Hahn, a former Breitbart immigration writer who was a fierce critic of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), one of Priebus’s closest allies.
The scene at CPAC reflected Bannon’s sudden star status on the right. At the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor, college Republicans spoke of him as an icon who embodied their own anger against political correctness on their university campuses.
Writers for Breitbart, a main sponsor of CPAC, were treated as if they were ESPN anchors at a major sports event. Washington editor Matthew Boyle, who has scored several Trump interviews and counts Bannon as a mentor, was trailed by a photographer from a magazine that is profiling him.
Bannon’s trusted inner circle, including his public relations adviser, Alexandra Preate, and GOP mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, were followed by an entourage of aides and friends. They fielded questions about “Steve” — and not just from reporters.
But the air of secrecy remained.
“I don’t comment on the record,” Mercer said flatly.