Steve Bannon’s Big Gamble

By: Chris Baugh

I’ve always had a weird habit, which is my ability to separate my emotions about a person from a sort of drier objective viewpoint. So, for example, while I might think Trump is a dangerous would-be dictator who’s quickly eroding our democratic norms, I can also understand why people voted for him. A lot of both has to do with Stephen K Bannon, the Navy officer turned Goldman banker turned Hollywood mini-mogul turned Breitbart News chairman turned Trump campaign “CEO” turned Breitbart News chairman again. Bannon currently finds himself in an interesting place where he feels possessed of the capacity to reshape American politics more than he already has. Bannon is the weird kind of insane person that’s intelligent enough to have ideas but crazy enough that they’re insane. He’s the kind of person I would like to get riotously drunk with. And punch in the face. Potentially in the same night.
Bannon leaving Trump’s White House really sets the stage for an even bigger internecine knife-fight over the next 3 or so years. Without Bannon and his emphasis on nativism, populism, and economic nationalism (all of which have some overlap), Trump doesn’t get elected. His campaign’s animating spirit — hardline immigration reform of the “rapists and killers” from Mexico — was pure, uncut Bannon. And it worked. Because immigration has been a bipartisan problem in search of a solution for thirty years. Most of the GOP field ran on some kind of path to citizenship. Marco Rubio even had a bill that would have done exactly this before it got scuttled in the legislature. Trump outflanked them all, relied heavily on white racial grievance, and won a nailbiter that defied conventional wisdom on shifting demographics. Now that Trump is in office, he seems poised to abandoned the signature metaphor of his campaign — a “big, beautiful Wall” paid for by Mexico, and featuring (my favorite part) a big beautiful America Door for the legal immigrants.
In building his Cabinet, Trump attempted to mimic Abraham Lincoln by assembling a Team of Rivals. He had the hardline interventionalists (led by now-disgraced NSA Michael Flynn), he had the actual-globalist and “globalist” in Breitbart terms economic advisors (Gary Cohn, Jared Kushner), he had the immigration hard-liners (General Kelly and Jeff Sessions). And somewhere in the midst of it all was Steve Bannon, who aligned with the immigration guys but less so the economic or interventionalist side of the Trump White House. Eventually, Bannon and his crew got pushed to the fringes and he returned to Breitbart to hold Trump accountable from the outside. Now, freed of Bannon’s influence, Trump is considering a deal on DACA, Barack Obama’s program to protect undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children. The early backlash to this decision has been…immense. But I think it demonstrates what Bannon’s gamble is and also where Bannon misread the tea leaves (pun…half-intended).
Bannon’s ideology is a weird blend of Catholic mysticism, Hindu religion, and white nationalism. Like a lot of Republicans, he believes the next great defining battle is between the West and Islam (some people always need an enemy). He supported Nigel Farage in Brexit before jumping on the Trump Train. Bannon ultimately believes that the era of globalism (interconnected governments, free trade, open-ish borders, etc) is over, and that Trump is a champion of a return to 19th Century ideas. He was right with regard to Brexit and the Trump election. Now he’s doubling down that he’s right on everything else. Rather, Bannon believes that Trump is the front of the nationalist wave (the irony of Bannon believing in a global movement toward anti-globalist sentiment is…well). And from his frat house in DC that headquarters Breitbart, armed with his cargo shorts, sandals, and multiple overlapping button-downs, Bannon aims to prove it.
Bannon sees Trump as the beginning of his movement, even moreso than the Tea Party Revolution. Because to Bannon, Ryan and the Tea Partiers are all just cuckservatives, not true believers. Which gets at one of the key issues at play here. There are, more or less, three animating spirits on the right. You have traditional conservatism — low regulation, low taxation, pro-business — the Tea Party — more Ayn Rand, small government, libertarian — and you have the Bannonites — borderline fascist government, whites-only country, obsessed with cultural purity and economic nationalism. Those three forces really united around one thing: mutual hatred of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the kind of liberal elites Bannon has always worked for and worked with. You can tell how powerful this Clinton hatred is because of how frequently Trump has to attack a retired woman who wrote a book. Without that hatred, there’s nothing unifying the disparate elements of modern conservatism.
The GOP thought that Obamacare repeal-and-replace was another point of common interest. But it quickly became apparent that the traditional GOP was lying, that Paul Ryan wanted something deeply unpopular, and that Trump literally didn’t care about anything except revenge against the guy who was mean to him six years ago at a dinner. Next they turn to tax reform, another place where Trump has no fixed ideology and the other GOP factions will fight among themselves for deals.
Beyond the internal GOP politics, I personally believe that Bannon completely misread both Brexit and Trump. I think they were the crest of a global wave toward economic nationalism/populism. The Atlantic had a great piece (that I sadly cannot find/link to) that argues that global moves toward nationalism happen after a global economic crisis but usually peak around a decade later. Brexit/Trump were the end of the wave, not the beginning. France backed a pro-EU candidate (Macron) over their nationalist candidate (Le Pen). Germany seems poised to re-elect Angela Merkel, one of the staunchest defenders of the EU and globalist economy policy in general.
But Bannon and his billionaire backers the Mercers are going to double down on trying to elect more Trumpist candidates, people like Roy Moore in Alabama. They’ve declared open war not just on the moderate wing of the Trump White House, but anyone in the legislature they see as interfering with the Trump/Bannon agenda. So far, at least, it doesn’t seem like Trump’s heart is much in this fight. The next couple of years will prove whether Bannon is a force in his own right or whether the animating forces of Trumpism are receding into the background after their historic moment.
One last piece to touch on…Nancy Pelosi has always been a shrewd politician, but her actions (along with Chuck Schumer) in the past 2 weeks have demonstrated an understanding of the motivating forces of the modern GOP that their own leaders seem to fail to grasp. She understands where she can push Trump and she’s used the fissures within the GOP to turn sides against each other, all while keeping her own caucus in lockstep opposition. The attempt to repeal Obamacare failed by a single vote, which means if any Senators had defected, it could have passed. But she knew that the GOP caucus all wanted different things and that they had a President so policy illiterate that he couldn’t wrangle the caucus to agreement. My guess is she’s hoping a similar pattern unfolds on their tax repeal efforts.
Ultimately, Trump doesn’t care what actually happens. He’s old and he’s rich. His legacy was sealed on Nov 8 when he became the first person to never serve or hold office to assume the highest office. Pelosi understands that and understands that the more work she does for him, the happier he’ll be to let her. I don’t know if there’s a modern precedent for the kind of things we’ve seen in the past two weeks. But none of it would be possible if the GOP didn’t already have these sweeping ideological divisions. Now Bannon wants a war for the soul of the GOP.
I don’t think he’s got the power to win. But I said that last summer about the unlikely marriage between Trump and Breitbart, and here we are.

Chris Baugh is originally from Georgia. He received a bachelor's in political science from the University of Georgia and now works in the film and television industry in Los Angeles, CA.