James Kirchick

The ominous political genius of Steve Bannon

The ominous political genius of Steve Bannon
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In his fateful interview with Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect, Steve Bannon’s remarks about taking a tougher stand on trade with China, battling his enemies within the administration, and the futility of military action against North Korea generated the most headlines. But it was a widely overlooked comment about identity politics that offers the most important insight into the brilliant and cynical political mind of President Donald Trump’s now-departed counsellor and former campaign CEO.

'The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ‘em,' Bannon gloated to Kuttner. 'I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.'

Rare does a political strategist so explicitly reveal his game plan. Rarer do his opponents utterly fail to recalibrate their tactics in response. From the day Trump announced his candidacy for president with a smear maligning Mexicans as rapists, to the release of a tape in which he joked about groping women, the American left has campaigned against Donald Trump largely on claims pertaining to identity: that Trump is a racist, a misogynist, a xenophobe, an Islamophobic bigot. When Trump hired Bannon to run his presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton and her allies doubled-down on this line of attack, with Clinton going so far as to deliver a speech in which she attacked Bannon by name, a rare feat of notoriety for a campaign CEO. Notwithstanding the merits of these charges against Trump – which I happen to agree with – it was clearly an unsuccessful strategy, as Trump not only won the election, but did so with a higher portion of the black and Latino vote than his Republican predecessor, and with a respectable 42 percent of women.

This result came as a shock to people living in Democratic Party redoubts, like major metropolitan areas and college towns. And it came as a particular shock to the media, which had predicted with utter certainty that Donald Trump could never be elected president. They could not fathom how a man who so easily vilified minorities, who brought the concept of political incorrectness to such startling depths, could attain the presidency of the United States. But long before anyone took Trump seriously as a hypothetical presidential candidate, Bannon saw in the New York real estate magnate a potential standard-bearer for an increasingly polarising America. Trump became the vessel through which Bannon could implement an insight which has proven rather reliable in America (and elsewhere, too): forced to choose between a chauvinist, xenophobic, majoritarian, nationalist right and a smug, post-nationalist, identity politics-obsessed left, most will choose the former.

Throughout his short, eight-month tenure at the White House, Bannon – who has been described as a 'Leninist' – committed himself to effectuating this dialectic. His influence can be seen in three policy battles he helped instigate, all aimed at forcing Trump’s political adversaries and the media (dubbed 'the opposition party' by Bannon) onto political terrain where the right traditionally has a home field advantage: the so-called 'Muslim travel ban', the hastily-announced prohibition on transgender military service, and the just-erupted fight over statues and historical memory. In each case, Bannon nudged Democrats and liberals into adopting positions that, while fashionable with their activist base and media elite, are either unpopular or considered irrelevant to a wide majority of the American people. And by repeatedly taking his bait, the American left is allowing Bannon to define them.

Start with the travel ban, which, however immoral or controversial, is constitutional and applies only to seven majority Muslim countries. Liberals’ first mistake was to label the executive order a 'Muslim travel ban', not only because this description is factually wrong, but because, frankly, Americans aren’t so enthusiastic about the prospect of more Muslim immigrants. Polls have found overwhelming public support for the ban, 60 percent of Americans in favour to only 28 percent opposed. 56 percent of independents and 41 percent of Democrats support Trump’s position. Bannon himself couldn’t have scripted the liberal reaction better: the minute the ban was announced, protestors rushed to airport terminals across the country denouncing Trump; at JFK, hundreds chanted 'No borders, no nations, fuck deportations!' a message certainly bound to go down well among the voters Democrats will need to win back in 2018 and 2020. Trump – following Bannon’s strategic advice – was able to define himself as taking a tough stance against terrorism while his adversaries argued for Muslim immigration.

Next came the ban on transgender military service, which Bannon allegedly convinced Trump to announce over Twitter and that apparently took the Joint Chiefs of Staff by surprise. While a majority of Americans support transgender people having the right to serve in the military, it is hard to imagine that Trump lost any support over this decision. What it did offer was red meat to his base. Moreover, it is the sort of boutique issue that the more Democrats talk about – making absurd claims like 150,000 transgender people have served in the military, enlisting at twice the rate of the general population – the more politically tone-deaf they sound.

Finally, there is the fraught-issue of Confederate monuments. It was Bannon, alone among the president’s advisors, who told Trump to place equal blame on neo-Nazi and far left protestors for the violence in Charlottesville. And it was Bannon who, as he gloated in an interview with the New York Times, encouraged Trump to make the slippery-slope argument regarding the removal of Confederate statues, rhetorically asking the country if the dismantling of Robert E. Lee would lead to the razing of Washington and Jefferson. 'Just give me more,' Bannon gushed to the New York Times about the liberal reaction to Charlottesville. 'Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.'

As with the travel and transgender bans, the response from the 'resistance' was Pavlovian. Over the past two weeks, mobs have taken down Confederate statues, graffiti was sprayed on the Lincoln Memorial, a Lincoln bust was defaced in Chicago, a Democratic CNN analyst demanded that monuments to Washington and Jefferson be demolished (which would mean the destruction of two of Washington, D.C.’s most iconic attractions, if not the renaming of the national capital itself), and Democratic congressional leaders wrote bills mandating the removal of Confederate statues from the Capitol building. All this occurs against the backdrop of a poll reporting 62 percent of Americans want Confederate statues to remain in place, a finding that includes 44 percent of Democrats and, most surprisingly, a plurality of African-Americans.

Of all the shocks of the Trump presidency, it is the public reaction – or lack thereof – to Charlottesville and the ensuing aftermath that have caused the greatest disbelief among the political and media elite. In all of my time following the Trump campaign and presidency, I cannot recall a single occurrence to which there has been a more uniformly negative media outcry than Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville. But what Trump was able to do – by taking Bannon’s advice – was pivot from the controversy over apportioning blame for violence to the politically safer issue of iconoclasm, where public opinion verges drastically from that of the elite media. (And even on the matter of Trump’s claiming 'both sides' were to blame for the melee in Charlottesville, remarks that earned him vituperation more intense and widespread than anything I can recall, 40 percent of Americans agree with Trump that far right and far left are equally to blame).

A large part of this disconnect between the media and the public has to do with the medium of Twitter and an obsession with cable news. The former has become an echo chamber for reporters and political commentators where the currency is moral outrage and the pastime is one-upmanship, with everyone trying to outdo each other in quick takes on the president’s latest atrocious behaviour. As for cable news, it is watched by relatively few people (no more than a couple of million in a country of 320 million), many of whom are political journalists. The 24-hour news cycle and its constant need for controversy, combined with the frenetic incompetence of the Trump administration, exacerbates the problem of hysterical news coverage by compelling journalists to frame every minor development with breathless stupefaction.

The media’s attachment to Twitter and cable news blinds them from recognising what Bannon grasps: that the Democratic Party is increasingly becoming hostage to its activist, progressive, identity politics-driven base, which obsesses over issues not relevant to the vast majority of the American people but that play well on Twitter and MSNBC. Social media has amplified the voices pushing these issues and their influence over day-to-day political decision-making and the newsgathering process. Bannon witnessed this phenomenon firsthand at Breitbart, where a focus on the excesses of the politically correct left proved immensely popular with readers, and later in the Trump campaign, where marshalling resentment against patronising liberal elites proved a winning strategy. Bannon sees his job as edging the radicalisation of the Democratic Party further along, 'heightening the contradictions' as a Leninist would put it, and it’s a strategy he’s not particularly shy about broadcasting.

Bannon’s departure from the administration does not mean this strategy will change. His leaving had nothing to do with policy, on which his instincts mirror Trump’s better than those of anyone remaining in the White House, and everything to do with what it is that ultimately drives every decision in Trump-land: the president’s narcissism. Trump decided to dump Bannon because he didn’t like how his underling was drawing attention to himself, acting as if he were the wizard behind the curtain. When Trump first criticised Bannon publicly, after he appeared on the cover of TIME, it was in response to the perception that 'President Bannon' was running the show. 'A guy who works for me,' is how Trump dismissively referred to his senior counsellor at the time. Last week, asked about Bannon at his press conference in Manhattan, Trump made sure to note that 'I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that.' The president’s message could not have been more clear: it was Trump, and Trump alone, who deserves credit for winning last year’s election.

And so we should have every expectation that Trump will continue the Bannonite strategy of playing the role of culture warrior-in-chief. This appraisal of Bannon’s political acumen should not be interpreted as a moral judgment on the policy prescriptions he has advised Trump to follow. For what it’s worth, I disagree with Bannon and Trump on the travel ban, the transgender ban, and the removal of Confederate icons. But I'm not the sort of person Democrats need to win future elections. Bannon is a master storyteller and creator of narratives, skills he honed making political documentaries and sharpened in more lurid form at Breitbart. The grand narrative he’s spent the last several years shaping is one in which the Democrats gradually become the caricature villain of a Breitbart comments section: the party of Colin Kaepernick and Melissa Click and the screaming girl at Yale and the people defacing the Lincoln Memorial and the pundits who equivocate over condemning Antifa and the transgender YouTube activist who insists that 'some women have penises'. Democrats shouldn’t fall into his trap.

James Kirchick, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution, is author of 'The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.'