Under the cover of chaos resulting from his executive order on immigration, President Trump quietly elevated right-wing nationalist Steve Bannon to a key position in the U.S. security establishment on Saturday.
Bannon, who was previously the head of propaganda outlet Breitbart Media and CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was appointed chief White House strategist after the November election. Then, while the media and activists were focused on protests this weekend around unlawful detentions and refugee rejections, President Trump signed a memorandum making Bannon a principal, or permanent member, of the National Security Council (NSC).
Bannon is widely recognized as one of the key figures on the so-called “alt-right,” the rebranded name for the racist and white nationalist offshoots from mainstream conservatism. With the signing of this order, Bannon adds to his role of ideological enforcer and campaign operative a new position in one of the primary power centers of the U.S. security establishment.
Consolidating alt-right power
The NSC was instituted by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 and serves as the central advisory body to the president on national security policy and foreign affairs. Among its main functions is to act as a coordinating agency ensuring the execution of presidential policy on security matters throughout the entire U.S. government. As part of this function, the principals committee of the NSC also exercises authority over drone strikes, according to recently declassified documents from the Obama administration.
Bannon’s elevation to the NSC came at the same time that the president downgraded the nation’s top intelligence and military officials, the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from permanent member status to invitation-only. They will now only be allowed to attend NSC meetings deemed relevant to their areas of responsibility.
As a principal, Bannon will have access to all top secret discussions and play a role in setting security policy. According to John Bellinger, a former State and Justice department official under George W. Bush, Bannon’s elevation to permanent NSC member puts him “on par with the Secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security, and Treasury.”
In joining the NSC, Bannon will sit alongside National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who peddles right-wing conspiracy theories and met recently with neo-fascist politicians from Austria, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Vice President Mike Pence, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, among others.
Other than his first week on the job at the White House, Bannon steps onto the NSC possessing no previous experience in government or public service. He served in the U.S. Navy in the late 1970s and early 1980s before starting a career in finance. He worked for several years as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs and was involved in several other projects including television production.
In the 2000s, he was a key mover behind the production of a number of right-wing films, including a Sarah Palin biopic and a supposed exposé of the Occupy Wall Street movement. His work caught the attention of Andrew Breitbart, founder of the conservative Breitbart news outlet. Breitbart called Bannon the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, recalling the propaganda campaigns of the infamous 1930s Nazi filmmaker.
Upon Breitbart’s death in 2012, Bannon stepped in to head his news operation and shifted it further toward nationalist and racial identitarian politics. Under his editorship, the Breitbart website served a key role in legitimizing and mainstreaming contemporary neo-Nazi political leaders and their views. In a feature article published in May 2016, Breitbart writers described Richard Spencer, now infamous for his “Hail Trump!” battle cry at a white nationalist conference in Washington last November, as one of the leading “intellectuals” of the “alternative right.”
Following his appointment as CEO of the Trump presidential campaign last summer and Trump’s subsequent Electoral College victory, Bannon has emerged as the guardian of the alt-right’s ideological flame.
He is reportedly the author of most of Trump’s controversial executive orders concerning immigration and refugee policy. And Trump’s dark “American carnage” inaugural address was the joint product of Bannon and Trump Republican National Convention speechwriter Stephen Miller.
Since the election, Bannon has also emerged as one of the Trump administration’s chief warriors in the battle against journalists, telling the media last week to “keep its mouth shut.” He has granted selected interviews over the past several months, however, in an effort to dispel the charges of white nationalism which have swirled around him and his Breitbart media empire. He told The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist.”
Despite the denial that his perspective is rooted in racial identity, Bannon’s claims still place him solidly in line with the emerging global right-wing populist trend promising economic recovery through an ideology of extreme nationalism and more powerful central governments. He is a player in efforts to strengthen relations between the Trump administration and nationalist and neo-fascist parties in Europe, such as Marine LePen’s French National Front.
Bannon is determined to make sure that the “economic nationalist” vision being pushed by the Trump administration will ultimately result in nothing less than a political revolution against globalization and the international economic system – an outlook which could put him and Trump on a collision course with some sectors of big business.
“The globalists,” according to Bannon, “gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f*cked over. If we deliver – we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote, and we’ll govern for 50 years.”
Though progressives and left-wing opponents of Trump are likely to be alarmed by the new Bannon appointment, they aren’t the only ones. Members of the U.S. security establishment and even influential members of Trump’s own Republican Party are also going on record against the granting of new powers to Bannon.
David Rothkopf, publisher of Foreign Policy magazine said, “Putting Bannon on it [the NSC] and making DNI [Director of National Intelligence] and Joint Chiefs optional is lunacy.”
Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, characterized Trump’s move as “stone cold crazy.” Expressing the outlook of some Republicans, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) employed more diplomatic language, saying that Trump’s changes to the NSC’s composition were “a radical departure.”
The problem with Bannon’s ascent to the NSC goes beyond just the bucking of past practice, however. His appointment raises serious questions about the growth of extremist influence within the central institutions of the American state.
With Bannon apparently enjoying outsized influence in guiding Trump administration policy and direction in these first days, the consolidation of far-right nationalist power at the highest levels of government cannot go unnoticed.
With Trump widely perceived as a policy novice driven by ego and popularity concerns, the real significance of current developments could be that determined ideologues like Bannon will be able to drive the government’s agenda from the top. His NSC appointment should therefore be understood as an extension of the alt-right’s authoritarian nationalist project.
According to Bannon in an interview with Vanity Fair last summer, he sees Trump as a “blunt instrument for us” – a tool to be used for smashing the prevailing political establishment. He continued, saying, “I don’t know whether he [Trump] really gets it or not.” In Bannon’s words, there is more than a hint that he views Trump as a pawn in the extreme nationalists’ play for power.
Whether Bannon and the alt-right will be able to continue wielding Trump as their instrument will likely depend on a couple of factors. The first will be how well the president feels the nationalist project serves his personal political and economic interests. The second will be how major capitalist interests dedicated to free trade and globalization respond to the alt-right’s extreme nationalism.
As popular resistance rises and mainstream opinion turns more and more against the president’s executive actions, however, the likelihood of splits and dissension within the ranks of the GOP, in the government, and among the capitalist class will only increase.