As I argued in these pages last January, it was premature to write Steve Bannon’s political obituary. Now, he’s announced his comeback in an interview with Ben Schreckinger in GQ magazine. He is, Schreckinger writes, “plotting the next stage of his right-wing populist revolution” which he plans to launch this spring or summer. Bannon tells him, “It’s going to be focused on the promulgation of ideas, the weaponizing of ideas and building and binding together through affiliate groups.” Social media will be an important component in building “a 10 million man digital and analog army.”
Bannon picked a rather strange venue to announce his plans. Likely, the foot soldiers he hopes to enlist have never read GQ or even heard of it. The interview must therefore be viewed as a message from Bannon to the establishments of both political parties. He claims American elites are out of touch with the people and are “comfortable with America being in decline.” Now he is putting both parties on notice. He plans to recruit from Trump’s right-wing base while maintaining that he supports Trump, a stance that will be important if he is to attract Trump’s followers. He also plans to recruit from Bernie Sanders’ left-wing flank of the Democratic Party with his appeal of economic nationalism.
To those who tell him that his populist nationalist movement does not have concrete policies, he points out that neither did the Tea Party in the first few years; but they were against Obamacare, observing that “there’s plenty of power in just being against.” On foreign policy he says we are confronted with a new “axis of evil,” one quite different from the one George W. Bush laid out in his first term.
The threat to the United States, and the entire West, according to Bannon, is coming from China, Iran (which he calls by its old name, Persia), and Turkey. That axis, he argues, is “confronting the Christian West” and resembles the period in the 1930s before the start of World War II. In that era, FDR had to break the isolationist mood of the country to take on the threat from Germany and its allies which of course he never really succeeded in doing until Pearl Harbor.
As for Putin’s Russia, Bannon acknowledges that “the Russians are bad guys.” Nevertheless, given the threat from the axis, he believes that the United States must “reset the relationship with Russia… and end the Cold War.” He thinks Donald Trump gets this, but most of the other political forces don’t. His stance on the Russian issue seems a throwback to the policy of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and it puts Bannon in line with the views of pro-Russian analysts like Stephen Cohen and others writing for The Nation magazine, as well as Trump followers who buy Bannon’s thesis on the Russian issue.
Cohen has appeared many times on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, where in terms similar to Bannon, he argues against a “Cold War” stance by the United States and urges friendship with the Putin regime. While the editors of America’s premier left-wing opinion magazine stand among those who hate Trump, their obstinate stand on the Russian issue could apparently lead them to giving support to Bannon on this foreign policy position.
I would not be surprised if he gains the support of Russophiles like the hard-right congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher. The Putin government is so enamored of the congressman that he evidently received a code name from the Russian spy agencies, whose leaders saw him as an intelligence source. A supporter of Trump, who now may well be critical of some of Trump’s new anti-Russian moves like giving arms to Ukraine, Rohrabacher would be ready and more than willing to join forces with Bannon.
It is on domestic policy that Bannon’s approach becomes quite interesting. While his foreign policy is in line with an “America First” position and is clearly nationalist, on domestic policy Bannon lines up with many on the left, whose support he hopes will shift to the new movement that he intends to build. Remember that at the time of the announcement of the tax cut introduced by Trump, Bannon argued for a much higher tax on the rich and bemoaned the fact that the bill was negligent in that regard.
Bannon believes that on economic issues, Sanders and many self-proclaimed socialists are “economic nationalists.” They favor tough negotiations to get trade deals that benefit the American worker as well as protectionist tariffs that protect goods made in the United States, and hence the jobs of American workers. Bannon in the interview does not address the problem that the foreign powers we’re dealing with could institute their own retaliatory tariffs, leading to a trade war that will drive prices up in the United States and produce serious negative repercussions, as many are predicting right now in the wake of Trump’s announcement about steel and aluminum.
Bannon has not repudiated his friendly relations with those in Europe he sees as allies for a new movement, especially like Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France, which many have described as a “crypto-fascist” party. Le Pen, like Bannon, believes that Islam is at war with the West, and like American nationalists, is against open borders, for immigration restriction, and especially banning further immigration from Muslim nations that harbor many jihadists.
She is also pro-Putin and for reconciliation with Russia. Putin’s government was openly funding her last run for the French presidency, and she is sympathetic with his authoritarian bent and his repressive stance toward those who favor the creation of a democracy in Russia.
In France, Le Pen ran her campaign to the left of the French Communist Party on many domestic matters, calling for more welfare state spending and defending herself as a protector of working people who are losing all because of “wild and anarchic globalization.” She favors the reindustrialization of France, and pulling out of the Eurozone. Reports indicate that many French Communists voted for her and support her party and its programs. In many ways, Bannon’s respect for and his outreach to the left is similar.
Trump’s election became an inspiration to the new hard-right European parties. Le Pen was ecstatic about his victory, and her claim that she would “take back France” is her version of Trump and Bannon’s goal for America. Trump also favors France leaving the EU, which is a common nationalist demand. And of course, the Brexit victory in Great Britain was the fulfillment of the goal of one of their main allies, Nigel Farage.
Bannon said in one of his interviews with the journalist Joshua Green in his book that Trump’s rise was one manifestation of a new powerful global undercurrent. “That’s why,” he explained, “you see a nationalist movement… Look at Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary, and the nationalists in Poland.”
That is why he sees Orban and others as potential allies, even though in Hungary, Orban boasts about creating a new “illiberal democracy.” Orban sounded much like Bannon when he explained in a July 2014 speech that the “new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom… but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organization, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.”
Similarly, Bannon is much in line with the new authoritarian government of Poland, where the Law and Justice Party supports the type of protectionist policies that were once the domain of the left, and where the government has moved to curtail the opposition press and to tear down an independent judiciary. All these measures echo Donald Trump’s many statements that he sees the same enemies at home and wishes he could accomplish in the U.S. what Poland and Hungary have in Europe.
Bannon, who always presents himself as anti-Wall Street, although he made his fortune working at Goldman Sachs, argues that he and his new movement will represent working people. “The greatest power on earth,” he tells his interviewer, “is the working men and women of this country. They have a nobility to them. They have a certain power to them.” When Schreckinger observes accurately that his statement “reminds me of Woody Guthrie,” the ironies are many.
In a recently discovered song, Guthrie wrote a ballad against Trump’s father Fred, titled “Old Man Trump.” His song protests the racial restrictions on properties held by his company in the 1950s, for which he and his son Donald were both sued by the Justice Department in the 1970s. Guthrie, who lived for two years in the Trump property known as Beach Haven, wrote the following:
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!
And of course, Guthrie was a Communist. Yet Bannon says that although people say that “This Land is Your Land” is a communist song, the “populist left have taken it, but it’s still one of the most powerful songs written in this country. So I’m a big fan.” Somehow, I don’t think were he alive, Woody Guthrie would be pleased to hear Steve Bannon’s praises.
Let us not forget, however, that during the years of World War II, Communists endorsed the strategy of becoming a pressure group on FDR’s administration, hoping to push it to the left. Bannon’s obvious hope is that a movement he forms will have the same effect on whatever conservative administration is in power, especially the current Trump one. It is also rather fanciful for Bannon to assume he will get the support of leftists simply because they have one economic goal in common. The left will never support a movement that sees itself as ethno-nationalist and which the left already perceives as racist.
Nor is it certain that he will get the backing of the white working-class voters in swing states that put Trump in power. If he does succeed in getting some of them to join him, others will stay where they are or even vote for someone like Sanders. Many will already be disillusioned with Trump, and Bannon cannot count on their votes. As J.D. Vance put it about Trump before the election, Trump was selling “snake oil” to them, and the same will be said about Bannon. It could also split the GOP and conservative vote, thereby assuring Democratic Party wins. The future for Bannon’s movement is therefore problematic.