Steve Bannon, the White House’s chief strategist, has left the Trump administration that he helped put into power, after losing long-running feuds with the president’s economic and security advisors. ”We are grateful for his service,” said the White House press secretary in a statement, “and wish him the best.”
They may wish him the best, but they should also fear the worst.
Bannon was often portrayed as the puppet-master behind Trump, manipulating his boss into extreme positions on issues as wide-ranging as Islam, climate change, and trade. That portrayal has become less convincing as rivals in the White House gained the president’s favor, weakening Bannon but making no difference to Trump’s pugnacity.
But leaving the White House does not make Bannon less powerful. If anything, becoming a free agent will make it easier for him to push his agenda. Ousting him unleashes a man who has championed white nationalism in America, has shown a thirst for revenge and a disregard for behavioral norms, and has a deep knowledge of the White House. Unfettered, he could undermine the Trump presidency, further radicalize and unify the disparate right-wing groups that helped bring Trump to power, and even expand hate-fueled nationalistic movements globally.
The Breitbart effect
Bannon is expected to return to Breitbart, the right-wing, white-nationalist-leaning website that he ran before he joined the campaign in August of 2016. The site, which he has called the “platform for the alt-right,” has a history of skewering people that Bannon personally dislikes as well as publishing anti-immigrant fake news and misogynistic commentary.
Breitbart’s star has waned since last year: In June, its traffic was less than half (paywall) what it had been the previous November. But it remains a major force in right-wing media, and with Breitbart alone, Bannon can do a lot of damage.
During the 2016 presidential election campaign Breitbart cemented its role as an agenda-setter not only for the right-wing media but for the mainstream as well, as Harvard professor Yochai Benkler and his colleagues showed in a study earlier this year. The site helped focus election coverage on Trump’s immigration and grandiose jobs-creation rhetoric—as opposed to, say, his alleged sexual assaults on women or his Trump University, which settled a civil fraud trial earlier this year—while diverting attention away from Clinton’s economic messages and towards her email scandal instead.
As editor of Breitbart, Bannon would be a natural fit for the role of ideological unifier and leader of the alt-right, a fractured but growing movement in the United States. His dark vision of America—which eschews liberalism and globalization, claims that Islam is at war with Christianity, and believes a violent crisis is necessary to renew American values—cuts across many of the concerns shared by disparate right-leaning ideologies. It is part of a movement believes that white identity is under attack in the US, and attacks both traditional Republicans and Democrats. Bannon’s influence could spread far beyond US shores as well—he has reached out to far-right politicians in Europe in recent years, praising France’s Marine Le Pen, for example.
Waning in the White House
Trump’s relationship with Bannon started with the would-be president frequently appearing as a guest on Bannon’s popular Breitbart call-in radio show. Bannon masterminded the Trump campaign’s populist push, which decried big mergers, accused China of “raping” the US, and, perhaps above all, demonized Muslims and Islam.
The most significant aspect of this populism is Trump’s protectionist “America First” platform, of which Bannon was also a chief architect. He was the president’s top general in the battle against “globalists,” a bogeyman that Breitbart constantly invokes and sees as ascendant in the Trump administration. (On Breitbart.com, the names of supposed “globalists” are often portrayed with globes on either side of them, a sub rosa form of condemnation that also echoes the anti-Semitic signal of placing brackets on either side of Jewish names.)
But the primary target of “America First” was always immigration. Here again Bannon was the point man, designing policies to restrict movement into the US. He authored—along with White House advisor Stephen Miller—Trump’s early executive order limiting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries (which came to be known as the “Muslim ban”), and he believes that immigrants lack democratic “DNA.”
Inside the White House, however, other strong personalities hemmed Bannon in, and “America First” was frequently undercut by some of those same “globalists”—the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic aide. Bannon clashed with national security advisor H.R. McMaster and with Cohn in recent months as he argued for a less aggressive stance toward North Korea. The president was reportedly furious that Bannon publicly contradicted his position on North Korea in a bizarre interview this week. In that interview, Bannon went so far as to declare open war on Cohn.
Bannon is said to have resigned on amicable terms—an anonymous “source close to” him told several news outlets he had turned in his resignation on Aug. 7. (Other reports say it was Trump’s decision.) But even if this is true, the question is what Bannon will do when his to-do list diverges from Trump’s, as it inevitably will.
“He’s going nuclear. You have no idea,” a friend of his reportedly told the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray; Axios, similarly, reports that he plans to go “thermonuclear” against “globalists” and that Breitbart is a “killing machine.” Though he may not go after Trump himself, or at least not immediately, the threat of Bannon will loom over the Oval Office throughout the president’s tenure.
Can Donald escape Steve?
Trump’s romp to the White House owes a great deal to the stories Bannon spun—particularly those demonizing illegal immigration, fanning paranoia about Islamic terrorism and urban crime waves, and fetishizing “law and order”—that appealed to the alt-right. The president’s bungling of the Charlottesville tragedy suggests how beholden he still is to that group.
Though their ranks are small, they’ve successfully pushed into the mainstream political conversation, giving credibility to the narratives that whites are held to an unfair double standard and that political correctness has made their cultural interests subsidiary to those of non-whites. These are the narratives that animate Trump’s base.
If Trump, in an attempt to restart his paralyzed legislative agenda, tries to broaden his appeal to moderate Republicans (and even, gasp, Democrats), he will have to repudiate many of these positions. Will Breitbart then turn on him? Trump knows full well that the site has helped destroy Republicans it deemed insufficiently conservative (see: Eric Cantor). And given how outraged the Breitbart crowd has been of late at Trump’s treatment of one of their heroes, attorney general Jeff Sessions, he can’t take their loyalty for granted.
In fact, there are already hints that the alt-right is ready to battle the Trump administration. A recent Breitbart article about reports that Trump was being pressured to oust Bannon said that Bannon’s critics were giving “Trump voters the middle finger”. Another demonized Republicans John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Mitt Romney for criticizing the president’s response to the Charlottesville protests, calling them the “enemy.” Yet another, published just after the news of Steve Bannon’s departure, warned that Trump risks becoming “Schwarzenegger 2.0”, in a reference to the former California governor, who campaigned as a populist outsider and ended his term with rock-bottom approval ratings. And the author of that article, Breitbart editor Joel Pollak, tweeted, simply, “#WAR.”
Bannon’s media empire
Perhaps turning Breitbart against Trump wouldn’t deal a death blow to the president. But Bannon’s media reach isn’t limited to that site. He’s proven himself masterful at injecting narratives into mainstream press coverage. Bannon’s research center, the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), produced the 2015 book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. Released around the same time Clinton announced her candidacy, the stories from Clinton Cash grabbed headlines for months thanks to Bannon’s adroitly feeding parts of the story as exclusives to such “globalist” outlets as the New York Times, as Joshua Green explained in his 2015 profile of Bannon.
The puppet-master may soon have plenty other media in his arsenal. For one thing, he’s much better known than before he joined Trump’s campaign; if he resumes his role as a radio host, his reach will be vastly greater.
Whatever he does next, it will be well-financed. There are already rumors that far-right political donor Robert Mercer will fund Bannon’s next move, and conservative billionaire Sheldon Adelson is another of his political patrons (paywall). Money like that could be used to build a media empire to rival Fox News, which has been losing credibility among the likes of Breitbart readers, who are often to the right of Fox’s stances. With Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah Mercer—who also sits on the board of GAI—Bannon also formed a film production company, Glittering Steel, that aims to make political advertisements as well as commercially successful Christian-themed movies, according to a new book by Green, Devil’s Bargain.
In short, Bannon’s ouster from the White House isn’t the end, but only the beginning.