David Cameron and Tony Abbott at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Mark Nolan/Reuters
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The rise of the Anglosphere: how the right dreamed up a new conservative world order

The Anglosphere has its roots in the Commonwealth tradition. But today's global world has forged a powerful unofficial alliance.

During what has been an unusually turbulent period in British politics, one of the most important and potentially enduring shifts in the mindset of those at the apex of the political system has received far less attention than it merits. This concerns the striking re-emergence on the political right of the dream of an entirely different geo­political and economic future for the United Kingdom, one that claims to relocate it in the historical trajectory and distinctive values that once made Britain great.

Among a growing number of conservative-inclined Eurosceptics, the long-standing ambition of an alliance made up of some of the leading English-speaking countries spread across the world has quietly moved from marginal curiosity to a position of respectability. The idea of the “Anglosphere” – and the policies and strategies pursued by some of the political leaders of its constituent countries – has become a source of increasing, almost magnetic influence on British conservatives. And it may well provide the governing intellectual framework for the Eurosceptic campaign to quit the European Union in a post-election referendum.

The concept of an Anglosphere reflects the long-held belief that Britain’s best interests lie in forging closer relationships (and perhaps even some kind of institutionalised alliance) with those countries that have broadly similar political structures and systems; and that also tend to cherish the values of parliamentary government, individual liberty, the rule of law and the free market. The membership list of this club varies quite considerably depending on the author but at its core are the English-speaking “Five Eyes” countries of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Each of these was once a British colony and can readily be situated within an imaginary horizon of a group of countries united by a shared political and economic culture, nourished from the roots of British parliamentary institutions, economic liberalism and Protestantism.

But what gives the concept of the Anglosphere striking modern-day appeal for conservatives and dispels any lingering cold-war revanchist overtones is that it frames an account of how an independent UK can prosper in a global economy dominated by the rise of Asia. Liberated from the EU and allied with the rest of the Anglosphere, the argument runs, Britain could reinvent its open trading heritage, harnessing its colonial history to integrate itself into the new global economy of the Asian century.

Here are the seeds of a powerful alternative argument against the pro-European, centrist view of globalisation that has dominated the mainstream of British politics – and the Labour Party, above all – for the past quarter of a century. Importantly, this position resists a retreat to the hinterland of economic nationalism and instead constructs a new account of free-market geopolitical co-operation, anchored in the institutional alliance of the Anglosphere. In the title of an influential Conservative Free Enterprise Group pamphlet, it is Britannia Unchained.

The Britannia Unchained has deep roots in the Commonwealth tradition, which emerged as a shared point of reference after the Second World War. As Winston Churchill is said to have shouted at Charles de Gaulle before the D-Day landings, “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea!” – a remark later echoed by the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell at the 1962 Labour party conference, when he argued that Britain would become a mere “province” in a federal Europe, bringing to an end “a thousand years of history”.

Charles de Gaulle (R) awards Sir Winston Churchill la Croix de Liberation at the Hotel Matignon in Paris 06 October 1958. Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

During the debates about membership of the European Common Market in the early 1970s, many opponents invoked the Commonwealth as an alternative trading partner and source of influence and as a community towards which Britain retained distinct obligations. Yet, by this time, arguments about Europe were being conducted against the background of a much deeper set of concerns about the prospects for the UK. Fear of the implications of Britain remaining outside the Common Market outweighed the sentimental and economic arguments mounted for the Commonwealth.

This post-imperial tradition may have weakened during these years but the dream of an Anglophone future for Britain refused to die. Instead, it migrated to the outskirts of conservative politics and re-emerged as an important feature of some of the libertarian currents that began to percolate into mainstream conservatism in the mid-to-late 1970s. In these quarters, American ideas were a major influence, especially following the emergence of a powerful set of foundations, think tanks and intellectuals in the UK that propounded arguments and ideas that were associated with the fledgling “New Right”.

In this climate, as Ben Wellings and Helen Baxendale have shown, the Anglosphere came back to life as an alternative ambition, advanced by a powerful alliance of global media moguls (Conrad Black, in particular), outspoken politicians, well-known commentators and intellectual outriders, who all shared an insurgent ideological agenda and a strong sense of disgruntlement with the direction and character of mainstream conservatism.

In his major work Reflections on a Ravaged Century, the historian Robert Conquest argued that the political arrangements of the west were all increasingly deficient, the EU included. The answer was “a more fruitful unity” between the Anglosphere nations. And, in a speech to the English-Speaking Union in New York in 1999, Margaret Thatcher endorsed Conquest’s vision, noting how such an alliance would “redefine the political landscape”. What appealed most was the prospect of the UK finding an alliance founded upon deep, shared values, the antithesis of the position it faced in Europe.

Thatcher’s endorsement ushered in a period of growing respectability for this notion. Soon, it was projected to a much wider set of publics by several prominent intellectuals. In his 2003 book Empire, for example, the historian Niall Ferguson concluded that the liberal values associated with the British empire remained the lodestar for democrats around the world. For him, the principles of free trade, the rule of law and parliamentary democracy constituted the positive aspects of its legacy.

The Anglosphere: countries where the first language is English are in dark blue; countries with a substantial knowledge of the language, dating back to the British Empire, in light blue. 

In these and other high-profile arguments, a clear moral emerged: the unique political and economic inheritance of Britain made the decision to enter a union of European nations an error of epic proportions. The very survival of the values of the Anglosphere had been put into jeopardy. As the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan put it more recently: “As the sun sets on the Anglosphere imperium, we understand with sudden clarity what it is that we stand to lose.”

For the most part, however, the idea of the Anglosphere remained on the margins in political circles until the establishment of the coalition government in 2010, since which time it has steadily forced its way into the political conversation. Speaking during an official visit to Australia in 2013, the then foreign secretary, William Hague, argued for closer ties between Britain and Australia and made reference to one of the most important, enduring political expressions of the link between them – the close co-operation enjoyed by their intelligence services and the experience of finding much common cause in relation to the US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the past few years, other leading Tories have, in different ways, identified themselves with this idea, including David Willetts, John Redwood, Norman Lamont, Liam Fox and Michael Howard. During his own trip to Australia in 2013, Boris Johnson argued that when we joined the Common Market, we in effect “betrayed our relationships with Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand”.

Framing the decision to join the fledgling EU as an act of “betrayal” was an eye-catching rhetorical flourish, even by Johnson’s standards. Europe became the default option, he continued, “when the establishment was defeatist, declinist and obsessed with the idea that we were being left out of the most powerful economic club in the world”.

Notions of an organised alliance of any kind remain fanciful in the extreme. Yet the underlying impatience with a European future for the UK and a deep desire to get back to the exceptionalism that characterised Britain’s self-image in earlier times underpin the renewal of this dream. The past 70 years have generated profound and mostly unanswered questions in British politics about how a state that once saw itself as special and exemplary might make sense of its waning geopolitical position and declining economic strength.

For advocates of the Anglosphere, these painful realities and the existential angst associated with them can, it seems, be defied. Individualism, liberty and the rule of law are the normative cornerstones of this vision and are typically framed in stark contrast to the corporatist, bureaucratic and authoritarian political cultures that are widely held to prevail on the European continent.

The appeal of this idea is not just a reflection of growing disillusionment with Europe. For many, the rise of China, the increasing threat of radical Islam and the uncertainties of the global economy all make the question of locating political allies and sympathetic states much more imperative for the UK. The future of the west, some argue, may be contingent upon a closer coalescence of the Anglosphere countries.

And the European project is now often condemned as fundamentally out of kilter with the dynamics and leading technologies of the world we inhabit. Eurosceptics increasingly view Europe as an old, declining continent, riddled with regulation and saddled with debt. The Anglosphere sustains a restless desire to find a new, outward-facing, globally rooted destiny for the UK. And this vision is offered in stark contrast to the more insular ethos and instincts of the right-wing populism associated above all with Ukip.

This is an important, growing source of tension within the Conservative Party and beyond and is echoed across the political spectrum. These differences of national vision and understanding now run deep in British politics and are contributing significantly to the pressures bearing down on the unity of the two main parties. Both the outward-facing ambitions of the Anglosphere and the more inward-looking, anti-metropolitan politics of Ukip are rooted in national traditions. But for advocates of the first of these world-views, the Englishness to which they lay claim is steeped in images of the intrepid, entrepreneurial peoples of a world island, a seafaring nation committed to finding partners and acquiring influence across the globe.

Indeed, this liberal, internationalist idea of Britain was once much more prominent and mainstream than the kind of insularity and pessimism that Ukip espouses. Its optimism and openness to the world are what gives it political appeal for Eurosceptics who are anxious to contest the argument about what is best for Britain’s future and not get boxed into a
political retreat to a fading past.

The Anglosphere evokes a way of telling the national story and understanding Britain’s place in the world and connects contemporaries to forms of patriotic sentiment that have largely fallen out of favour in the past few decades. But while the growing unpopularity of the EU has made the Anglosphere a more important alternative ideal, at least among southern English Tories, some profound obstacles to the realisation of this dream have yet to be addressed.

The US, including many leading Republicans, remains convinced that the UK should stay in the EU. States such as Australia and New Zealand are all involved in managing their growing orientation to Asia, while anti-monarchist republican sentiment periodically animates their politics. Above all, there are important class interests lined up against Brexit, among them major multinational corporations trading in Europe and the City of London.

While the unfeasible nature of any kind of formal alliance among these countries is clear, there is a real growth in interest on the political right in the notion of the Anglosphere as an alternative political ideal and as a source of ideas – about policy, strategy and leadership. We may not be joining an alliance with Canada or Australia any time soon but our politics may be increasingly influenced by the political values and experiences of both.

The electoral successes of Stephen Harper in Canada, John Key in New Zealand and Tony Abbott in Australia have given British conservatives concrete examples of right-wing leaders to emulate. And with the rising appeal of the Anglosphere as a counterweight to Europe, there is an increasing appetite to draw lessons from these conservative cousins, rather than to look across the Channel to centrist Christian democrats. Very little is written in the UK conservative press and blogosphere about Angela Merkel’s model of leadership, despite the hegemonic status she has achieved. Instead, Anglosphere conservatives look towards those they consider to be muscular and authentically right-wing leaders, such as Harper and Abbott.

Harper is a particular source of attraction: he united a deeply divided right and proceeded to defeat his opponents, turning a precarious minority government into one with a governing majority. He is fiscally conservative, a climate sceptic and ruthless at using the office of prime minister to pursue a radical agenda without reaching into the middle ground of politics. Indeed, he has sought to weaken and then dismantle the institutions and political pillars that formed the progressive heart of the 20th-century Canadian state, bypassing public servants, marginalising parliament, challenging the courts and attacking liberal civil society organisations.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images

Harper’s premiership is almost the complete antithesis of a centrist, inclusive modernisation project of the kind that David Cameron envisaged before the 2010 election. But its remarkable run of electoral success has given many British conservatives food for thought.

It is therefore through what political science terms “policy transfer” and the informal exchange of ideas and people that the Anglosphere is coming to political prominence, rather than the various quixotic schemes for institutionalisation that have been advanced from time to time. Given that the European question will become one of the dominant issues in British politics, whatever the outcome of the general election in May, the Anglosphere idea will play an even bigger role as a beacon for an alternative, globally conceived national project to that which is associated with an apparently sclerotic EU. The figures who have come to prominence on the Anglophone right, such as Harper and Abbott, offer intriguing models for possible leadership contenders in the Conservative Party. No wonder Boris has been busy in Australia.

The rise of the Anglosphere is both a barometer and a source of deepening disagreement on the right about the UK’s geopolitical and economic development. Yet the temptation for those on the centre left to rejoice in these kinds of disagreements ought to be set aside. For while parts of the right have assembled an ambitious and optimistic project that has the capacity to appeal to a range of social groups, the left shows few signs of forging a national project of its own that might guide it through the economic and territorial turbulence ahead.

The left has largely shed its Euroscepticism but has yet to find arguments for staying in the EU that are anything other than technocratic or tactical. With a few exceptions, it is silent on how the European project can be rescued from the historical cul-de-sac of deflation and post-democratic governance associated with Brussels and Berlin and even less certain about how membership of a reformed EU can express a bigger, compelling and value-laden vision of Britain’s future in the world.

The Anglosphere is far from being just a quirky, nostalgic idea. It is at the heart of a re-emerging political world-view. Understanding its power, reach and history is imperative for a centre left that needs a more clearly defined strategic ambition and sense of political direction if it is to do more than survive buffeting by the storms.

Michael Kenny is the director of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary, University of London

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He writes in a personal capacity

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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The alt-right Leninist

Steve Bannon, the US president’s chief strategist, wants to destroy the state.

In 2013 and 2014, Steve Bannon organised “The Uninvited”, an event on the fringes of the Conservative Political Action Conference which gave a platform to right-wing thinkers deemed too extreme for the largest annual gathering of American conservatives. But on 23 February this year, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist took to the CPAC stage in his trademark uniform of an open-necked shirt, boxy jacket and rumpled chinos and greeted the audience with the self-satisfied swagger of a game-show host. Having surveyed the room with a smile, he quickly revealed a flash of malice. “Is that the opposition party back there?” he asked, gesturing towards the press corps, before jutting out his chin and nodding his head, like a brawler preparing to exchange blows.

Bannon, a 63-year-old former naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker and propagandist film-maker who owes his fortune to an early investment in the hit comedy Seinfeld, has rarely spoken in public since he joined Trump’s inner team, but on this occasion he was expansive. He hailed the president for ushering in a “new political order” and described the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history”. Asked to list the new administration’s priorities, he cited three “lines of work”: first, the protection of “national security and sovereignty”; second, the promotion of “economic nationalism” by renegotiating US trade deals; and third, the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. The crowd applauded.

Bannon usually outlines his end goal using less bureaucratic language but the message is unchanged. He has described himself as a “Leninist” who shares with the Bolshevik leader a desire to “destroy the state”. “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” he told the historian Ronald Radosh in 2013. (Bannon has since said he does not recall their conversation). Described by one ally as a “walking bibliography”, Bannon is fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly ambitious, and believes that America is facing an existential crisis that can be averted only through radical action. He was one of the most widely anticipated speakers at CPAC this year and, by many accounts, is the chief manipulator and mastermind behind the Trump presidency, yet he is resolutely anti-conservative: Bannon wants to break things.

Last August, he took leave from Breitbart, the provocative, far-right news organisation he began leading in 2012, to become the chief executive of the Trump campaign. Bannon’s influence has grown since then. On 28 January, eight days after Trump’s inauguration, the president gave him a full seat on the principles committee of the National Security Council, a body made up of senior military officials and top policymakers that discusses the most pressing foreign policy issues. Although presidential aides have occasionally attended NSC meetings in the past, many see Bannon’s formal presence as demonstrating an unprecedented politicisation of national security decisions and an alarming rise to power of a man with no previous experience of government.

In an editorial following his appointment to the NSC, the New York Times suggested that Bannon was positioning himself as “de facto president” and expressed concern about his “penchant for blowing things up”. A week later, the paper published an investigation alleging that Trump was angry that he had not been fully briefed before he signed the executive order granting Bannon this exceptional access. The suggestion that Bannon may be taking advantage of the president’s short attention span and thin policy knowledge to serve his own interests is not far-fetched. Trump is “a blunt instrument for us”, Bannon told Vanity Fair last year, seemingly referring to American nationalists. “I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”

Former colleagues have described Bannon as a “bully”, a “nasty human being” and a “monster”. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, has repeatedly slammed him as a “white supremacist”, and he has faced accusations of anti-Semitism, misogyny and Islamophobia. From an office at the White House that he calls “the war room”, he has driven, reporters say, some of Trump’s most contentious policy decisions, such as the ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States (subsequently reduced to six). He is also reported to have been one of the authors of Trump’s dystopian inauguration address, with its vision of “American carnage”.

Described in a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek profile as “the most dangerous political operative in America”, Bannon delights in his evil overlord persona. “Darkness is good,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in November. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”

 

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Stephen K Bannon was born in 1953 to a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, Democrat-voting family in Richmond, a city then of just over 230,000 people in the Southern state of Virginia. His father, Martin “Marty” Bannon, started out repairing telephone lines for AT&T and eventually moved into management. Bannon was the middle of five children and attended the all-boys’ Benedictine High School (now Benedictine College Preparatory), a Catholic, military-type institution owned and run by the monastic order. The headmaster and some of his teachers were Benedictine monks. The pupils, or “cadets”, wore military tags and were known by their surname only.

“It was a very traditional education, if you will, and definitely a very conservative school. I remember when we did mock elections, they’d be 90 per cent for the Republicans,” John Pudner, who also atten­ded Benedictine High School, told me.

Pudner now leads Take Back Our Republic, a group that aims to break the influence of big donors on campaign financing, and he has worked with Bannon on several occasions, serving at one point as the launch sports editor for Breitbart. He believes their schooling helped shape the contours of Bannon’s world-view: a commitment to small government and conventional family values, combined with a distrust of political and economic elites of all persuasions. Bannon maintained a close relationship with his alma mater. He served for a while on its board of trustees and in 2011 he joined a campaign, together with Pudner, to prevent the school from relocating from the diverse inner city to Richmond’s wealthy, all-white suburbs. Pudner says they were motivated by a sense of “Catholic mission”. “That’s part of what we understood our Catholicism to be, that you weren’t just kind of off in an elite spot . . . you mingle, and you convey ideas but you’re also part of the community,” Pudner said. They lost the campaign but not, Pudner was quick to point out, without claiming a few scalps: three county supervisors who supported the move lost their seats in that year’s election.

Bannon studied urban affairs at Virginia Tech university and was elected president of its student government association in 1975. On graduating, he joined the navy. Though he was not directly involved in the operation, he was serving as a junior officer aboard the destroyer USS Paul F Foster in 1980 when US forces launched a failed attempt to rescue 52 people held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran. “I wasn’t political until I got into the service and saw how badly Jimmy Carter f***ed things up. I became a huge Reagan admirer. Still am,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. After Ronald Reagan’s election that year, Bannon worked in naval operations at the Pentagon while taking an MA in national security studies at Georgetown University.

In 1983 he made the first of many career changes and enrolled at Harvard Business School. A classmate from those years told the Boston Globe that Bannon was “top three in intellectual horsepower in our class – perhaps the smartest”. After completing his MBA he joined Goldman Sachs but left in 1990 to set up his own investment firm, Bannon & Co, specialising in the media industry. He acquired his stake in Seinfeld in 1993, when the sitcom, centred on the lives of four highly strung New Yorkers, was in its fourth series and still drawing relatively small audiences. Within a year, the show became one of the most popular in America. It is not known how large Bannon’s stake is, but in 2013 the Financial Times reported that Seinfeld had earned $3.1bn through syndication in the previous five years. He continues to earn royalties today.

The Seinfeld windfall helped fund his career as a film-maker. Julia Jones, a screenwriter who worked with Bannon on and off for two decades, remembers first meeting him at a party in Beverley Hills in 1991; they spoke of his plans to adapt Shakespeare for the big screen. Bannon’s overgrown hair, pasty complexion and dishevelled clothing recently prompted the comedian Stephen Colbert to describe him as “Robert ­Redford dredged from a river”, but in the 1990s, Jones told me: “He dressed down, but he was still neat and clean. He was preppy. He was really very attractive, good-looking, charismatic – and he weighed a lot less.”

They struck up a close friendship. Jones describes him as “very, very smart, but not in an obnoxious way”, and an avid reader with a keen interest in ancient philosophy and military strategy. He was fun to be around, largely because he had “an idea a minute”, some quirkier than others. When he called one day to say he had written the opening to a rap adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus set in LA during the 1992 race ­riots, she agreed to work with him on it.

Bannon’s faith was evidently important to him – at one point he considered ­adapting St Mark’s Gospel for the cinema – but the writing partners rarely discussed politics. Jones, who considers herself left-of-Bernie-Sanders, told me that though he expressed “the usual GOP views” he usually ignored rather than confronted the opinions of liberals he worked with. The most overtly political project Jones and Bannon co-wrote was his directorial debut – In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, released in 2004. The trailer splices Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech with footage from the Second World War, Communist-era Russia and the 9/11 attacks, intercut with pseudo-religious captions: “In mankind’s bloodiest and most barbaric century . . . came a man with a ­vision. An outsider, a radical with extreme views . . . of how to confront evil. Evil is powerless . . . if the good are unafraid.”

Jones says: “The Reagan documentary really launched Steve into the world of Washington politics. Before that he was a wannabe film-maker in Hollywood.” It was at an early screening of In the Face of Evil that he first met Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the eponymous news group. He later began making films with David Bossie, who leads the conservative advocacy group Citizens United. Bossie introduced Bannon to Donald Trump in 2011, when Trump was contemplating running for the Republican presidential ticket. Bossie and Bannon worked together on hagiographic documentaries of the Tea Party leaders Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, as well as Generation Zero (2010), which attributed the 2007 financial crash to a “failure of culture”, and Occupy Unmasked (2012), which promised to tell “the true story of the radicals behind the Occupy movement”.

“People have said I’m like Leni Riefenstahl,” Bannon told the Wall Street Journal in 2011, adding that he was a “student of” the Nazi propagandist, as well as the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and the liberal documentary-maker Michael Moore.

In his new incarnation as a crusading film-maker, he started to dress differently. Jones recalls how, while he was working on The Undefeated, his 2011 film about Sarah Palin, “I looked up one day and I couldn’t tell him from Michael Moore.”

 

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After the 11 September 2001 attacks, Bannon’s world-view grew darker. He has consistently argued that Islam is at odds with Western values and civilisation. In a speech delivered to a conference at the Vatican in 2014, he argued that the West is “at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism”, using the phrase popularised by Christopher Hitchens. He sees the whole religion, and not just its violent fringes, as a threat. “If you look back at the long history of the Judaeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world,” he said.

Pudner, his friend from Richmond, says Bannon first expressed an interest in entering politics after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Bannon’s father, who is in his nineties and with whom Bannon is very close, lost almost all his life savings as the stock market crashed. “He felt like, ‘My dad’s working class, worked his whole life, put money away to save up and now he has no money to do anything, and all my old friends at Goldman Sachs are figuring out how all the rich people are not hurt in this recession,’” Pudner told me. “That was his first motivation, when he just said, ‘You know something? I’m going to have to get into politics because something’s wrong here.’”

Bannon’s anger at the financial elite did not forestall his profound hatred for the Occupy movement. While promoting Occupy Unmasked, he said, with characteristic crudeness, that the film would leave viewers wanting “to go home and shower because you’ve just spent an hour and 15 minutes with the greasiest, dirtiest people you will ever see”. He is also no champion of the poor. The focus of his concern is those in the middle, who he believes are hardest hit in an economy that provides “socialism for the very poor and the wealthy and a brutal form of capitalism for everybody else”.

He argues that the United States faces a threat to its existence, not only because of its financial vulnerability but also because capitalism has become separated from its “Judaeo-Christian” roots. The solution he proposes is a populist, middle-class revolt against the Democratic Party and the “apparatus on the left”, which includes the mainstream media and the education system, as well as the Republican leadership.

In a speech to the Liberty Restoration Foundation in 2011, Bannon described the challenge facing post-crash America as the “great fourth turning in American history”. The Fourth Turning is a 1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe which argues that history works in 80-to-100-year cycles, each culminating in a two-decade “turning” or “crisis”, in which the old civic order is replaced by a new one. “Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyse a Crisis mode. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire,” the book warns. The result could be war, civil violence, a break-up of the US, or authoritarianism, “Yet Americans will also enter the Fourth Turning with a unique opportunity to achieve a new greatness as a people.”

 

***

 

By 2012 Bannon had transformed himself again, this time from film-maker to far-right media chief. Two years earlier, he had begun offering free office space to Andrew Breitbart for his pugnacious news site. When Breitbart died of heart failure at the age of 43 in March 2012, Bannon, already a board member of the Breitbart group, was appointed chairman. Under his leadership, breitbart.com pursued an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda and ran such incendiary headlines as “‘Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?’”. Bannon has proudly declared that the website is “the platform for the alt right”; this term covers a broad spectrum of far-right ideologies that share a core belief that white identity is under attack. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights group, told me that “alt right” is best thought of, in essence, as “a whitewashing rebranding of old-fashioned white supremacy, or white nationalism”. Among the writers Bannon championed was Milo Yiannopoulos, banned from Twitter in 2016 for racially abusing the actress Leslie Jones and encouraging his followers to do the same, and who most recently made headlines for appearing to condone paedophilia.

Many of Bannon’s former colleagues, including some of his fiercest critics, have denied that he is racist or anti-Semitic. Yet he appears, at the very least, untroubled by the prejudices of those who write for Breitbart and comprise much of its readership. In July 2016, speaking to the progressive magazine Mother Jones, he conceded that some white nationalists, anti-Semites and homophobes were attracted to the alt right, but argued that the American left also attracts “certain elements”.

Ex-staffers at Breitbart have accused Bannon of exerting dictatorial control over the site’s content, using it to curry favour with friends and take down enemies, and ordering changes to articles he deemed not vitriolic enough. “Everyone who works with Steve in a position of subordination is scared shitless of him. Because he’s a bully and he yells at people and he harasses people and he’s a nasty human being,” Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor-at-large, told me.

In March 2016 several staff members, including Shapiro, left Breitbart. The trigger was the organisation’s refusal to stand by one of its reporters, Michelle Fields, after she was allegedly assaulted by Trump’s then campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. But many also objected to Bannon transforming Breitbart into a “propaganda outlet” and “a whorehouse for Trump”, as Shapiro put it. Bannon’s media strategy was two-pronged: in 2012, as he built a growing audience on the fringe right through Breitbart, he co-founded the Government Accountability Institute, a non-profit organisation whose sophisticated investigations into subjects such as the Clintons’ finances were picked up by the wider media.

In November 2015, Bannon became the founding host of the Breitbart News Daily radio show. Donald Trump was a repeat guest. Here, the frequently offensive Bannon showed himself to be also an effective sycophant. “I know you’re a student of military history . . . ” he told the candidate who professed to have too little time to read books. The pair enjoyed an easy rapport, Bannon asking leading questions and pontificating on Trump’s wealth, the size of his rallies, his skill as a deal-maker.

“The way he gets in people’s ears is by telling them that they are the greatest geniuses he has ever met and he will make them famous and powerful,” Shapiro told me. “And then he proceeds to give the go-ahead to all of their worst instincts because if you’re the yes-man you never get fired.”

 

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Bannon often boasts that he was among the first to recognise Trump’s political potential. The property tycoon and reality-TV star announced his candidacy in June 2015 with a speech in which he pledged to build a wall between Mexico and the United States to keep out immigrant rapists, drug dealers and other criminals. “The idea of somebody running for president – of all things – who talks about essentially ethnic nationalism was a wake-up call, an electrifying event for people like Bannon and in general what is called the alt right,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the Centre for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Even before Bannon formally joined Trump’s campaign the two men enjoyed a close relationship. Trump consulted Breitbart and other fringe websites for news and echoed their anti-foreigner, America First rhetoric.

“Bannon saw in Trump someone who could be a vehicle for realising at the presidential level those kinds of ideological tenets. While Trump saw in Bannon someone who was very effective at messaging along the lines of what Trump had already understood about nativism: anti-immigrant, that kind of nationalist rhetoric,” Rosenthal says. He believes that Bannon “reveals the ideological heart of Trumpism”.

An unnamed former associate described Bannon to Politico as “the Rain Man of nationalism” because of his speed-reading habits. The Politico site reported that he had urged White House staff to read books such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, a treatise on how to thrive in an age of chaos and uncertainty.

Public comments made by Bannon show his familiarity with writers who remain obscure beyond far-right circles. In his 2014 Vatican speech, he cited the work of Julius Evola, whose writings provided inspiration for the Italian Fascists. He has repeatedly described the European migrant crisis as mirroring The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel by Jean Raspail, in which France and the rest of Europe are overrun by dark-skinned, faeces-eating, sexually predatory refugees bent on
overpowering the white population. However, Bannon may read more widely: late last year a New York Times reporter spotted him at an airport poring over The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s account of foreign policy mistakes made by the brilliant young advisers who worked for J F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. He told the reporter he had asked several people in the Trump administration to read the book, saying it’s “great for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later”.

Bannon has been divorced three times and has three daughters, to whom he is reportedly devoted. During the presidential campaign, journalists uncovered police records showing that he was charged with domestic violence during his second marriage (he pleaded not guilty) as well as court records from after their divorce in which his ex-wife alleges that he didn’t want their twin daughters “going to school with Jews”, because he “doesn’t like Jews”. (He denies having said this.) Generally, however, those close to him say that the self-styled Prince of Darkness is enjoying his time in the spotlight and is thriving under the pressure of his new role.

The chief strategist had a glaringly obvious influence on Trump’s inaugural address, and is reported to have pushed for the administration’s hard line on immigration. Under Trump, the White House website no longer mentions climate change, nor does it have a section on LGBT rights. Bannon has described global warming as a “manufactured crisis” (implying it isn’t real); Breitbart similarly dismisses climate change as a “hoax” and a “scam”. He has little patience with left-wing identity politics but is obsessed with right-wing identity politics. On his watch, Breitbart published several articles under the tag “Black Crime” and stories on “immigrant” and “illegal alien” crime before Trump landed on the same theme.

He is also reported to have been responsible for some of Trump’s more reckless executive orders, such as the so-called Muslim ban, overturned by the courts again this month. His rash approach to policymaking may be a product of his combative personality. “Any time there’d be a sort of controversial move his first instinct was always: go for it . . . and that’s what blows up in his face,” Shapiro told me. Having made the transition from outsider agitator to ultimate political insider, Bannon may find his long-term success depends on an ability to curb his attack-dog instincts and to compromise.

Bannon once compared himself to “Cromwell in the House of Tudors”, the history buff perhaps having forgotten that ultimately Thomas Cromwell was executed for treason. The Trump administration having spent its first weeks in near-permanent crisis mode, that boast may yet come to haunt him. Yet the master of reinvention could equally outlast Trump. “If they all get swept out of the White House, Bannon’s still going. He’s still got an agenda; Trump isn’t all he’s interested in,” Julia Jones told me.

It is not clear where he might end up, should Trump no longer serve his interests, but this much is evident: the right-wing Leninist is unnaturally good at getting what he wants and to where he wants to be.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution