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Steve Bannon: how Trump’s dark mastermind fell

In interviews, the chief political strategist compared himself to Darth Vader.

Steve Bannon’s exit from the White House on 18 August marked a rapid, if not unexpected, reversal in the political fortune of Donald Trump’s far-right nationalist chief political strategist. For a short period, he seemed so powerful in the administration that the New York Times even described him as the “de facto president”.

Bannon characterised his departure as dealing a decisive blow to the White House ultranationalists, telling the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” And yet he was defiant. 

Within hours, Bannon had returned to his position as head of Breitbart, the alt-right website that he describes as a “killing machine”. He portrayed himself as a far-right martyr, telling Bloomberg that he was “going to war for Trump against his opponents – on Capitol Hill, in the media and in corporate America”. No longer bound by White House rules, Bannon can revert to his old bomb-throwing tactics. The notoriously nasty power broker could re-emerge nastier – and possibly more powerful.

It is just over a year since the 63-year-old former naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker and propagandist film producer joined the Trump campaign as its chief executive, having taken temporary leave from Breitbart, which he had headed since 2012 and transformed into “the platform for the alt-right”. Bannon cultivated his image as the dark mastermind behind the presidency, comparing himself in interviews to Darth Vader and describing Trump as a “blunt instrument” for his populist white nationalist movement.

His influence peaked at the start of Trump’s presidency. He co-authored Trump’s inaugural address with its dark vision of “American carnage” and pushed through some of the administration’s most contentious policies, including the so-called Muslim ban and the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. More recently, he successfully urged the president to resist mounting pressure – including from within the White House – to issue a more forceful condemnation of the violent protests by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Even so, rumours of Bannon’s imminent departure had been circulating for weeks. Trump was irritated by Bannon’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine and his reputation as the presidential puppet master, and he reportedly suspected his chief strategist as the source of a series of damaging leaks. Bannon was increasingly isolated within the White House and outnumbered by more moderate voices. In July, Bannon’s ally Reince Priebus was replaced as chief of staff by John Kelly, a retired marine general drafted in to the White House to restore order to the chaotic administration. According to the New York Times, Kelly told Bannon that month that he had to go. 

Picture: Miles Cole

Stephen Bannon is both calculating and reckless. On 16 August, he gave an interview to the left-wing magazine the American Prospect, in which he undercut Trump’s North Korea policy and outlined plans to oust his adversaries in the White House, who he said were “wetting themselves”. Bannon later said he didn’t realise the interview was on record – an odd misstep, if that’s what it was, for an experienced media manipulator. His position had become untenable. A White House statement described Bannon’s departure two days later as “mutually agreed” with Kelly.

Bannon knows that while he has lost his seat at the table, he still has the president’s ear. He has emphasised his loyalty to Trump, who reportedly regularly seeks advice from former staffers, particularly in late-night calls when he is not observed by Kelly.

In his Weekly Standard interview Bannon said that the Trump presidency would become more “conventional” following his departure, suggesting that political insiders would “constrain” the president and that “his ability to get anything done – particularly the bigger things, like the wall, the bigger, broader things that we fought for, it’s just going to be that much harder”.

Yet Bannon, who believes that the existence of the US as a nation rooted in “Judaeo-Christian values” is under threat, has the media power and insider knowledge to inflict considerable damage on his enemies within government. Breitbart gives him a platform for roiling Trump’s populist, white nationalist base, and he has a proven track record of using the site to attack and discredit his opponents. Bannon told the Weekly Standard that: “Someone said, ‘it’s Bannon the Barbarian’… I built a fucking machine at Breitbart. And now I’m about to go back, knowing what I know, and we’re about to rev that machine up.” 

That said, Bannon may be more skilled as a propagandist than he is at building new alliances, something he will need to do if he is to realise his ideological ambitions. “I think that he’s likely reading the situation inside the administration accurately, what he might not be reading accurately is the potential for expanding the base of economic nationalism,” Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director at the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley told me. “For one thing it’s almost impossible for the economic nationalist argument to proceed without calling up the terrors of American racism.”

Bannon has tried to distance himself from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists attracted to his rhetoric, dismissing them in his American Prospect interview as “clowns”. Bannon “believes he can dismiss those characters and continue on with his ideological project. But the ideological project is so attractive to neo-Nazis, to the KKK, to all sorts of American racists, that he’s got to be able to ditch them and [unless he can do that] it will become a burden,” said Rosenthal.

Trump’s unscripted defence of white supremacist protestors in Charlottesville underlined that Bannon’s brand of nationalism will outlive his White House exit: these are Trump’s views too. Yet the forceful and broad-based backlash to those remarks revealed the natural limitations of his dark and exclusionary ideology. 

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

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist