One man’s disarray is another man’s successful political insurgency.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
In an interview in 2011, Stephen Bannon boasted to Variety that his approach to documentary filmmaking was “kinetic” and that he sometimes tried to “almost overwhelm an audience” with material.
Now Bannon is overseeing a new ideological production as President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, and he has embraced the same overwhelming aesthetic. From an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, to antagonizing the leaders of Mexico, Australia, and France, to putting Iran “on notice,” the new administration has loosed a firehose of executive actions and statements that have alarmed fellow Republicans, angered foreign allies, and sparked street protests at home and abroad.
The result has been chaotic and often disorganized, prompting satiric television sketches and accusations from veteran Washington hands that the administration is amateurish and inept. Trump’s approval ratings fall by the day.
But what by conventional measures looks like a string of setbacks and misfires, could to an ideologue like Bannon be proof that the administration is on the right track to achieving its goal — destroying what he calls the Washington “establishment.” What’s less clear is what might take its place.
“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon once told the Daily Beast. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Whether speaking to supporters of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or to listeners on his former radio show, Bannon has long employed the revolutionary language of a political insurgent. And like political insurgents through history, including Lenin, Bannon and other like-minded ideologues in the Trump White House view disruption and polarization as means of pressing ahead with their agenda and rallying their core supporters.
But Bannon’s radical approach carries big risks and amounts to a high-stakes gamble that Trump can deliver sufficiently on his ambitious promises to satisfy both his loyal supporters and those ready to roll the dice who voted him into office.
The disruption strategy works only “if you deliver,” said author Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who served in senior roles in Bill Clinton’s administration. If Trump fails to bring jobs back to the Rust Belt or to coal country, if Obamacare is repealed and something worse replaces it, or if Trump’s government-by-tweet sparks a trade war or even a shooting war in the Middle East, then that fervent support in his political base could dissolve.
For now, Trump’s habit of tweeting to grab headlines and punch back at his critics helps shape this chaotic environment, in which political opponents are often forced to respond to his priorities, Nye said.
“Trump has used Twitter in a way which allows him to control the agenda and to set the agenda,” Nye said. “So when a story comes up which is not helpful, not favorable, or when he wants to get people disrupted … he throws a ball and everybody scrambles after it and neglects the story they should be following.”
After a federal district court temporarily stopped his immigration ban, Trump took to Twitter to discredit the judiciary, sparking plenty of outrage. By early Wednesday morning, Trump was tweeting an attack on Nordstrom’s department stores, which are phasing out poor-selling products from Ivanka Trump.
As Trump meets resistance from courts, criticism from Congress, bad poll numbers, or critical news coverage, he has sought to rally his core supporters and claim that unpatriotic “losers” are standing in the way of his plan to “make America great again.”
Nye calls the president’s spontaneous twitter salvos “Zeus tweets,” thunderbolts from on high that shock the body politic. The chaos and disarray displayed in the first weeks of the administration makes sense if Trump and his team are gunning for a political transformation to reshape the Republican Party and bypass the established leadership in Washington, said Nye.
“If Trump’s objective is to realign American politics and to create a populist party, then the appeal to his base is understandable,” he said.
History is littered with political rebels, autocrats, and revolutionaries who sowed chaos and division to consolidate power and advance their agenda.
Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, argues that the executive order issued last week barring Syrian refugees and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries bears the hallmarks of a “shock event” designed to throw adversaries off guard and seize the initiative.
“A successful shock event depends on speed and chaos because it requires knee-jerk reactions so that people divide along established lines,” she wrote in a Facebook post that went viral.
Richardson, author of several books on the politics of the Civil War, sees a parallel in how Confederate leaders used disruptive tactics and fueled division to push the first Southern states into seceding from the Union after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
“They slammed through the idea that South was out” in the few months between the election and his subsequent inauguration, Richardson told Foreign Policy.
Likewise, experts said, Bannon and his allies are trying to squeeze through a shrinking window of opportunity, moving quickly and decisively before the federal government’s bureaucracy can respond and before members of Congress or grass roots activists can coalesce to push back.
“If you’re Bannon, you realize your chances of disruption diminish the more the permanent government regains its feet,” Nye said. “He struck while the iron was hot.”
But the administration’s shoot-from-the-hip approach has already alienated numerous groups, including much of Silicon Valley, and elements of agriculture and industry, threatened by the administration’s broadsides on immigration and free trade.
The dramatic and angry political clashes triggered by Trump’s electoral victory seem to fit into a script from a Bannon polemic on the big screen. The former investment banker has portrayed history as a series of earthquakes and believes the current moment represents a tectonic shift requiring working-class Americans to stand up for their rights and avenge the injustices they have endured at the hands of “global elites.”
That, for him, translates into a vehement nativism. For Bannon, immigration — and Muslim immigration in particular — represents an existential threat to what he calls America’s Judeo-Christian identity. He has frequently argued that the West is engaged in a life-and-death clash of civilizations, including in a 2014 address to a Vatican conference organized by a right-wing cardinal, Raymond Burke.
“We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism,” he said. “And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.”
But those fears don’t lend themselves to any coherent political design for Trump’s White House. Bannon has no “hard and fast political philosophy,” only “apocalyptic thinking,” said Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart journalist who for two years had daily contact with the Trump consigliere, but fell out with him during the campaign.
While Bannon is described in press reports as having won the president’s confidence because he has a clear plan for the administration, Shapiro told FP: “I don’t think there’s a lot there.”
Eliot Cohen, a conservative and an outspoken critic of Trump, said Bannon falls short of being a true revolutionary, because he has never outlined a coherent vision for the way ahead.
The administration so far has offered no detailed plans on replacing Obama’s healthcare reforms, or how it will conduct trade policy based on its protectionist campaign promises, how it will revive the coal industry, or defeat the Islamic State.
“This is actually a little bit closer to nihilism. It’s simply a desire to destroy things,” said Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who served in the Bush administration.
As for Bannon’s writings and ideas, “it’s a mistake to dignify it too much,” he said. “This is crackpot thinking.”
FP reporter Elias Groll contributed to this article.
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