Steve Bannon is one of the world’s most powerful people.
By title, he’s the White House chief strategist, a job invented by Trump specifically for Bannon. In practice, reports out of the Trump White House say, the former Breitbart head has been the driving force behind the string of extreme executive orders Trump has issued in his first week in office
The most notable of these, of course, is the order banning on all immigrants and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for 90 days, all refugee admissions for 120 days, and all Syrian refugees indefinitely. According to CNN’s Evan Perez and Pamela Brown, Bannon personally spearheaded the order — and then overrode objections from the Department of Homeland Security that would have softened it somewhat:
Friday night, DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen -- did not apply to people with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders.
The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President's inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. Their decision held that, on a case by case basis, DHS could allow green card holders to enter the US.
Despite the furor over the so-called Muslim ban, all signs suggest Bannon’s influence over Trump is actually growing. Another recent executive order added Bannon to the National Security Council, the president’s key advising group on foreign policy. The order also kicked the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America’s top military commanders, off the council.
Bannon, then, is at the center of the Trump administration — and of this weekend’s drama surrounding the new immigration policy. To understand all of this, you need to understand him.
And here’s who he is: an extremely successful conservative provocateur who has a particularly nasty history on issues of immigration, race, and religious minorities. All signs suggest Bannon believes, deeply, that the United States needs to be made into a hub for a new kind of right-wing populism centering on white identity politics — and that this vision is the beating heart of Trump’s cruel new approach to immigration.
Bannon and Breitbart
Bannon has done a lot of things in his life: He’s a former naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker, and Hollywood investor who gets royalties from Seinfeld. But the defining moment of his current incarnation came at a 2005 movie premiere where he met a little-known conservative firebrand named Andrew Breitbart.
Bannon was intoxicated by Breitbart, who saw politics as a fight to save American culture from the insidious politically-correct left. He became one of Breitbart’s closest advisers, helping him grow Breitbart.com from a news aggregator into a leading site for far-right news and opinion in the late 2000s. Breitbart once called Bannon the "Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement." The comparison to Nazi Germany’s most famous filmmaker and propagandist was meant as a compliment.
Breitbart died in 2012, and Bannon took effective control over Breitbart’s burgeoning media empire, which by then spanned several different sites covering everything from foreign affairs to Hollywood. "Steve ran the site and controlled the content as a dictator," former Breitbart spokesperson Kurt Bardella writes at the Hill.
Bannon’s theory of politics, the notions that continue to motivate his actions, became clear during his time at Breitbart. “Our vision — Andrew’s vision — was always to build a global, center-right, populist, anti-establishment news site," Bannon told Bloomberg’s Joshua Green.
Bannon frequently uses the word "populist" to describe his worldview, and that’s how he saw Breitbart’s coverage. The goal was to stand up for ordinary people against the elite in Washington, which he saw as across-the-board hostile to real conservative values. That meant championing politicians whom he saw as challenging, and issuing harsh attacks on more mainstream Republicans, particularly on issues where Bannon believed the GOP was out of step with ordinary Republicans.
Immigration is perhaps the best example: Under Bannon, Breitbart has been viciously, harshly opposed to amnesty for undocumented immigrants and really to immigration in general. The site, like Donald Trump, believes that immigrants bring crime and steal American jobs, and that Republicans who supported "amnesty" did so because they wanted to line big businesses’ pockets.
Breitbart stories frequently hype reports about crime involving immigrants, with headlines that sound like they came from tabloids (representative example: "One Sex Offender Illegal Alien Caught After Another Alleged Offender Legalized"). They viciously attack Republicans they believe are betraying true conservatism, blasting House Speaker — and occasional Trump foil -- Paul Ryan as a supporter of "radical amnesty-and-open-borders."
This anti-elite, anti-immigrant populism often bled into white identity politics — one defined by lurid, fear-mongering coverage of minority groups, particularly African Americans and Muslims.
Breitbart once published a photo of an old Adidas shirt as evidence that Islamist terrorists are sneaking across the Mexican border. It published a piece titled “5 Devastating Facts about Black-on-Black Crime.” It has referred to conservative writer Bill Kristol as a "renegade Jew." It ran a piece last year encouraging male readers to tell women that "this isn’t going to suck itself."
This was all done with Bannon’s approval. He sees white identity politics, and the people who practice it, as a tool in his war to build a form of right-wing populism. Under Bannon’s guiding hand, Breitbart has moved further and further toward a politics of open white resentment — to take one example, the site had an entire group of articles called “Black Crime.”
You already see echoes of this approach in the White House. One of Trump’s executive orders on immigration directs the US government to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, an incredibly Bannon approach to governing.
“Bannon has openly embraced the racist and anti-Semitic [fringe],” Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart columnist who quit over the site’s pro-Trump drift, writes at the Daily Wire. “He’s happy to pander to those people and make common cause with them in order to transform conservatism.”
After Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, and nearly immediately condemned Mexicans as “rapists,” Bannon sensed a kindred spirit on key issues like immigration. Breitbart’s coverage took on a fawning tone, one so hagiographic that observers started comparing it to Pravda, the Soviet-era propaganda machine. When Bannon jumped from Breitbart to help run Trump’s campaign in 2016, it only made official what had long been obvious: Bannon had become the chief ideologue and propagandist of Trumpism.
Bannon’s white nationalism really doesn’t seem like a ruse
It’s tempting to look at this record, and see merely a canny capitalist — someone who pandered to the far-right wing of the Republican party for profit. But Bannon’s record suggests that the really doesn’t think that — especially given what we know about the so-called Muslim ban.
In an extremely telling 2015 Breitbart radio, Bannon (the host) grilled Trump (then his guest) about legal immigration. In it, Bannon attacks Trump
TRUMP: We have to keep our talented people in this country.
TRUMP: I think you agree with that. Do you agree with that?
BANNON: Well I got a tougher — you know, when two thirds or three quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think — on, my point is, a country’s more like, [inaudible], a country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society.
These numbers are totally made up: only a small percentage of Silicon Valley CEO are of Asian descent. But Bannon’s paranoia about this, as my colleague Andrew Prokop writes, is extremely telling — it shows that the thinks Asian immigrants holding prominent jobs is a threat to “civic society.” This likely explains why Bannon was so insistent on the Muslim ban extending to green-card holders: He simply wants there to be fewer immigrants.
“Once you keep those views in mind, the method behind the ‘madness’ of the Trump administration’s treatment of green card holders becomes clear,” Prokop writes. “He doesn’t like it when immigrants are too successful in America. And because he won an internal battle in the Trump administration, US government policy could turn the lives of up to 500,000 green card holders upside down.”
These comments might be excused if they weren’t part of a longstanding pattern. In 2007 court papers alleging domestic violence, Bannon’s ex-wife claimed that he didn’t want his children going to a school that had a lot of Jewish students. Bannon strongly denies both the comments and the broader abuse allegations, though the school’s former director confirmed to New York magazine that Bannon asked why there were so many Hanukkah books in its library.
Bannon told a Mother Jones reporter in August 2016, when asked about Breitbart, that “we’re the platform for the alt-right" — referring to the now-infamous online movement shot through with racists and neo-Nazis. In a 2015 radio appearance, he referred to feminists as a “bunch of dykes.” He has implied that Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential pick, is a Muslim Brotherhood agent.
So when Trump appointed Bannon to be White House chief strategist, shortly after his in November, the outcry from Democrats and civil rights group was loud and furious.
“There should be no sugarcoating the truth here: Donald Trump just invited a white nationalist into the highest reaches of the government,” Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley said in a statement.
That is not the kind of thing that you ordinarily hear from opposing senators about White House appointments, to say the least. But Bannon’s record, both in terms of what he had done with Breitbart and what he has said on-record, leaves little room for doubt.
Now, none of these opponents expected Trump to fire Bannon, not really. The hope was that Bannon’s role in shaping policy would be relatively limited, and that he’d just end up a marginal figure with little access to the president.
This hope was badly misplaced.
Bannon is not an evil genius
Bannon’s power-grab, so far, has been entirely successful. He and Stephen Miller, a like-minded policy aide of Trump’s, have personally written the executive orders, per Politico, and consulted with virtually no one while doing so. “Inside the West Wing, it is almost impossible for some aides to know what is in the executive orders, staffers say,” the Politico reporters explain.
There’s an obvious advantage to this process: Bannon doesn’t have to deal with opposition from inside the administration. Secretary for Homeland Security John Kelly was only notified of the incoming Muslim ban shortly before it became finalized on Friday, despite the fact that his agency would be tasked with implementing. This means that Kelly had no opportunity to lobby Trump agains the policy.
This malevolent drive might lead you to believe that Bannon is some kind of evil genius — that his successful pushing of the Muslim ban, and landing himself on the NSC, has made him into one of the iconic villains he has fondly cited as inspirations in at least one interview.
"Darkness is good," Bannon told Vanity Fair in November. "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power.”
But it’s not that simple. Bannon’s approach may very well not be sustainable in the long run.
For one thing, it’s not clear that Bannon can successfully keep everyone out of the loop indefinitely and on every executive order. Earlier this week, there was a draft executive order floating around that would have taken the first steps towards bringing back torture of suspected terrorists. It was leaked earlier this week, before it could be finalized, and apparently infuriated Secretary of Defense James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo (torture opponents both).
This order has yet to be passed; Trump said, in one interview, that Mattis and Pompeo’s opposition to torture pushed him to give up on previous plans to bring it back.
Moreover, Bannon’s centralization of authority breeds incompetence. When you don’t have input from agencies, nobody knows how to implement the order — as we’ve seen in the chaos at America’s international airports. And when you don’t talk to the government’s lawyers, you open yourself up to lawsuits: the American Civil Liberties Union has already filed a successful suit against part of the immigration ban, and more are coming. Legal experts think these have a good chance to succeed, owing to the incompetence of the EO draft itself.
“The incompetence is actually good news for people who believe in visa and refugee policies based on criteria other than—let’s not be coy about this—bigotry and religious discrimination,” Ben Wittes, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, writes at Lawfare. He continues:
The President has created a target-rich environment for litigation that will make his policies, I suspect, less effective than they would have been had he subjected his order to vetting one percent as extreme as the vetting to which he proposes to subject refugees from Bashar al-Assad and the bombing raids of Vladimir Putin.
This points to a basic problem for Bannon. His worldview is so extreme, so isolated from what most people who staff the federal government believe, that he’s nearly alone in attempting to push it. So long as he has Trump’s ear, he’ll have the power to make major policy changes — but nobody can do everything well at once.