Steve Bannon’s hatred for “globalists” has done him in.
The controversial senior strategist was pushed out of the White House late on Friday, according to multiple reports, chiefly due to his constant feuding with his rivals inside the administration — people like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn.
Bannon opposed them for essentially ideological reasons: He saw them as being soft on China, on Islam, and on immigration. He waged war against these so-called “globalists” in the press, developing a reputation for frequently leaking damaging stories to conservative media outlets — and was eventually pushed out when the president grew tired of Bannon getting so much attention and Chief of Staff John Kelly grew tired of the infighting.
That Bannon’s attempt to take power eventually led to his downfall is a funny irony. But it also means that Bannon’s crusade against globalism is on the verge of total failure.
Bannon fought so hard, by his own account, because he wanted to reshape the world, starting with the United States. This is a tremendously tough task: When you try to “drain the swamp,” the swamp creatures are going to fight back. He positioned himself against the ideas that had dominated official Washington, and indeed much of the world, for decades — and didn’t even come close to changing that consensus.
Trump does not have the discipline and policy knowledge to make this kind of radical change alone; he needed a figure like Bannon at his side. Now that Bannon is gone, the idea that Trump was going to radically reshape American foreign policy — what he promised during the campaign — looks vanishingly unlikely.
In short? If there’s no Steve Bannon, there’s no Trump Doctrine.
Bannon had a radical vision for the world
Bannon’s project centered on opposition to what he derisively called “globalism”: the idea of tearing down borders and linking countries through trade, immigration, and international institutions like NATO and the United Nations. He believed that Brexit and Trump’s rise in particular showed the way for a global uprising of so-called “nationalists” or “populists” against the status quo.
“We believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement,” Bannon said in a 2014 speech. “The central thing that binds that all together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos.”
Bannon sees this movement’s central demand, sovereignty, in a disturbingly ethnonationalist way. He warned of an “invasion” of Europe by Muslims; he emphasized the need for countries that have a “Judeo-Christian” heritage to band together to fight radical Islam. The scale of the threat, Bannon has suggested, is akin to what the West faced in the 1930s.
“This is when Europe’s looking down the barrel of fascism — the rise of Mussolini in Italy, Stalin and the Russians and the communist Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union. And obviously Hitler and the Nazis,” he said in a 2016 radio show. “I mean you’re looking at fascism, you’re looking at communism. And to say that — what so blows me away is the timing of it. You could look in 1938 and say, ‘Look, it’s pretty dark here in Europe right now, but there’s something actually much darker. And that is Islam.’ ”
China, in Bannon’s eyes, was also a fundamental threat. He has predicted an outright war between the United States and China — two nuclear-armed powers — in under 10 years. In a recent interview with the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, one of the attention-hogging stunts that allegedly contributed to his departure, Bannon described the world as a zero-sum competition between the United States and China.
“We’re at economic war with China ... the economic war with China is everything,” he said. “One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path.”
This apocalyptic vision of global conflict really did drive Bannon’s behavior in Washington. His view of Muslim immigration as an “invasion” manifested in the Muslim ban, the initial draft of which was written entirely by Bannon and White House aide Stephen Miller. His fear of China, he told Kuttner, led him to push for harsh restrictions on trade with that country. It also was the motivation behind much of the infighting that got him fired, as he wanted to replace career officials who wanted to work with China with those who shared his aggressive worldview.
“I’m changing out people at East Asian Defense; I’m getting hawks in. I’m getting Susan Thornton [acting head of East Asian and Pacific Affairs] out at State,” Bannon said in the Prospect interview. “That’s a fight I fight every day here.”
Bannon’s ideas aligned with Trump’s
This dark vision — of a Judeo-Christian, Western alliance squaring off against China and the Islamic world — gave an ordering principle to the president’s own impulses.
Trump shares Bannon’s support for European right-wing nationalism, his fear of Islam, and his instinctive hostility to China. But it’s clear, at this point, that the president does not have a way to translate those ideals into policies. Trump is neither an ideologist nor a policy wonk; his feelings about the world have little in the way of connective tissue or workable implications. It’s up to others to turn these impulses into an agenda.
Bannon had ideas for doing that. They were radical, and he worked — as he said — “every day” to try to implement them. But he didn’t have much of a support network.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the highest-level official who shared parts of Bannon’s worldview, doesn’t play a major role defining Trump’s foreign policy — and is busy trying to save his own job. Steven Miller has seemed to play a limited role in foreign policy decisions aside from the Muslim ban. Other than that, there’s no one at the top like Bannon.
Now look at who’s on the other side — the people who want to channel Trump away from Bannon’s vision and toward a more typical approach to foreign policy.
Kelly, McMaster, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are well-known for taking basically conventional stances on the big foreign policy issues. As a group, they’re strongly in favor of maintaining traditional American alliances, generally hostile to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and skeptical of blaming Islam as a religion for jihadist terrorism. Gary Cohn, the NEC director, has been the biggest opponent of Bannon’s proposals for cracking down on trade with China. Jared Kushner, Trump’s influential son-in-law, seems to have views similar to this group — as does Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, though he’s been largely ineffectual in internal White House debates.
The “globalists,” as Bannon would call them, dominate the White House — the aides on Bannon’s side aren’t even close to their level of influence. The president has no demonstrated interest or capability to radically revise foreign policy on his own. His most controversial pronouncements, as my colleague Ezra Klein details, are actually being ignored by the foreign policy apparatus:
White House staff, congressional Republicans, military leaders, and executive branch officials are increasingly confident simply ignoring President Trump. After Trump tweeted that he wanted the military to ban transgender service members from serving, for instance, the Pentagon quickly said that it had not received an official order and was going to carry on with business as usual until it did. Similarly, after Trump tweeted his threats at North Korea, the key organs of American foreign policymaking — the State Department, the Defense Department, and so on — were quick to declare that nothing had changed, there was no military buildup or new red lines, and everyone should just ignore the commander in chief’s morning outburst.
Absent Bannon, there’s no one to give unifying voice to a distinctively Trumpian foreign policy, no one who could really take the president’s impulses and shape them into a truly radical doctrine. Without him, in short, the Trumpiest elements of the Trump administration is rudderless on foreign affairs.
Rudderless does not mean impotent, to be clear. The president still has the ability to make spur-of-the-moment decisions — like failing to commit to defending NATO allies in a speech or threatening to attack North Korea in a press conference — that destabilize global politics. That’s really scary, and I don’t mean to downplay it.
But off-the-cuff Trump pronouncements are not the same as radically transforming America’s approach to the world — forming an alliance with Russia to fight Islamism, for example, or taking an extremely hawkish line on China both militarily and economically. Those things take time, patience, and, above all, someone at the helm willing to fight for them.
It’s hard to say how Trump can be that guy without Bannon by his side.