A week after declaring that he is “going to war” to try and save President Donald Trump’s agenda from being co-opted by Trump’s more moderate advisors, "Bannon the Barbarian" – who returned to his post as executive chairman of Breitbart almost immediately after leaving the administration – laid into his political enemies while fleshing out his plan for helping the Trump administration from the outside in greater detail during an interview with the Economist.
Unsurprisingly, Bannon's attacks centered - as they often do - around the Congressional Republican leadership, specifically, Mitch McConnell. In the interview, Bannon promised to “light up” the Kentucky Republican, whom he blamed for obstructing the president’s agenda. Bannon’s remarks follows a report in the New York Times, published earlier this week, alleging that the relationship between Trump and the senate majority leader has “disintegrated” to the point where the two are no longer speaking to each other.
Bannon has continued to play up the view, espoused by many of his allies, that he will be a much more effective foot soldier for the president's agenda at Breitbart than in the White House. "In the White House I had influence, at Breitbart, I had power," Bannon reportedly said several times during the interview.
“Among the particular opponents he has in his sights, said Mr Bannon, seated in a dining-room decorated with Christian iconography and political mementos, are congressional Republicans (“Mitch McConnell, I’m going to light him up”), China (“Let’s go screw up One Belt One Road”) and “the elites in Silicon Valley and Wall Street—they’re a bunch of globalists who have forgotten their fellow Americans.”
Bannon also repeated his claims that he left the administration voluntarily, contrary to reports that he was pushed out. And despite some recent negative coverage from Breitbart, and Bannon’s own claims that the Trump White House is among the most “divided” in history, the former staffer said he would never turn on his old boss.
“Despite his departure—voluntarily, he insists, though his resignation is reported to have been demanded of him—Mr Bannon says he will never attack his former boss. Yet Breitbart will caution Mr Trump to stick to the populist nationalist course Mr Bannon charted. “We will never turn on him. But we are never going to let him take a decision that hurts him.”
The website offered an early taste of this in its disparaging coverage of Mr Trump’s “flip-flop” decision to send more American troops to Afghanistan, which was announced on August 21st and Mr Bannon strongly opposes.”
The British magazine couldn’t resist the opportunity to subtly criticize its American competitors, whom it criticized as being too trusting of Bannon’s characterization of events, as well as the scope of his influence at Breitbart and within the administration. The very fact that Trump has veered away from populist policies suggests that the former top aide to the president has been “plainly diminished.”
“It is a measure of the awe Mr Bannon inspires in America’s media that such fighting talk has largely been taken at face value. Yet he is plainly diminished. In the early months of Mr Trump’s presidency, he had equal footing with the chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who was ousted last month, and launched some of the administration’s most audacious endeavours, including one to deny visas to many foreign Muslims. Yet his populist agenda (dominated by a trifecta of ambitions, to reduce immigration, recreate jobs in manufacturing, especially through trade policy, and withdraw American troops from foreign wars) has since faltered.”
To their point, there’s been no clearer sign of Bannon's waning influence over the president than Trump’s decision earlier this week to commit more troops to Afghanistan, which Bannon vehemently opposed. The Afghan troop surge is perhaps the clearest sign yet that Trump is taking a more moderate path advocated by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his national-security adviser, HR McMaster. Breitbart, ostensibly at Bannon’s behest, has waged wars against both men, and it’s widely believed that its recent attacks on McMaster backfired, helping to hasten Bannon’s ouster.
However, Bannon and his fellow anti-globalists scored at least one important victory recently when Trump launched a full-blown investigation into China’s intellectual property-related trade practices, a move that could lead to a full-blown trade war between the world’s two largest economies. In the interview, Bannon repeated his belief that China is waging an “economic war” with the US by gaming World Trade Organization rules.
“For Mr Bannon, who went from a working-class Virginian family to careers in Wall Street and Hollywood, those agreements epitomised the folly of globalisation, which he considers disastrous for American workers and avoidable. He hardened this critique after returning to America from a spell in Hong Kong; China, whose gaming of WTO rules Mr Bannon considers tantamount to an “economic war” against America, remains at the heart of it. A zealous Catholic who believes in the inevitability of civilisational conflict, he considers China’s growth to be an additional, overarching threat to America, which it must therefore dial back. ‘I want the world to look back in 100 years and say, their mercantilist, Confucian system lost. The Judeo-Christian liberal West won.’”
The magazine also credited Bannon for molding Trump’s populist rhetoric, which ultimately helped him upset Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in November’s election.
“Though not well-known when he was hired to run Mr. Trump’s campaign last August, he had already shaped the celebrity-tycoon’s politics. As an attention-seeking New Yorker and host of “The Apprentice”, a reality-television show, Mr Trump had national name recognition and some liberal views, including on gun control and immigration. Particularly for the Republican he sometimes claimed to be, he also had a large following among non-whites. According to a bestselling book on the Trump-Bannon partnership by Joshua Green, a journalist, Breitbart and its boss were instrumental in convincing Mr Trump to relaunch himself as a right-wing populist nationalist, contemptuous of the politically correct establishment.”
Since the election, Bannon has achieved two major victories, according to the Economist: convincing Trump to drop both the TPP and the Paris Climate Accord.
“Nothing delights Mr Trump like vindication, so it was natural that he would reward Mr Bannon with a plum job in his administration. His main task was to ensure the president kept his campaign pledges, which Mr Bannon scrawled on whiteboards in his West Wing office. Persuading Mr Trump, against the advice of other courtiers, to jettison the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the Paris climate accord were two of his successes.”
And even if Bannon's war against the globalist is unsuccessful, The Economist acknowledges that he will leave a lasting impact on the administration in thee important ways…
The first is related to personnel: Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions – two bona fide populists – are both crucial players in Trump’s administration...
“First, it retains several kindred populists, who will pursue the agenda he laid out, including Stephen Miller, a policy adviser, and, on immigration, Jeff Sessions, the attorney-general. Another, sometimes, is the president. Despite some signs of moderation, Mr Trump still hates trade agreements, as he reminded his followers in a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 22nd. He said he would “probably” withdraw from NAFTA “at some point.”
…the second is the conviction, reportedly inspired by Bannon, that Trump is only answerable to his supporters...
“Mr Bannon’s influence will also endure in Mr Trump’s conviction, which he encouraged, that the president is answerable only to his supporters. This was darkly illustrated by Mr Trump’s equivocating response to the recent white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, which Trump voters appear untroubled by and Mr Bannon defends in the same cynically partisan fashion as he shrugs off concerns over the racist undertones of some of Breitbart’s coverage. “I think he handled Charlottesville well,” he insists. “The Democrats are irrelevant on this.” Both men, similarly, are wont to blame the rancour their divisive politics causes on the media—a tactic Mr Trump also deployed in Phoenix, where he accused “crooked” journalists of “giving a platform” to the white supremacists he was so reluctant to condemn.”
…and the third is – of course – through his “fog horn” role at Breitbart.
“The third way Mr Bannon will remain relevant is, as he says, through his foghorn role at Breitbart. Admittedly, the website might not be able to keep Trump supporters at the same pitch of fury it managed when corralling conservatives against Mr Obama. It is easier to oppose an embattled president than to defend one. But with Republican congressmen emerging as Mr Trump’s most important opponents, and mid-term elections due next year, Breitbart will in particular try to intimidate Mr Trump’s Republican critics—and thereby remind the president who his friends are. “I am an ideologue, that’s why I am out,” says Mr Bannon. “I can rally the base, have his back. The harder he pushes, the more we will be there for him.”
Bannon – who has consistently exhibited a willingness to cooperate with the mainstream press even while vilifying them in his rhetoric - has granted no fewer than four interviews in the week since he left the White House: To Bloomberg, the Washington Post, The Weekly Standard and now The Economist.
And according to the Economist, he is planning on taking the plans to take the fight for the soul of the Trump administration global with an overseas expansion of Breitbart News, thanks to the patronage of Long Island billionaire and Trump backer Robert Mercer. And if an Axios report from earlier this week is accurate, Bannon is also hoping to launch a cable news network that will position itself to the right of Fox.
We expect Bannon will release more details about his plan of attack, while continuing to issue threats to obstinate moderate Republicans, during the coming weeks.