'America First' Trump and Bannon Pursue a Vision of Autocracy
Part 2: Keeping His Word to a Fault
The destructive energy of the Trump movement could prove to be a great test for America, a country where liberal powers are so well organized that they won't give up without a fight. Eric Schneiderman, attorney general of the state of New York, is one of many to have sounded the warning bells, saying that Trump "does not have respect for the rule of the law." The country, Schneiderman said, is facing "a crisis over whether the Constitution is respected or not."
The first victim has been the government apparatus in Washington, D.C. Already, Trump's quartet in the White House has essentially obliterated all traces of predecessor Barack Obama. The president rapidly fired the acting attorney general because she considered Trump's travel ban to be illegal, while other high-ranking officials have either been let go or have left of their own accord.
Entire hallways in U.S. departments are now empty, with replacements yet to be found. Trump campaigned on a pledge to declare war on the capital and to "drain the swamp." And he has kept his word to a fault. Nowhere has that been more visible than in the State Department at the end of Trump's first week in office. There has always been an unwritten rule in Washington that the new leadership works together with established State Department staff for at least enough time for knowledge to be transferred. But Trump ignored the tradition. In the first week of his presidency, almost the entire leadership of the State Department was forced to resign, including Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy and three additional senior officials. They had all worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the past.
"Nobody knows what will happen next," says one top official. "It's not about individual fates. My concern is where the country is heading." Another State Department official spoke of pangs of conscience. With the country heading in the wrong direction, is giving up the right thing to do? Or should one stay and try to minimize the damage?
Ken Gude, an expert for domestic security with the left-leaning Washington think tank Center for American Progress considers Trump's exercise of presidential power to be dangerous. The new government, he says, "is seeking to neutralize the classic areas of the executive, whether in the National Security Council or in other areas. You can see that in the way the first executive orders have been implemented: A small group surrounding Trump and Bannon makes the decisions and excludes all other leading members of the government. They weren't even informed of the content of the new orders before they were issued. We have never before had a president who has actively sought to circumvent the government itself."
Gude believes Bannon is unpredictable for another reason as well: "He has a vision. He sees the world similarly to the way Islamic State does, just from the opposite perspective." For Bannon, Gude says, everything revolves around a fight between the Christian and the Muslim world. "He is preparing himself for this confrontation."
Shock Waves Around the World
It's not just Washington that now has to live with Trump and Bannon. Other countries are also now feeling the shock waves from the transfer of power and are now forced to come to terms with Trump's people.
In far away Britain, Ted Malloch leans back in a green armchair and looks out the window where the Thames flows sedately past the Henley Business School west of London. A steady rain is falling. Malloch takes a sip of his coffee and allows that he perhaps wasn't sufficiently diplomatic in his recent BBC interview.
Malloch is hoping to become the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, but in an interview with the BBC at the end of January, he didn't exactly make himself many friends in Europe. "I had in a previous career a diplomatic post where I helped bring down the Soviet Union," he said. "So maybe there's another union that needs a little taming." It was a clear reference to the European Union and officials in Brussels were not amused. Indeed, the most important parties in European Parliament have demanded that Malloch be denied his diplomatic credentials.
Trump and Malloch, a member of the Roosevelt family and currently a professor, have known each other for 20 years and Malloch advised the candidate on foreign and economic policy issues early on in the campaign. He has also known Stephen Bannon for quite some time, having gotten to know him when the then-head of Breitbart News used to ask him for interviews.
"Many have an inaccurate image of him. He's a smart guy," says Malloch. "Trump has the ideas and Bannon delivers everything else -- the tactics and a whole lot more."
Malloch used to work on Wall Street and also with the United Nations in Geneva. One can surely accuse many of Trump's people of having little idea about how the world works. But the accusation does not apply to Malloch.
"A seismic shift in US-European relations is taking shape," Malloch says, adding that Washington has become more cautious when it comes to international organizations. It is a formulation reflecting his intention to be more diplomatic. "From the perspective of the U.S., it is often better to work bilaterally with the individual countries of the EU. Frankly, this often gives us the upper hand."
He also predicted in his interview with the BBC that the eurozone could break apart within 18 months, and told SPIEGEL it was a "mistaken experiment. If I were sitting on the trading desk of an investment bank, I would bet against the euro." Like Trump, Malloch also believes that Brexit won't be the last case of a country turning its back on the EU. "When you look around Europe, you can put two letters of your choice before the word exit."
Malloch knows how Trump thinks. In the Trump system, speed and effect are everything: a strong president, few controls and a significant dose of cynicism. Trump is the antithesis of the EU. That is a problem, particularly now at a time when the cracks in the EU are becoming wider. The financial crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit: All of it has weakened the union. And now Europe has Trump to worry about.
For Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, the U.S. president has become one of the greatest risks to Europe's future, joining China, Russia, radical Islam, war and terrorism. The new administration, he recently wrote, is "seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy."
Even worse, Trump is getting support from right-wing populists across the entire continent. Hungary's autocrat Viktor Orbán and Poland's strongman Jaroslaw Kaczynski were largely fringe figures before Trump's election, but not anymore. Trump's election, says Orbán, is a "great gift," adding after Trump's inaugural address that "we have received permission from, if you like, the highest position in the world so we can now also put ourselves in first place."
Trump is trying to drive targeted wedges into the European Union. His top trade adviser recently accused Germany of "exploiting" both the U.S. and other eurozone member states by way of a significantly undervalued euro. Meanwhile, Trump, who is a huge fan of Brexit, was holding hands with British Prime Minister Theresa May as the two walked out of the White House together recently. It was "the best first date of all time," says Malloch.
Trump's people have nothing but disdain for international organizations, they hate multilateral agreements -- and they are likely to destroy the deal that could be the most fateful for the future of humanity. Until recently, that destruction was the responsibility of Myron Ebell, 64, who was in charge of environmental issues on Trump's transition team. During the weeks between Trump's election and the inauguration, Ebell sought to minimize and sideline the Environmental Protection Agency. He believes that climate change is fictitious and said in January that the environmental movement is "the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world." He says that climate scientists, who "benefit from advancement in their careers and larger government grants," have joined together to form a "climate-industrial complex."
Ebell has battled the EPA in court for years and now wants to see the agency downsized from its current 15,000 employees to just 5,000. Trump has nominated Scott Pruitt to run the rump agency. He too is a pronounced skeptic of global warming.
Will the U.S. now pull out of the Paris climate agreement as Trump promised on the campaign trail? At the end of January, Republicans introduced a bill that would ban all U.S. contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund. With the GOP enjoying a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the bill could soon land on Trump's desk.
Withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement could take longer, but it's not impossible. Many can't imagine that the U.S. government under Trump's leadership will honor the country's commitments to limiting climate change. But without the U.S., the Paris deal is unlikely to work. With that Trump would make good on a threat he made on Twitter in early 2014: "This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop."
Nobody is currently in a position to stop the president. The Democrats lost the White House in the November elections and the Republicans control both houses of Congress.
But the Democrats could seek to block Trump's Supreme Court nominee, the extremely conservative Neil Gorsuch. Supreme Court justices are named for life, meaning that Gorsuch, who is just 49, could exert influence on American political life for decades to come. To take his seat on the court, however, the nominee needs the approval of 60 percent of the Senate. If the Democrats choose to block his nomination, Trump has urged Republicans to deploy the so-called "nuclear option," which foresees GOP Senators using their majority to change the Senate rules governing the confirmation of Supreme Court justices. It would be a blow to democracy, but it would mean that Gorsuch could be confirmed with a simple majority.
Should a further seat on the Supreme Court be vacated during Trump's time in office, it would be a chance for conservatives to put their stamp on the court for years to come and perhaps even reverse important precedents such as the Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion rights.
Can Republicans Tame Trump?
It appears that only the Republicans themselves are in a position to truly tame Trump and many within the party establishment are indeed suspicious of the outsider. Still, the party won a historic victory on the backs of Trump and Bannon -- winning despite demographers having predicted for years that demographic shifts and immigration would hand the Democrats a majority that would be almost impossible to overcome. But Trump and his Mephistopheles Bannon disproved that logic, benefiting from the fact that huge numbers of white, working-class voters defected from the Democrats to support Trump.
It was a development that allowed Trump to hijack the Republican Party. His ideas, and particularly those coming from Bannon, contradict many of the fundamental values conservatives hold dear. But the GOP finds itself between a rock and a hard place. And they hope that Trump will make two of their greatest wishes come true: the deregulation of industry and a conservative Supreme Court for the next several decades.
Furthermore, even as surveys show that Trump is the least popular incoming president in a long, long time, the Republican grassroots are supportive of his policies. The result being that the Republican Party has essentially become Trump's hostage. Many Republicans are hoping for re-election in the 2018 midterms and those who resist Trump now will likely find themselves facing a primary challenge from a candidate hand-picked by Bannon.
Not even Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who was clear in his critique of Trump during the campaign, has found the courage to criticize Trump's anti-Muslim travel ban.
A 'Danger to the Party and the Nation'
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks has branded the Republicans' willingness to fall into line a "Faustian bargain." The first 10 days of Trump's presidency, Brooks wrote on the last day of January, have shown that the price they have paid is too high and "will cost them their soul." In the bitingly critical piece, Brooks wrote that the Trump government was an "ethnic nationalist administration" in which the "Bannonites" have the upper hand. Trump's "incompetence," he wrote, "is a threat to all around him."
Trump's administration, Brooks goes on, "is less a government than a small clique of bloggers and tweeters who are incommunicado with the people who actually help them get things done and the aroma of bigotry infuses the whole operation, and anybody who aligns too closely will end up sharing in the stench." Trump's government is a "danger to the party and the nation" and, as happened during the administration of Richard Nixon, "Republican leaders will have to either oppose Trump and risk his tweets, or sidle along with him and live with his stain."
Most Republicans, it seems, have chosen the route of holding their noses. Indeed, only two prominent Republicans have shown a willingness to repeatedly stand up to Trump: Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator John McCain. Both have been in office for years and are likely to stick around for some time to come, and both are fearless. But they are largely alone.
On the other side, though, a new liberal citizens' movement is quickly taking shape in the form of demonstrations across the entire country. Society as a whole and the country's youth are becoming politicized again to a degree not seen since the 1960s and '70s. And the question is quickly becoming who will have the greatest endurance -- the defenders of liberal values on the streets or the nationalist revolutionaries in the White House? The battle between these two camps could define America in the coming years, but it is difficult to predict how a narcissistic president such as Donald Trump might ultimately react to lasting demonstrations targeting his leadership. It is even more difficult to predict who will win the battle for the hearts of those who will ultimately determine whether Trump gets a second term in office: those disappointed white voters in the Midwest who in November turned their backs on the Democrats in droves.
Pushback from Silicon Valley
But the ranks of Trump's opponents go well beyond leftist demonstrators and Democratic politicians. There's also another center of influential adversaries, located far away from Washington in Silicon Valley on the West Coast. Last Monday, engineers and programmers held up protest signs and chanted anti-Trump slogans in front of Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. And they were led by Sergey Brin, the company's co-founder who immigrated to the United States as a six year old. In a speech to the gathered Google employees, Brin emphasized that he was "an immigrant and refugee" himself and was "obviously outraged" by the travel ban targeting Muslims.
The involvement of Brin and several other leading Silicon Valley figures marked a departure. Even as the shock over Trump's victory was felt deeply in left-leaning California, many of the tech executives, engineers, founders and programmers had been wary of launching attacks against the new president. Their reticence was primarily due to pragmatism: They felt if they remained silent, Trump wouldn't dare go after the vital tech industry.
But the travel ban against Muslims changed everything. Many of the leading personalities in Silicon Valley are either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants, with Apple founder Steve Jobs, who was the son of a Syrian immigrant who fled to the U.S. in 1954, being only the most famous.
The last two weeks have seen the formation of a new movement across Silicon Valley and beyond calling itself "Tech against Trump," and numerous firms publicly criticized Trump's travel ban. Netflix head Reed Hastings said that Trump's actions "are so un-American it pains us all." Microsoft called it "misguided and a fundamental step backward." The taxi service Lyft announced that it was donating a million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The tech firms' resistance is also fueled by fear that their fundamental business model could be in danger. Digitalization and globalization have always gone hand in hand, while protectionism and a nationalist political agenda are a threat to almost all of them, whether it's Google, Apple or Airbnb.
For years, tech leaders have presented themselves as being a central force behind societal advancement. Trump's closed border policies, wrote Airbnb head Brian Chesky in a memo to his employees last week, represents "a direct obstacle to our mission at Airbnb." The company also offered free lodging to those directly affected by the travel ban.
What, though, will happen to this liberal, progressive worldview under Trump, who is pursuing the exact opposite, namely less freedom? Trump's chief strategist Bannon made clear well before the election what he thought of all the tech-foreigners. While interviewing Donald Trump for Breitbart in 2015, Bannon said critically: "When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think " before trailing off. His numbers were way off. But the new government is nonetheless working on possible limitations to the country's visa program for highly skilled foreign workers. The move would force tech giants to focus their hiring efforts on Americans.
Indeed, the speed with which Trump has introduced his agenda has been dizzying. Two weeks ago, a black president, Barack Obama, was still sitting in the White House. He found it vital to avoid making all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world responsible for terrorism. He didn't want America to isolate itself. He helped push through the Paris climate agreement, he respected the European Union and he told Angela Merkel in farewell that she would likely have to take over the role of leading the free world.
Was that really just two weeks ago?
By Markus Becker, Uwe Buse, Clemens Höges, Peter Müller, Gordon Repinski, Mathieu von Rohr and Thomas Schulz
- Part 1: Trump and Bannon Pursue a Vision of Autocracy
- Part 2: Keeping His Word to a Fault