'America First' Trump and Bannon Pursue a Vision of Autocracy
Is Donald Trump in the process of transforming the United States into an autocracy? His first weeks in office make it look as though that is his aim. The president is hewing closely to the ideas of his chief strategist, making Stephen Bannon the most dangerous man in America. By SPIEGEL Staff
Those hoping to understand what the world might currently be up against should know how Stephen Bannon thinks. A corpulent man with a full head of hair at age 62, his gaze is clear and alert and he often pinches his mouth together until his lips become invisible, not unlike a street fighter. Now that he works in the White House, he has begun wearing a suit coat. Previously, though, he was fond of showing his disdain for refined Washington by wearing baggy cargo pants through the streets of the capital, shaggy and unshaven.
In November 2013, the historian Ronald Radosh visited multimillionaire Bannon in his townhouse, located in Capitol Hill. The two stood in front of a photo of Bannon's daughter Maureen, an elite soldier with a machine gun in her lap posing on what had once been Saddam Hussein's gold throne. At the time, Bannon was the head of the right-wing propaganda website Breitbart and the two were discussing his political goals. Then Bannon proudly proclaimed, "I'm a Leninist."
The historian reacted with shock, asking him what he meant. "Lenin," he answered, "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." By that, he meant the Democratic Party, the media, but also the Republicans.
Radosh wrote about the encounter in a piece for the news website The Daily Beast and soon thereafter, once close confidants to Bannon came out of the woodwork to share what they knew about his world view. "Steve is a strong militarist, he's in love with war -- it's almost poetry to him," his longtime Hollywood writing partner Julia Jones told the website. She said books about war lay all over the place in his home. "He's studied it down through the ages, from Greece, through Rome ... every battle, every war. Never back down, never apologize, never show weakness. He lives in a world where it's always high noon at the O.K. Corral."
Jones says that Bannon's favorite book is Chinese writer Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" (written around 500 B.C.) and that the Hindu "Bhagavad Gita" is another. The latter is an ancient epic about an Armageddon-like battle in which a prince fights to regain his kingdom, which had been wrongly snatched away from him. Krishna, in an incarnation, nudges him along when he grows weak and is tormented by his scruples. Then Krishna leads him into battle in a chariot.
Matters of War and Peace
Last Monday, Donald Trump promoted Bannon once again. The ex-Breitbart editor had started as his campaign manager before becoming Trump's chief political strategist in the White House. Now, though, Bannon has also been named a permanent member of the National Security Council. "That's the worst thing that has ever happened," says one former Bannon confidant. In addition to other aspects of national security, the group, one of the government's most important, also addresses matters pertaining to war and peace.
Just months ago, Bannon predicted: "We're going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years. There's no doubt about that." Against China, a nuclear power. Bannon has also claimed that another war will also flare up, this one in the Middle East.
Bannon's appointment to the National Security Council was one of many radical decisions made in recent days that will change America and the rest of the world. And most of the decisions can be traced back to Bannon himself.
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Since Jan. 20, Trump and Bannon have together mounted an attack against the institutions of democracy. Surrounding by a tiny circle of confidants, Trump has started a revolution. The aim is to make America great again, as it once was, when there were more borders, women were obedient and the country was strong and feared -- at least as Bannon sees it.
This new old America has taken shape in an alarmingly clear way during the past two weeks. The contours of the presidency are clearer and the methods more visible. Trump is neither seeking to promote his initiatives nor is he trying to persuade people of his political course. Rather, he is governing by decree and ruling like an autocrat. In doing so, he is driving America further apart. New trenches are being dug and there's more to the battle taking shape than a clash of cultures. It's not fake news, alternative facts or Trumpian lies that are at the center in the next round of the battle -- it's about policy action and stark nationalism.
President Trump is acting exactly as Bannon had hoped. Now that he's in power, he is playing the role of the destroyer. The dignity of the office of president means little to him and he began eroding it from the first day with his petty tweets and boorish behavior. Surrounded by his tiny circle of close advisors, he began hatching one presidential decree after the other, including orders to build a wall along the border to Mexico and an entry ban for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. The decisions provoked angry protests in the United States and around the world. It has also darkened the world's view of America.
The Resiliance of American Democracy
The president said he "absolutely" feels that torture "works." He threatened to send U.S. troops into Mexico in a telephone call with the country's president if he didn't finally take drastic measures to stop the "bad hombres" there. He fought with the Australian prime minister over refugee policy. It appears he wants to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and he seems to be picking a fight with China. His people have also attacked the European Union in general and Germany in particular. The situation is getting serious -- indeed there's not much room for it to get more serious. Since taking office, Trump has struck global politics like a tornado, much like Bannon must have imagined.
There is a great deal at stake. His presidency raises questions about the resilience of American democracy and its institutions and over how far a man can go who will test the Constitutional limits of the powers of the president. And whether America, the model of democracy, is susceptible to the new authoritarianism of the 21st century.
In this battle, Bannon -- a man so far out on the right-wing fringe that even the Republican establishment thought he was a whacko -- is the decisive puller of strings behind Trump. Following the election, there were many who sought comfort in the idea that Vice President Mike Pence might lead from behind the scenes and that things might not turn out so badly after all. Now it is clear that those people badly deceived themselves. The chief ideologist within the White House right now is Stephen Bannon and his power far exceeds that of official Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a traditionalist Republican. "Impeach President Bannon!" read the signs held up by some protestors last week in New York and Washington.
Bannon's surge in power is also disconcerting because his presence in the legendary Situation Room blurs a long-held tradition in U.S. politics separating political strategists, who are mostly watching poll data, from those whose jobs are mostly related to security policy and whose primary concern is the lives and deaths of U.S. soldiers. Trump's predecessor in office sought to avoid the appearance that profound decisions made by the National Security Council could be influenced by domestic policy considerations.
With one signature, Trump did away with this dividing line. And as if that weren't enough, he removed two experts from full membership on the council at the same time: the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
'A Week of Crazy'
Susan Rice, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, called the move "stone cold crazy. After a week of crazy." She then quipped, "Who needs military advice or intell (sic) to make policy on ISIL, Syria, Afghanistan, DPRK (North Korea)?"
In addition to Bannon, Stephen Miller, political adviser to the president, is another member of Trump's unofficial cabinet. The recent turns in the career paths of Bannon and Miller would have been unimaginable prior to the Trump presidency. But as unbelievable as Bannon's rise from right-wing journalist to presidential advisor might be, Miller's is perhaps even more unbelievable.
One day during the primary campaign in Florida, Trump sent Miller onstage in order to warm up the crowd. It was likely just by chance, but Miller, a man with a narrow, long face and high brow, did it so well, so alarmingly well, that he emerged from the shadows and became a key part of the campaign. In the months that followed, Miller went from being one of thousands of campaign helpers to being one of Trump's most loyal and closest aids. Now, at the age of 31, he has one of the most powerful positions in the U.S.
Many observers, though, found the manner in which Miller worked the crowds to be frightening. He could incite them at will, demonizing the country's elite, who he claimed had conspired against the common man. He said they were responsible for open borders, free trade agreements and the shrinking middle class, the three elements that are causally linked in the worldviews of Miller, Bannon and Trump.
Miller comes from a liberal Jewish family from California. He began his career in the Senate as one of many junior staffers to arch-conservative Senator Jeff Sessions, the politician now set to become Trump's Attorney General despite considerable protest from champions of civil liberties.
Miller acted as a messenger boy for Trump, then he became influential in the third tier of the presidential campaign before catapulting himself to Trump's innermost circle with his malicious tirades. Now this 31-year-old, with very little previous political experience, has become one of the most powerful men in the country.
Autocrats value loyalty above all else, of course, and smart autocrats promote those who are most loyal to them without giving them the impression that their input is of vital importance. Creating division within the inner circle by showing a preference at times for one person and then another is also a classic trait of autocrats. And even during the campaign, the internal divisions within the Trump team became legendary. Each side leaked dirt about their opponents to the allegedly so hated press. And the pattern is repeating itself in the White House.
A Clear Mission
The power centers are fighting against each other, including Bannon and Miller and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who some consider to be a moderating influence. His previous spokesperson and current special adviser Kellyanne Conway -- the inventor of the term "alternative facts" -- is also part of the cabal. And then there's the former head of the military intelligence service DIA, Trump's security adviser General Michael Flynn, who is pleading for reconciliation with Russia.
Such is the composition of the Trump White House, a chaotic place, but also one with a clear mission: that of radically transforming the United States. These aren't Republicans, they are Trumpists. And they aren't conservatives, they are nationalists. Bannon is their ideologue. He may be the smartest, but he is surely also the most dangerous.
It has been reported that he wrote Trump's inauguration speech together with Miller. The hatred of the establishment, the slogan "America First," the promise of giving the power back to the people and dignity back to the working class: All that was classic Bannon. As was the use of the term "carnage" to describe what criminals are allegedly visiting on America's cities and of the "red blood" that patriots bleed for their mother country.
Bannon comes from a family of Irish immigrants of modest means and his father worked for a telephone company. Bannon, though, was able to work his way to the top. He served as an officer on a destroyer in the Navy before becoming a part of the establishment as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. He made millions before turning against the very establishment that made him rich in the first place: He acquired the right-wing propaganda site Breitbart.com.
Starting in 2012, he used sensationalist news to transform the site into a mouthpiece for the right-wing Tea Party movement and the Alt-Right before seeing his own opportunity to rise to power together with Trump. He needed someone like Trump and Trump needed someone like him -- a person who could use new media to manipulate people.
A 'Blunt Instrument'
It's a Faustian bargain, with Bannon in the role of Mephistopheles and Trump as Dr. Faust. Bannon made Trump big and helped guide him to the White House. Now Trump is fulfilling Bannon's plan. Trump is a "blunt instrument for us," Bannon told Vanity Fair last summer. "I don't know whether he really gets it or not." By "us," Bannon meant America's new right, supporters of a Tea Party movement that is much further to the right than the majority of Republicans.
In November, the news website BuzzFeed published a 50-minute audio clip of an appearance made by Bannon in 2014 that provides a strong glimpse into his world view. The clip comes from a conference at the Vatican of representatives of the religious right in Europe. Bannon, himself a Catholic, gave a talk via Skype.
Exactly 100 years ago tomorrow, Bannon began, the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked World War I. Until that day, there had been "total peace. There was trade, there was globalization, there was technological transfer Seven weeks later, I think there were 5 million men in uniform and within 30 days there were over a million casualties."
He went on to say that the world is once again at such a point, "at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict." He blamed it on "a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism."
Bannon described a system of "crony capitalism" of the elite that only created wealth for the establishment, allowing that he knew what he was talking about from his own background. He said there's a desperate need for a renaissance of "what I call the 'enlightened capitalism' of the Judeo-Christian West," with companies that create jobs and prosperity for all.
The second threat, he said, comes from the secularization of society. He noted that the "overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize" millennials under 30. He said Breitbart had become the voice of the anti-abortion movement and the traditional marriage movement.
No Need for Goebbels
The third threat, and perhaps the greatest, Bannon preached from the computer screen, is Islam. "We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism." But this war, he warned, is "metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it."
He said a "populist revolt" of "working men and women" is now needed to battle Wall Street and Islam at the same time, an international Tea Party movement modelled after Britain's right-wing populist UKIP, which he knows well. The U.S. Republican Party establishment, on the other hand, he described as a "collection of crony capitalists."
An international alliance of populists united in their hatred of the elite, appealing to the workers and brought together by a common enemy -- only with the Muslims replacing the Jews this time. It all makes Bannon, and Trump along with him, sound like a fascist. But are they?
Times are different today, as are the means, paths and goals. There's no longer a need for masses of brown shirts or a screaming Goebbels. The masses are on the internet today and they read Breitbart and follow Trump on Twitter. The manifestations today are modern and the ideology has also been modernized. But the attitudes themselves seem to be enjoying a renaissance.
Conservative writer David Frum, George W. Bush's former speech writer, warned in an essay for The Atlantic that Trump could transform the U.S. into an autocracy but that the model would be more like Viktor Orbán in Hungary than Adolf Hitler. Hungary does still have free elections, but they are "not quite fair." He wrote that "Hungary is ceasing to be a free country" and that the transition "has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic."
Members of the opposition there aren't murdered, but they are neutralized, he wrote. Supporters become rich and opponents remain poor. President Trump might also appoint yes-men and yes-women and neutralize critics, especially at the highest levels of government. He could also continue to grow richer as a result of his office, particularly given that he is, as Frum wrote, "poised to mingle business and government with an audacity and on a scale more reminiscent of a leader in a post-Soviet republic than anything ever before seen in the United States." Trump hates the press, he twists the truth, Frum wrote. "Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state," he wrote. "Not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit."
The Example of Hugo Chávez
What people like to call "illiberal democracy" is making a comeback in many parts of the world. The idea represents an authoritarian democracy in which the leader is more or less freely elected, but in which people's basic civil rights are curtailed, transition of power is made more difficult, freedom of expression and the press come under pressure, minorities lose their equal protection and the division of power is either partially or entirely eliminated.
It's a phenomenon that has been seen Russia and Turkey, but also in Latin American nations like Venezuela. There, former President Hugo Chávez using ruling techniques one could also imagine with Trump. On his weekly TV show, he would fire government ministers who didn't meet his demands on live television, provide homes to poor families as gifts and rail against his political opponents with insults.
But is it really possible that the West's liberal democracies could be infected by such forms of rule? Political scientist Shadi Hamid, who has studied Islamist movements and illiberal democracies in the Middle East, sees parallels between Trump's ethnic-nationalist voters and supporters of the Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt. There, too, people of mostly modest means who do not share liberal values, have periodically brought a new type of politician to power through the popular vote.
- Part 1: Trump and Bannon Pursue a Vision of Autocracy
- Part 2: Keeping His Word to a Fault