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.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2017 (February 4, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.
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.
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.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2017 (February 4, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.
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