Donald Trump’s chief strategist is rarely heard in public but he has emerged as an ever-present force at the president’s side, leaving America in little doubt that Steve Bannon is the new strongman in the West Wing.
The 63-year-old former head of the right-wing Breitbart News site cuts a low-key figure, his stubble-cheeked demeanor somewhere between laid-back and slouchy. But a cartoon that went viral in the two weeks since the real estate magnate took power sums up what many suspect to be the true power dynamic in the White House.
In it, a tiny Trump sits in the lap of a giant Bannon, who guides his hand as he signs his first decrees and congratulates the “big boy” as a father would a child.
Bannon’s creed has long been to blow up what he rejects as a corrupt political establishment, led by an even more corrupt elite in the federal capital Washington. Advocating a radical break with politics-as-usual, Bannon is clearly reveling in his role as America’s provocateur-in-chief.
“What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order,” he told the Washington Post a few days back. “And the more frantic a handful of media elites become, the more powerful that new political order becomes itself.”
U.S. media are still taking stock of the outsized role apparently played by Trump’s top adviser, who by all accounts has a peerless ability to steer the 70-year-old Republican toward his own ideological agenda. A #StopPresidentBannon campaign is sweeping left-wing social media—to the seeming delight of the White House chief strategist and self-styled nemesis of all things politically correct.
His argument: the mainstream media are woefully out of touch with the forces that are transforming American society—and much of the West—and which fueled Trump’s maverick run for the presidency. Leafing back through the annals of U.S. political history, it is hard to find a precedent for an adviser playing such a pivotal role, so fast, at the very heart of power.
Bannon’s voice—that of a self-proclaimed “economic nationalist”—could be clearly heard in the dark and combative inauguration speech delivered by Trump two weeks ago. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first,” the president vowed, laying down “two simple rules: buy American, and hire American.”
One week later, Bannon’s elevation to a permanent seat on Trump’s National Security Council—which operates like a parallel foreign ministry within the White House—triggered a deluge of condemnation. White House spokesman Sean Spicer defended Bannon’s NSC appointment as that of “a former naval officer with a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape we have now.”
But concerns run deep at the prospect of American foreign policy being shaped by a figure who back in 2010 declared: “Islam is not a religion of peace.”
The former Goldman Sachs banker, who grew up in a working class, pro-trade union Democratic family, traces his divorce with the establishment to the day he realized that George W. Bush “had fucked up as badly as [Jimmy] Carter.”
Bannon has cut a relatively discreet public figure since Jan. 20, but the one time he spoke out was to assail—in comments of a rare bluntness—a media establishment he despises.
Arguing that the news media had been “humiliated” by the election outcome, he described it as the de-facto “opposition”—and advised it to “keep its mouth shut.”
“I want you to quote this,” Bannon told the New York Times. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country.” A few days later the argument was uttered again—in the exact same words—by the president himself.
“Bannon certainly knows how to manipulate the president and get what he wants,” argued Frank Bruni in a New York Times column this week. “He’s Trump’s unabashed Iago,” Bruni wrote, referring to the Machiavellian adviser in Shakespeare’s Othello, “whispering sweet fictions about the magnitude of the ‘movement’ that the president is leading.”
Observers have been sifting through Bannon’s past statements as they try to pin down his ideology and goals—and second-guess how they might come to bear on Trump’s decision-making.
What has emerged so far is a dark and conflicting vision of the world. “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years,” Bannon said in March 2016. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Bannon has so far all but eclipsed Reince Priebus, the top Republican Party operative named at the same time as him to what in theory should be a more influential post—that of White House chief of staff. In announcing their appointments, Trump had promised both men—however different their backgrounds—would work together as “equal partners.”
As the Trump presidency unfolds over the coming months, the world will be watching to see if there is a rebalancing between the two, or if the former Breitbart News chief remains the most powerful adviser in the United States.