There are limits to Steve Bannon’s suspicion of trade. He does not oppose the export of his own talent. The former adviser to US president Donald Trump is founding a Brussels-based group called The Movement to nurture European populists. Liberals hope it is a futile stab at relevance by a man who has fallen out with the White House and the Breitbart News Network.
The trouble is, after the first of those ruptures almost a year ago, they entertained a similar hope. With the Trump whisperer out of the way, moderates would steer the administration. Economic policy would revert to Chamber of Commerce orthodoxies. Generals would run a respectable foreign policy. The president would call off the culture war. The defeat of a Bannon-backed Senate candidate in Alabama seemed to mark the passing of his influence.
Still his rumpled silhouette stalks American politics. In its substance, this is a Bannonite government. More Bannonite, in fact, than when he was a part of it. He could have scripted Trump’s bellicose tweet about Iran or designed his subsidies for American farmers, to take this week’s events alone. It is hard to think of a presidential act in recent months that would not have had his old adviser cooing from a distance.
Why the residual influence? In any contest to sway Trump, the ultimate advantage is clarity. He wants a programme for government and Bannon’s remains the clearest at hand. By their nature, moderates tend not to go in for panoramic manifestos. For a president so impatient with nuance and half-measures, the size of their ideas, not just the content of them, was never going to be satisfying.
Do not mistake the government’s organisational chaos for ideological incoherence. At this stage of a normal administration, newspaper columns of the “What does it all mean?” sort start to proliferate. Some presidents, such as Bill Clinton, retire with observers still trying to divine a theme to eight years of policies.
With Trump, there is no doubt about the theme – nationalism –and there should be no doubt about its ultimate author. While Bannon was in the White House, the drama that surrounded him got in the way of his ideas. They now stand on their own terms. Against wiser but less emphatic alternatives, they prevail.
It was with Bannon that Trump sculpted his various impulses into a platform of devastating clarity
His presence also gave the administration’s moderates a figure on whom to focus their dissent, while remaining loyal to the president. Without him, they can only advance their cause by confronting Trump. Few have the stomach for it. By absenting himself, Bannon has perversely strengthened his cause within the government.
Consciously or not, the president may also equate Bannonism with success. Two years ago, Brexit and Trump were losing propositions until late on. The Brexit campaign suddenly majored on immigration, and won. Trump’s deliverance was different. As well as the intervention of the FBI, which reopened its inquiry into his rival’s emails, there was Bannon, who focused an inchoate campaign on economic nationalism.
The difference is that Eurosceptics hide from the nature of their victory. They pretend that Britain is full of Walter Raleighs eager to explore the world and its commercial opportunities. Trump remembers very well how he won. This is why a president who could ride the purring economy to the midterm elections and beyond chooses to distract from it with cultural and geopolitical provocations. Having won as a nationalist, he hopes to do so again.
Winner and loser
Of course, it is possible that Trump would have governed just the same had he never met Bannon. His life-long idée fixe – that every exchange creates a winner and a loser – is the germ of economic nationalism. But you have to squint very hard to see much coherence in his previous life as a semi-political celebrity. It was with Bannon that he sculpted his various impulses into a platform of devastating clarity.
Europeans should beware, then, as Bannon sets up shop in their capital. Yes, he is prone to the Anglo-American right’s signature error: the underestimation of support for the EU on the continent, where even nationalists tend to prize membership. He has said that Europe is a year or so ahead of the US in its populist momentum, which reveals an ideologue’s view of history as uni-directional. Reality is messier than that.
But this is not a last shot at relevance. It is the expansion of his all-too-considerable relevance. Upon Bannon’s exit from the White House, the government should have reverted to common-or-garden Republicanism or outright incoherence. Instead, it wears his stamp now more than ever.