WASHINGTON — (Analysis) Though President Donald Trump, his inner circle, and new political appointees have been no strangers to controversy in recent years, perhaps no figure has been more contentious than Trump’s chief strategist and former campaign chairman.
Steve Bannon has figured prominently in numerous recent headlines, in part due to his promotion to a top position in the National Security Council earlier this month. The unprecedented move has met with fierce criticism by many on the establishment left.
Yet nearly all of the “mainstream” news coverage surrounding Bannon has been identical in their analysis of the man: Accusations of racism, white supremacy, and fascism abound, as does the characterization of Bannon as the real power broker behind the president.
However, as Bannon has noted on more than one occasion, the media has gotten it all wrong.
That’s not to say that Bannon isn’t dangerous, but rather that the media’s attacks against him — much like their continued invectives against Trump — are focused on accusations along racial lines. Such arguments are somewhat true, but more often than not, they serve as a distraction from the true dangers Bannon poses in his new position as director of the National Security Council.
In addition, these assertions, in part due to their flimsy basis, are easily debunked by the conservative news organizations that Trump’s base largely rely on, furthering populist anger at the “liberal media” and improving the standing of these outlets in the eyes of their readers.
These attacks play right into Bannon’s hands, notably because they ignore the real danger that he presents.
A Walking Contradiction: Bannon as both an Anti-Semite and Zionist
More often than not, mainstream media accounts of Bannon often include accusations of anti-Semitism and allegations that he is sympathetic toward white nationalist ideology.
Some of the key evidence cited to justify these views come from divorce court proceedings, in which his now ex-wife accused him of not wanting to send their daughter to a particular school due to the high number of Jewish students in attendance. Other examples include articles published by Breitbart News, which Bannon has controlled since Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012.
For example, in early 2016, Breitbart ran an article, co-authored by Milo Yiannopoulos, titled “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.” Though the article said that the “alt-right” had little to do with white nationalism, it went on to cite Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader of the National Policy Institute, as an intellectual leader of the movement and also attempted to excuse the white nationalist cause along with truly anti-Semitic memes, particularly those involving “Shlomo Shekelberg.” While some could argue that Bannon can’t be personally responsible for everything Breitbart publishes, this piece — which defended the worst excesses of the decentralized “alt-right” movement — was essentially an endorsement of these elements.
Considering Bannon once boasted that Breitbart was the “platform for the alt-right” this article — an article Bannon was obviously aware of due to the controversy it generated — is more or less, a tacit endorsement of certain elements of Spencer’s dangerous ideology. Though Bannon has not publicly spoken about his opinions of Spencer, his silence following the publication of this particular article speaks volumes.
Yet, despite his allegedly anti-Semitic leanings, Bannon has been widely embraced by prominent Zionists in American and Israeli politics. Bernie Marcus, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, issued a statement saying, “I have known Steve to be a passionate Zionist and supporter of Israel who felt so strongly about this that he opened a Breitbart office in Israel to ensure that the true pro-Israel story would get out.”
Even Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, echoed this sentiment, saying:
“Israel has no doubt that President-Elect Trump is a true friend of Israel. […] We look forward to working with the Trump administration, with all of the members of the Trump administration, including Steve Bannon, and making the US-Israel alliance stronger than ever.”
It may seem strange to suggest that one could be simultaneously anti-Semitic and pro-Israel.
However, Bannon’s ties to white nationalism hold the key to interpreting this conundrum. White nationalism and Zionism are both based on the formation of “ethno-states,” nations that serve the interests and culture of one particular ethnic group. Thus, recognizing the legitimacy of a Zionist state and its geopolitical goals serves to legitimize the white nationalism that often expresses anti-Semitic sentiments.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and cultural commentator, elaborated on this point when he told the Forward in November that this seemingly contradictory mix of anti-Semitism and Zionism are actually perfectly compatible thanks to their underlying nationalism. He explained:
“Anti-Semitism and right-wing Zionism are varieties of ultra nationalism, or, to put it more pejoratively (as it deserves to be put) tribalism. They both presume that the embattled righteous ones need to bristle at, wall off, and punish the damned outsiders. They hate and fear cosmopolitan mixtures. They make a fetish of purity. They have the same soul. They rhyme.”
Bannon’s allegiance to Zionism manifested in key ways since his appointment to the top position in the Trump campaign in August. Coincidentally, around that same time, Trump pivoted much closer to Israel — a pivot that truly came into its own when Trump vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem in his first week in office (a move that the administration apparently quickly moved to downplay).
It is Bannon’s commitment to the Jewish ethno-state of Israel, not his alleged connections to white nationalism or anti-Semitism, that presents one of the real dangers inherent in Bannon’s prominence in the Trump administration.
America or Israel First?: Bannon’s likely influence on the National Security Council
As Bannon and other Zionists in the Trump administration are surely aware, it is a difficult game putting “America first” while also faithfully serving the Zionist agenda, which inherently requires prioritizing the needs of Israel.
While mainstream media outlets have decried Bannon’s appointment to the National Security Council, citing claims of white nationalism and racist ideology, they are missing the point.
Supporting the state of Israel also means supporting its geopolitical goals — goals which benefit the Israeli people much more than their American counterparts. Despite the incongruence, it is often the American people who foot the bill.
Many of Israel’s recently stated goals focus on Iran and its “containment,” and the Trump administration has already readily embraced this stance. From a missile defense system targeting Iran to his vow to dismantle the Iranian nuclear deal, Trump and his right-hand man Bannon have clearly aligned themselves with Israel’s foreign policy goals despite the fact that these latest actions are likely to result in war with Iran.
Although starting a war with Iran does little to benefit the American people, it would go a long way toward furthering Israel’s “supreme goal” of maintaining hegemony in the Middle East. This view has recently gained greater traction following the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” which conveniently only targets those Middle Eastern countries that the United States and Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, marked for regime change following the 9/11 attacks.
With his new post on the National Security Council, Bannon now has the power to guide national security policy in favor of his Zionist ideological leanings.
Yet Bannon’s new role is about more than advancing a particular agenda. His position on the National Security Council and the removal of key intelligence establishment figures from that council, as independent geopolitical analyst Eric Draitser noted in an interview with MintPress News, is “first and foremost, a centralization of power.”
“This is part of the mechanics of empire,” Draitser said. “They don’t want checks and balances, they want to bring the power to themselves and centralize it. They are doing that by purging the joint chief of staffs and those in the upper echelons of power.”
Indeed, the timing of Bannon’s promotion has all the markings of his hallmark political strategy, occurring at roughly the same time as the controversial “Muslim ban,” which has dominated the news cycle. This has resulted in little time and attention being paid to the unprecedented move that Bannon’s inclusion on the National Security Council represents — the further consolidation of the power of the executive branch.
Augmenting the power of the executive branch is nothing new. This trend has been a continuous feature of all recent presidencies, most notably under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both administrations, as noted by Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, used executive privilege as a strategy for national security at the cost of Americans’ civil liberties, particularly the expansion of the surveillance state.
Throughout the past two administrations, the National Security Council also took on broader powers, particularly with regard to the management of the government’s secretive “kill list.” This list allows the government to order the death of any person, including American citizens, who are “suspected” of terrorism.
The National Security Council is not required to keep a record of the decision to include a particular individual on the list nor a record of the operation used to kill those listed. Even before Bannon’s appointment to the body, Trump had made use of this list. Within his first week in office, Trump’s administration oversaw the “kill list” murder of the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was killed extrajudicially via this list. His American teenage son was also killed extrajudicially under Obama. This suggests that Trump’s use of these broad powers will continue to bring more of the same.
Bannon: The anti-establishment strategist of the establishment
Bannon’s name is one of the most notorious in U.S. politics today, but it wasn’t always that way. Even Bannon admits that he wasn’t at all political up until his military service, when Jimmy Carter’s policies turned him against the Democrats and led to his enduring admiration for Ronald Reagan.
Though Bannon’s brand of conservatism has guided him for decades, his foray into the U.S. political landscape is relatively recent, beginning more or less with the rise of the tea party movement, which he helped to coordinate and bring to prominence.
Bannon’s work with the tea party and his subsequent role as a founder and executive chairman of the popular conservative news website Breitbart has painted him as decidedly anti-establishment, a characteristic Bannon himself touts as a major driver of his strategy and political vision.
However, an examination of his past brings Bannon’s establishment ties into sharp focus. It also shows that these connections have helped to shape his acumen for political strategy as well as his ideology.
In the early 1980s, Bannon became special assistant to the chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon, and he obtained a master’s degree in National Security Studies from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service a few years later.
Enticed by Wall Street’s resurgence in the Reagan era, Bannon sought to join the ranks of the nation’s elite bankers, prompting him to enroll at Harvard Business School in 1983. Though successful in his studies, Bannon had difficulty gaining access to top firms due to his military background and his blue-collar roots.
However, a chance encounter led him to rub elbows with key Goldman Sachs operatives, which ultimately granted him a spot within one of the world’s most controversial and powerful banks, sealing Bannon’s deep connections to the very establishment he professes to stand against.
Beginning his work at Goldman Sachs during the height of the hostile takeover boom, he eventually left to specialize in media and entertainment acquisitions — a move that made him a small fortune. However, he learned a lot in his time at Goldman Sachs.
“One of the things Goldman Sachs teaches you, don’t be the first guy through the door because you’re going to get all the arrows,” Bannon told Bloomberg in October of 2015, illustrating the origins of his “behind the scenes” approach to shaping policy.
Bannon continued: “Goldman would never lead in any product. Find a business partner.”
Now, Bannon’s latest partner, the president of the United States, has bestowed upon him the ability to guide the policy of the entire country.
‘No fundamental change … just a recalibration’
Due to the groundwork set under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump and his closest advisors have inherited an executive branch complete with sweeping powers, many of which are arguably unconstitutional.
With a clear disdain for establishment politicians in Congress and other branches of government, the current administration will only seek to expand this.
Now, Bannon is set to help determine the direction of the country’s national security policy.
Given his disdain for the other branches and agencies of the federal government, it’s all but guaranteed that he will also seek to expand the power of the executive branch.
As Draitser noted, Bannon’s ascent to the National Security Council and the expansion of power this means for the president, brings “no fundamental change to U.S. policy, just a recalibration.”