On Saturday, as Donald Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees reaped confusion and disarray across the world, the White House announced that Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and former executive director of the ultra far-right Breitbart News, had been elevated to the U.S. National Security Council’s principals committee. The move breaks with precedent and places Bannon on a level playing field to the secretaries of state and defense in national security decision-making for the Trump administration.
The administration sought to justify the move by painting Bannon as something slightly more than a mere political operative. “He is a former naval officer. He’s got a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now,” Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, told ABC. Spicer added that “having the chief strategist for the president in those meetings who has a significant military background to help make — guide what the president’s final analysis is going to be is crucial.”
Saturday’s move adds to a growing list of evidence that Bannon is increasingly one of the most significant members of the Trump administration in terms of shaping policy. Consider also, for example, that CNN reported with regard to Friday’s executive order on limiting refugees and travelers that Bannon and Stephen Miller, another advisor to Trump, had overruled the legal opinions of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Bannon’s elevation to the NSC is something that will come to bear on how Trump makes his decisions about foreign policy, with ramifications for U.S. allies and adversaries alike. The former Breitbart director is an enigmatic and eclectic political figure with a set of deeply heterodox views about the world and the U.S. role in the world. Bannon has at times described himself as a “Leninist,” who wants to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” As Diplomat contributor Casey Michel has written, Bannon has a close and complex relations with the so-called political alt-right, which espouses racist views.
Though his views about global affairs remain poorly articulated in public domain sources, Bannon buys into the Huntingtonian idea of the world being divided into discrete civilizations. A 2014 transcript of remarks delivered by Bannon sheds some light on these ideas. A belief central to Bannon’s worldview is that the West is “in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism,” a war that he described as “metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.” In fact, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to describe Bannon as a 21st Crusader in the Medieval meaning of the term: “If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing.”
Bannon’s views on Asia are complicated. On one hand, he has described Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 “great victory” as part of a global “center-right revolt” based on “Reaganesque principles,” showing a degree of admiration for the Indian leader. Bannon’s economic nationalism, however, has led him to grow skeptical of allowing immigrants from India (and elsewhere in Asia) to play a broader role in the American economy. An interview between him and Trump released last year features Bannon pushing back on the president’s suggestion that high-skilled immigrants should be allowed into the United States. Bannon laments this trend leading to an erosion of U.S. “civic society.”
Bannon’s interest in global political movements aligning with his worldview appears to be deep and sustained. On Sunday, BuzzFeed cited a nameless “source close to the Trump administration” who alleged that part of the reason Trump elevated Bannon was because he was among the “premier experts on the populist, nationalist movements that we’re seeing around the globe.” This may be less relevant in Asia, but for U.S. allies in Europe fearing the subjugation of the European Union by populist leaders, the lingering fear that a Trump administration might pursue a subtle form of regime change against them will intensify.
Bannon’s economic thinking leaves him deeply hostile to globalization and trade liberalization, as well. Bannon has self-identified as an “economic nationalist” and sees the emergence of a large middle class in Asia as a tragedy. “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get fucked over,” Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter. In this sense, Bannon is more with the mainstream of economic advisers within the Trump administration. Trump’s Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, National Trade Council head Peter Navarro, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross each share this preference for protectionism and “America First” economic policy to varying degrees.
Bannon’s presence in the NSC principal’s committee might be less concerning if we didn’t have strong evidence that he truly has Trump’s ear on a range of decisions. Bannon’s lingering influence over the executive orders issued in Trump’s first week speaks to this influence. At the NSC, Bannon will be competing for influence with figures who diverge sharply with his view of the world and of national security — the most drastic being Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis.
For those in other countries looking at what to expect out of a Trump administration’s foreign and security policy, the decision to elevate Bannon should serve as a strong indicator that when Trump harped on “America First” as the cornerstone slogan of his outward approach at his inaugural address, he meant it. Bannon, the self-avoided American “economic nationalist” with a civilizational grudge against Islam, is coming to the NSC. Expect his ideas to continue to shape and influence the actions taken by Trump’s White House.