Stephen Bannon – Losing the Battle but not the War
Stephen Bannon – Losing the Battle but not the WarBy Dr Reuben Steff
Last Friday Stephen Bannon, the Trump administration’s rabble-rousing Chief Strategist, resigned his post – the latest in a series of firings and resignations by members of Trump’s key advisors. It is tempting, especially if one observes mainstream American news outlets on a regular basis (such as Fox News, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, the Washington Post and New York Times, etc) to assume all of this is part of a coherent narrative. According to this, Trump is way out of his depth. Listless, his failures pile up. Surely, his impeachment is imminent and, in its wake, the Republican establishment will move in to preside over 3 years of banal administration; normalcy will be restored. The fact Trump’s impending political demise has been predicted regularly since the first moment his candidacy for president was announced in June 2015, yet he managed to defeat the deepest field of Republicans in a generation and then overcome the Democrats and Hilary Clinton, should urge caution before we believe any of these narratives.
Like the ‘impeachment is imminent’ narrative, it is tempting to view Bannon’s resignation how we like it to look: as a decisive defeat of his ideas and the Alt-Right movement. Adherents of the latter promote populist-economic nationalism (think economic protectionism, an emphasis on protecting traditional working class jobs from the forces of globalisation and immigration), fears cultural and societal change, and contains members that hold disturbing white supremacist beliefs. However, the clash between the ideas Bannon and Trump energised throughout 2016, and the political establishment comprised of Republicans and Democrats, may be far from over. Bannon, by injecting his ideas into the US politics and media discourse, has likely fundamentally altered US politics. They have become a staple of world news articles, feature on cable news channels, and regularly appear in magazine and newspaper op-eds. Consider that only two years ago virtually no one had heard of the Alt-Right, ‘Fake News’ wasn’t a meme, and the term ‘populism’ was relegated to South American, African and Eurasian despots.
While most commentators reject the ideas Bannon and his movement espouses outright, this tells us little about what the majority of American citizens think of these ideas, or whether they will remain politically salient for populists to harness in the years to come. In fact, it is entirely plausible that unless the grievances of Trump supporters are addressed, the ideas of the Alt-Right will retain appeal.
Politically successful ideas matter. They can have cascading effects beyond their immediate region. As we have seen across parts of the Western world, establishment politicians now have to contend with the possibility that upstart political elites will seek to generate and direct their own populist movements at home. Brexit was a populist campaign; in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front finds support from Alt-Right proponents, and although it lost the recent election, the National Front’s popularity has increased in recent years (no wonder Trump spoke favourably of Le Pen ahead of France’s election). Germany, too, could be seeing an uptick in support for the Alternative for Democracy party ahead of its election later this year. Oh, and let us not forget Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in Australia hasn’t gone away. Even our own election is seeing some party leaders, such as Gareth Morgan of The Opportunities Party, regularly calls out the establishment parties. While the circumstances are different in each of these countries, the success of the Alt-Right movement in the US appears to have energised populism throughout the Western world.
Bannon has also played a role in altering the American media landscape. What has arisen in recent years is a new faction of US media outlets, such as Breitbart News (where Bannon will once again act as Executive Chairman), Info Wars and Drudge Report, amongst others. While these outlets have existed for some time, their popularity and exposure to the American public have risen dramatically since Bannon became Trump’s became his Campaign Chief Executive in August 2016. Furthermore, they are dedicated to advancing a populist agenda. In turn, to carve out market share and insert themselves as a new pillar of the American media landscape, they have confronted the mainstream legacy media outlets noted above, which Trump and Bannon have repeatedly labelled as proprietors of ‘Fake News’ and failing companies. Breitbart is a disruptor, and by increasing its share of the media landscape, it is carving out a greater role for themselves to direct the attention of Americans towards the facts and opinions of the populist movement espouses. As Bannon once said, “The [mainstream] media here is the opposition party. They do not understand this country.” His statement did not mean he and his allies rejected the media in its entirety; it indicated that they reject the part of the media they do not control and which does not actively promote their agenda.
When it comes to the ideas Bannon espouses, and which led him and Trump into the White House, we should not believe what we want to believe. Right now, most of us dearly hope this is all like a bad dream and soon we will awake and some kind of national order will be restored. This is not impossible, but nor is it likely. Given the ongoing grievances many American’s have, Bannon’s ideas may very well prove ‘sticky’ in parts of the American electorate, while the change in the media landscape suggests the competition underway between the Alt-Right and the establishment will increasingly be baked into the cake of America’s political discourse. As such, while Bannon’s forced resignation suggests he has lost one battle, he may very well not have lost the war.