US elections 2024

‘He believes in power and chaos’: alarm as Steve Bannon plots to propel Trump

03.03.2024
Lesedauer: 8 Minuten
Steve Bannon at CPAC last week. Photograph: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

The ex-White House chief strategist is no longer in daily contact with Trump, but his influence on the Maga right remains total

Wearing an olive green jacket over a black shirt, Steve Bannon blew the doors off a subject that most other speakers had tiptoed around. “Media, I want you to suck on this, I want the White House to suck on this: you lost in 2020!” he roared. “Donald Trump is the legitimate president of the United States!”

A thrill of transgression swept through the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the National Harbor in Maryland. “Trump won!” Bannon barked, pointing a finger. “Trump won!” he repeated, shaking a fist. “Trump won!” he proclaimed again. His audience, as if hypnotised, chanted the brazen lie in unison.

It was a blunt reminder that Bannon, an architect of Trumpism variously compared to Thomas Cromwell, Rasputin and Joseph Goebbels, remains a potent force in American politics as the 2024 US presidential election looms into view and the re-election of Trump looks a clear possibility.

The former White House chief strategist may not be in daily contact with Trump any more but it scarcely matters: he is a vital source for the far-right ecosystem that shapes and animates the “Make America great again” (Maga) base.

Bannon, 70, is currently appealing a criminal conviction and four-month prison sentence for defying a subpoena from the congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. The committee heard evidence that Trump spoke to Bannon at least twice on January 5 and predicted that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow”.

In the meantime, he hosts a regular podcast called War Room, which propagates false narratives about the 2020 election and coronavirus vaccines but is given a veneer of respectability by guests including Elise Stefanik, the No 3 Republican in the House of Representatives, and other senior politicians.

A pop-up War Room studio commanded a prime location at CPAC last week and featured guests such as Liz Truss, the former British prime minister. On the main stage, Bannon compared Trump to the Roman general Cincinnatus and declared: “His fate and destiny is to have the greatest political comeback in American history from November 5 to drive the vermin out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Biden, you and your crime family are nothing but trash, OK? And on 20 January of 2025 we’re going to take out the trash.”

The Maga-regalia wearing crowd went wild, cementing Bannon’s status as a tribune of the movement heading into the 2024 presidential election.

Charlie Sykes, a political commentator and author of How the Right Lost Its Mind, said: “At the moment Steve Bannon is the id of the American right and, if we’ve learned anything in the last eight years, it’s don’t assume because somebody sounds extreme and unhinged that they will not be influential in this party.”

Sykes makes an analogy with drug dealers competing with each other by selling purer and stronger forms of methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant. “Steve Bannon is still peddling the most powerful meth out there.

“Donald Trump does not look at Steve Bannon and think this guy is unhinged; he’s looking at Steve Bannon and saying this is exactly what I want to hear from my supporters. Steve Bannon knows what he’s doing and he will act as a gravitational pull on the rest of the right because they have to match him.”

Unkempt and unpolished, Bannon is the opposite of a career politician. He is a former naval officer, Goldman Sachs investment banker and film producer. He was executive chairman of Breitbart News, which he once described as “the platform of the ‘alt-right’”, a movement that has embraced racism and antisemitism, and became chairman of Trump’s 2016 winning election campaign.

His tenure at the White House was short and acrimonious as he clashed with the president’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner, who later described him as a “toxic” presence who accused him of “undermining the president’s agenda”. Trump himself may have been piqued by how much media attention Bannon was receiving and eventually branded him “Sloppy Steve”.

„He will play a central role in whatever Trump administration emerges if Trump wins“

Rick Wilson

But his ideas have proved harder to kill. Bannon continues to advocate the “deconstruction of the administrative state”, a radical downsizing of federal government bureaucracy, and an isolationist “America first” policy that he insists would keep the country out of a third world war. Such notions are percolating through to Republicans in Congress who oppose further military aid to Ukraine.

Bannon also helps set the narrative on Trump’s signature issue, border security, blaming undocumented immigrants for crime, even thought studies have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than other US residents, and advocating mass deportations as a solution.

Bannon argues that biggest losers from the record influx of immigrants is the Black and Latino working class. “Every Black person, every Hispanic person in our country, vote for Trump,” Bannon said at CPAC last Saturday. “Trump will set you free because right now they’re enslaving you.”

He then assured his overwhelmingly white audience: “They call you racist, they call you xenophobic, they call you nativist. Nothing could be further from the truth because they can’t win the intellectual argument. What they have to do is try to smear you and you don’t care because you know that’s not true.”

Bannon has a sign on his mantelpiece that says, “There are no conspiracies but there are no coincidences” – placing him in a twilight zone between conspiracy theories and otherwise. War Room is his biggest mouthpiece. Last year a study by the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington found that almost 20% of its episodes contained a false, misleading or unsubstantiated statement, making it a bigger disinformation spreader than any other political podcast.

Valerie Wirtschafter, a Brookings fellow who led the research, said War Room had been one of the most prominent platforms for election denialism even after networks such as Fox News pulled back. “The way he approaches things that are more conspiratorial in nature… he’s quite effective at considering the questions in a way that makes the audience think it’s not immediately evident that he’s confirming them. There’s this idea that he seems to be hearing all sides of the conversation.”

As America braces for another divisive and volatile election, longtime Trump critics warn that Bannon still casts a long shadow. Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, said: “Steve Bannon is a if not the primary spiritual and intellectual force of this nationalist movement that is in control of the Republican party.

“He is a very powerful figure in today’s GOP [Grand Old Party] and it is inescapable in some ways that he will play a central role in whatever Trump administration emerges if Trump wins. He is the architect. As an avowed Leninist, he is a guy who is trying to engineer the revolution in his image.”

Asked what a Bannon return to the White House would mean, Wilson replied: “Concentration camps. This guy keeps saying out loud they’re the enemies of the people, our opponents are deserve what they get, this hyperbolic rhetoric. He believes in power and chaos and will do whatever he can if he gets it. Whatever he could get away with in that circumstance, he will get away with it.”

Bannon has spent years courting far-right nationalist movements around the world and the results were on vivid display at CPAC. Nigel Farage, a former leader of the Brexit party in Britain, observed that a decade ago he was the sole foreign-born speaker at the conference but now it has become a hub for populists from countries including Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Hungary and Spain.

Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist, said: “To his credit, and to America’s detriment, he was one of the first people to look outside of the American political system to find like minded public high-profile figures in foreign counties like Nigel Farage to play an outsized role in being messengers.”

Truss, who was removed as prime minister after just 50 days, found common cause with Bannon in blaming a “deep state” supposedly dominated by the left. Bardella, a former Breitbart News spokesperson and Republican congressional aide, added: “For people like Farage and Liz Truss, Bannon extends to them a second lease on life. They’ve peaked in terms of their public service career; there’s nothing left for them to be able to realistically attain.

“Here comes Bannon with this direct line to one of the two most powerful forces in American politics in Donald Trump: we will elevate you, you will have status, you will have the perception of influence, you again will be an influencer. These people are desperate for relevancy Bannon is giving them that combination of relevancy and legitimacy and access to power.”

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