HE’s Trump’s top adviser. He believes prophecy destines America to a ‘trial by fire’. But now a blow-torch is being applied to alt-right banner man Steve Bannon’s extreme beliefs.
He was the man credited with saving Trump’s presidential campaign. Brought in from the alt-right website Breitbart at the eleventh hour, Bannon’s advice to pursue a hard-line populist message among disaffected white America helped win the way to Washington.
He was immediately rewarded with his heart’s desire: a place on the United States National Security Council and the title of Chief Strategist to the President.
Here the formal naval officer would hear the best intelligence American agencies had to offer.
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Here, the extreme right-wing news editor could shape his nation’s interpretations and responses.
Here, the 63-year-old believer of dark prophecy could influence President Trump’s policies with his conviction the world is about to enter a tumultuous time of change.
But Bannon wasn’t the only one to hold the president’s ear.
The Republican Party, which provided the foundation and framework of President Trump’s campaign, had an ‘insider’ installed as White House Chief of Staff: Reince Priebus.
It would immediately prove to be a clash of the old and new American right.
Bannon — with the bumbling help of fired media director Anthony Scaramucci — eventually proved victorious, toppling Priebus under a cloud of damaging leaks.
But it may have been a short-lived victory.
Now machinations are in play to put Bannon’s own neck on the chopping block.
“Bannon was widely seen as losing influence with the appointment of General Kelly to Chief of Staff, given Kelly’s desire to restrict access to the President and steady the Trump Administration,” says Flinders University PhD Candidate in American Studies, Jesse Barker Gale.
“Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, has long been pushing the President to fire Bannon but Trump has resisted.”
It’s exactly the kind of conflict Bannon’s world view believes to mark the transition to a new era.
But now the blame for Trump’s fumbled response to the white supremacist demonstrations in Virginia, and the international shock at his blustering ‘fire and fury’ response to North Korea’s missile tests, is being placed squarely at Bannon’s feet.
The source of Bannon’s dark vision of America’s future is the book The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous With Destiny.
Time Magazine was told in a profile on Bannon during last year’s election campaign of his wholehearted embrace of its message.
It’s almost astrological in its assertion of simplistic cycles. It believes America’s fate is tied to a supposed spiral of human behaviour that can be used to predict the future.
It’s not a new idea. One baktun is the cycle of the Mayan calendar which supposedly predicted the end of the world in 2012. Spanning 394 years, each baktun was believed to represent a distinct ‘age’ or ‘era’ or civilisation.
The pattern that has caught Bannon’s eye, however, originates with the Ancient Greeks. It’s a cycle called a “saeculum”. Like the baktun, the end of a particular saeculum would bring about the dawn of a new age. But each saeculum is made up of ‘turnings’ — periods of about 20 years each — which define a new stage of each cycle. The ‘fourth turning’ is the last phase before a cataclysmic change.
For some reason, in Bannon’s mind, this Greek cycle of prophecy applies particularly to the United States.
The last “turnings” experienced by the US were The Revolutionary War, The Civil War and World War II.
All were sparked by an incendiary event. All had a period of regeneration. All led to disaster and conflict. All ended up in an era of reconstruction and new national order.
According to Bannon’s writings, he believes there must be a reckoning — a cataclysmic conflict — to bring about the new order he desires.
This involves war in the Middle East. And with China.
This could explain his behaviour during his eight months as chief White House adviser and National Security Council member.
PAWN OF PROPHECY
Bannon believes the necessary ‘catalyst’ for a new ‘turning’ of the saeculum has already happened: The Great Financial Crisis.
The book behind his belief states a “Grey Warrior” will “urgently resist the idea that a second consecutive generation might be denied the American Dream. No matter how shattered the economy …”
Enter Donald Trump.
Bannon wants Trump’s presidency to be the ‘regeneration’ era that leads to conflict with supporters of the ‘old ways’. And he’s working to shape it that way.
Combined with his belief in authoritarian leadership and previous hard-line language on international affairs, and you have a disturbing picture of what has been working to direct White House politics and policies this year.
Bannon told his alt-right radio show, before joining the Trump team last year as campaign manager, that the United States was in an ‘existential war’ — both in the Middle East and, soon, against China.
It’s an angry, nationalistic world-view of conflict he embedded at the heart of his self-made films and his all-right news website, Breitbart: “Our big belief, one of our central organising principles at the site, is that we’re at war.”
It’s a bleak picture of present and future that has often been echoed in Trump’s own words. Phrases such as the “American carnage” he referred to in his inauguration speech.
“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
While Trump claimed to have written this speech himself, it paints a bleak picture almost direct from Bannon’s apocalyptic script book.
“Trump prefers off-script remarks, rather than the scripted statements he is often pressured to make,” Mr Barker Gale says. “The unscripted remarks, often on the topic of foreign relations or immigration or racism, are very much in line with Bannon’s worldview and play to the constituency that Bannon has cultivated over the past years at Breitbart.”
DAWN OF DESTRUCTION
President Trump rattled the world when he declared he was willing to hit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.
“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”
Was this reactionary posturing? Or an advised hard-line response?
The President’s forceful — and unexpected — words reportedly took new White House chief of staff John Kelly by surprise. His fumbling, lacklustre response to the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, even more so.
So did the spark of an idea for this rhetoric come from Bannon? Does Breitbart’s suddenly hard ‘anti-appeasement’ line have a White House source?
Is Bannon behind the recent attacks on key White House National Security Advisor H.R McMaster over North Korea policy?
The president was quick to defend his controversial far-right chief strategist: “I like Mr Bannon. He’s a friend of mine … He is a good man. He is not a racist.”
But Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy Rodrigo Praino says Bannon’s beliefs send a clear message to the public.
“Trump doesn’t understand that, in politics, symbols are extremely important,” Dr Praino says. “Bannon does not have any particular qualification, expertise, or experience that would warrant him his current role in the White House. His presence there is a nod to the alt-right, and this sends a very clear message to the public about where the President stands in terms of supporting this extremist group.”
Bannon only recently emerged triumphant from an internal White House power struggle with former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. But new Chief of Staff, retired General Kelly, laid down the law with Trump before accepting the job that he had final say on who said what, and when.
Little surprise, then, that Bannon’s future appears to have taken an abrupt about-face.
White House National Security Advisor Lt General H.R. McMaster has refused to say he can work with his security council colleague. Scaramucci — after doing him such a favour with Preibus — has lashed him publicly as a white nationalist.
All the while, replacement White House Chief of Staff General John F. Kelly has remained publicly silent on Bannon.
Bannon insists his job is safe. But White House leaks suggest a very different scene behind closed doors. These mutterings suggest Kelly will not tolerate Bannon’s machinations, manipulative leaks and direct disobedience.
Something has changed.
Bannon, once a fixture in every Oval Office gathering, has not been seen in recent days. Though he has apparently kept the President’s ear — reportedly advising him on how to respond to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and North Korea.
But his advice — not to antagonise his far-right power base, and to ram a hard-line home on Kim Jong-un — appears to have backfired.
In a big way.
Trump hasn’t had an easy relationship with Bannon. He resented the way his 2016 victory was attributed to his campaign adviser. He also bristles at suggestions Bannon is his puppet-master.
Suddenly, Trump has refused to rule out the disruptive proponent of the far right’s agenda will remain in the White House beyond the week.
“We’ll see what happens with Mr Bannon,” Trump said.
But it won’t be an easy call.
“The difficulty for Trump is that (key Republican campaign donors) Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer have deep ties to Bannon and are critical for future Republican campaigns,” Mr Barker Gale says.
“Any attempt to oust Bannon would play poorly for future campaigns, and Bannon would be free to return to Breitbart News and push stories about White House dysfunction. Added to this is Trump’s desire to aggressively confront what he sees as unfair criticism from the news media with regard to any number of issues.
“Thus Bannon is integral to Trump maintaining his base. He is kept on not because he is a policy expert or integral to the functioning of American democracy, but rather because the Trump Administration is afraid of what trouble he might stir up on the outside.”