Bannon v Trump

It is becoming clear that for the next few years, US foreign policy will be shaped by the struggle among Republican regulars, populist ethno-nationalists and the forces of perpetual chaos unleashed by President-elect Donald Trump's attention span.

The Republican regulars build their grand strategies upon the post-World War II international order - the US-led alliances, norms and organisations that bind democracies and preserve global peace. The regulars seek to preserve and extend this order, and see Russian President Vladimir Putin as a wolf who tears away at it.

The populist ethno-nationalists in the Trump White House do not believe in this order. Their critique - which is simultaneously moral, religious, economic, political and racial - is nicely summarised in the remarks Mr Steve Bannon, the incoming senior counsel for Mr Trump, made to a Vatican conference in 2014.

Once there was a collection of Judeo-Christian nation-states, Mr Bannon argued, that practised a humane form of biblical capitalism and fostered culturally coherent communities. But in the past few decades, the party of Davos - with its globalism, relativism, pluralism and diversity - has sapped away the moral foundations of this Judeo-Christian way of life.

Humane capitalism has been replaced by the savage capitalism that brought us the financial crisis. National democracy has been replaced by a crony-capitalist network of global elites. Traditional virtue has been replaced by abortion and gay marriage. Sovereign nation-states are being replaced by hapless multilateral organisations like the European Union.

Mr Bannon (far left) and Mr Trump at a rally in Miami, Florida, in early November ahead of the presidential election later that month. Mr Trump has picked Mr Bannon to be his senior counsel.
Mr Bannon (left) and Mr Trump at a rally in Miami, Florida, in early November ahead of the presidential election later that month. Mr Trump has picked Mr Bannon to be his senior counsel. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Decadent and enervated, the West lies vulnerable in the face of a confident and convicted Islamofascism, which is the cosmic threat of our time.

In this view, Mr Putin is a valuable ally precisely because he also seeks to replace the multiracial, multilingual global order with strong nation-states. He ardently defends traditional values. He knows how to take the fight to radical Islam.

It is actually interesting to read Mr Trump's ideologist, Mr Bannon, next to Mr Putin's ideologist, Mr Alexander Dugin. It is like going back to the 20th century and reading two versions of Marxism.

One is American Christian and the other orthodox Russian, but both have grandiose, sweeping theories of world history, both believe we are in an apocalyptic clash of civilisations, both seamlessly combine economic, moral and political analysis. Both self-consciously see themselves as part of a loosely affiliated international populist movement, including the National Front in France, Mr Nigel Farage in Britain and many others. Mr Dugin wrote positively about Mr Trump last winter, and Mr Bannon referred to Mr Dugin in his Vatican remarks.

"We must create strategic alliances to overthrow the present order of things," Mr Dugin has written, "of which the core could be described as human rights, anti-hierarchy and political correctness - everything that is the face of the Beast, the Antichrist."

Mr Bannon said: "We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what (Mr Putin) is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism."

Last week's intelligence report on Russian hacking brought the Republican regulars like senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham into direct conflict with the ethno-nationalist populists. Mr Trump planted himself firmly in the latter camp, and dragged Fox News and a surprising number of congressional Republicans with him. If he were as effective as Mr Putin, we would probably see a radical shift in US grand strategy, a shift away from the post-war global consensus and towards an alliance with various right-wing populist movements simmering around the globe.

But Mr Trump is not Mr Putin. Mr Putin is theological and cynical, disciplined and calculating, experienced and knowledgeable. When Mr Bannon, Mr Michael Flynn and others try to make Mr Trump into a revolutionary foreign policy president, they will be taking on the entire foreign policy establishment under a leader who may sympathise with them, but is inattentive, unpredictable and basically uninterested in anything but his own status at the moment.

I am personally betting the foreign policy apparatus, including the secretaries of state and defence, will grind down the populists around Mr Trump. Frictions will explode within the insanely confusing lines of authority in the White House. Mr Trump will find he likes hanging around the global establishment the way he liked having the Clintons at his wedding. In office, he will not be able to fixate on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group but will face a blizzard of problems, and thus be dependent on the established institutions.

The result may be a million astounding tweets, but substantively no fundamental strategic shift - not terrible policymaking, but not good policymaking either.

The larger battle is over ideas, whether the Republican Party as a whole will become an ethno-populist party like the National Front or the UK Independence Party. In this fight, the populists might do better. There is something malevolently forceful about their ideology, which does remind you of Marxism in its early days. There is something flaccid about globalism, which is de-spiritualised and which does not really have an answer for our economic and cultural problems.

In short, I suspect Mr Bannon is going to fail to corral the peripatetic brain of Mr Trump. But he may have more influence on the next generation.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Bannon v Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe