Bannon's ideas will survive and thrive in the White House

Liberals will miss Mr Stephen Bannon. United States President Donald Trump is too ignorant to be a completely satisfying enemy.

Mr Bannon filled a crucial role - the evil genius, the hate-filled ideologue, the master-manipulator, "President" Bannon. His departure leaves an emotional hole. It is also ideologically confusing. Does that mean the white nationalists have lost? And, if so, do we all have to stop fearing and loathing Mr Trump?

On this count, liberals can relax. The threats that Mr Bannon had come to represent will not disappear with his departure from the White House. With pardonable exaggeration, they can be summarised as the danger of three sorts of war: trade war, civil war and world war.

None of these menaces has suddenly disappeared because Mr Trump's chief strategist has left the administration. That is because they are the product of broad economic, social and international tensions that Mr Bannon exploited, but did not invent.

To understand why "Bannonism" will survive - and possibly even thrive - after his departure from the White House, you need to consider each of the "war" threats in turn.

His firing took place at a time when conservative commentators in the US, such as Mr Patrick Buchanan, are openly writing about the possibility of a "second civil war". Since Mr Bannon was widely seen as the champion of white nationalism inside the White House, his sacking has raised hopes that the President may now back away from the far-right. But that is unlikely.

Over the past year, Mr Trump has consistently displayed a much better instinct for what he can get away with than his mainstream critics. Despite the widespread outrage over his remarks about the Charlottesville violence, the President may once again have read the political mood accurately. One CBS poll suggested that 68 per cent of Republican voters share his view that "both sides" were to blame for the unrest in Charlottesville.

This illustrates that white anger goes far deeper and wider than fringe Nazi groups prepared to demonstrate on the streets. Mr Trump will continue to channel that rage, which will serve to widen the dangerous cleavages in American society. Civil war remains deeply unlikely. But rising political polarisation, accompanied by street violence and domestic terrorism, is probable.

While Mr Bannon would probably reject the label "white nationalist", he would certainly agree that he is an economic nationalist. As he made clear in what was, essentially, a valedictory interview with the American Prospect, he believes that the US is already in an "economic war" with China. Despite talk that his departure from the White House signals the triumph of the "globalists", led by Mr Gary Cohn (the head of the National Economic Council), the long-term trends will provide fertile ground for Mr Bannon's brand of economic nationalism.

On the same day that Mr Bannon resigned, the US opened a formal investigation into China's alleged theft of American intellectual property. The investigation will take time, but could easily culminate in confrontation between China and America. The administration's trade team is still led by Bannonite economic nationalists. Mr Robert Lighthizer, America's top trade negotiator, agrees with Mr Trump that China's trade surplus with America has to be "corrected". His White House colleague, Mr Peter Navarro, is the author of a book called Death By China.

The American protectionists are also likely to gain ground because China's industrial policies are genuinely threatening to key US industries. Beijing's Made in China 2025 policy seeks to establish Chinese dominance in vital areas of the high-tech industry through the use of subsidies and quotas. These mercantilist Chinese policies are likely to provoke a mercantilist reaction from the US, whoever is in the White House. On trade, even the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party has quite a lot in common with Mr Bannon.

And then there is the threat of an actual shooting war. Here, despite his aggressive reputation and rhetoric, Mr Bannon may actually have been a force for moderation. In his recent interview, he poured scorn on the threats of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea's nuclear programme pushed by his rivals in the Trump administration. Mr Bannon had also emerged as an opponent of sending more troops to Afghanistan. The America First slogan adopted by both Mr Trump and Mr Bannon has its roots in isolationism, which made the latter less inclined to support the extensive US security commitments favoured by his globalist enemies.

A White House without Mr Bannon in it may tone down the belief that America is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with radical Islam. But it could return to a more traditional willingness to confront rival powers, such as China and Russia. That could actually increase the chances of conflict in the South China Sea, North Korea, Ukraine and the Middle East.

While it is fascinating to focus on controversial personalities like Mr Bannon, there are deeper structural forces - such as growing inequality, demographic change in America and the rise of China - that are destabilising the US, at home and abroad. That is why Bannonism is likely to thrive long after Mr Bannon himself has left centre stage.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'Bannon's ideas will survive and thrive in the White House'. Print Edition | Subscribe