Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's 'Great Manipulator'

Bannon (far right) participates in a budget meeting at the White House in Washington, Feb 22, 2017.
Bannon (far right) participates in a budget meeting at the White House in Washington, Feb 22, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (AFP) - When Steve Bannon gave a free-wheeling interview to a small left-wing magazine this week, he spoke as if he - the White House's 'great manipulator' - was back on top.

By Friday (Aug 18), President Donald Trump had sacked him.

Some reports suggest that Trump's strategy chief already knew his days were numbered when he picked up the phone to make a surprise call to the American Prospect.

But he gave no hint of it as he regaled editor Robert Kuttner with plans to push aside his rivals within Trump's administration and start a trade war with China.

"To me, the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that," he declared.

This week, however, the national security establishment was focused on North Korea's nuclear threat - dismissed as a "sideshow" by Bannon.

And much of the media and the US public was focused on a threat much closer to home: white nationalism and the rise of the so-called "alt-right."

In his interview, Bannon was dismissive of the torch-bearing "clowns" in polo shirts and khakis who brought violence to Charlottesville last week.

But - for all his posturing as the mastermind behind Trump's improbable rise to power - Bannon's image is still linked to those white nationalists.

Before joining Trump's campaign, Bannon the self-described "economic nationalist" was the publisher of Breitbart, a provocative right-wing news outlet.

This site was and is, in Bannon's own words, a platform for the alt-right, a loosely defined movement of mainly young white men espousing far-right and white nationalist ideas.

Any temptation to laugh off the alt-right evaporated on Saturday when a white supremacist in Charlottesville rally degenerated into violence.

A suspected nazi sympathiser then drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators, leaving one woman dead.

When Trump himself drew fire for defending some of the right-wing crowd as "fine people," eyes also turned to Bannon, as the figurehead of the "nationalist" camp within the White House.

So he had to go, but will he, Breitbart and the racist hard right now turn on Trump?

GLOBAL POWER

Reports suggest Bannon may be heading back to Breitbart - one of its writers, Joel Pollak, tweeted simply "#WAR" when news of his sacking broke.

In an op-ed on the site, Pollak suggested that Trump ousted Bannon in "an effort to save his presidency after Charlottesville" but warned the president not to turn his back on his right-wing supporters.

"He was also the conservative spine of the administration," Pollak wrote. "Steve Bannon personified the Trump agenda."

 

The 63-year-old former navy lieutenant turned political operative was seen as the brain behind Team Trump's decision to rail against a "global power structure" opposed to American values - a favorite theme of nationalist conspiracy-mongers.

After making his name at Goldman Sachs during the 1980s boom years, Bannon founded his own investment bank before selling it to Societe Generale in 1998 and going on to be a Hollywood producer.

Some of his projects were standard entertainment fare, but political documentaries that he produced on late president Ronald Reagan, populist darling Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement brought him into right-wing circles.

ULTIMATE OUTSIDER

Bannon became an investor in Andrew Breitbart's eponymous media venture - focused around a site designed to buck what its founder saw as the progressive left's grip on the news agenda.

Democrats and liberals were in the site's crosshairs, but mainstream Republican lawmakers also felt its lash, accused of failing to stand up strongly enough to President Barack Obama.

When Breitbart died in 2012, Bannon took over.

The site, which had been the ultimate outsider force, latched on to the Trump phenomenon and helped drive the billionaire to the White House.

Victory also brought Bannon to the White House and, for a while the ultimate anti-establishment outsider became one of the most powerful insiders on the planet, just a few steps away from Trump's Oval Office.

He quickly raised hackles in Washington, especially at the State Department and the Pentagon, where officials resisted Bannon's determination to exile his supposedly "globalist" foes and replace them with nationalists.

But his power rested on his relationship with Trump, who came to resent the way Bannon was portrayed as the all-powerful eminence grise behind the scenes at the White House.

Now he is an outsider again.