It may have been Donald Trump speaking to the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” according to former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, but the address was pure Stephen Bannon. The president’s inaugural address channeled much of Bannon’s grim outlook, describing the “American carnage” of empty factories, crime-infested inner cities, and Wall Street and Washington profiteers robbing American workers of a prosperous future. Though he’s no longer on the White House payroll, Bannon was inarguably one of the most influential figures in the United States in 2017, reshaping American politics and the country’s foreign policy.
As the former campaign CEO and chief strategist for President Trump and now (once again) the head of Breitbart News, Bannon has provided the vision for a president without a fixed ideology or core political beliefs beyond “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s first acts as president included a withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a ban on visitors from several Muslim-majority countries — both measures that Bannon had pushed for. And Bannon’s “America First” populism has left its mark on virtually every aspect of Trump’s first year in office, including his abandonment of the Paris climate agreement, his scolding NATO allies about defense spending, and his threatening to abandon the Iran nuclear deal.
But apart from his policy goals, Bannon — a self-declared political insurgent — appears to be fighting to redefine the very idea of America. Instead of a country dedicated to civic principles, a place for people of different faiths and heritage, Bannon talks about a country rooted in Judeo-Christian values that must protect itself against the scourge of immigration and radical Islam, leftist amorality, and multilateral agreements threatening U.S. sovereignty. For Bannon, this is an existential, civilizational struggle — and there can be only one winner.
Many of Trump’s supporters, such as J.D. Gordon, who worked as a campaign advisor, see Bannon as a political mastermind who helped them win the presidency and who “hit the Washington establishment like a hurricane.” For Trump’s opponents on the left, Bannon is a Rasputin-like villain seeking to stir up prejudice and racial division for political gain. And traditional conservatives view Bannon as a saboteur, undermining the Republican Party’s bedrock values and threatening to wreck America’s role in the world.
But even his critics acknowledge his political impact, as he has defined an agenda with a groundswell of populist support that Republican lawmakers are reluctant to oppose publicly.
For all his success, Bannon hasn’t won every battle. So far Trump’s foreign policy has not always adhered to his former advisor’s nationalist ethos. Bannon acknowledges that he lost a long internal debate to scale back the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, with the president grudgingly ordering more troops to fight in the 16-year war. And apart from abandoning TPP, Trump’s protectionist rhetoric during the campaign has not yet translated into concrete action to impose sweeping tariffs or other measures against China and other competitors.
In August, after repeatedly clashing with National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Bannon was finally forced to step down. But his loyalty has remained unshaken. “If there’s any confusion out there, let me clear it up,” he said after he resigned. “I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.” True to his word, Bannon has spent the months since using Breitbart to target Republican lawmakers (including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) who he says are standing in the way of the president’s agenda.
Just how much clout Bannon retains with the president is unclear. But few question his ongoing influence.
“Trump is in this mostly for the short game,” says David Gergen, who served as a senior advisor to four U.S. presidents. “And Bannon is in it for the long game. He clearly intends to be a force independent of Trump and to last well beyond him.”
He adds: “Bannon may be gone, but Bannonism lives on.”
Dan De Luce is chief national security correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Bannon’s first foray as an executive producer in Hollywood was a film released in 1991 called The Indian Runner, which recounted the relationship between a small-town sheriff and his brother, a Vietnam vet-turned-criminal. The movie was directed by the famously leftist Sean Penn.
“What I’ve tried to do is weaponize film. I want these films to be incredibly provocative. I want to present our point of view. I’m not interested in saying ‘on the one hand and the other.’ I’m conservative. I believe in the Tea Party movement. I believe in the populist rebellion,” he said on a radio show in 2010, speaking about his documentaries.