Rasputins are not easily done away with. Steve Bannon, for all the speculation, remains Donald Trump’s chief strategist, if perhaps not quite so much of a chief as he’d hoped. This clever, occasionally alarming chancer, is a nationalist and a populist with a willingness to shout the previously unthinkable. He has come to symbolise the rise of an unapologetic new right (of which the notorious “alt-right” represents a wilder, only partly-attached wing) that is set on remaking America.
After all, Bannon
cunt was the Donald’s campaign CEO and, before that the presiding genius of Breitbart News, the website that had done so much for Trump, and a bit too for some strands of the alt-right. He not only arrived in the White House as chief strategist, but had also been handed a seat on the National Security Council (NSC), the most important defence and foreign policy forum in the US government. It was an unprecedented appointment for a domestic political adviser. The outsider had arrived.
Just days before, Trump had delivered an inaugural address striking not only for its nationalist “America First” themes, but for its anger. Bannon wrote much of it, along with Stephen Miller, a 31-year-old senior adviser to the president, with an impressive career as an aide on Capitol Hill already behind him.
Miller is a Bannon ally, one of several now in the White House, including the cerebral Michael Anton, a former speechwriter for George W Bush who is now in charge of strategic communications at the NSC. Both Miller and Anton have their critics, but the most controversial Bannonite to turn up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was Sebastian Gorka, a British-born naturalised American of Hungarian descent, and a former Breitbart News national security editor. It was alleged that parts of his CV were exaggerated and parts obscured, notably a hotly disputed connection to an organisation with roots in Hungary’s grisly wartime past. Gorka’s recruitment was another endorsement of Bannon’s conviction that the west is embroiled in an “existential war” against militant Islam. But by the beginning of May, it looked as if the storm over Gorka was getting too much for the White House. For a while he looked to be on the way out. Then came indications that he was staying put, thanks, supposedly, to Bannon.
If that was the case, it would be another sign of Bannon’s recovering clout within the White House. A month or so before, matters had looked more dicey. Early media talk—from Time to Saturday Night Live—that Bannon was some sort of puppet-master implied that the new commander in chief was a puppet, the sort of suggestion that gets to the president. Almost as dangerously for the rough-edged Bannon, he fell foul of the two Trump family members to whom the president pays the most attention (for now—in the Trump court this can never be taken for granted), his older daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner, a duo steeped in the dinner party liberalism of the Manhattan elite.
Bannon may not have been defenestrated, but he was at the very least held for a while by the ankles from a White House window. In early April he was removed from the NSC, a humiliation compounded by interviews in which the president, made clear who was in charge. Bannon was a “good guy,” someone he liked, someone “who works for me.” Meanwhile, in foreign policy, the “grown-ups” (as they are sometimes styled in the media) had taken some sort of charge—in particular, the formidable Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser Herbert “HR” McMaster. The dalliance with Vladimir Putin—a figure admired by a depressingly wide swathe of the American hard right—has ended, in part perhaps because it had become too politically embarrassing. The president no longer calls Nato obsolete. For all that, the firing of FBI Director James Comey, will now keep talk of Trump’s Russian links in the headlines.
Bannon’s removal from the NSC was swiftly followed by the US missile strike on Syria on 7th April, to which he allegedly objected. The attack would have been hard to reconcile with his belief that America should keep to itself, except where it had obvious interests to advance. Additionally, with Islamic State as the alternative, President Bashar al-Assad might have seemed to Bannon the lesser of two evils, a view not confined to the hard right.
That’s not to say that the chief strategist is prepared to concede foreign policy to the “grown-ups,” especially now that he seems in so much better favour with his boss. There were reports in mid-May of a tussle with McMaster over a possible boost to the USpresence in Afghanistan, a conflict seen by many nationalists as a quagmire with more than an echo of (dread phrase on the right) “nation-building” about it.
Meanwhile the administration, influenced perhaps by the “grown-ups,” has taken a harder line on North Korea. Potential embroilment there would be disturbing enough for some America Firsters, even without signs that plans for dealing with the Hermit Kingdom could include relaxing pressure on China over trade in exchange for help with Pyongyang (see Isabel Hilton, p38.) Such a deal makes sense, but along with emollient (if not consistently so) gestures on the North American Free Trade Agreement and even on trade with the European Union, it risks irking those blue-collar voters who saw candidate Trump as their shield against globalisation. With the president’s approval ratings at historic lows and with the Comey imbroglio bringing who knows what wolves to the door, that could be unwise. Every step Trump takes back from the nationalist and populist agenda so closely associated with Bannon risks eroding the blue-collar support that made his election victory possible. If events—or even a change of mind—lead him to take that risk, will he be able to get away with it?
When Bannon took the helm of the Trump campaign last August, Hillary Clinton went on the attack, linking Breitbart News, and by extension Trump, to an “emerging racist ideology known as the ‘alt-right.’” It was, she said, “a fringe element” that had “taken over the Republican Party.” No doubt she was trying to scare up some votes. Nevertheless, it was true that only weeks before, Bannon had bragged to a reporter that Breitbart was “the platform for the alt-right.” However, once his White House job was on the way, he began hedging, telling the Wall Street Journal that the “edgy” site provided “an outlet for 10 or 12 or 15 lines of thought.” The alt-right, he said, was just “a tiny part of that.”
It wasn’t so large a part of the Trump campaign either. It is hard to pin down this rag-tag, leaderless assortment of internet guerillas. The alt-right made a good bogeyman and better copy during the election, but no one even knows how many of them there are—social media can make a “movement” out of a few anonymous eccentrics operating multiple accounts out of their basements. That said, during the election, their trolling took a toll and their memes—including the now infamous “Pepe the Frog,” a cartoon figure signalling allegiance to white nationalism—were sometimes surprisingly effective.
Beyond support for Trump, members of the alt-right are not unified by ideology so much as by a set of attitudes and attributes. They tend to be young, male, college-educated and white, with a fondness for smashing taboos. They include neo-reactionaries, neo-Nazis, men’s rights’ activists, conspiracy theorists, libertarians and more besides. Some, however, are just pranksters, others are provocateurs and others still are taking the opportunity presented by internet anonymity for a little bit of play-acting.
But for all the poses and contradictions, spend enough time reading their tweets and posts and it’s difficult not to notice how many alt-writers see themselves as embattled underdogs, outsiders, forced into a last stand by political correctness run amok—and not just by that. To many of its critics and, more significantly, quite a good number of its participants, the alt-right is, above all, about race. Some are old-fashioned white supremacists, some are separatists craving an ethno-state, their own private Idaho. Others feel impelled to stick up for their own race or culture. Anti-Semitism also makes its bleakly predictable appearance. And, yes, much of this is an explicit reaction to the sometimes overwhelming emphasis on ethnic identity in contemporary political discourse, frequently defined in opposition to a “whiteness” that is expected to check its privilege and to know its place.
In March last year, Breitbart ran an article titled “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” by Allum Bokhari and the rather better-known Milo Yiannopolous, both employees there at the time. The authors conceded that the “alt-right consists mostly of college-educated men,” but also claimed, a touch patronisingly, that “it sympathises with the white working classes.” There’s a lot to sympathise with, whether it is disappearing jobs, stagnating pay or a surge in what a recent Brookings Institution report labelled “deaths of despair”—those caused by drugs, alcohol and suicide—among middle-aged working-class whites. That despair has economic roots, distress that is hardly confined to whites, but is sharpened by a deep sense of cultural displacement, and the realisation that it is happening in what they believed was their land of opportunity. The Brookings report found that “mortality rates of whites with no more than a high school degree, which were around 30 per cent lower than mortality rates of blacks in 1999, grew to be 30 per cent higher… by 2015.”
Establishment conservatives (routinely derided as “cucks” or “cuckservatives” by the alt-right for reasons too childish to go into) have no obvious answers. For decades, Republican electoral success had relied on Ronald Reagan’s “three-legged stool”: free market economics; social conservatism; and robust national defence, all bolstered further by the legacy of the racially-inflected “southern strategy,” used by Nixon to appeal to southern whites.
But those three legs have been crumbling for a long time, something that Pat Buchanan, a veteran of three Republican administrations, was early to notice. “Pitchfork Pat” took three shots at the presidency, in 1992, 1996 and 2000, as an unabashed social conservative. He also wanted to restrict immigration, cut back on foreign intervention, roll back free trade and stick up for the working class—by implication the white working class. Put “America First,” he said, invoking a phrase that looked back to the prewar isolationism long tarnished by its anti-Semitic baggage, as well, of course, as by history. He also anticipated Trump.
Buchanan’s appeal to blue-collar whites intrigued a right-wing intellectual named Sam Francis. Francis, who died in 2005, is seen as a prophet of the alt-right. Widely denounced as a racist by the end of his career, he co-founded the National Policy Institute “think tank” (motto: “for our people, our culture, our future”) shortly before his death. The FPI is now presided over by Richard Spencer, a prominent alt-rightist, infamous for a “Hitler Youth” haircut, politics to match and a post-election peroration—later to go viral—beginning: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” words greeted with cheers and arms outstretched in an uncomfortably familiar way.
In Chronicles magazine in 1996, Francis described the Buchanan campaign as a nascent coalition between “the remnants of the ‘Old Right,’ various single-issue constituencies (pro-lifers, anti-immigration activists, protectionists).” He wrote of an economically vulnerable middle America which was starting to grasp how it was being exploited by an elite which was, he maintained, engaged in the “managed destruction” of America’s “norms and institutions,” words that would not look out of place in a Trump campaign speech.
For this middle America, free-market ideology could be foe as well as friend, tipping the scales too far in the direction of big business, a process accelerated by globalisation. It also threatened the government entitlement programmes that stood between many Americans and destitution. Francis saw that Buchanan’s time had not yet come, but recognised that “the social and political forces on which… his campaigns have been based will not disappear.”
They did not, and nor did Buchanan. In 2002, he went on to co-found The American Conservative. The magazine’s initial impetus was opposition to the Iraq war, which some on the right saw as an overambitious neo-con project only tangentially connected to US interests and, just perhaps, too closely to Israel’s. It has developed a critique of establishment conservatism, and has also operated as part of a wider network of, often online, publications with little respect for conventions of left, centre or, especially, right. Some have connections to the alt-right, others not, but in their different ways they were attempting to redefine what the right should be—and to do so expressly from the right, rather than with the usual opportunistic eye on the centre ground.
In so doing they were helped by Bush’s entanglements in the Middle East, by disillusionment with what was left of Reaganomics after the financial crisis, and above all by the unwillingness of the Republican leadership to adopt a more restrictive approach to immigration. Immigration, and the controversy that surrounds it, is an issue that’s important enough to merit debate in its own right, but it’s also a surrogate for the expression of a profound unease. Demographic change—much of it due to immigration—is eroding America’s white majority: the Census Bureau projects that non-Hispanic whites will become a minority of the US population in 2044. Fears about what this could mean may be exaggerated, but they feel real enough to those that have them.
The stage had been set for the birth of the alt-right. In a 2008 speech, a conservative academic called Paul Gottfried set out a vision of an “alternative right” as an umbrella grouping for rightists opposed to Bush-style Republicanism and what they saw as the takeover of the conservative establishment by neo-conservatism. This was trimmed down to “alt-right” by Spencer, who went on to set up the website AlternativeRight. Gottfried, no shrinking violet himself on matters of race, has since distanced himself from Spencer, telling Salon last year that his former associate had gone “out on a limb to create a more extreme, racialist right.” Spencer does not regard Jews as “white.” Gottfried is Jewish.
Then came Trump. In a perceptive article for the Week in January 2016, Michael Brendan Dougherty joined the dots between Francis’s predictions and Trump’s attempt to grab the Republican nomination. At the same time Dougherty emphasised the extent to which the Trump moment depended on Trump alone, “his celebrity persona, his extremely unusual and independent financial power, his felicity for not just recognising but channelling the grievances of his supporters.” It was, argued Dougherty, “hard to imagine anyone else rebuilding his coalition of middle American radicals and fringier, race-obsessed ‘alt-right’ nationalists.”
Bannon had also identified the failures of the Republican Party, and his own ideological bent had led him—like Buchanan, like Francis, and like Trump—to conclude that the Republican Party’s three-legged stool was broken. Bannon took advantage of the happy accident that Trump represented and, even before taking a formal role in the campaign, had ensured that Breitbart, the site he had built into a major news source on the right, was beating the Trump drum. More than that, in its framing of the issues of the day, Breitbart did its bit to recast the terms of the debate in ways favourable to Trump.
The Trump campaign played footsie—smirks here, retweets there—with the alt-right (as Hillary defined it), and yet those online games were little more than a prelude to the larger movement that Bannon envisioned. A clue to what he had in mind comes from his definition of the alt-right as “younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment.” Bannon conceded it had “some racial and anti-Semitic overtones,” but he had “zero tolerance” for that sort of thing, he said, something not always apparent on Breitbart.
In a November interview, Bannon stressed that he was not “a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist.” He has described himself elsewhere as an America first guy, a “strident opponent of globalism,” a phenomenon that has “gutted” the working class (Bannon is a product of the working class himself). “Everything” that’s coming will be “related to jobs,” he insisted. “The conservatives are going to go crazy,” when the infrastructure spree he hoped for got going. There will be “an entirely new political movement… conservatives, plus populists… an economic nationalist movement” to back it up. To that, it’s evident, could be added reduced immigration and a rejection of multiculturalism.
Bannon now appears to be on firmer ground, but if he is eventually frozen out, the best hope for the domestic side of his agenda will rest not only with the surviving Bannonites, but with the strongest argument Bannon has: something close to his recommendation is likely to be Trump’s only chance of winning re-election. The old Republican strategy won’t work anymore. Ivanka’s blend of self-interest and Davos liberalism is a certain recipe for Republican defeat in an era of American populism. In theory, Trump should not find this advice too difficult to take. So far as they can be allowed to override the peculiarities of his personality, his basic beliefs appear to blend many of Bannon’s ideas with borrowings from Teddy Roosevelt and—strange as it may seem—a certain pragmatism. But as someone who stands apart from what is notionally his own party, the president may discover—indeed is already discovering—that putting them into practice is tricky, and that the political battles over Comey’s firing make it trickier still.
To be sure, trade may become stickier, and regulations looser. Whether or not that wall gets built, the crackdown on immigration will continue. But another key part of Making America Great Again—a dash for growth powered by tax cuts and an infrastructure binge—may be stymied or scaled back. There are too many doubters on Capitol Hill, especially when it comes to government spending—tax cuts are an easier sell. The demands of Republican Party budget hawks are all but impossible to reconcile with the obvious political need to avoid decreasing the benefits on which large numbers of Trump voters depend. The importance that many Republicans attach to scrapping Obamacare could conceivably lead to the axe falling in that area, but even if it does, that would only exacerbate the underlying dilemma.
And the malaise affecting the president’s blue-collar base is about to get much worse. Trump may yell about wicked foreigners taking American jobs, but increasingly the real villain is automation, and that process is accelerating. A job lost is a job lost, and it will be of no consolation to a Trump voter that it was an American robot that took it. To what “alt-” will a voter in a deeply divided, worryingly unsettled nation then turn?