It is highly instructive to watch Steve Bannon talking to different audiences. A few days ago, we saw the old fiery Bannon speaking to the GOP semi-annual state convention in Anaheim, California. If you look at the video, you will see the charismatic rabble-rouser feeding red meat to the Trump wing of the Republican Party at the sold-out dinner of 500. The enthusiastic crowd hung on his every word as he spoke on the necessity of electing Republicans in a blue state like California. He warned them that “if you do not roll this back, 10 or 15 years from now the folks in Silicon Valley and progressive Democrats are going to try to secede from the union.”
What you see in California is his real agenda: to destroy the Republican and then the Democratic Party, so that a Trumpist-led new GOP will face a far-left Bernie Sanders type Democrat in a national election. In that kind of contest, with a third candidate obviously coming into the race—most likely a center-right candidate, Bannon is certain that his Republicans will triumph. Listening to him, it occurred to me that Bannon, as others too have speculated, is himself considering a run for the White House. If Trump decides he’s had enough and does not want a second term, Bannon—who by now is a recognizable figure—could be the base’s choice.
Bannon was clear in his California message. There is a “permanent political class” that runs America. And that is why the people backed Trump—because “he is an existential threat to the system.” The people want one thing from the Republicans in Congress: total loyalty to Trump’s agenda. He went on to criticize the recent speeches of George W. Bush and John McCain. In response to Bush’s devastating take-down of Trump in which Bush never mentioned his name, Bannon said that Bush “is a piece of work… There has not been a more destructive presidency than George W. Bush’s.” Bush, he said, had “no idea of what he was talking about” and no idea whether “he was coming or going, just like it was when he was president.”
Turning to McCain, he began with praising him for his military service and his current personal fight against his cancer. He quickly moved to the real point. McCain’s speech was simply “happy talk,” and McCain was the equivalent of Pericles in ancient Athens. There was only one path forward—war against the swamp, as he and his base call the Republican establishment. Predicting victory in all precincts of his challengers to GOP House candidates, Bannon said they would then “govern for 50 to 75 years.” At the end, the audience gave him a standing ovation and much strong applause. Bannon was so effusive, one could almost believe that he thinks the California state GOP can win major races in a state where Republicans are only 26 percent of its voters and Democrats hold every statewide office.
Then, in Washington Monday late afternoon, it was a soft-spoken, toned-down Steve Bannon. Before he spoke to the Hudson Institute (where I am an adjunct fellow) at a conference on “Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood,” we in the audience were informed that 10 minutes before and 10 minutes after he finished, no one would be allowed in or out of the atrium ballroom in the Reagan building. There was no explanation for this. The obvious thought was that Bannon must have received concrete threats. Earlier Medea Benjamin and her “Code Pink” troops had tried to prevent Leon Panetta from speaking; maybe Bannon could encounter something worse. Then, without explanation, the house lights went out, and Hudson was forced to get a spotlight that was shined on the stage.
The video of the event shows a soft-spoken figure attempting to sound knowledgeable about the topic at hand. He was there, it appeared, to be a surrogate for Trump, whom he continually praised for his outstanding foreign policy successes. He opened his talk by recounting how the first thing Trump had promised to do was to completely “eliminate terrorism,” a promise that did not sound very realistic. He had hard acts to follow coming after talks by Leon Panetta and Gen. David Petraeus, who clearly were on a higher plane altogether in their understanding of the issues.
Bannon argued that once Trump became president, he single-handedly took the first meaningful actions against ISIS and “radical Islamic extremism.” Again, putting down the recent Bush and McCain speeches, he said the only meaningful speech he had heard recently was that given by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who while speaking to the Communist Party congress gave “an adult speech to adults.” China, he said, is clear about its goal: becoming a hegemon in the world.
Many of Hudson’s members are part of the very groups Bannon despises. They must have winced to hear him refer sarcastically to “the geniuses in the foreign policy elite,” who gave America “essentially the Bay of Pigs and Venezuela, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Korea and the Vietnam War and Afghanistan, all at one time.” Of course, they did not occur at the same time, and they were hardly the fault of whichever administration was in power at the time. Trump, he continued, “didn’t do this. The deplorables who voted for President Trump didn’t do this. This is the geniuses of both political parties.” [sic]
He went on to say: “President Trump and his whole candidacy from the very beginning… was a repudiation of the elites, the repudiation of the foreign policy establishment, a repudiation of the ‘Party of Davos.’ A repudiation of this concept we’ve had of this rules-based international order… [that] the American working class and middle class underwrite with their taxes, and more importantly, with the blood of their children.”
Channeling the famous words uttered by William F. Buckley Jr. that he would rather be ruled by “the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University,” Bannon changed it to the top “100 partners at Goldman Sachs,” or the “first 100 at Davos.” Bannon did not square that with his own profitable employment in the past at Goldman Sachs.
As he had at Anaheim, he attempted in Washington to strike out at Bush and McCain. At that moment, the interlocutor, former Ambassador to Pakistan Husain Haqqani, interrupted, saying, “Well, the foreign policy elite of Washington, D.C., that asked me to interview you today told me that when you start talking about issues other than those that relate to this conference, I should bring this to an end,” which Haqqani promptly did. The session ended, and Bannon, unlike at his Anaheim reception, received a short round of perfunctory and unenthusiastic applause.
The appearance before Hudson indicated one thing: Even a moderate center-right think tank felt it necessary to invite and include Steve Bannon at a conference on strategy in the war against terrorism and ISIS, thus legitimizing him as someone whose views must be considered when making foreign policy. Clearly, leaving the White House has only made Steve Bannon someone who has perhaps more influence than he had when he was in the administration.