That didn’t take long. From no-drama Obama to all-trauma Trump: the shift has been seismic, leaving millions in this country and abroad frightened and struggling to make sense of America’s new political landscape.
Some of the upheaval appears to be the consequence of incompetence, the predictable result of an under-qualified real estate mogul struggling to master the most powerful and demanding job on the planet.
But not so with the travel ban. In this case, upheaval was the intent – not to the degree we have seen; that clearly caught the administration off guard. But it was upheaval nonetheless.
As we now know, the drafting and rollout of the travel ban was largely the work of Steve Bannon, the president’s chief political strategist. It was Bannon who reportedly overruled the proposal to exempt green card holders from the ban.
And it was Bannon who pushed the order through without consulting experts at the Department of Homeland Security or at the state department.
The Nacht und Nebel quality of the ban’s announcement makes clear that the president’s chief strategist wanted to send tremors through the world. Here was bold proof that the portentous accents of Trump’s inaugural address, also Bannon’s work, was not mere rhetoric.
Now the world would know what “America First” means – not first in democracy or human rights; not first in recognizing an obligation to victims of humanitarian crisis (some of which we have helped create). No, this was America first in pugilism, parochialism and misplaced protectionism.
Some insist that all this is simply Bannon throwing meat to the president’s base, plucking a page from Karl Rove’s playbook. Rove, the chief strategist for George W Bush (for whom many are now feeling a once inconceivable nostalgia), famously sought to consolidate his boss’s power not by tacking toward the middle but by feeding the base.
Only it would be wrong to see Bannon as Rove 2.0. At his heart, Rove was a consummate political operator, for whom ideology was a tool, not an article of belief. Rove was a careerist and an opportunist, whose principal goal was the preservation and expansion of Republican political power.
Bannon is an altogether different creature. Listen to his early speeches. Bannon is a crusader, fighting to redeem a corrupt country betrayed by its feckless and greedy leaders. He once described himself as a “Leninist”, intent on destroying “all of today’s establishment”.
For Bannon, America is engaged in a pitched struggle against threats from within and without. It is a battle that will last years, and requires iron resolve and steely determination. If the free press, a bastion of democratic self-governance, does not grasp these elusive truths, then it should “keep its mouth shut”, he says.
But Bannon, in contrast to the president, is not easily distracted. He is intelligent, articulate, focused in his ideology and dedicated to the struggle. And he has now been catapulted by an undisciplined president to the inner precincts of the National Security Council and its principals’ committee, assuming a position senior to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence.
Unvetted, unconfirmed but immensely powerful, Bannon may just be the most dangerous man in America.