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Stephen Bannon's dangerous populist revolution

Von David Ignatius


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Washington - At the red-hot center of President Trump's first 10 days in office has been his strategist Stephen Bannon, who proclaims a global populist movement for "Judeo-Christian" values and against radical Islam.

Bannon is a passionate ideologue who is the intellectual center of the new administration. For nearly a decade he has been advertising his desire to turn America and the world upside down. He's now doing exactly that. Trump's "America First" trade policies and his anti-refugee travel ban are early glimmers of the revolution Bannon has long been advocating.

As the uproar over Trump's actions grows, it's important to distinguish between policies that are politically controversial and those that actually undermine the country's foundations. The haphazard executive order banning travel by people from seven Muslim-majority countries seems to be the latter: It strikes at America's core values.

The folly of the travel ban is that it is producing the opposite of what Trump says he wanted. It weakens America's alliances, emboldens our adversaries and puts the country at greater risk. It's not just misguided and heartless; it's dangerous. It affirms the Islamic State's narrative that it's at war with an anti-Muslim America.

The weakness of Bannon's strategy in these first days of Trump's presidency has been its impatience and disorganization. The White House's opening salvoes have been rushed, poorly planned shots that resulted in what Sen. John McCain called a "self-inflicted wound." In his seeming counsel to Trump, Bannon appears to have overlooked Benjamin Franklin's famous advice: "Haste makes waste."

Some critics have argued that Bannon is a white nationalist and, even, a neo-Nazi. What follows is a more measured account, sticking to his own explanations of how he sees the world - and seeks to overturn the establishment's network of trade and security policies.

As with many revolutionaries, Bannon's story is that of a wealthy man who came to see himself as a vanguard for the masses. He rose from a middle-class life in Richmond, Virginia, through an uneventful stint with the Navy; but his life changed after he enrolled at Harvard Business School, joined Goldman Sachs, founded an investment firm, and made a fortune. He began directing conservative agitprop documentaries in 2004, but the 2008 financial crisis was a turning point. Bannon saw it as a betrayal of working people, and he embraced the tea party's conservative revolt against Republican and Democratic elites.

Bannon gained a powerful platform in 2012 when he became chairman of the hard-right Breitbart.com after the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart. In an April 2010 speech to a tea party gathering in New York that was posted on YouTube, Bannon's radical rhetoric evoked the 1960s and fused left and right: "It doesn't take a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows, and the wind blows off the high plains of the country through the prairie, and lighting a fire that's going to burn all the way to Washington."

By 2014, Bannon saw himself leading what he called a "global tea party movement" against a financial elite that he described as "the party of Davos." In a summer 2014 speech broadcast to a conference inside the Vatican, he railed against Wall Street bailouts and "crony capitalists." Racists and anti-Semites might get attracted to this movement, he said, "but there's always elements who turn up at these things, whether it's militia guys or whatever ... it all gets kind of washed out, right?"

The rise of the Islamic State in 2014 gave Bannon a new rallying cry: "We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism," he told the Vatican audience. "I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam."

Breitbart's London branch became a leading advocate of "Brexit," and on the day Britain voted to leave the European Union, it thundered: "There's panic in the skyscrapers. A popular revolution against globalism is underway." Bannon pressed that theme after Trump's victory, telling Breitbart's radio show on Dec. 30 it was only the "top of the first inning."

Last Friday's travel ban echoed themes Bannon has developed over a half-dozen years. It brought cheers from the right-wing parties in Europe that are Bannon's allies. "Well done," tweeted Dutch populist Geert Wilders. "What annoys the media and the politicians is that Trump honors his campaign promises," tweeted French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen.

Bannon undeniably has a powerful radical vision. But this time, he may have blundered. The travel ban has triggered a counter-revolt among millions of Americans who saw his target as the Statue of Liberty.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius was the executive editor of the "International Herald Tribune". His column also appears in the "Washington Post".