We're less than two weeks into a new presidency, and a ruthlessly ambitious, potentially very dangerous man is consolidating his power in the nation's capital. All Americans, but especially those who oppose the agenda of the administration, need to study this man and learn about the way he thinks. That's the only way to devise a way to thwart his plans.
I'm talking about the president's senior counselor and chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
Bannon has received a lot of press attention since mid-August, when he stepped down as executive chair of Breitbart News to become Donald Trump's campaign chief. That attention intensified as he helped guide the campaign to its implausible victory and got himself named a senior adviser to the incoming president. Now in the early days of the Trump administration, the focus on Bannon has become relentless, with his influence on the president's most controversial policies obvious to all, and the president's faith in his counselor's judgment verified by the highly unusual decision to have him appointed to the "principals' committee" of the National Security Council, a position usually reserved for generals.
From the beginning, media coverage has understandably focused on Bannon's substantive views and political aims, which are deeply troubling. Bannon is an ethno-nationalist who despises the leadership of both political parties and believes the Judeo-Christian West is in the midst of a civilizational war with the Islamic world. Under his leadership, Breitbart became a rallying point for the so-called alt-right, publishing vicious, conspiracy-laden assaults on leading Democrats and Republicans alike. He apparently considers himself a "Leninist" who wants to "destroy the state… bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today's establishment."
Bannon is that rarest of things in American public life: a genuine political radical operating at the pinnacle of power in Washington, D.C.
But the radicalism goes beyond his extreme goals to include the means he deploys to reach them. Call him a Leninist. Call him a fascist. Call him an anarchist. When it comes to tactics of disruption and the consolidation of power, it doesn't much matter. All of these brazenly illiberal traditions of political action prize and practice dialectical engagement with their enemies. That as much as anything else is what makes Bannon so politically formidable and dangerous.
Liberal democratic government encourages and rewards cooperation and consensus-building. Governing requires following settled laws, informal rules, and a range of unspoken norms. It's slow, tedious, involving incremental advances and frequent setbacks in whichever direction the party holding the preponderance of the power at any given moment aims to move the ship of state. When elections come around, partisans thrust and parry, seeking advantage and deflecting attacks, but for the most part the competing sides propose and seek to enact steady forward movement toward reaching their goals.
Radical anti-liberal traditions of political engagement operate very differently. They aim to enact dramatic change — the kind that can only be accomplished by breaking sharply from established laws, rules, and norms. That kind of change invariably provokes a backlash — strident verbal denunciations by politicians and journalists, parliamentary maneuvers, street protests, bureaucratic opposition. According to the standards of "normal" politics, this resistance would be considered a bad thing, a setback, the rise of an intransigent opposition standing in the way of success. But for a radical, it may not be this at all. For a skilled practitioner of dialectical engagement, the rise of a radicalized opposition may even be viewed as an opportunity to advance further and faster toward predetermined goals.
Consider the way the executive order on immigration and refugees has played out in the days since President Trump signed it. Bannon apparently insisted on including lawful permanent residents of the United States (green-card holders) in the order's restrictions on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. It was that aspect of the order that provoked the greatest outcry, and the aspect that was quickly walked back by the administration. That sounds like an embarrassing screw-up. And when judged by the standards of normal politics, it was.
But now, think dialectically about what the order accomplished: It pushed restrictions on immigration much further than recent historical norms, making less extreme but still significant bans appear comparatively modest. It provoked widespread opposition from critics, some of whom loudly denied that there is any need for such draconian measures, and others of whom have taken bold public stands against its morality, legality, and constitutionality. In confronting (and in some cases firing) these opponents, the president gets to portray himself as the lone protector of the nation against an array of threatening outsiders, as well as from critics who appear to place the good of those outsiders ahead of the good of the nation.
This is a card that Trump is sure to play the moment a terrorist attack at home or abroad sends a renewed wave of fear through the American electorate. "See, I told you so," he will say. "They told you we were safe. I knew better. Who do you trust to protect you?" And then the president will attempt to impose even more draconian immigration restrictions.
For normal political actors, a victory is a victory and a defeat a defeat. But for a skilled practitioner of radical, dialectical politics, a shrewdly conceived short-term defeat lays the groundwork for an even bigger victory down the road.
The same dynamic can be seen in White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's notorious falsehood-filled rant at the media for supposedly deceiving the public about the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration. And in Bannon's own otherwise inexplicable full-frontal attack on the news media in a recent interview with The New York Times. Mainstream news outlets, he claimed, have "zero integrity, zero intelligence." Their failure to recognize the power of Trump's message during the presidential campaign should leave them "embarrassed and humiliated" and prompt the media to "keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while." The press is an "opposition party" out to derail the Trump administration, he insisted.
Judged by the standards of normal politics, this looks like amateurishness on an epic scale — examples of hot-headed White House staffers needlessly picking fights with the very people the administration will need to get its message out. The shock and anger journalists expressed after each event seems to confirm that straightforward reading. But of course, the shock and anger also confirms Bannon's account of the media as staunch opponents of the Trump administration, making it that much easier for the White House to dismiss the press when it raises inconvenient questions about the president's policies and myriad conflicts of interest. Once again, the "mistake" advances the cause.
I suspect similar motives are behind the torrent of leaks coming from the Trump White House. Normally, administrations detest leaks and punish them severely. Yet over the past 10 days, an unusually large number of juicy stories in major media outlets have been based on anonymous sources. Many of those stories, incorporating information that could only have come from senior staff, make Trump look ridiculous — like an ignorant, thin-skinned, narcissistic sociopath. The fact is that if the administration wanted these leaks stopped, it could stop them — by issuing internal warnings and by swiftly and severely punishing anyone caught. Instead, the leaks go on and on, just as they did during Trump's general-election presidential campaign.
I'd like to suggest that it's at least possible the leaks are deliberate — most likely another element of Bannon's dialectical strategy of actively encouraging the mainstream media to display its blatant bias against the president, the better to undermine its already rapidly declining authority with the public.
Responding effectively to a master of dialectical jujitsu can be a challenge. Liberals, in their post-election bitterness, have taken to mocking Michelle Obama's line from the Democratic convention: "When they go low, we go high." The point seems to be that with a would-be autocrat in the White House, the time for high-mindedness is over. But that's shortsighted. The former first lady was right. By all means, fight hard and without mercy for what's right, but also be sure to give the other side as little as possible to use against you. March, but shun violence. Protest, but don’t let celebrities and activists poison the message with stupid, needlessly inflammatory remarks that the other side will gleefully deploy to discredit the cause.
The coming months and years will be a time of political trench warfare in the United States, with each side contending for inches of electoral territory. With Bannon at the strategic helm, the Trump administration will be fighting radically and dialectically.
Democrats need to gird themselves for this distinctive form of battle.