Last Wednesday I experienced the first speech by Steve Bannon after being ousted from Trump and later Breitbart, and his first big stage event in Europe. It was organized by Christoph Blocher’s special stalwart Roger Köppel, editor-in-chief of ‘Weltwoche’, a partisan right-wing Swiss weekly, and member of parliament for the far-right-populist SVP. (You can watch the complete 1:22h show here)
A lot has been written about Bannon, especially in the early months of Trump’s presidency, where Bannon was depicted as the ideological force behind Trump and an extremely dangerous man. Lately he played a strong and notorious role in Wolff’s book ‘Fire and Fury’.
Rather than joining the one hundred or so people who formed a rally through Zurich, chanting that Bannon was not welcome in Switzerland, I decided to attend the event and get a first-hand impression of the man and what he has to say (some of my friends gasped at the idea).
The event hall in Oerlikon was mostly packed and estimates range from 1000 to 1500 attendees. Security at the entrance was ostentatively tough. I was impressed by the civilized, friendly and calm mood of the Swiss audience. It was overwhelmingly (maybe 90%) male of mixed age. From the applause Bannon received, which was more polite and friendly than frenetic, I concluded that maybe a bit more than half of the audience consisted of dedicated supporters of SVP and Weltwoche, the others of people like me, who went in there for curiosity.
Köppel made the introduction and presented this event as the first of a series („Weltwoche Free Speech Summit“) – alluding to the rightwing proposition that mainstream media and elites suppress free speech and only the populists promote it. In the introduction as well as in his “critical” questions after Bannon’s speech, Köppel’s sympathy for Bannon was quite apparent, and Bannon during his talk weaved in several courteous compliments to the Swiss, and Blocher in particular (he was „Trump before Trump“ and acted as a lone fighter before the rise of the “populist nationalist movement”, which Bannon sees as a global force. Blocher’s intention was that “we’re simply going to have a souvereign country” – and this was the moment of the strongest applause in the room.
What I positively can say about Bannon’s appearance and talk is that he put forth a coherent and reasoned (at least from his perspective – more later) string of arguments, and challenged his listeners to think, rather than – what I have seen on TV from Trump events – inciting discord and inflaming hate.
Obviously it was the world according to Bannon. He presented his own contribution to Trump’s victory and the programmatic essence of the Trump campaign (Stick to three essentials: 1. Elimit illegal immigration, 2. Bring back manufacturing jobs, 3. Get out of the pointless wars). He echoed some of the campaign mantras against the Clintons as „the most corrupt politicians we ever had“ (that was the only really vitriolic moment of his speech) and „mainstream media“ as „the opposition party“. But all these things were to be expected. He also gave no insight of other than a few tactical differences to Trump’s government actions (he would not have offered any compromise on the ‘Dreamers’). Trump to him is “an armor-piercing shell”. He did not mention ‘Fire and Fury’ nor his Breitbart layoff or what he would be doing on the dole.
What I found more interesting was how he tried to give a grand strategy of the worldwide populist nationalist movement (which, as he elaborated, takes on different shapes and priorities in countries like Hungary, Poland, Holland, France and now Italy), but works as one global force that – despite occasional backlash – is still growing. Just a side note: Bannon sees this movement at work and welcomes it in all liberal western democracies. He has no interest in any such movement in countries like Russia, China, Turkey. Where the strongmen are in power, the countries seem to be doing fine. When asked, which foreign politicians Trump respects, Xi and Putin were the first that came to Bannon’s mind.
And now to the core of the Bannon-strategy. Three factors he sees at work: The elites destroy citizen’s work income by trade agreements and admitting unlimited cheap workforce via immigration; the banks destroy citizen’s savings by debasing the currencies with debt; and the internet giants steal citizen’s data, thus enslaving us all in the end.
From this analysis follows a very anti-establishment, anti-central-banks and anti-internet-platforms strategy in the name of the “deplorables”, which sounds very leftist to me, except that the beneficiary is not the international working class of olden times, but the ‘citizens’ – sovereign country by sovereign country.
“We have heard over and over again the slogan of maximizing shareholder value. Now it is about maximizing citizen value”.
Obviously it can be argued that the populist movements never live up to their populist promises. They weaken democratic checks and balances, and as soon as their strongmen are installed, they betray the “deplorables”, funnel money away from social programs and give it to donors, family members and business tycoons. It is also clear that for number three of the listed focus points – stealing citizen’s data through Facebook and others – Bannon has not the slightest concept to offer, and for number two – his battle against the central banks – he puts hope on blockchain and crypto currencies, which I find quite bizzare.
But I see the challenge, Bannon poses: His story of the exploitation of the deplorables (“The deplorables ain’t gonna do it any more”) is compelling and strong, and so far the counter story of liberal democrats pales against it, and therefore I don’t think it can be dismissed so easily that the nationalist tide in the western democracies is still on the rise.
By demonizing or ridiculing, this challenge can not be answered.