Sometimes a seemingly innocuous speech can potentially set the direction of the US presidency long before the Oval Office incumbent even declares they are running for office.
Thus it is with the current White House administration – and Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist.
Beamed live from Los Angeles – via Skype – into a small conference room tucked away inside the Vatican, Bannon declared that “the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis… We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict.”
The HDI proved a receptive audience. A lobby group for a “Christian voice” in European politics, its founder is former politician Benjamin Harnwell, who describes his stint as a European MP “as being in a direct spiritual warfare against the devil” and who believes that there is nothing really far-right about Marine Le Pen and the Alternative for Deutschland.
“We’ve come partly off-track in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union,” continued Bannon. “In the 21st century, we are facing “a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, [and] a crisis of capitalism.”
Bannon advocates “enlightened capitalism of the Judeo-Christian West”, based on the “underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity”.
But it’s under attack, he told the HDI, from “crony capitalism” – or what Bannon calls “state-controlled capitalism” – and “libertarian capitalism” – two disturbing brands that fail to morally manage wealth creation and distribution in an ethical way.
And who is to blame for this? Bannon identified the increasing secularisation of the West, a creeping secularism that has “sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals.”
But Trump’s chief strategist also sees two other threats to the Judeo-Christian West on the horizon. And his response to each is shaped by religion.
Bannon’s problem with Islam
The first is Islam. Bannon believes that the West is “at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism” and that the West should respond by taking “a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam”.
In July 2016, Bannon was interviewed by John Guandolo, a disgraced former FBI agent who is now an anti-Muslim activist and conspiracy theorist, on record as having said that American Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.” During that conversation, Bannon asked: “Have we held back the dogs of war? Are we actually confronting and combating radical fundamental Islam in the United States of America and in places like our allies in France and the United Kingdom?”
Bannon, let’s not forget, is the author of a film script called The Islamic States of America, which argued that Islamists were taking over the US with help from mainstream media outlets, American Jews, FBI and the White House. He went on: “Do you believe we have to prosecute this as a war, and we have to take care of this fifth column – there’s clearly a fifth column here in the United States – that needs to be dealt with immediately?”
Then, in 2010, Bannon told Avi Davis – a senior fellow at the American Freedom Alliance, an organisation concerned with “advancing the values and ideals of Western Civilization” – that “Islam is not a religion of peace. Islam is a religion of submission.”
It has the makings of an Islamophobic perfect storm, which will have disastrous consequences for the American Muslim community
Islam is a religion that Bannon believes needs to be suppressed. He told that audience in the Vatican: “If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world.”
Bannon’s words should be seen in the light of every executive order currently signed, or before, Trump. The Muslim ban. The proposed ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. The removal of white nationalists from the counter-extremism programme, to instead focus solely on Islam. And that’s just in the first few weeks of office, all making for an Islamophobic perfect storm which will have disastrous consequences for the American Muslim community.
Who else does Bannon have in his sights?
But Bannon is not content with taking on the Muslim world. He also has his sights set on China.
In a February 2016 interview that Bannon hosted with theologian Thomas D Williams (who runs Breitbart’s operation in Rome), Bannon said: “You have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China. Right? They are motivated. They’re arrogant. They’re on the march. And they think the Judeo-Christian West is on the retreat.”
Bannon then adds that the one thing the Chinese fear more than America and capitalism is Christianity.
China, he says, is “one of the most vibrant Christian churches in the world… devout evangelicals, devout mainstream Protestants, and devout Catholics that are below the surface in China… it is a vibrant, vibrant, vibrant, Christian environment” which is “going to play into all this geopolitics.”
A month later Bannon would declared with certainty, in an interview with conservative movement historian Lee Edwards, that “we’re [America] going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years… there’s no doubt about it.”
The signs that Trump’s on board
If you chose to take on Islam and China, then you need a big army. At that 2014 HDI conference, Bannon called for a Christian militia, saying that they were at “the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict.”
He urged the church to become “militant” and “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
Meanwhile Trump is speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, where he tells the audience that he will “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 60-year-old tax code law that helps separate religion and politics in the United States.
Trump describes terrorism as a “fundamental threat to religious freedom” adding: “Freedom is not a gift from government… Freedom is a gift from God. Faith in God has inspired men and women to sacrifice for the needy, to deploy to wars overseas and to lock arms at home.”
This heady brew of nationalism and religion, combined with the intended destruction of the Johnson Amendment, carries all the hallmarks of Bannon: politicise and radicalise religion – then gain support for a global confrontation with its enemies.
In July 1980, Reagan was the first politician to say “God bless America” during a nomination acceptance speech, winning over evangelical Christians. In 2004, politicised by the 9/11 attacks, Bannon wrote and directed In the Face of Evil, a documentary that lionized Reagan and his inner circle for taking on the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union.
Bannon’s vision for Trump is not too dissimilar to the description given of Reagan in the film’s trailer: “In mankind’s most bloodiest and barbaric century, came a man who with a vision, an outsider, a radical, with extreme views, of how to confront evil.”
Who going to help Bannon in this fight?
Bannon told that audience at the Vatican: “If we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries then this conflict is only going to metastasize.”
Where will these allies come from? Although critical of Russian state-capitalism, Bannon sees potential in a future alliance with Putin: “We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what he’s [Putin] talking about as far as traditionalism goes – particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism – and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing.”
Would Moscow team up with Washington in Bannon’s war? MSNBC terrorism analyst Malcolm Nance seems to think so, arguing that Bannon is attempting to “align the United States and Russia together in a Christian war against Islam.” Putin might face a dilemma if Tehran, which is on the receiving end of war talk from the White House, is goaded into crossing a red line that is then used to justify military action.
But Israel, which wants sanctions against Iran, could make a good bedfellow. Although accusations of anti-Semitism have plagued Bannon, he has always been a staunch supporter of Israel due to its strong militarised religious nationalism and opposition to what he would refer to as radical Islam.
Other allies could include France’s Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party shares Bannon’s hatred for “financial globalisation and Islamist globalisation”. She is currently in the lead, according to polls, for the first round of presidential voting in April.
Then there is Geert Wilders, an Islamophobic Dutch MP and regular Breitbart contributor, whose Freedom Party (PVV) party looks set to take the majority of seats in the Dutch Parliament later this year.
Bannon believes conflict began in 2008
Bannon’s obsession with conflict is reflected too in his obsession with a chilling social theory.
TIME Magazine reported that during the early 2000s, Bannon became fascinated with The Fourth Turning, a book by generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe. The authors predict that American institutions are reborn every 80 years: from the American Revolution (1775 – 1783) to the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) to the Second World War (1939 – 1945).
Each of these events consists of a four-part cycle, repeated over and over by successive generations:
- Fall into crisis
- Embrace institutions
- Rebel against institutions
- Forget the lessons and start the next crisis, which in turn destroys and rebuilds institutions
In 2010, Bannon was inspired to produce the documentary Generation Zero, in which he depicted the 2008 financial crisis as a warning that the next Turning was near. According to TIME, Bannon “seemed to relish the opportunity to clean out the old order and build a new one in its place.”
Indeed, in a speech to the Liberty Restoration Foundation in 2011, Bannon said: “We had the revolution. We had the civil war. We had the Great Depression and World War Two. This is the great Fourth Turning in American history, and we’re going to be one thing on the other side.”
So when Robert Reich, who served in the Clinton administration, says that if left “unsupervised by people who know what they’re doing Trump and Bannon could… bring the world closer to a nuclear holocaust” – he isn’t being hysterical.
If Bannon was a Muslim then he wouldn’t be let anywhere near the White House, never mind left with the keys. Instead the world would unite in calling him an extremist and hate preacher. There would be a global urgency to stopping him from further radicalising people for his ultimate goal of global jihad.
The focus is on the Trump circus, as Twitter theatrics take the sting out of what really is a dark, twisted nihilistic force pulling the levers of power in the Oval Office
But instead the focus is on the Trump circus, as Twitter theatrics take the sting out of what really is a dark, twisted nihilistic force pulling the levers of power in the Oval Office.
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” said Roger “Verbal” Kint, aka Keyser Soze, at the end of The Usual Suspects.
In the coming months, the checks and balances of American democracy are going to be tested like never before – and will need to react quickly in the current climate.
As Bannon told the New York Times about the first few weeks of the Trump administration: “We are moving big and we are moving fast… we didn’t come here to do small things.”
Bannon is driving America, and potentially the rest of the world, off a cliff. It’s going to be terrifying to watch.