When Steve Bannon got his White House pink slip in 2017, there seemed to be at least two lessons for anyone who aspires to stay in Trump’s inner circle for long. First, avoid being depicted on Time magazine’s cover as the “great manipulator” and the true power behind Trump’s throne. Second, avoid being quoted in a bestselling book as calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.”
But however grave Bannon’s crimes, to write him off back then—to assume he would never again be a significant force within Trumpism—would have been to underestimate his resourcefulness and determination. A pandemic is a time of opportunity as well as tragedy, and Bannon is seizing the moment. And the way he’s seizing it drives home what a pivotal moment it is—how much will hinge on the way voters and politicians respond to the coronavirus contagion.
Bannon, like many nationalists, is highly sensitive to threats from abroad, and he was sounding alarms about COVID-19 before most Americans got the picture. In late January his “War Room: Impeachment” podcast morphed into “War Room: Pandemic.” In March it started getting airtime on WABC, New York’s right-wing talk-radio powerhouse, and it’s also featured on various other talk stations across the country. A video version of the show airs nightly on the Newsmax cable TV network.
Broadcasting from “Fort Defiance” in Washington, Bannon and his crew lay out a vision of how Trump should wage the war against COVID-19 (fiercely), how Trump should talk about the war (clearly and dramatically), and how amenable the post-pandemic landscape can be to the triumph of Trumpism. That triumph, Bannon seems to believe, will be easier if Trump and other prominent Trumpists follow his rhetorical lead. And Bannon’s stream of Trump-friendly guests, from Rudy Giuliani to Nigel Farage, probably increase the chances of that happening.
Meanwhile, Bannon is getting attention beyond his base. He’s the star of the Errol Morris documentary “American Dharma,” released five months ago, and this month he created a stir on Twitter by getting respectful treatment as a guest on the well-known leftish podcast “Red Scare.”
“Red Scare,” actually, could be the name of his own podcast. If that podcast is, as Bannon clearly hopes, a bellwether of future Republican messaging, then at least half of future Republican messaging can be summed up in ten words: China is bad, China is bad, and China is bad.
China, says Bannon, is run by “a criminal enterprise,” a “group of gangsters” who see the United States as “a tributary state to the Chinese Communist Party.” American champions of robust engagement with China—and he calls them out by name—are “collaborators.”
Bannon says the Chinese Communist Party is guilty of the “pre-meditated murder” (and “I do not say that lightly”) of “every doctor and nurse that dies in Europe” and the United States and “throughout the rest of the world” for lack of adequate protective equipment. The reason is that in late January and early February, when COVID-19 was ravaging China, its government bought this equipment on the international market, thus reducing supplies abroad.
All told, Bannon explained to the hosts of “Red Scare”, the Chinese government is “in the process of destroying its own people and destroying the world as we know it.” He has vowed repeatedly that Chinese leaders will eventually be called to account at “a Nuremberg-type trial.” The trial will “take place in Wuhan. The Chinese Communist Party leaders are going to be in the docket.”
One person who would love to see that happen is Bannon’s friend Guo Wengui, a billionaire Chinese expatriate who has been charged by the Chinese government with fraud, bribery, and money-laundering and is a vocal CCP critic. In late 2018 Guo and Bannon announced the creation of a $100 million fund for investigating corruption among Chinese officials, offering aid to their victims, and exposing Wall Street firms that Bannon considers complicit in China’s crimes. Bannon said he would serve as chairman of the fund pro bono, though Axios later reported that he was getting $1 million per year, for “strategic consulting,” from an obscure Guo-connected company.
Months after announcing the $100 million Rule of Law Fund, Bannon helped revive the Committee for the Present Danger, a Cold War–era group devoted to fighting the Soviet Union. Now retooled to focus on China, it is staffed with such imaginative thinkers as Frank Gaffney, who once warned that a newly unveiled logo for a Pentagon agency “appears ominously to reflect a morphing of the Islamic crescent and star with the Obama campaign logo.”
Some people attribute Bannon’s intensified focus on China to Guo’s patronage. But even if he’d never met Guo, the strategic potential of the pandemic would still have fixed his gaze eastward. COVID-19 is a ready-made publicity vehicle for a populist nationalist who has long decried globalization’s dark side and has long considered China Exhibit A.
Among the Bannon-friendly morals of the COVID-19 story: the more porous your borders, and the more profuse your connections to the world, the easier it is for deadly germs to enter your country. And if you let American capital roam the globe in search of cheap production, you not only hurt American workers but also build global supply chains that are vulnerable to disruption during a crisis.
Then there’s the fact that China wasn’t fully transparent about the contagion during its early days. In Bannon’s telling, this can seem deeply sinister (even if, viewed with dispassion, it looks like the kind of bungled crisis-management that is pretty routine in human affairs and is exacerbated by an authoritarian system). The day before Easter, Bannon told his listeners that this early suppression of information was the reason they wouldn’t be able to congregate in church on Sunday. “When you’re not in church, remember: This is not a pandemic that did this to you, not a virus that did it to you. It’s the Chinese Communist Party.”
How fully Donald Trump will adopt Bannon’s recommended messaging is unclear. For now, at least, he’s quit calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” and this week the World Health Organization seemed to eclipse China as his chief scapegoat. Eli Clifton of The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft thinks Trump’s seeming vacillation on the China issue may reflect the fact that, though some of his donors (such as Robert Mercer of Cambridge Analytica fame) are China hawks, some emphatically are not. Mega-donor Sheldon Adelson’s gambling interests in Macao benefit from the support of Beijing political elites.
But Bannon can point to other Republican candidates who are singing his tune full-throatedly. On his podcast he played a campaign ad for Texas congressional candidate Kathaleen Wall, featuring a deep-voiced narrator who says that “China poisoned our people” and promises that Wall, if elected, will “cut off trade, aid, and support to China, fight to replace Made in China with Made in America and stand with President Trump to face down the Chinese threat. China is a criminal enterprise masquerading as a sovereign nation. It’s time to fight back.”
After the ad, Bannon co-host Jason Miller intoned, “That, ladies and gentlemen, is the future of campaigning in 2020.” In furtherance of that goal, Bannon likes to refer to “Beijing Biden, who’s bought and paid for by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Bannon is using the pandemic opportunistically, but—to give him his due—he’s not just another partisan opportunist. He’s a true ideologue with a truly Manichaean vision of the world. And the more I listen to him, the more I realize that there’s a case for viewing the world this way, as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light. Bannon and I just disagree about who is on which team.
Here’s my approach to thinking about the question:
A pandemic is one of many modern threats that don’t respect national borders. As regular readers of this newsletter will not be surprised to hear, such threats make international cooperation valuable and so make international antagonism costly. (Which is to say, the dynamics are non-zero-sum.) Climate change, the overfishing of the seas, the arms race in space, cybercrime, the proliferation of biological weapons that could make this pandemic seem like a day at the beach…and on and on: the world seems to feature more and more challenges that can be met only if nations, critically including the great powers, reach agreements involving mutual restraint or mutual sacrifice.
Pretty much all of these threats can, like a pandemic, be exploited by fearmongering nationalists. (For example: Wouldn’t effective international agreements in most of these areas erode our sovereignty and enslave us to faceless global governance bureaucrats?)
So this pandemic crystallizes a challenge that may arise again and again: When transnational threats that call for international cooperation surface, they energize populist-nationalist movements that can doom that cooperation. This point is so important that I want to emphasize it by quoting the tweet, from China scholar Ali Wyne, where I first saw it expressed crisply: “transnational threats will increase the urgency of global cooperation as well as the power of those forces that inhibit its mobilization.” Ironic—and not in an amusing way.
If this kind of nationalist backlash does become common, and the Steve Bannons of the world carry the day repeatedly, the collective consequences could be literally catastrophic on a global scale. I don’t want to call Bannon evil—I’m not that Manichaean. But if this is indeed a battle between the forces of light and darkness, I can’t say he’s on Team Light.
But I will say this for him: He’s right to consider the stakes very high, so high that to think of this the way he thinks of so many things—as a war—isn’t unjustifiably dramatic. And I’m not sure how many of the people who are on Team Light, including its potential leaders, really understand that.
Robert Wright is a journalist, president of the Nonzero Foundation and a Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
This article first appeared in the Nonzero Newsletter on April 11, 2020.
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