Last week I wrote a piece entitled "Steve Bannon, Minister of Propaganda not Policy" in which I observed that he had been mostly invisible until Trump gave his inaugural speech, which clearly had Bannon's fingerprints all over it. But the bigger point I was trying to make was that if we take seriously the old political adage that 'personnel is policy', he didn't seem to have any real influence on the domestic policy cabinet appointments, and his role seemed to be shaping up as mainly chief propagandist for policies that would be shaped by others. The cabinet has been stuffed with the kind of global elite types that the American nationalist and populist Bannon professes contempt.
So a week later, things look quite differently. It's clear now that Bannon was the guy behind, if not the writer of, most of the executive orders Trump signed last week, and in particular behind the immigration ban that provoked all the demonstrations over the weekend. So while many of those executive orders are political theater, some, like the immigration ban, clearly have significant impacts. How many of them will become permanent policy remains to be seen. Push back is inevitable from Dems, legal challenges, public protests, and perhaps even from people like the Kochs.
Nevertheless, Bannon is emerging as someone who is going to be a real player, stronger than he appeared, at least to me, a week ago. He could be emerging as Trump's Karl Rove. His role at this point seems mostly directed toward fulfilling Trump's promises about keeping Mexicans and Muslims out of the country. But on Saturday we learned that in an unprecedented move, he has positioned himself on the principals committee of the National Security Council. As the NYT puts it:
But the defining moment for Mr. Bannon came Saturday night in the form of an executive order giving the rumpled right-wing agitator a full seat on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council — while downgrading the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, who will now attend only when the council is considering issues in their direct areas of responsibilities. It is a startling elevation of a political adviser, to a status alongside the secretaries of state and defense, and over the president’s top military and intelligence advisers.
In theory, the move put Mr. Bannon, a former Navy surface warfare officer, admiral’s aide, investment banker, Hollywood producer and Breitbart News firebrand, on the same level as his friend, Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, a former Pentagon intelligence chief who was Mr. Trump’s top adviser on national security issues before a series of missteps reduced his influence.
So for now, at least, Bannon's focus seems to be on his "nationalist" agenda insofar as it pertains to tightening the borders as a national security concern. It remains to be seen how much about what he wants to do will stick, and it remains to be seen whether his economic nationalist domestic policy agenda, most prominently his trillion dollar infrastructure project, will ever become a reality. If the Koch brothers wing of the conservative movement have anything to say about it, that will never happen.
In any event, Bannon is somebody to be watched. He appears to be the wildcard we thought he might be. The Trump Bannon combo will certainly prove to be a deeply destabilizing force in American politics and society. I don't believe they care how much of a mess they make. They thrive on chaos and disruption, and the more the better. It remains to be seen if there are forces within the administration and the congress who will be able to contain the worst of what they would like to do.