Steve Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council is hard to decipher, but true power still comes from being in Donald Trump’s good books
By Michael Paarlberg / The Guardian / April 6, 2017
Kremlinology was more fun when it meant deciphering other countries’ Kremlins and not our own. For those inclined to palace intrigue, Steve Bannon’s removal from the national security council (NSC) could mean any number of things – the triumph of Jared Kushner’s business wing over Bannon’s ethno-nationalist wing, the consolidation of power by national security adviser HR McMaster, President Trump being mad about something on Twitter – but the most absurd explanation is what’s already being touted in the media as a “shift towards normalcy”.
Normalcy is a relative term for any administration, and for any NSC as well. The NSC is not a fixed office, and appointments don’t always tell who calls the shots. As political scientist Elizabeth Saunders notes, in the George W Bush White House, Colin Powell had a seat on the NSC but no actual power, while in the Nixon White House, the NSC consisted essentially of just Henry Kissinger. And these are the administrations that gave us the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Cambodia, respectively, so some skepticism is warranted regarding the superior functioning of a more “normal” NSC.
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Every US president organises their councils differently, according to their personal preferences. And given Trump’s fondness for conspiracy theories, suspicion of anyone with relevant experience, and predilection for picking fights with countries such as Germany and Australia for no discernible reason, Bannon was – in a perverse way – a perfect fit.
Bannon’s job has been to translate Trump’s racial dog whistles into white nationalist sirens, and he is the brains behind such blatantly illegal policies as Trump’s Muslim ban. He’s also served as the face for Trump’s anti-elite populist posturing, a laughingly unconvincing role given his career trajectory spanning Wall Street, Hollywood and the Washington media.
Bannon’s appointment was, indeed, unorthodox by past standards, insofar as the NSC principals committee on which he briefly sat typically includes military and intelligence officials. Bannon’s chief qualification is running a website that publishes stories such as “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”. The White House’s explanation is that he was initially appointed to keep an eye on the previous national security adviser, disgraced conspiracy theorist Mike Flynn, which is a strange message to inspire confidence in Trump’s appointments.
But then again, his rival for the president’s ear is Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a 36-year-old real estate investor whose chief qualification is marrying well. Both figures have ambiguous official roles, yet enjoy tremendous power. Bannon reportedly heads something called the White House Strategic Initiatives Group, a position so ill-defined that the White House denies it exists. Kushner, as head of a new (and, for now, officially recognized) Office of American Innovation, is tasked with remaking the entire US government, adding to his modest portfolio of overseeing relations with China and Mexico and resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.
So Bannon’s demotion tells us little about the actual power he wields, and will continue to wield informally, at least until Trump tires of federal judges telling him all of Bannon’s ideas violate the constitution. Kushner’s ascent, on the other hand, affirms Trump’s classic banana republic approach to governing: keeping it in the family.
Both Bannon’s and Kushner’s appointments are a testament to Trump’s valuing of loyalty above all worldly concerns of expertise, basic competence and truth. As Flynn’s replacement, McMaster, a general, veteran and counterinsurgency egghead, may be a more conventional national security adviser. But he also disagrees with the president on virtually everything – from Russia to the strategic value of vilifying an entire religion. So we will see if he sticks around longer than his predecessor. In the meantime, with Kushner as the person really in charge, we will be told to be grateful that the fate of the planet rests on a neophyte who is simply ignorant of the rest of the world rather than one who is openly hostile to it.
So this is the normalcy we are returning to: a nepotistic mafia where official titles mean little and true power comes from being in the fickle favor of the president, where US foreign policy is run not out of the State Department but by the Trump dynasty. As one foreign service officer put it: “It’s reminiscent of the developing countries where I’ve served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.”
Indeed, rulers running their countries as private fiefdoms for family enrichment has been the norm in much of the world for much of human history. It’s something Bannon, who sees himself as a defender of traditional western civilization, should appreciate.