The appearance by White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday afternoon shed a bright light on the Trump administration’s opinions about the media, the inner workings of the White House and, most importantly, on what Bannon sees as the “center core” of the coalition of voters backing President Trump.
The United States, he stressed, “is a nation with an economy. Not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders….We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being,” he said, laying out his belief in “economic nationalism.”
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Bannon and Trump have both shown a willingness to set aside the prescriptions of mainstream economists about what is best for the economy in terms of things like international trade and the movement of jobs across borders. The goal, summed up in Trump’s “America First” motto is to promote the good of the United States, not the good of the economy.
Of course, this raises the question: What, in the view of Bannon and Trump, is the good of the United States? Or, as Bannon put it on Thursday, what is the country’s true “reason for being?”
It’s not something that Bannon addressed directly from the stage at CPAC, but in other public and private forums, the former publisher of the Breitbart website has made it plain that he feels the defining issue of modern times is what he has characterized as a war between radical Islam and the “Judeo-Christian West.” The role and responsibility of leaders of the “West” he has said, is to defend its culture and civilization from the “barbarity” of Islam.
In 2014, Bannon appeared in a video conference before a small group called the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican. In it, he stressed the need for a “Church Militant” to fight against what he described as “jihadist Islamic fascism.”
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“We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” he said, adding, that if the West fails to fight back it will “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
When Bannon talks about the economy and capitalism, he injects an element of personal and national destiny into the discussion.
“So I think the discussion of, should we put a cap on wealth creation and distribution? It’s something that should be at the heart of every Christian that is a capitalist — ‘What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us, that divine providence has given us to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?’”
He continued, “I think it really behooves all of us to really take a hard look and make sure that we are reinvesting that back into positive things. But also to make sure that we understand that we’re at the very beginning stages of a global conflict, and if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries that this conflict is only going to metastasize.”
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To the extent that Bannon believes the United States and indeed the civilized “West” is facing an existential threat that must be confronted forcefully and immediately, it feels reasonable to ask if he views the nation’s “reason for being” as the defeat of an enemy he thinks is out to destroy it.
The early moves the administration has made to block the flow of predominantly Muslim refugees from entering the country, the travel ban imposed on members of seven majority-Muslim countries, and the promise to ramp up military spending -- even in the face of large and persistent budget deficits, suggests that if it is not top of mind in the White House, it’s pretty close.