Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and the ghost of Edward Mandell House
by Brett I. Kier | 28 March 2017
Jacksonian revolt? At least that was the mile wide and inch deep characterization of the Trump Administration provided by an essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. The Trump Administration has packed its cabinet and top advisors with generals, investment bankers, and oil executives who serve the global military industrial complex and corporate interests of central banks the world over. The irony here is of course that Andrew Jackson railed against the power of central banks and corporate power, and counted as his crowning achievement the winning of the so-called Bank War in 1841, fought over the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States (another irony is of course that for all Jackson’s hatred of central banks, his face was put on the $20 bill – a central bank note). He argued that giving a bank the power to control the money supply is unconstitutional. Imagine that argument being proffered in mainstream political discourse today.
To use a form of the now well-known “literally vs. seriously” heuristic so popular with Trumpism, populist is what the Trump Administration is rhetorically, corporatist is what it is in practice. A glaring and ignored question among those who view the Trump presidency as an effort to attrit the power of the Deep State is: If Trump is an enemy of the Deep State, why is the balance of the executive branch and key economic positions within the government now run by corporate financial interests (Rothschild and Goldman Sachs in particular)? This administration appears to represent an intramural game between factions of the Deep State, and not outsiders attempting to upend the status quo. All the discussion around deconstructing the administrative state, which on its face would indeed make government more responsive to those it purports to represent, i.e., the voters, seems like a red herring, as what is actually happening is one power faction wresting control from another.
If returning the power of government back to the people was the goal, an immediate effort to do the following would ensue: the reinstitution of Glass-Steagall (update) or an equivalent, a radical reformation of campaign financing laws which focuses on transparency and stringent limits on political donations, passing a law requiring all electronic voting machines be auditable via a paper trail and run by open source code software. And if they were truly serious, the Executive Branch could work with Congress to take back its constitutionally mandated power to print money under Article I, Section 8, Clause 5, and take it out of the hands of private corporations (repealing the Federal Reserve Act of 1913). This would be a good start. It is plain to see that up to this point (at least since the beginning of the era of deregulation in the 1980s) there has been no effort made to democratize this republic, as it has been decisively given over to moneyed interests. Finance is still firmly in the driver’s seat, and the national security establishment is helping to further their agenda. Is Donald Trump the vessel for the new nationalism? No. Perhaps the question that should be asked – and if possible answered – is the one that is on everyone’s mind: Is Donald Trump the vessel for Steve Bannon? And who is Steve Bannon a vessel for, if at all?
Is Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist and permanent member of the Security Council for the Trump Administration, the new Edward Mandell House, aka Colonel House (a title he gave himself), the author of Philp Dru: Administrator. Colonel House, Woodrow Wilson’s closest advisor on all matters – later revealed to be the most trusted agent of the banking industry – fashioned a prophetic autobiographical character named Philip Dru, who as a benevolent dictator, ushered in a democratic republic after successfully wresting control from the plutocrats. This was a twisted irony to be sure, as Colonel House was instrumental in doing the very opposite by shepherding Woodrow Wilson to sign the Federal Reserve Act into law. Bannon is a deeply ironic figure in so many ways, as are all insurgents and revolutionaries. Bannon is like Colonel House in that he has an agenda separate from, but often overlaps Trump’s political instincts, and wherever there are philosophical or intellectual gaps, Bannon is able to influence Trump effectively enough to further his own agenda. Trump is the head and Bannon is the neck, to quote My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The press has taken to calling Bannon Trump’s Rasputin in more acerbic moments, which is somewhat accurate, but does not capture the level of influence of a man like Colonel House. However, the religious undertones of both comparisons are quite accurate, as will be explained below. Bannon on the other hand, represents an educated, articulate and well-read version of the intellectual instincts of Trump. As such, the mainstream critique of Bannon as the puppet-master of Trump deserves closer examination, and perhaps more importantly, like Colonel House, we should ask: Who is Bannon’s master? In order to suss out the accuracy of this critique, we can look to Bannon’s past statements about what policies the Trump Administration will be pursuing. There are three primary guiding principles of the new administration as articulated by Bannon: national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and the deconstruction of the administrative state (aka, the bureaucracy, i.e., the permanent government that does not change with elections).
On the national security front, the conventional wisdom was that a pivot to Russia, and away from China, would take place, but the national security establishment has engaged in a full court press against any rapprochement between Russia and the United States. Although it appears that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could be signaling otherwise by his plan to skip an annual meeting of NATO foreign ministers and instead meet with Russia as a push against the domestic political tide in an effort to improve US-Russia relations. Evidence would suggest the pivot away from China is not taking place – quite the contrary – at least rhetorically. The “win-win” that Tillerson referred to in his statements to China is a definite shift to a more transactional diplomacy – an arrangement that China would prefer. However, diplomatic relations are strained between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States; which means that relations are strained between the US and China because of China’s political and economic influence on North Korea. Tensions among all nations have increased primarily because of the field training exercise Foal Eagle, occurring around the same time each year, in which South Korea and the United States conduct war games to practice “defensive military maneuvers” against North Korea in the event it attacks South Korea. These military exercises are understood as a provocation by North Korea, and it reacts accordingly by launching missiles and directing threats at South Korea, and by extension the United States. This simple fact is generally not reported by the MSM, and goes a long way in explaining the unpredictable nature of North Korea and its irrational leader, Kim Jong-un. The nuclear brinkmanship that is played on an annual basis will likely subside unless Trump needs a distraction from his domestic political woes, as he quickly attempts to move on to what will prove to be much more difficult than generally believed, namely, his tax reform agenda.
The sovereignty aspect of Bannon’s national security policy is decidedly isolationist. In particular, on the international stage, sovereignty has been understood to mean NATO allies need to pony up 2% of GDP for their own defense, and not rely on the United States to provide military protection. Ironically, pulling back in any way from NATO would increase the possibility of more direct US military involvement in the War on Terror (WOT). We can point to one data set that would confirm this hypothesis, as Trump recently expanded US military and CIA discretion in prosecuting the WOT. This means that the military will not need to seek approval to bomb particular targets, and the CIA can now legally engage in military operations. The ultimate effect of this will be events like the recent killing of 230 civilians by a US bombing raid in Mosul, Iraq. Time will tell if there is a post hoc fallacy occurring here. Of course, sovereignty to Bannon (and Trump) also means increasing security along the southern border, and instituting the controversial travel ban from countries that purportedly do not possess adequate vetting procedures to be allowed into the United States. In spite of all of the protests to the contrary, Trump’s executive power to control immigration is clearly established in the Constitution, and it is quite likely that his “rule by executive order,” at least in this case, will be upheld by the Supreme Court.
More broadly, the sovereignty aspect of Bannon’s thinking as it relates to national security points to a much more apocalyptic understanding of the world. From Bannon’s perspective, when he speaks of sovereignty, he is alluding to the theologico-political fight (à la Leo Strauss) the West is engaged in against Islam and the decay of the West by cultural Marxism. He believes that we are in the midst of a Manichaean clash of civilizations, like the one Samuel P. Huntington described in his book by the same name. Ironically, Bannon believes, like Marx, that this clash is part of a cycle of history, whereby the inevitability of history is such that the best way to get through this historical moment of crisis is to shorten its duration by opening the Seventh Seal. In this way, his aim is to weaponize a particular kind of anthropological analysis with the intent of radical social transformation, the effects of which remain to be seen.
When discussing his historical views he often speaks of the book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, for which he has had a long standing philosophical love affair. It opens an instructive door into Bannon’s view of history and social change. Strauss and Howe arguably avoid the invariably precarious nature of predictions by providing sufficiently broad descriptions of the zeitgeist of a particular historical era, successfully achieved to some degree by their use of Barnumesque statements mixed with a Jungian cultural analysis. The Strauss–Howe generational theory argued therein reads like a cultural-anthropological Marxist tract about the inevitability of the cycles of political, economic, social, and cultural history. Recall that Marx’s socio-economic cycles theory ended up with the prophetic creation of a communist utopia. The four “turnings,” or generational cycles, described in the book include, in order of their manifestation, “The High,” “The Awakening,” “The Unraveling,” and “The Crisis.” According to Strauss and Howe (and Bannon), since 2008 with the near collapse of the global economy, we are in the midst of the fourth turning, “The Crisis.” According to Strauss and Howe the “The Crisis” is characterized by “an era of destruction, often involving war, in which institutional life is destroyed and rebuilt in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s survival. After the crisis, civic authority revives, cultural expression redirects towards community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group” (pp 103-4). If Bannon believes that history is cyclical and thus deterministic, as any good Catholic (which he is) would, the only thing for us to do is help to facilitate this change by coming face to face with Satan (Islam) to help bring on the coming clash of civilizations… the Apocalypse. “The Crisis” he is facilitating in order to usher in the dawning of a new age will quite possibly be, as he himself has said, a “bloody battle.” Whether this was meant in a metaphorical sense remains to be seen.
Domestically, the deconstruction of the administrative state is the method by which Bannon seeks to restore checks and balances to government, as spelled out in the Constitution; which as previously mentioned, could theoretically work, except that the Trump Administration’s poorly planned and disorganized efforts in this regard have resulted in a string of political failures, the most recent of which is the failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Their ostensible attempt to remove and attrit the power and influence of the permanent government will, if history is any guide, prove to be unsuccessful. The likely failure will occur for a simple and potentially catastrophic reason. Even if the Trump Administration was successful in completely dismantling the bureaucracy at a level that Ron Paul would approve of, a glaring contradiction in the grand plan would remain, and is the reason that Philip Dru is such an apt comparison to Steve Bannon. This contradiction lies in the relationship between the deconstruction of the bureaucracy and the pursuit of the principle he refers to as economic nationalism.
Perhaps the most perplexing and ironic aspect of Bannon’s economic nationalism is his work on the transition team, where he helped to ensure that Rothschild and Goldman Sachs banking interests were securely installed in key political and economic posts within the government (Bannon was an investment banker at Goldman himself). Based on the above, it appears that he is not interested in economic nationalism in any true sense of the term, nor is he interested in stripping the power of the Federal Reserve to control the money supply and placing it back into the constitutionally mandated hands of Congress, thereby removing the moneyed interests in Washington. After all, what is the name of the game for Goldman Sachs et al.? It is the same as it ever was: control the levers of government in order to deregulate the financial industry and increase profits for shareholders. How successful are they? So much so that many analysists have taken to referring to them as “Government Sachs.” The deregulation effort by the Trump Administration currently under way is intended to roll back the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, which has already helped to boost Goldman stocks, and will help set the stage for another bubble.
This may create the necessary crisis, as analysts have argued, needed to devalue the dollar sufficiently to set the stage for a transition to the supranational SDR as the world reserve currency. They have argued that an expanded use of the IMF’s SDR as a supranational currency, along with a devaluing of the US dollar against its trading partners will correct the problems associated with the Triffin Dilemma, and stimulate US exports. Although a sound analysis, it does not address the power of the plutocracy in America vis-à-vis this global economic transition. The international banking interests’ influence cannot be understated, as “Government Sachs” has proven. The power of this influence is further reflected in the Trump Administration’s recently proposed budget that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney referred to as a “hard power budget.” This reveals quite explicitly that the military industrial complex is in control of the spending priorities of the US executive. For those that worry the enemy has stormed the gates, rest assured, it was never outside the gates. The United States government is under new (old) management. What do the last 3 presidents (and HRC) have in common? Goldman Sachs.
After all is said and done, Donald Trump, unlike Woodrow Wilson, will likely never succumb to public regret or introspection at what resulted from his presidency under Bannon’s tutelage – and it appears there is a good deal of tutelage going on, as Bannon has provided Trump with an ideological framework for his views, which are decidedly not ideological in any philosophical sense of being coherent. What is clear is that despite what Bannon purports to stand for, he is firmly situated among those who seek to destroy America’s economic sovereignty. What is also clear, however, is that winning is more important to Trump than ideological purity and political vision, which is decidedly more important to Bannon; and if current trends continue vis-à-vis advancing the Trump agenda, Bannon could find himself boxed out of the inner circle – or removed from the Trump Administration entirely. Then again, President Wilson kept Colonel House by his side until the very end.
“Dru presided over the meeting, therefore he took no part in the early discussion, further than to ask for the fullest expression of opinion. After hearing the plan for a limited dictatorship proposed, he arose, and, in a voice vibrant with emotion, addressed the meeting as follows:
…But in the long watches of the night, in the solitude of my tent, I conceived a plan of government which, by the grace of God, I hope to be able to give to the American people. My life is consecrated to our cause, and, hateful as is the thought of assuming supreme power, I can see no other way clearly, and I would be recreant to my trust if I faltered in my duty. Therefore, with the aid I know each one of you will give me, there shall, in God’s good time, be wrought ‘a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
When Dru had finished there was generous applause. At first here and there a dissenting voice was heard, but the chorus of approval drowned it. It was a splendid tribute to his popularity and integrity. When quiet was restored, he named twelve men whom he wanted to take charge of the departments and to act as his advisors.”
~Edward Mandell House (Philp Dru: Administrator (pp 88-9)