Steve Bannon Is Not A Supervillain

Don’t get lost in conspiracy theories. Reality is bad enough.
02/02/2017 10:57 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2017

The movies tell us that when something appears to go wrong for the bad guy it was really all part of the plan.

The Joker (the Dark Knight), Loki (the Avengers), and Silva (Skyfall) got caught because they wanted to get caught.

The Trump administration issued an overreaching, poorly detailed executive order banning travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries, prompting chaos in customs, protests at airports, negative news coverage, and anger around the world because that’s what they wanted all along.

Hang on a second.

Supervillains perfectly anticipate their opponents’ actions because screenwriters know them in advance. The Dark Knight is awesome, but the plot relies on a ridiculous amount of coincidence.

Still, the America-is-run-by-supervillains narrative caught fire this weekend. You probably saw someone post about it on Facebook.

For example, two viral Medium articles—Yonatan Zunger’s “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” and Jake Fuentes’ “The Immigration Ban is a Headfake, and We’re Falling For It” — propose that what seems like overreach is all part of plan.

According to this logic, the Trump administration, especially senior strategist Steve Bannon:

  • deliberately avoided consulting relevant agencies and made the executive order confusing to see what they’d do
  • deliberately provoked demonstrations to create protest fatigue
  • and deliberately prompted lawsuits they wanted to lose to test who in the Department of Homeland Security would honor court orders and who would “loyally” ignore them

That’s a little much. It violates my conspiracy theory rule, the Human Fallibility Test (if your theory does not allow for human beings messing up, it’s probably wrong).

More likely, people with little experience in government policy-making did a poor job making government policy.

Announcing the ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day motivated the opposition, giving them a politically useful narrative.

Maybe that was part of the plan.

I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of this political moment. Bannon is smart, has a lot of influence, and advocates an aggressively nationalist vision for America.

Or maybe a group ensconced in a bubble where Israel=Netanyahu and Islam = terrorism missed the parallels.

I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of this political moment. Bannon is smart, has a lot of influence, and advocates an aggressively nationalist vision for America.

The travel/refugee ban goes against American values and weakens American strategy against ISIS and al Qaeda. And the Trump administration did it without any precipitating cause, raising the harrowing question of how they’ll react to a terrorist attack.

Still, the opposition must not forget that Bannon, Trump, and the rest of the administration are human. They make mistakes.

For example, Trump removed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence as permanent members of the National Security Council, and elevated Bannon.

There’s a good reason political advisers, such as Karl Rove and David Axelrod, never served on the NSC. Presidents need national security advice from military and intelligence experts, unencumbered by political considerations.

Sitting on NSC gives Bannon more influence, but the move prompted criticism, from Republicans as well as Democrats (plus the military and intelligence community, though they won’t say so in public). And Bannon may have accidentally set himself up for a Senate hearing.

Speculating about nightmare scenarios  —  and assuming every “mistake” is really part of a plan to turn that nightmare into reality  —  can be tempting. But it risks demoralization; as if no matter what you do you’re playing into their hands.

How To Restrain A President

As Americans are learning, most restraints on presidential power are norms.The modern United States has never been confronted with a White House that doesn’t care about precedent, democratic values, or conflicts of interest.

That leaves Congress and the courts.

Checks-and-balances is partially normative  —  presidents can choose how much to respect it  —  but it has a basis in law. Americans can sue their government, and court orders can stop executive actions.

Speculating about nightmare scenarios  —  and assuming every “mistake” is really part of a plan to turn that nightmare into reality  —  can be tempting. But it risks demoralization; as if no matter what you do you’re playing into their hands.

In response to rapidly filed suits, federal judges issued stays against parts of the travel ban. Some of the detained individuals, including green card holders, have been released.

Others remain in custody or were sent home, and the White House instructed customs and border officials to continuing following the executive order.

However, in the three days since Trump announced the ban, the ACLU received over $24 million in online donations, from over 350,000 donors. That’s more than six times the amount they raise online in a year.

There’s no way fundraising for an organization with experienced civil liberties lawyers was all part of Bannon’s plan.

Pool via Getty Images

Presidential spokespeople and Trump-friendly media will try to discredit judges that rule against them.

But the more they do this, the more Americans will see it as an attack on the judiciary, and the Constitution itself.

That matters, because the biggest check on presidential power is Congress. While Trump might not care about norms or political pressure from outside his base, many Senators and Representatives do.

If the first weeks are any indication, Trump will continue putting Republicans in positions where their principles come into conflict with partisan loyalty.

Here’s a tally of Republicans who discussed the ban on record:

SENATE: 8 opposed, 15 have reservations, 5 support

HOUSE: 16 opposed, 23 have reservations, 79 support

The eight Senators opposed include John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others who prioritize national security issues. They know the ban makes Americans less safe.

With the Senate split 52–48, Democrats need only three Republicans to block any bill or confirmation. (Republicans hold a larger margin in the House, 240–193).

Some Congressional Republicans are Trump supporters. But others back the president because they fear he can ruin their careers by riling his base against them, and because they need him to sign their bills.

With this in mind, I have a suggestion for Democrats: Let Republicans have their tax cuts. And let them eliminate some regulations.

For many Republicans, most prominently Paul Ryan, this domestic economic agenda is priority number one. They’ve been dreaming about it for years, and never thought they’d have a chance to pass it. But they need Trump’s signature, and won’t risk a fight with him until they get it.

You don’t need to vote with them. But that economic agenda is holding the Republican party together. Get it over with quickly and you’ll free your Republican colleagues to vote their conscience on other issues.

Besides, they can pass it without you.

Being Smart About Popular Pressure

Protesters peacefully but insistently standing up for what they believe in matters. Calling or writing your representatives matters. Continuing to motivate each other, and continuing to engage people who disagree matters.

When you act politically, you’re not being manipulated into helping Bannon’s secret plan. You’re putting pressure on Congress, motivating Democrats, and reminding conservative Republicans that they’re conservatives, not right-wing populists. You’re convincing the media to act as the fourth estate, rather than stenographers. You’re drawing attention to issues, bringing media coverage and lawsuits.

It’s important to note that populism thrives on us vs. them; on dividing “the people” from some threatening “other.”

However, it’s important to note that populism thrives on us vs. them; on dividing “the people” from some threatening “other.”

As Andrés Miguel Rondón wrote in his must-read account of how the anti-Chávez opposition failed in Venezuela:

Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely.

What makes you the enemy? It’s very simple to a populist: If you’re not a victim, you’re a culprit.

One way to counter this is highlighting sympathetic victims of Trump’s actions.

For example, following the travel ban, airport security detained a 5-year-old American citizen, and an Iraqi with a valid visa who risked his life helping the U.S. military as a translator.

Many progressives misunderstand Trumpian populism, focusing on economic elites (the traditional enemies of left-wing populists) rather than the cultural elites he attacks.

Pointing out that Trump nominated bankers and CEOs to senior government positions won’t stop the Republican Senate from confirming them. Meanwhile, Trump will continue pleasing his supporters by attacking politicians, the media, and liberal celebrities.

However, highlighting non-elite victims of Trump’s actions will motivate Trump opponents, and might convince some Republicans who were never enthusiastic Trump supporters that he’s gone too far.

Moving Forward

The time may come when Republicans are forced to choose between Trump and a fundamental aspect of American democracy. The more they believe majorities are firmly behind the latter, the more likely they are to stand up for what’s right.

If the nightmare scenario comes to pass, if Trump instructs the executive branch to defy an act of Congress or a Supreme Court ruling  —  and orders DHS, the FBI, or even the military to advance his edicts by force  —  then those sworn to protect the United States will have to make a choice.

The more who see the domestic enemy as the administration defying the Constitution rather than the people demanding he follow it, the better off we’ll be.

The more who see the domestic enemy as the administration defying the Constitution rather than the people demanding he follow it, the better off we’ll be.

But, more likely, the administration will continue making mistakes, motivating opponents more than they’d like.

Populists need an enemy, but they fail if that enemy includes most legislators and a majority of the public.

Nicholas Grossman is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Iowa. Follow his blog on Medium about politics and national security, and follow him on Twitter @NGrossman81.

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

CONVERSATIONS