Standing squarely behind President Trump and whispering in his ear is his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who is shaping up to be the second most powerful person in the White House.
Bannon is the former editor of the right-wing Breitbart website (a platform for far-right extremists) and is the architect of Trump's cruel and chaotic visa ban. He has become so powerful that liberal and conservative pundits alike speak of the Bannon Regency and (only half in jest) of "President" Bannon.
In a startling sign of Bannon's influence, Trump officially named him to his National Security Council, even though domestic political advisers are rarely regular attendees, and then only informally. At the same time Trump demoted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs (the top U.S. military officer) from a full to an occasional member. You get the picture.
Yet Bannon's radical worldview should unnerve anyone who still thinks American democracy is based on religious and political tolerance. And his outlook clearly syncs with Trump's gut instincts. So the Breitbart provocateur has become the White House ideologue-in-chief.
Thus it behooves those who believe in traditional American values to scrutinize Bannon's sayings and doings (although he likes to operate in secret). A good place to start is the speech he gave to a Catholic conference on poverty in the Vatican in 2014. The conference was hosted by a conservative Catholic group close to Cardinal Raymond Burke, a voice of Catholic orthodoxy and traditionalism who has publicly clashed with the inclusive views of Pope Francis.
In his remarks Bannon railed against the decline of capitalism, the church, and the West, a trio of crises, he said, that underlay the rise of populist anger. Himself a member of the elite, as a Harvard grad and former Goldman Sachs banker, he denounced the crisis of "crony capitalism" that had cheated the middle classes in the United States and Europe. (Note that Trump has filled his cabinet with crony capitalists and Goldman Sachs bankers with no sign of protest from Bannon.)
As for the cure, this self-styled provocateur claims it lies in political upheaval. At the Vatican he praised the rise of traditionalist, faith-based, right-wing parties in Europe that are strongly nationalist and reject the European Union. They also reject multilateral institutions that have kept peace on the continent for decades.
"I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors," Bannon said, "and I think it's what can see us forward."
The former editor portrays himself as an early leader of the international populist rebellion, noting that Breitbart had provided a platform for Britain's UKIP (the Brexit party), France's National Front, and other such movements.
When asked about the anti-Semitic, racist "baggage" of some of these groups, Bannon was dismissive, saying, "We think that will all be worked through with time." That "time" has not arrived for many of the white nationalists who air their conspiracy theories on Breitbart; they clearly feel freer to promote their racism in the age of Trump. And, strangely, despite Bannon's constant reference to Judeo-Christian values, a recent White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day failed to mention the word Jews.
But back to Bannon's speech. Especially interesting was his take on Vladimir Putin's Russia: "At least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions and he's trying to do it in a form of nationalism," said Trump's thought shaper. Putin's Russian orthodoxy is an inspiration for Europeans who "want to see nationalism for their country" and "don't believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don't believe in the centralized government in the United States."
In other words, Bannon could overlook Putin's invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin's assassination of opponents in the interests of aligning with a Christian Orthodox nationalist nation. Despite the hacking scandal and Moscow's threats against NATO, Bannon's position hasn't changed.
What's so amazing about Bannon's worldview is his dismissiveness of history. He harked back favorably to the pre-World War I era, when, he said, capitalism was "in its highest flower" and "the world was at peace."
Perhaps he's untroubled by the awful conditions workers endured at the beginning of the 20th century. But how can Trump's top aide have failed to notice that the prewar system of balance of power between strong nationalist states was a horrific failure and led to the two most devastating world wars in history? And that multilateral institutions such as the European Union and NATO prevented any further European wars.
Perhaps that willful blindness stems from Bannon's conviction that a world war against radical Islam is imminent. He insisted that "we're at the very beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism." Clearly he has bought into the thesis that Christian civilization is at risk.
Trump's Islamophobic national security adviser, Michael Flynn, promotes the same over-the-top message. And some of Trump's transition advisers, such as Frank Gaffney, who appeared 34 times on a radio show hosted by Bannon, push absurd conspiracy theories that imagine Muslims imposing sharia law on the United States. Such apocalyptic visions misconstrue the real, but manageable, struggle that must, and will, be waged against Islamist terrorists.
But with Bannon by Trump's side, whispering anti-Muslim warnings in his ear, and encouraging disdain for alliances and allies, the chaos of the president's first weeks makes perfect sense. Every Muslim is a threat. The Australian prime minister is a wimp. The hell with the European Union. We'll fight the Islamic fascists with Putin (another mirage).
And as if that weren't enough, Bannon has predicted on the radio that we'll be going to war with China.
Svengali? Rasputin? Or just a clever political provocateur? Bannon's views are all there in the Vatican speech, and in his radio broadcasts. I hope responsible GOP legislators and cabinet members will digest and counter them. Otherwise, we should all be very afraid.