Stephen Bannon is a brilliant and extraordinary assistant to Trump. But he is not Goebbels or Goering. His acknowledged inspiration, according to an interview last fall, is another famous assistant to a political leader – Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII of England. Here is a summary from one historical site:
Cromwell’s rise to power was extraordinary and occurred just when Henry needed a minister of great administrative imagination and genius, uninterested in the squabbles of his council and determined to empower the machinery of state. Cromwell entered royal service in early 1530 and, from then on, rose rapidly. In late 1530 [a very short time for a newcomer and a commoner], he was sworn into the King’s Council.
Hmm. And Bannon has just been appointed to the National Security Council.
Many of the circumstances of Tudor England were different, but Cromwell’s accomplishments indicate what he thought was important:
- To loosen the hold of the church by dissolving the monasteries and selling their property, thus providing money to the crown
- Establishing royal supremacy, reducing the power of the “lords” or nobles as well as the church (including royal power over larger territory)
- Reforming the tax system to be more efficient
- Using the power of that relatively new invention, the printing-press, and thus spearheading England’s first propaganda campaign.
The site explains:
Cromwell busied himself with … reforming the archaic machinery of Tudor government. In doing so, he continued to ignore Henry’s council of noble peers. When the council did meet, Cromwell dominated the meetings and disregarded most suggestions. To his credit, he was right on most counts; the nobility was quite distanced from the changing nature of government. They were fiercely protective of their own ‘inalienable’ rights as landowners and peers and notoriously difficult when these rights were impugned.
In the USA, we’re not talking about lords and abbots owning land, but about the traditional political leadership and its “rights” and customs. Remember how the Trump campaign claimed to be not bound to any of the old guard, Republican or Democrat? And many noted that the inaugural speech – reportedly written by Bannon – had nothing good to say about any previous administrations or presidents.
Of course, the details are different from 16th century England. Besides the Catholic/ Protestant and lords/royalties conflict in England, another major difference from today was that foreign policy was deeply connected to alliances through marriage. Henry VIII’s divorces are famous, but what we don’t realize is that who he married was important for international balance of power. That’s no longer a factor, so the Cromwell comparison doesn’t work. The similarity is that Cromwell was deeply concerned about, and involved in, international alliances that might negatively affect England.
Bannon is extremely well informed about international affairs and sees the last two administrations – Bush’s as well as Obama’s — as wrong-headed. He has indicated in interviews that he sees American interests having given way to creating a middle class in Asia. (I haven’t seen comments from him about Russia.) His fierce concern for America as a nation is in line with the president’s. I’m not convinced he’s a “white nationalist” himself but he needed that support to enable Trump to beat out all the other Republican contenders, and Breitbart was a safe host for them. Now, the message – quite clear in President Trump’s inaugural address – is “America first”:
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. (January 20, 2017)
American citizenship is the key – and it will be much harder to get. Racial issues will be diluted – as indicated in the inclusion of African-American and Hispanic religious leaders in the group that gave the invocations and benedictions. BUT that doesn’t mean diversity is welcome. That group was by no means diverse, despite different skin colors. Religious and ideological diversity is what will be in contention. I will comment on that in another post.
What Bannon seems to be aiming for is what Thomas Cromwell organized for Henry VIII: extending direct control by the Executive branch over as many decisions as possible. Instead of multi-national trade agreements, make them bilateral – each one with only two parties. That prevents two ganging up against one and, given the USA’s powers in many areas, makes it more likely that Trump can come out ahead.
Bannon is certainly orchestrating the media issue – just as Thomas Cromwell took advantage of the new printing press to propagandize. Trump’s use of Twitter was completely unorthodox, but Bannon saw its tremendous immediate-impact value, short-circuiting the “front page” and making tweets themselves the subject of headlines. Remarkable! He has attempted to humiliate the mainstream press – which will throw them off balance for a while, but it won’t be a successful long-term strategy. It buys time – so that in a few months, after seeing some results from executive decisions, he will be able to tout some achievements that the press will have to report. In the meantime, sowing confusion through challenging the media helps Trump.
Now, with the promotion of Trump’s personal advisers to seats on the National Security Council, and the effective demotion of the National Intelligence Director and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to attendance only when necessary, we’re seeing a shift with great potential significance. Whether this is about sealing potential leaks or actual policy differences is yet to be seen.
Some may argue with the idea, stated above, that he is not Goebbels or Goering. I would say this: yes, he shares with Goebbels a recognition of the power of media (in Goebbels time, the new radio) and the centralization of power, but Goebbels was ego-driven and had no respect for the working classes or the people as a whole. He was devoted to the power class. Goering is even further afield – he was a military man, and the main similarity is one common to most autocrats, his desire to extend Germany’s power and wealth.
Bannon’s saving grace may be his devotion to the working class, from which he himself came, even though his personal income far transcends those roots. If that remains a true moral compass for him, and if he can convince Trump that it is key to his continued power (as in, re-election), he may be able to ensure that new policies do not make things harder on ordinary people – as, for example, high tariffs on imports are likely to do, if they are imposed on ordinary consumer goods.
Bannon’s biggest challenge may be constructing a new story that will gradually induce more independents – often with more liberal views on personal issues, and more cosmopolitan in their experience – to embrace a nationalist agenda. Too often nationalism has been associated with jingoism, war, and prejudice. Many in Trump’s administration want to make it Christian nationalism as well – not a good idea. Religion is a tricky sea to navigate, as Thomas Cromwell knew, and I’m sure Stephen Bannon does as well.
I do sincerely wish Mr. Bannon a far better end than Thomas Cromwell.