White House political strategist Steve Bannon has a name that sounds left over from a tacky 1970s detective series —you know, “Tonight on Bannon!”—and that’s the limit of his charm. Back in 2013, when he was peddling white-nationalist sewage as Breitbart’s CEO, he startled a journalist by comparing himself to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin: “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” On Saturday, President Donald Trump gave the destroyer an unprecedented permanent seat at National Security Council meetings, meanwhile demoting the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to occasional attendees at best.
Along with fellow flack Stephen Miller, Bannon is also the reputed author of Trump’s post-Inaugural slew of reckless, unvetted executive orders, including, of course, the ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen that’s been causing pandemonium both here at home and worldwide since Trump signed it on (gosh, how thoughtful) Holocaust Remembrance Day. Because it takes a Donald Trump to make someone like Bannon look like an intellectual (as we all know, our new POTUS doesn’t enjoy thinking much, no doubt because he’s had so little practice at it), there’s a real possibility that this rancid thug is effectively operating, in at least some areas, as the shadow President of the United States.
Defining Islam in general as the enemy is something jihadists have hoped the West will do for years.
That makes Bannon’s comparison of himself to Lenin instructive. Besides being a grotesque affront to American values, the travel ban is also incoherent. From 9/11 to San Bernardino, nobody involved in any deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil came from the countries on the proscribed list. Yet countries that have spawned terrorists—Saudi Arabia and Egypt, notably—are exempt, presumably because Trump has business dealings with them. On top of that, immigration restrictions based on national origin are literally against the law, and have been since 1965. Besides cruelly discomfiting the travelers trapped in transit when it was announced, the ban’s only effect has been to wreak havoc: judicial and operational confusion, more protests and polarization nationwide, and a huge increase in tension in our already ultra-fraught relationship to the Muslim world.
In ye olde Leninist playbook, however, wreaking havoc is a strategy in itself. As all good ex-English majors know, Shakespeare anticipated the ploy in Julius Caesar: “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.” The idea is that making a bad situation worse helps bring on the revolution —ironically, the same argument that made some members of America’s loony left favor a Trump win over Hillary’s same old-same old. ISIS has already hailed Trump’s immigration ban as a propaganda victory for them, and it is. Defining Islam in general as the enemy is something jihadists have hoped the West will do for years. They’ll win recruits among newly radicalized Muslims, do their best to up the ante with retaliatory attacks, and so on.
Let slip the dogs of war. All this would obviously give the Bannon administration a fabulous pretext to keep ratcheting things up, from launching that Muslim registry to trying to criminalize dissent. Given how extreme this White House has already shown itself to be, we could be one major terrorist attack away from all sorts of truly appalling shit: crackdowns on press freedom, even martial law (no doubt selectively imposed). If that’s as yet nothing more than a worst-case scenario—and it’s not like there’s any evidence that this was the ban’s goal—we’ve all learned in the past 18 months that worst-case scenarios have a sickening way of coming true these days.
With gutsy Brooklyn U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly taking the lead, several federal judges issued rulings blocking implementation of the ban’s provisions. But what’s alarming is that, in at least some cases, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs agents reportedly ignored those rulings and went right on detaining people, functioning as outfits loyal to Trump, not the system they’ve sworn to defend. (Green-card holders being detained also say they’ve been asked their opinion of Trump, which is serious Big Brother stuff.) On Sunday, at Washington D.C.’s Dulles Airport, agents stonewalled a trio of Democratic Congressmen who showed up to insist on the enforcement of a court order allowing detainees access to attorneys. That isn’t normally how members of Congress get treated at Dulles or anywhere else, no matter their party. If such incidents grow common, we could be facing nothing less than a breakdown of the rule of law in law-and-order disguise.
Or not, because who the hell knows? Even this early on, part of the genius of the Bannon administration has been to keep appalling shit flowing so thick and fast on so many different fronts that just trying to keep track of it —let alone sort out which outrage to prioritize—can turn your brain into toilet paper. On the bright side, nobody’s saying “It can’t happen here” about an American fascist regime anymore. That doesn’t mean it has happened yet. But at airports across the land, it looked like it had begun to happen, and that’s plenty scary enough.