In late May 2016, I was invited to a private home in New York for a chat. Like a lot of other people, the host was concerned about Islam’s growing influence in Europe, and she wanted to meet because back in 2005 and 2006, I had been been at the center of the Danish cartoon controversy, one of many clashes between Islam and the secular values of freedom of speech and the right to criticize and satirize religion.
A man whom I’d never met before entered the living room. He sat at the table across from me. He was about my age, maybe a little older, burly but not overweight. His face was a bit ruddy. He was unshaven and barefoot with long and greying hair.
During our conversation, he introduced himself as Steve. It turned out that his last name was Bannon, and he was then the chief executive of Breitbart News, an alternative U.S. media outlet, which has become one of the most read and watched news websites and has recently expanded to Europe. A couple months after our encounter, Bannon joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as a top adviser. The rest is history.
“What disturbed me most was Bannon’s apparent belief that violence and war can have a cleansing effect.”
Just a few weeks into Trump’s administration, it is clear that Bannon’s influence in the White House is far-reaching. He co-wrote the president’s inaugural speech, in which Trump promised to stop the “carnage” in America, take the country back from a globalized elite and rebuild it on the principles of “America First.” Bannon is the only political adviser to a president in recent memory who gained a permanent seat on the National Security Council. He was also one of the key drivers behind the travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and asylum seekers from Syria. An editorial in The New York Times called Bannon “the de facto president” and Time magazine put Bannon on its cover with the headline “The Great Manipulator.”
When we met, Bannon had just returned from the Cannes Film Festival in France where his film “Clinton Cash” had screened. Our conversation began calmly enough, but pretty soon it became heated at times. Bannon apparently assumed that we were on the same page when it comes to confronting the threat from Islamic terrorism, the challenge from parallel Muslim societies in Europe, and European countries’ failure to integrate many Muslims.
When he discovered that we held different views, our conversation became intense. Bannon is energetic; his lively body language is very much part of the way he expounds his opinions. And he doesn’t shy away from profanities.
“Trump is only a premonition of what will ultimately come. 'Just wait and see,' Bannon said.”
I was a bit taken aback that a person I had never met would burst so immediately into a passionate assault on my opposing views. Bannon was straight in-your-face, without any formalities or niceties. That kind of explosive candor could be considered refreshing if what he was saying weren’t so worrisome ― especially now that he is one of the most influential policymakers in America.
Bannon is angry. The object of his anger is the “globalized elite.” He argued that Trump is just the beginning of a rebellion that will grow increasingly aggressive in the coming years. In a way, he told me, Trump is not the real thing ― only a premonition of what will ultimately come. “Just wait and see,” he said.
Bannon talked about how he he traveled across the U.S. and met with ordinary Americans who feel abandoned, powerless and betrayed by the establishment. Capitalism has gone off track and has to be saved from itself. For him, the tipping point was the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 and the government’s bailout of Wall Street while ordinary Americans had to pay the bill.
“Bannon’s conviction that the way to a better world sometimes necessitates blowing up what is sounds alarmingly Leninist.”
Ronald Radosh, a social historian affiliated with the conservative Hudson Institute, wrote recently about talking to Bannon at a book party in November 2013. According to Radosh, the guy who is now Trump’s chief strategist proclaimed himself a “Leninist.” According to Radosh, Bannon explained his Leninist tactics this way: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Bannon didn’t mention Lenin in our conversation, but I certainly recognized the rebellious, even revolutionary, fervor in his manner. Of course, Bannon isn’t a Leninist in the ideological sense. Quite the opposite. But his conviction that the way to a better world sometimes necessitates blowing things up sounds alarmingly Leninist.
What disturbed me the most in our conversation was Bannon’s apparent belief that violence and war can have a cleansing effect, that we may need to tear down things and rebuild them from scratch. He made it clear he had lost faith in Europe as secularism and arriving Muslim immigrants had eroded traditional Christian values as the founding pillar of our civilization. Losing the Christian faith, in his view, has weakened Europe ― it’s neither willing nor able to confront Islam’s rising power and some European Muslims’ insistence on privileged treatment of their religion.
“Bannon is of the belief that, if Europe is to be saved [from Islam], there is no way to avoid armed conflict.”
Bannon is of the belief that, if Europe is to be saved, there is no way to avoid armed conflict. The power of Islam cannot be stopped by peaceful means. In short, Bannon told me in no uncertain terms that the West is at war with Islam.
I begged to differ. Yes, we are in a hot war with violent Islamists and in a cold war with nonviolent Islamists who want to undermine secular democracy. But we are not at war with Islam. The Cold War was fought on many fronts, but basically it was a battle of ideas in which Marxists of a social democratic mold played a crucial role defending democracy against totalitarian Soviet Marxism-Leninism. It’s important to provide the same space for Muslims on the side of democracy to engage in the battle against Islamism. That seems impossible if we insist on being at war with Islam.
Bannon disagreed. He shook his head. After another emotionally charged verbal tirade, he looked at me, slightly embarrassed. Then he said: “Flemming, I hope we can do it your way, but I am not sure.”