Following the Swiss frenzy during an otherwise politically uneventful trip by President Donald Trump to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos last January, Swiss media attention is now turning to a March 6 visit to Zurich by Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
President Trump was invited by the founder and executive chairman of the WEF, Klaus Schwab. Bannon has been invited by the Swiss People’s Party Member of Parliament and publisher of the magazine Weltwoche, Roger Köppel. It was a tremendous coup for Schwab to have a sitting United States president attend the WEF – the only other sitting U.S. president to address Davos was Bill Clinton in 2000.
The invitation to Bannon is less impressive. There are a lot of “formers” in his CV. Former banker, former media executive and former executive chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon was Chief Strategist for President Trump in the first seven months of the presidency following his work as chief executive officer of Trump’s presidential campaign.
If so many formers, why the buzz about Bannon? The buzz has nothing to do with his current title or position. He has disappeared (been fired?) from whatever legitimacy he had in the White House or even Breitbart, the website he co-founded.
No, the buzz surrounding Bannon has to do with his ideology. Self-proclaimed founder of the alt-right, Bannon opposes the establishment Republican Party by supporting outside candidates in Republican primaries. He helped Judge Roy Moore defeat the incumbent Republican senator in the Alabama primary in 2017 but lost some of his political luster when the gun-wielding, questionably racist and sexual predator lost in the general election.
Bannon still has political traction and followers. Besides his outsized Trump-like personality, he remains in the forefront for his radical economic nationalism, calls for reduced immigration, less U.S. involvement in foreign affairs as well as restrictions on free trade. If Trump was elected on the slogan “America First,” much of his radically nationalistic rhetoric came from Steve Bannon.
While the president trumpets himself as the ultimate deal maker, Bannon has a more fixed, ideological bent coming from a background quite different from a real estate salesman. He has a degree in national security studies from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Master of Business Administration degree with honors from Harvard Business School. Bannon was also an officer in the United States Navy for seven years, unlike Trump’s numerous deferments from military service.
So while Trump incessantly wheels, deals and tweets 24/7, Bannon schemes and plots a larger picture. After the 2016 election, Bannon compared his influence to that of “Thomas Cromwell to the Tudors,” a Svengali for our times. He was on the cover of Time magazine, which labelled him “The Great Manipulator” and the story asked “Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?”
Now out of the official limelight, Bannon has become a lightning rod for the right-wing populist movement in the United States. No longer sitting on the National Security Council, however briefly, or having an immediate physical presence in the White House (rumors have it that he still has the ear of the Prince, albeit now by telephone), he has been busy organizing primary challenges to incumbent Republican members of Congress in the upcoming 2018 primaries.
What makes Bannon so attractive in Zurich? His nationalism appeals to those in Switzerland lobbying against closer ties to the European Union. His ideological ties to Trump will help those still trying to figure out how to position themselves towards American policy. (Good luck to anyone rationally trying to understand American policy, foreign or domestic.)
While these appeals are evident, there may be one part of Bannon’s agenda that his followers in Zurich should not ignore. By going against the established Republican Party, Bannon is trying to upset the two-party political system that has become a bedrock of American politics. Bannon is a natural outsider, a renegade who functions best beyond traditional institutions.
Trump was once like that. Democrat, Republican, a real outsider. Now that he is president, he is trying to operate within the system. Bannon lasted only seven months in the West Wing because he could not play by the rules of the game. John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, and a military rules-of-the-game man, showed him the door. There is no room in the White House for a renegade.
While Bannon may be a fascinating character and his speech may give insights into his perception of what is happening in the United States, his politics will not translate here.
The Sister Republics have evolved since the 18th century. Switzerland has its Magic Formula. The Federal Council is divided into a set number of political parties. There may be occasional individual renegades – Christophe Blocher – or party exceptions – Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf - but the Swiss system always reverts to its underlying stability. There is no desire for chaos here.
People like Bannon belong in the Wild West, not under the Coupole in Berne or strolling along the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich. Swiss politics are anti-Trump, anti-creative destruction, and very anti-Bannon.