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Bannon, Unplugged: White House Strategist Pushes Trade Agenda, Undercuts Colleagues

In the <em>American Prospect</em> interview, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon described economic competition between the U.S. and China in apocalyptic terms.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
In the American Prospect interview, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon described economic competition between the U.S. and China in apocalyptic terms.

President Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, unloads on white nationalists, China and some of his administration colleagues in an interview with the liberal magazine The American Prospect.

Bannon — who successfully harnessed the so-called alt-right, a term used to describe white nationalists, as executive chairman of Breitbart News and later as an architect of Trump's unlikely election victory — dismissed white nationalist ideology as a "fringe element" that appeals to "losers" and a "collection of clowns."

"I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it," Bannon said in the interview, which was published Wednesday.

The White House strategist is happy, though, to see Democrats emphasize racism. "If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats," Bannon said. He echoed those comments in a separate interview with The New York Times.

Some analysts on the left, such as Columbia University historian Mark Lilla, agree with this argument. Even those whose philosophy is diametrically opposed to Bannon's have expressed grudging respect for his skill as a political tactician.

Bannon reached out, unsolicited, to American Prospect co-founder Robert Kuttner because they share similar concerns about U.S. trade policy toward China.

"I'm slightly embarrassed that there is this point of convergence," Kuttner told NPR's Morning Edition on Thursday. "His strategy — which is grandiose and, I think, misguided — is that he's going to build a grand, left-right coalition of people who are critical of trade policy."

In the American Prospect interview, Bannon described economic competition between the U.S. and China in apocalyptic terms.

"The economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that," Bannon said. "If we continue to lose it, we're five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we'll never be able to recover."

The Trump administration has promised to crack down on what critics see as unfair trade practices by China. At the same time, the White House is pursuing cooperation from Beijing to put the brakes on North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

Earlier this week, the president directed his trade representative to consider launching an investigation into whether China unfairly pressures U.S. companies to share their intellectual property as a condition of entering the Chinese market. The move came after U.S. diplomats had secured China's support for a new round of sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations.

Bannon dismissed the North Korean threat as a "sideshow," insisting the economic contest with China can't wait.

"One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years, and it's gonna be them if we go down this path."

Bannon conceded that others within the administration have a different view.

"They're wetting themselves," he said of rivals at the State Department and the Pentagon, adding, "That's a fight I fight every day here."

Bannon also acknowledged that despite the president's bellicose "locked and loaded" rhetoric, there is no viable military solution to North Korea's nuclear saber rattling.

"Forget it," he said bluntly. "Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don't die in the first 20 minutes from conventional weapons, I don't know what you're talking about, there's no military solution here, they got us."

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters declined to elaborate on Bannon's interview.

"Steve Bannon's comments stand on their own," Walters told reporters. "You are going to have to contact Steve Bannon for more."

On Tuesday, Trump was asked whether he still has confidence in his chief strategist and offered less than full-throated support.

"I like him. He's a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that," Trump said. "But we'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon."

Kuttner concludes his magazine piece by saying Bannon invited him to the White House to continue their conversation on China sometime after Labor Day.

"We'll see if he's still there," Kuttner wrote.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.