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Foreign Policy

Steve Bannon’s ‘Populist’ Argument Against China

Sep 10 , 2019
  • Leonardo Dinic

    NYU Alumnus with a Master’s Degree in International Relations

When former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon gives an interview on China, he presents a populist narrative global in scale, which links financial elites in the West to top officials of the Chinese Communist Party. Further, the story ties China’s geopolitical ambitions to the deindustrialization of America and Europe as well as both the outcomes of Brexit and Trump’s victory in the 2016 US Presidential Election. In emphasizing the seriousness of America’s rivalry with China, Bannon cites J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which presents a correlation between factory shutdowns and job loss in the Midwest and increased opioid abuse. However, who really caused the loss of the jobs so crucial to America’s heartland? Bannon’s answer: groups of ‘rational accommodationists’ in Washington who kowtowed to China in exchange for personal enrichment. For someone fired by President Trump, Bannon is still passionately devoted to the cause. As a self-proclaimed nationalist (in the civic sense) and populist, Bannon declares today’s China a more significant threat than the USSR of the 20th century because of its aggressive persistence to expand its geopolitical influence, wage information and economic warfare, and infiltrate US institutions through Huawei’s dominance of 5G and 6G technology. “Claws of the Red Dragon,” an upcoming documentary by Bannon, seeks to expose the relationship between the CCP and Huawei. However, as Bannon warns of an ambitious yet reckless China, he vilifies unaccountable American elite, who in pursuit of profits, coordinate and lobby on behalf of the CCP.  

The triadic relationship Bannon presents between US workers, the Chinese government, and domestic members of the ‘Party of Davos’ is populist at its core. However, unlike contemporary European populism, Bannon’s argument lacks a marginalized group that the populist would otherwise demonize (i.e., migrants, ethnic minorities, etc.). Instead, he considers the CCP a formidable opponent capable of persuading both Republican and Democrat financial elites to sell out American blue-collar laborers for profit and power. While the Trump administration does, in fact, stress that China benefited more than any other nation from the neoliberal consensus, it does not emphasize that Washington countered Beijing’s economic rise with hawkish geopolitical responses. Even during the Real Vision Finance interview, Bannon suggests that Washington should issue a 72-hour ultimatum to Beijing for the demilitarization of the South China Sea. If the Chinese do not accept terms, the US navy should come in ‘take it down’ for them. While Bannon does not overtly reveal it, he founds his viewpoints in American unilateralism and exceptionalism.  

During Bannon’s Real Vision Finance interview with Kyle Bass, he immediately articulated his primary concern about China. Beijing’s global strategy is one that pursues eventual hegemony and is, by definition, a threat to the current US-led world order. Therefore, Bannon supports US global supremacy and perhaps even empire. He fervently opposes Chinese expansion at the expense of US decline. In outlining his concerns, Bannon cites prominent geopolitical theories in the context of contemporary international relations. He argues that China is successfully practicing Mackinder’s ‘heartland theory’ by maintaining control of the strategic Eurasian landmass in a world with diminishing natural resources. Bannon then cites Mahan’s ‘sea power theory’ in criticizing China’s activities in the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea. Lastly, Bannon states that in addition to maintaining the power of the Eurasian ‘heartland,’ Beijing is also preoccupied with the ‘rim’ surrounding the Eurasian heartland. Spykman, who proposed ‘rimland theory,’ argued, “Who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia. Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.” Bannon’s description of China’s geopolitical strategy is in response to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and Made in China 2025. The Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative orientate world trade toward China so that Beijing can control both the Eurasian ‘heartland’ and ‘rimland.’ In investing in strategic sea and land routes, Beijing can implement vital chokepoints to position itself as the primary benefactor of world trade. While Bannon did not discuss Moscow’s recent warming of relations with Beijing, a Sino-Russian alliance would further grant China access to vital natural resources and future trade routes.  

Through populist rhetoric, Bannon gathers a following to defend the maintenance of American hegemony. However, Bannon is right to criticize investment banks in London and New York and ‘the scientific engineering managerial financial cultural elite’ that attends the World Economic Forum. As a former investment banker and vice president at Goldman Sachs, Bannon presents credibility when discussing the 2008 financial crisis and its origins of excess. He describes the massive flooding of liquidity that took place and the fact that the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve was $880 billion in 2008. When Trump took office in January 2017, it was $4.5 trillion. The new money benefited asset holders - stocks, bonds, real estate, hedge funds, and investment banks – all at the expense of the ‘little guy.’ Bannon emphasizes that the ‘little guy,’ regardless of race, nationality, creed, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference, continues to carry the financial burden of 2008. As Bannon likes to point out, we bailed out ‘the Party of Davos.’ 

Bannon now warns of a new event in which investment banks and hedge funds will exacerbate in their financial coordination with China. He worries that Beijing built its economic system on ‘top of sand’ and that its reliance on exporting overcapacity and currency deflation will lead to an economic crisis. Towards the end of his hour-long interview with Kyle Bass, Bannon more openly exposed his fondness for American exceptionalism. He stated succinctly that America’s economy needs healthy global trade to grow and that the US cannot preserve the openness of trade routes with an expanding mercantilist power. Concerning America’s Pacific influence, Bannon stated in his talk with Bass, “Coming home is not an option.” 

While Steve Bannon is undoubtedly a China hawk, his rhetoric targets the American elite responsible for the managed decline of Washington relative to Beijing. The relocation of high value-added manufacturing jobs away from the West to Asia benefited financial institutions and corporations while workers in the United States lost their livelihood. In echoing J.D. Vance, Bannon conveniently summarizes: factories and jobs went to Asia as the opium crisis came to the Midwest. In attacking China, Bannon remembers to include the visceral populist clarification – Trump’s trade war is “not about tariffs on goods; it’s about human dignity and self-worth.” 

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