Steve Bannon, China and the 2020 Presidential Election

Steve Bannon was a central figure in the Trump victory of 2016. Brought in to head the campaign team in the August of that year as Trump trailed in the polls and looked to be heading to electoral disaster, the former naval officer, investment banker and Breitbart executive chairman had a clear strategy: let Trump be Trump. For Bannon the key to electoral success was authenticity. Mitt Romney, likened by some to a 1950s department store mannequin, had failed abysmally in 2012 and a new straight-talking, gloves-off approach could be a game-changer.

Speaking at an event in Zurich organised by the Swiss weekly newspaper Die Weltwoche in 2018, Bannon argued that a Trump victory had been a “100% metaphysical certitude” provided that the campaign focused maniacally on three key verticals. Firstly, stop massive illegal immigration and limit legal immigration in order to protect American workers; secondly, bring back manufacturing jobs to the US; and thirdly keep out of pointless foreign wars. Above all, the Trump campaign compared and contrasted its candidate with Hillary Clinton, lambasting her as the representative of a corrupt and incompetent permanent political class. The rest is history.

Fast forward three years and what does the former White House Chief Strategist see as the key factor in the 2020 contest? In a nutshell: China.

Unrestricted Warfare and Davos Man

Bannon has for several years been fascinated by the rise of China, describing it as the defining event of our time and arguing that relations between the U.S. and China will set the framework for how the world economy will develop over the next few decades. The book Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Masterplan to destroy America written by two Chinese military officers in 1999 seems to have had a profound impact on Bannon’s thinking about China. The authors argue that China was not in a position to confront the US by conventional military methods and therefore should unleash economic and information warfare and wear the country down through long-term attrition rather than in direct confrontation.

In an interview with Kyle Bass in April 2019 Bannon admits that China has made heroic advances in the last three decades, moving 350 million people out of working poverty into the middle class and 400 million out of abject poverty into working poverty. Its startling rise has however also been facilitated and accentuated by an array of actors inside America’s, and indeed the West’s, political, financial, corporate and university elites who kowtowed to China, financed it and sold out their countries in doing so. In effect, he argues, the Chinese Communist Party has been in business with the globalists and the Party of Davos, the managerial, financial, technocratic and cultural elites emanating from the World Economic Forum and based in New York, Silicon Valley, London and Washington D.C. etc.

Bannon adds that when the World Trade Organisation admitted China into its ranks in 2001 the view was often expressed that economic growth and prosperity would turn China into a liberal free market society along more or less western lines but these forecasts have proven woefully wrong. China is in fact a protectionist mercantilist state with hegemonic ambitions that are frankly astounding. The One Belt and One Road Initiative, Made in China 2025, forced technology transfers, the military build-up, the actions in the South China Sea, predatory loans to vulnerable states and growing influence in many resource areas of the world are all symptoms of the country’s quest for global domination.

Claws of the Red Dragon

Bannon’s campaign against Chinese mercantilism extends to the world of film. In 2019 he signed on as executive producer of Claws of the Red Dragon, a 50 minute film about the arrest in Canada of the daughter of a founder of a powerful Chinese technology corporation called Huaxing Hi-Tech after it breached US sanctions against Iran. “Inspired” by Canada’s arrest of the Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, the project reinforces Bannon’s calls for tough action to be taken against Chinese corporations which in his view are an arm of Xi’s regime and the People’s Liberation Army. Indeed, in an interview with the South China Morning Post in May 2019 Bannon called for all Chinese corporations to be shut out of US capital markets and that the expulsion of Huawei was “ten times more important than a trade deal”. He went on to criticise Trump’s decision to lift restrictions on ZTE, another Chinese telecommunications company, calling the President’s move a “mistake”.

Committee for the Current Danger

China’s Global Times has hit back at Bannon, accusing him of peddling “economic fascism” and holding views close to those of European neo-Nazis. The newspaper went on to brand him and the Committee on the Present Danger: China of which he is a member an “anti-China clique”. This version of the Committee was set up in March 2019 and follows three previous iterations that existed between the 1950s and 1980s that sought to counter the danger posed by the Soviet Union. Its website states that it is a “wholly-independent and non-partisan effort to educate and inform American citizens and policymakers about the existential threats presented from the Peoples Republic of China under the misrule of the Chinese Communist Party”. Bannon would undoubtedly respond that the closer you fly to the target the more intense the flak becomes.

The 2020 Presidential Election

In his many interviews and speeches Bannon relentlessly rams home the message that it will be the relationship with China that will frame the 2020 contest, above all because it relates to America’s industrial and manufacturing base. In particular, he argued in Zurich in 2018, Chinese overcapacity and deflation has gutted America’s upper Midwest industrial heartland. Indeed, it was Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin that Trump managed to flip in 2016 and must retain in 2020. Bannon certainly has a point. According to a study by MIT economist Davis Autor the loss of nearly 1,000,000 manufacturing jobs in the US between 1999 and 2011 was down to increased competition from China. Further, Beijing’s economic war has also had collateral damage in societal terms. J.D. Vance, whose 2016 bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” is widely seen as one of the best accounts of the sociology of the Trump movement, sees a direct correlation between job losses through outsourcing and family breakdown, domestic violence and opioid use in the upper Midwest where he grew up.

For Bannon, the effectiveness of the President’s section 301 tariffs, the Phase One Trade Agreement and whether Trump can manage to bring back supply chains to those upper Midwest states will be the determining factor in the 2020 race for the White House. Chinese mercantilism is the boil that Trump must lance if he is to be re-elected in 2020.