Refugees And The Right: What Steve Bannon’s Appointment Means For Refugees And Asylum Seekers

President Trump’s infamous Muslim ban, the apogee of his anti-Islam campaign rhetoric has rightly attracted criticism and analysis in the three weeks since the executive order was signed on January 27. The order barred citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen from entry into the US for 90 days. It also imposed a  a 120 day freeze on refugee resettlement programs. Just yesterday, Trump announced his plans for a “tighter” ban in the “near future.” The details of this revised order are as yet unknown. In this atmosphere of administrative chaos, the focus on Trump has concealed the role of his influential and controversial advisors, in particular Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon’s tumultuous relationship with mainstream media, and his conservative political outlook (described by Bannon himself as “nationalist” and “alt-right”) has prompted questions about the ideological basis for the policy direction of the Trump Administration.

Who is Steve Bannon?
Bannon, 63, is a retired Navy officer and Goldman Sachs banker. He served as executive chair of Breitbart News, an online far-right news and opinion outlet, and host of a Breitbart radio show. Throughout his tenure as Breitbart’s chief executive, the outlet became increasingly nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic – and one of Trump’s favourite outlets. In his role as a radio host, he developed a populist agenda for the U.S. and a vision of a radical overhaul of its place in the world. In November 2015, he commented that vetting refugees from “Muslim countries” costs money and time, remarking, “Can’t that money be used in the United States? Should we just take a pause and a hiatus for a number of years on any influx from that area of the world?” As Trump’s key advisor, he has been quick to turn his ideas into policy, as evidenced by the travel ban. In the past weeks he has moved to consolidate his power, being appointed to the National Security Council, even as public backlash grows. Bannon has embraced his critics, stating in a November 2016 interview with the Hollywood Reporter that he “is Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.” Cromwell was the advisor to Henry VIII’s who helped engineer the Church of England’s split from the Catholic Church – a move analogous in terms of geopolitical impact to Trump’s election. An important aspect of the Bannon phenomenon is his relationship with the mainstream media. Several days after the inauguration, Bannon said: “the media is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country.” This is a clear abrogation of the principle of press freedom. It is also an indication that the Trump administration intends to delegitimize the press to polarize and destabilize the cohesiveness of civil society. Bannon’s part in this process cannot be understated.

A Slippery Slope – The Travel Ban and The Media
Bannon’s influence on the President is dangerous and the ill-advised travel ban is simply a portent of things to come. Coming during the worst refugee crisis in history, ironically due to U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, the sheer callousness and cruelty of the policy has signalled to the world that Trump’s campaign promises were not simply empty words. It is more worrying that highly publicized policies like the travel ban are evidence of Bannon’s influence on the United States’ military and economic agenda.

Bannon’s particular brand of nationalism is not unique, and is analogous to Farage in the UK, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and even Marine Le Pen in France. Bannon’s case is special because of the unprecedented and unchecked level of power he has been accorded. Even in a geopolitically uncertain world, where the locus of power is uncertain, the United States is the lynchpin of the global economy and such a seismic shift will and has sent shockwaves around the world. That worldview, which Bannon laid out in interviews and speeches over the past several years, hinges largely on his belief in American sovereignty. In other words, countries should protect their citizens and their values by reducing immigration – legal and ‘illegal’ – and pulling back from multinational agreements. Bannon’s agenda is thus highly destabilizing to the international geopolitical order, and places a further threat on established norms and conventions, and indeed on the international responsibility-sharing legal framework.

What is required is more protection and support for refugees, not less. The executive order has set a dangerous precedent for other countries in terms of cooperation on the refugee situation. Especially to the countries that are actually hosting the majority of the world’s displaced people – Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Jordan and Lebanon. Trump and Bannon have targeted refugees coming to the U.S. under legitimate legal resettlement programs, which have been in place and effective for over 25 years. It is ironic that in Bannon’s crusade to restore the U.S. to its former glory – to ‘make America great again’ – the principles upon which the United States were founded like equality and justice have been so profoundly abrogated.