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American Prospect Editor Robert Kuttner on His Extraordinary Interview with Steve Bannon

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White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has left the White House and rejoined the far-right-wing website Breitbart News as the executive chairman. Bannon has been one of Trump’s closest and most trusted advisers. After departing the White House, he said, “In many ways I think I can be more effective fighting from the outside for the agenda President Trump ran on. And anyone who stands in our way, we will go to war with.” Before his departure, Bannon granted an extraordinary interview to Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect. For more on Bannon’s departure and his interview, we speak with Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has left the White House and rejoined the far-right-wing website Breitbart News as the executive chairman. Bannon has been one of Trump’s closest and most trusted advisers. After departing the White House, he said, quote, “In many ways I think I can be more effective fighting from the outside for the agenda President Trump ran on. And anyone who stands in our way, we will go to war with,” unquote. In an interview with The Weekly Standard, Bannon also said he feels jacked up now that he’s returned to Breitbart, saying, quote, “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons. Someone said, ’It’s Bannon the Barbarian.’ I am definitely going to crush the opposition,” unquote.

His departure came after a series of meetings last week with billionaire funder Robert Mercer, who funds Breitbart and funded Trump’s campaign. Bannon met with Mercer Wednesday, and Trump met with Mercer on Thursday. Bannon departed the White House the following day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, last week, just before he was ousted, Steve Bannon granted an extraordinary interview to Robert Kuttner, the co-founder and co-editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect. Bob Kuttner joins us now from Boston.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Bob, can you start off by just describing what happened last week? You got a phone call?

ROBERT KUTTNER: Not quite. I was on vacation. I got an email from Bannon’s assistant saying Mr. Bannon had read my column criticizing our China policy, and he wanted to invite me to the White House. And I said, “Well, actually, I’m on vacation with my family, but this is kind of a moving story, so maybe we could talk by phone.” And about an hour later, Bannon called. And, you know, every once in while you get lucky as a journalist. And he never bothered to put the conversation on background or off the record. And as you know, in journalism, if a high public official or if anybody calls you and says, “I want to talk to you,” and doesn’t bother to say that it’s off the record, the default is that it’s on the record.

And he proceeded to say a bunch of staggeringly incautious things, on the assumption that because I had also criticized America’s China policy as having been dominated by corporations at the expense of workers, and because that sort of overlapped his critique, that we were somehow old buddies and soul mates, and he spent the first two minutes of the interview kind of ingratiating himself with me, telling me what a thrill it was to meet me after all these years. He’s been reading my stuff. It was one part naiveté, which is an odd word to use with Bannon. It was one part bravado. It was one part recklessness. And it was weird, because if he knew he was on thin ice, what’s he doing reaching out to me? And can you imagine Bannon trotting into a meeting of the National Security Council saying, “Hey, you’ll never guess who agrees with my analysis. Bob Kuttner”? I mean, that would just push him over the edge. And, in fact, it kind of did.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, but some of the stuff that Bannon has said since then seems to indicate that his resignation was already agreed upon between himself and the Trump administration, the president, that it was only a question of the timing. Is it possible that he already knew he was on his way out, and decided, “Well, I’m going to have a shootout, a blast now, and do it through Robert Kuttner”?

ROBERT KUTTNER: I think there are two possibilities. And we may never know, until the historians have at this. I think Maggie Haberman in the Times yesterday probably had the most persuasive and best-sourced explanation. He was on the ropes. And he was negotiating with General Kelly and with Trump to postpone his departure until after Labor Day, and maybe he thought he could rally his forces on “Let’s get tough with China.” It’s the only explanation that I’ve seen that kind of makes sense. I mean, if he’d already been fired, it was completely bizarre that he would have called me and said, “Hey, why don’t you come to the White House?” because that would have been fantasyland.

So, you know, this is not the world’s most stable person. On the other hand, he has a very strategic analysis of how you connect neo-Nazi white supremacy nationalism to economic nationalism. And what’s interesting here is that he’s been able to sell his boss, Trump, on the get-in-bed-with-white-supremacist parts of the nationalism. He hasn’t been able to sell the rest of the administration on economic nationalism, because, of course, they’re in bed with the corporations. It’s complete fake populism. And the most recent example of that is the idea that he would use crony capitalism, hiring these private armies, and masquerade as isolationism. I mean, who does he think pays for those private armies? It’s the U.S. taxpayer. And as expensive as the Pentagon is, the private armies are even more wasteful and more expensive. So, he’s all over the map on a lot of stuff.

But on one thing he’s quite coherent, and that came through in the interview. He’s quite coherent that he thinks the winning strategy is you connect racist nationalism, anti-immigrant nationalism to economic nationalism. And the other really interesting question going forward is whether Bannon is going to try to play a kind of kitchen cabinet role, where he talks to Trump in the middle of the night, coaches him—Trump is famous for these midnight phone calls—or is he going to join a Breitbart, who right now is kicking the president in the shins as kind of a sellout? And in that interview with The Weekly Standard, he was kind of on both sides of that question. He said that the Trump presidency that we fought for and won is over. So, you know, even Bannon can’t totally have that both ways, especially since Trump hates being upstaged by his advisers. And that’s what did in Bannon. It’s what did in Scaramucci.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the other issues that he addressed with you—for example, Charlottesville. I mean, it sounds like according to the Times, he was going to sort of go—not that he could have gone quietly at any point, but with Charlottesville, of course, his brand of white supremacy, neo-Nazi, the whole issue of the Confederacy, he suddenly becomes front and center. And this is when he’s talking to you, in the midst of this catastrophic, unhinged news conference that President Trump has on Tuesday. In fact, what was the timing between your conversation and Trump saying both sides were responsible on Saturday, then giving a teleprompter address where he condemned the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, then on Tuesday just going off on the reporters and the protesters?

ROBERT KUTTNER: He called me about 20 minutes before the press conference started. And it’s pretty clear that his fingerprints were all over Trump’s strategy of doubling down on the racism. There was a kind of a war between the people like Jared and Ivanka, who wanted him to back off—General Kelly—and Bannon, who wanted him to double down, which makes the timing of the phone call even weirder.

AMY GOODMAN: He said to you, “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats,” Bob Kuttner?

ROBERT KUTTNER: Yeah, and I pushed him very hard on that in the interview. I mean, I said, “Look, even if we agree that our China policy is basically selling out to a combination of Beijing’s economic nationalism and our own corporations, who are happy to take the subsidies, happy to take the slave labor in China, and then re-export back to the United States, that really does hurt American industry, hurts American workers. But,” I said, “even if we agree on that, why do you have to get in bed with neo-Nazis in order to take a harder line with China on behalf of American workers?”

And that’s when he kind of drew this picture of a grand strategy where you connect the economic nationalism and the racism to the idea that you box in the Democrats by forcing the Democrats to defend people of color. And, you know, I was listening before we went on, Amy, to the fellow who was talking about pulling down the statue of Columbus, because it all started with Columbus. Well, if that’s the strategy that the left adopts, it almost plays into Bannon’s hands. I mean, eventually, we’re going to need a truth and reconciliation process in this country where we decide which statues stay, which statues go. But I think if you took a vote and asked people, you know, “Do you agree that we ought to pull down the statue of Columbus, because the racism and the anti-Native peoples all started with Columbus?” even if it did, most people would side with Bannon. So he’s very astutely playing off liberals and decent people against this idea that the white working class is beleaguered.

He does this much more deftly than his boss does. And you get the feeling that Trump’s default setting is now just pure racism and pure jingoism and nativism and even getting in bed with neo-Nazis, whereas Bannon at least has a grand theory about what he’s doing. And I think there are two ways to look at what’s going to happen going forward. Either with Bannon out, Trump becomes even more unhinged, left to his own devices, or he decides that now is the time to pull back and make more of an alliance with the mainstream far right, otherwise known as the Republican Party. So, I think we’ll get an indication of this in Phoenix. If he does pardon Sheriff Arpaio, that’s doubling down on the Bannon recipe, because Bannon was the guy who really coached him, using Breitbart, about the genius of going after Mexicans as rapists and going after anti-immigrants and building a wall. And that was pure Bannon.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Robert Kuttner, I’d like to ask you about his remarks on North Korea, because there, he was clearly in—it seemed, in direct opposition to President Trump. Could you talk about what he said, and your thoughts about his words since then?

ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, he made it very clear that he completely disagreed with his boss, that—and on this point, Bannon was actually right. He said that if there was any kind of a war, that unless—he said unless—I mean, I can’t remember quite the exact words, but almost. He said, “Unless someone can explain to me how 10 million South Koreans in greater Seoul are not going to be killed by conventional weapons in the first 30 minutes, then this talk of war is not sensible,” as—he was a lot stronger than that. And, of course, that directly contradicted what his boss, the president, had said only days earlier.

And Bannon’s view was that because the Chinese are really not helping us out with the North Koreans, they just go through the motions of that, it’s the logic of mutually assured destruction that prevents Kim from launching a nuclear attack on the United States. Even Kim is not that crazy. And because that’s the reality, says Bannon—and I agree with him on this one point—we could be taking a much firmer line with China. But State Department, Defense Department, U.S. trade rep are all backing off on China, out of the belief that China is somehow going to pull our chestnuts out of the fire with North Korea. And that’s a shrewd analysis. This is not a stupid man. But it is 180 degrees opposite to what his boss says. And interestingly, both Trump and Kim have pulled back in the last few days. And that’s also classic Trump: “Oh, that was yesterday, never mind.”

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, after pulling back on North Korea, Trump said he was going to bomb Venezuela.

ROBERT KUTTNER: Yeah, and what’s really interesting about bombing Venezuela is, he has—he has given a free pass to dictators, from the Philippines to Turkey to Hungary to Moscow, but somehow he picks—

AMY GOODMAN: To Saudi Arabia.

ROBERT KUTTNER: To Saudi—oh, we can go on and on and on, to Saudi Arabia. But somehow he picks Venezuela to go after. So, you know, if you have a left-wing regime violating human rights, you go after them. If you have right-wing dictatorships going after human rights, you know, God bless them.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he talked about the white supremacists in Charlottesville as clowns. Can you talk about his evaluation of what took place there?

ROBERT KUTTNER: I think that was another effort on his part, completely insincere, to ingratiate himself with a progressive journalist. I mean, if you’re talking to The American Prospect, you think—you’re not sure whether you’re on the record or off the record, and I push him on, “Well, jeez, in order to get tough with China, why do you have to get in bed with neo-Nazis?” This is—you know, it’s like the guy who will say anything to get a woman to go to bed with him. So, he starts improvising: “Oh, they’re clowns. We don’t take them seriously. We got to crack down on them.” You don’t think he believes that for 10 seconds. And his base knows that he doesn’t believe that for 10 seconds.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to what you said about organizing and the monuments that are coming down all over, President Trump saying that people will take the beauty out of state parks and cities. The beauty. These are the monuments to the Confederate and slave-holding soldiers and generals. And what about the power we’re seeing right now all over the country of people fighting back, of people taking down statues? I mean, we saw, certainly—I mean, you know, there wouldn’t be a statue of Adolf Hitler just to remember that that’s what happened in Germany. And here in this country, 40,000 people marching in Boston, people taking down statues around the country, going back to Bree Newsome, who did this when Nikki Haley was the governor of South Carolina. She didn’t wait for the South Carolina Legislature to vote, after the nine parishioners were killed in Charleston. This young woman, African-American woman, shimmied up the flagpole and took that Confederate flag down. She faced charges, but ultimately the South Carolina Legislature was humiliated into doing it themselves.

ROBERT KUTTNER: This is very tricky, because, as you know, Amy, there is no central committee of American progressivism. There’s no grand strategy council, and people do what they do. And it’s very encouraging to see the upsurge of activism on the anti-racist side. What’s tricky is that I think most Americans who are not well-defined left or well-defined far right would say, “Yes, the statues to the people who were part of the secession of the Confederacy for the purpose of defending slavery, there’s no place for those statues anywhere in America.” But then—and this was where Trump scored maybe half a point during that crazy rant on Tuesday of last week—George Washington did have slaves. Thomas Jefferson did have slaves. Columbus, and what followed, did steal the country from indigenous Native Americans. But if you don’t draw the line at statues celebrating the Confederacy, but you go all the way back to the original sin of European colonialization, and you start pulling down statues of Columbus, you run the risk of losing a lot of America, and you run the risk of making Trump sound almost rational, which is quite a feat.

Now, who’s you? That’s the problem. People are going to do what they’re going to do. But I hope, somehow, instead of just pulling down statues to everybody, we can start a process of racial truth, healing and reconciliation, which this country has never had, and be a little bit more deliberate in the criteria for which statues we pull down.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, the white nationalists have just canceled a bunch of rallies, after getting trounced in these organizing countermeasures, from Boston on.

ROBERT KUTTNER: I was very proud of Boston.

AMY GOODMAN: Gizmodo said pro-Trump rallies in 36 states canceled, will be held as online demonstrations. And certainly, the U.S. government knows about the power of pulling down statues. What happened after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, in April? It was the U.S. military that pulled down—ultimately, put a noose around the neck of and pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, understanding the significance of that.

ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, I was very proud of our town, here in Boston. I mean, we had upwards of 40,000 demonstrators, and the far-right people who called this rally were revealed to be the pitifully small group that they really are. And that’s what we need to show them up for. I mean, at the end of the day, there aren’t that many neo-Nazis. And part of the way this is playing out makes it look as if a lot of Americans sympathize with neo-Nazis. They don’t. And they need to be contained. And the fact that decent Americans all over the spectrum are willing to come out, demonstrate, contain them, that’s fantastic.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Robert Kuttner, we thank you so much for being with us—


AMY GOODMAN: —co-founder, co-editor of The American Prospect. His piece is headlined “Steve Bannon, Unrepentant.” We will link to that. Robert Kuttner is also a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School, and his most recent book, Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

This is Democracy Now! While Steve Bannon’s ouster got enormous attention, someone left quietly. Why? We’ll talk about the corporate raider, Carl Icahn. Stay with us.

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