Steve Bannon, the man seen as the power behind Donald Trump’s throne, has declared that the president will take the US back from a “corporatist, globalist media” that opposes his brand of economic nationalism.
Trump is “maniacally focused” on fulfilling his campaign pledges, Bannon warned, predicting a daily fight against the media he has branded as the opposition party.
“The mainstream media ought to understand something: all those promises are going to be implemented,” Bannon told a gathering of thousands of conservatives near Washington on Thursday, who feted him and White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
Bannon is a liberal bete noire whose confrontational, populist brand of Republican politics also upends decades of conservative orthodoxy. He has emerged as Trump’s most powerful aide and been dubbed “Trump’s Rasputin” or, in Twitter speak, #PresidentBannon. On Thursday, he stepped out of the shadows to make rare public remarks.
He painted a picture of the White House at war with vested interests in the media. “The corporatist, globalist media are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda that Donald Trump has,” he said to applause and whoops.
“He’s going to continue to press his agenda and as economic conditions get better, as more jobs get better, they’re going to continue to fight. If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you’re sadly mistaken.
“Every day is going to be a fight. That is the promise of Donald Trump … All the people who’ve came in and said you’ve got to moderate. Every day in the Oval Office he tells Reince and I: ‘I committed this to the American people, I promised this when I ran, and I’m going to deliver on this.’”
The crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) erupted in cheers and applause, with some delegates standing and punching the air.
It was a very rare public appearance for Bannon, 63, who cut a casual figure with a dark open-necked shirt and light beige trousers. He sat on stage alongside Priebus, in a more traditional suit and tie, as the pair made their latest attempt to bury reports of discord. “We’re basically together from 6.30 in the morning to 11 at night,” Priebus said, in adjoining offices.
But Bannon, who described his own West Wing office as the “war room”, soon launched into his attacks on the media. “If you look at the opposition party and how they portrayed the campaign, how they portrayed the transition, how they portrayed the administration, it’s always wrong.”
Referring to Trump’s upset win in the election, he added: “You saw them all crying and weeping that night.”
Priebus, seeking to explain Trump’s win, said: “What we were starving for was somebody real, somebody genuine, somebody who actually was who he said he was.”
Bannon gave a clear insight into the way the Trump team is approaching its rightwing agenda, setting out three “verticals”: national security and sovereignty; economic nationalism; and “deconstruction of the administrative state”.
He added: “One of the most pivotal moments of modern American history was his immediate withdrawal from TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership].”
Bannon is a near-constant presence every time cameras cover a Trump press conference or follow the president into the Oval Office. He has gained a place on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, elevating him above the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence.
Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said: “It seems like we are getting his ideas coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth to a great extent.
“I think we are seeing Bannon’s influence in Israel policy: the idea we have to support a militarily strong Israel and the coexistence in the Oslo process for two decades needs to be thrown out. That tells us he has a lot of influence and he wasn’t kidding about this.”
Crucially, Cassino argues, Bannon determines what media Trump consumes and shapes his worldview. “The information flow seems to be going through Breitbart and Fox News rather than through the national security apparatus. That’s troubling. It points to the influence of Bannon and how the other people briefing him are not having influence.”
CPAC, which draws more than 10,000 conservative activists each year, has not traditionally been natural Trump turf. He was booed when he appeared in 2011.
On the equivalent opening morning last year, speaker after speaker studiously avoided mentioning Trump, who at that time was busily upending the Republican primary race. He was well behind Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in a straw poll of delegates and pulled out of his scheduled speech, anticipating a hostile crowd.
The president is due to address CPAC on Friday in wholly different circumstances. “Well, I think by tomorrow this will be TPAC,” said Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump. Despite early scepticism among conservatives, she added, “he went right to the grassroots and brought you along”.
A few “Make America Great Again” caps were visible among the attendees but establishment Republican senators, congressmen and governors were relatively scarce.
The pro-Trump Breitbart News was prominent. The tone was triumphant and aggressive, championing gun ownership rights and tough law enforcement while criticising and mocking liberals.
But tensions were clear as Dan Schneider, leader of the American Conservative Union, took the stage to denounce the “alt-right”, the rebranding of the far right that has been accused of racism, Islamophobia and neo-Nazism. “There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks and we must not be duped,” he told the audience. “Just a few years ago, this hate-filled leftwing fascist group hijacked the very term ‘alt-right’.
“That term, alt-right – it had been used for a long time in a very good and normal way, but this group has hijacked it. We must not allow them to be normalised. They are not part of us.”
Schneider added: “They are antisemites. They are racist. They are sexist. They hate the constitution. They hate free markets. They hate pluralism. They hate everything and despise everything we believe in.”
A short distance away, outside the main hall, the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer, wearing a general admission badge, told reporters that he “coined the term” alt-right and rejected Schneider’s criticism.
“He didn’t even do basic research on what the alt-right is and he denounced it,” Spencer complained. “That’s pretty pathetic. If I was to give a speech denouncing Marx, I would be reading for months. He just called us names.”
Asked if he feels he now has an ally in the White House, Spencer said: “In terms of Donald Trump, I would say that it’s not so much that he’s alt-right, it’s that he’s a nationalist and a populist and so he’s connected to us on that basic level. He doesn’t articulate our ideas – he’s not an identarian – but his arrow points in our direction.”
Challenged about a salute he gave last November, he said: “‘Heil Trump!’ was a moment of exuberance. It was an ironical statement.”
As Spencer talked to a large group of reporters, a delegate who gave his name as “Grizzly Joe”, wearing a stars and stripes shirt, confronted him angrily: “Fuck you, you don’t represent us. Get the fuck out of here. You don’t represent us. You’re a piece of shit. I hope everybody got that. You’re a fucking piece of shit. He’s a fucking white supremacist piece of shit.”
Spencer was escorted out by security soon after. He posted a video online saying he was “politely asked to leave”.
Thursday’s speakers also included Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Texas senator Ted Cruz and education secretary Betsy DeVos.
Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke Jr used the mantra “blue lives matter” and claimed sanctuary cities were sheltering criminals. Breakout sessions included such topics as “Fake climate news camouflaging an anti-capitalist agenda – and what President Trump plans to do about it”.
CPAC also means merchandise. This year the products include The Deporables’ Guide and Godless America, and T-shirts with slogans including “Border wall construction” and “God is great, beer is good & liberals are crazy”.
Meanwhile, America’s deep divisions were laid bare in a powerful article published by the Atlantic magazine under the headline “I was a Muslim in Trump’s White House”. In it, Rumana Ahmed says she was the only hijab-wearing Muslim woman in the West Wing and always felt welcome and included in the Barack Obama administration.
But when she continued to work for the national security council under Trump, the new staff looked at her with “cold surprise”, she recalls. “The diverse White House I had worked in became a monochromatic and male bastion. The days I spent in the Trump White House were strange, appalling and disturbing. As one staffer serving since the Reagan administration said: ‘This place has been turned upside down. It’s chaos. I’ve never witnessed anything like it.’
“This was not typical Republican leadership, or even that of a businessman. It was a chaotic attempt at authoritarianism – legally questionable executive orders, accusations of the press being ‘fake’, peddling countless lies as ‘alternative facts’, and assertions by White House surrogates that the president’s national security authority would ‘not be questioned’.”
Ahmed quit after just eight days. “When Trump issued a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and all Syrian refugees, I knew I could no longer stay and work for an administration that saw me and people like me not as fellow citizens, but as a threat.”