Why is Steve Bannon coming to Zurich?

Looking ahead to a speech by former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon in Zurich on Tuesday, political scientist Daniel Warner deconstructs the media buzz surrounding the visit of the self-proclaimed founder of alt-right America, and what it means for Swiss politics.

This content was published on March 5, 2018 - 17:00

Following the Swiss frenzy during an otherwise politically uneventful trip by President Donald Trump to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in DavosExternal link last January, Swiss media are now focusing on a March 6 visit to Zurich by Trump’s former Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon.

Trump’s fly-by had politicians, business leaders and the usual WEF crowd falling over themselves to see, hear and photograph the American president. Bannon’s visit is also attracting considerable attention: his speech has been moved to the Oerlikon Event Center (a traditional host to rock concerts) from a smaller venue to accommodate a sold-out crowd of 1,600. Security will be airport-tight, and the predictable protesters are scheduled outside the venue.  

Daniel Warner is a Swiss-American political scientist and former Deputy to the Director, Graduate Institute, Geneva. Courtesy

Why the buzz over Bannon?

President Trump was invited by the founder and executive chairman of the WEF, Klaus Schwab. Bannon was invited by Swiss People’s Party parliamentarian and publisher of Die Weltwoche magazine, Roger Köppel.

It was a tremendous coup for Schwab to have a sitting United States president attend the WEF – the only other sitting US president to address Davos was Bill Clinton in 2000. The invitation to Bannon is less impressive. There are a lot of “formers” in his CV. Former banker, former media executive and former executive chairman of Breitbart NewsExternal link, Bannon was Chief Strategist for President Trump in the first seven months of the presidency, following his work as Chief Executive Officer of Trump’s presidential campaign.

If there are so many “formers”, why is there so much buzz about Bannon? It has nothing to do with his current title or position. He has disappeared (been fired?) from whatever legitimacy he had in the White House or even at Breitbart, the website he co-founded.

No, the buzz surrounding Bannon has to do with his ideology. A self-proclaimed founder of the alt-right, Bannon opposes the establishment Republican Party by supporting outside candidates in Republican primaries. He helped Judge Roy Moore defeat the incumbent Republican senator in the Alabama primary in 2017, but lost some of his political lustre when the gun-wielding, questionably racist, alleged sexual predator Moore lost in the general election.

A radical lightning rod

Bannon still has political traction and followers. Besides his outsized Trump-like personality, he remains prominent for his radical economic nationalism, and for his calls for reduced immigration, less US involvement in foreign affairs, and restrictions on free trade. If Trump was elected on the slogan “America First”, much of his radically nationalistic rhetoric came from Steve Bannon.

While the president trumpets himself as the ultimate deal-maker, Bannon has a more fixed, ideological bent, coming from a background that is quite different from that of a real estate salesman. He has a degree in national security studies from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Master of Business Administration degree with honours from Harvard Business School. Bannon was also an officer in the United States Navy for seven years, unlike Trump with his numerous deferments from military service.

So, while Trump incessantly wheels, deals and tweets 24/7, Bannon schemes and plots a larger picture. After the 2016 election, Bannon compared his influence to that of “Thomas Cromwell to the Tudors”; a Svengali for our times. He was on the cover of Time magazine, which labelled him “The Great Manipulator”; the story asked, “Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?”

Now, out of the official limelight, Bannon has become a lightning rod for the right-wing populist movement in the United States. No longer sitting on the National Security Council, or having an immediate physical presence in the White House (rumour has it that he still has the ear of the Prince, albeit now by telephone), he has been busy organising primary challenges to incumbent Republican members of Congress in the upcoming 2018 primaries.

No room for a renegade

What makes Bannon so attractive in Zurich? His nationalism appeals to those in Switzerland lobbying against closer ties to the European Union. His ideological connection to Trump will help those still trying to figure out how to position themselves towards American policy (and good luck to anyone rationally trying to understand American policy, either foreign or domestic.)

While these appeals are evident, there may be one part of Bannon’s agenda that his followers in Zurich should not ignore. By going against the established Republican Party, Bannon is trying to upset the two-party political system that has become the bedrock of American politics. Bannon is a natural outsider; a renegade who functions best beyond traditional institutions.  

Trump was once like that. Democrat, Republican – a real outsider. Now that he is president, he is trying to operate within the system. Bannon lasted only seven months in the West Wing because he could not play by the rules of the game. John Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff and a military rules-of-the-game man, showed him the door. There is no room in the White House for a renegade.

While Bannon may be a fascinating character, and his speech may give insights into his perception of what is happening in the United States, his politics will not translate in Switzerland. The Sister Republics have evolved since the 18th century. Switzerland has its Magic Formula. The Federal Council is divided into a set number of political parties. There may be occasional individual renegades (Christoph Blocher) or party exceptions (Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf), but the Swiss system always reverts to its underlying stability. There is no desire for chaos here.

People like Bannon belong in the Wild West, not under the parliamentary dome in Bern or strolling along the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich. Swiss politics are anti-Trump, anti-creative destruction, and very anti-Bannon.  

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of 

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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