House of Cards: Building Our National Security on the Alt-Right’s Alternative Threats
In November, I cautioned that then-President-elect Trump’s appointment of Breitbart CEO Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist and Michael “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL” Flynn as his national security adviser would create “deep risk” for U.S. security. More specifically, I argued that the problem was one of “architecture”: from inside the Oval Office, these extreme advisers would be positioned to orchestrate “the construction of an alt-right reality that denies and derides facts and insists on setting U.S. national security priorities without regard for what the threat data actually tells us.”
What does it mean to construct an alt-right national security reality? As to Bannon, I offered this example:
Among other things, [Breitbart] systematically dismisses any attempt to recognize right-wing terrorism and extremism as a real problem in this country. It has long derided “this so-called terror threat” as a nonsense invention of the Department of Homeland Security. And it has equated President Obama’s efforts to address right-wing extremism to a “refusal to acknowledge radical Islam as a threat” and a political ploy that puts American lives in danger.
The idea that the mastermind behind this project will now serve as our commander-in-chief’s right-hand strategist creates a genuine security predicament. Going forward, such an appointment should be expected to fundamentally undermine the public’s trust in the new administration’s will and ability to even-handedly deal with homegrown terrorist threats on a factual, and not religious or ideological, basis.
That future is now. Last night, Reuters broke the story that the administration is allegedly looking to overhaul and rename the "Countering Violent Extremism" (CVE) program to focus exclusively on Islamist extremism. If these changes are made, according to sources briefed on the changes, CVE would no longer target right-wing groups such as white supremacists that have carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.
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We are talking about the possibility of a newly revised America, where the only real terrorist is an Islamic terrorist. Whatever your thoughts on the efficacy of particular CVE efforts, that the Trump administration is contemplating such a change is, frankly, terrifying. (If you seek a glimpse of the possible consequences of denying or downplaying the severity of right-wing extremism as a matter of broader executive policy, check out the big piece The Intercept just published yesterday detailing the FBI’s longtime battle against white supremacists’ infiltration of law enforcement agencies.) It suggests we have already completed the jump from Kellyanne Conway’s amusing world of “alternative facts” to a security edifice that incorporates “alternative threats”—by which I mean threats defined in blatant disregard of the empirical reality.
After this last week, we can’t really claim to be surprised by the CVE news. After all, alternative threat construction is the only way to explain the contents of Trump’s immigration executive order, which imposed a sloppy, sweeping 90-day ban on the entry of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, 120-day ban on all refugees, and indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. And the very next day, Trump sent the clearest possible signal that this is the new normal—that he sees no problem with conflating ideology and actuality, the political and the factual—when he signed a presidential memorandum granting Bannon a permanent seat on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC).
All this brings me to my conclusion: these are strategic choices that indicate systematic alt-right world-building from deep inside the White House.
I do not say this lightly. I say this based on facts.
Let’s track back to that immigration order Trump dropped last Friday. The consensus view of the U.S. national security community is that this order is not just a failure of morality, diplomacy, practicability, and probably legality; it also has no chance of accomplishing its stated objective of making America safer. The order rewrites reality not only in the sense that it does things to thousands of aliens from Muslim-majority countries. It also—baselessly—redefines them as a collective national security threat that must be subjected to “extreme vetting” or else near-total exclusion as a matter of public safety.
Others have already taken the administration to task for its supreme disinterest in ascertaining the truth value of the propositions underlying the order. Over the weekend, in a piece criticizing the immigration order for both its malevolence and sheer drafting incompetence, Ben pointed to specific provisions of the order that belie the administration’s stated purpose of securing our national security. I agree with Ben’s analysis and would take it even further. It’s not just that the substance of the order is so “utterly orthogonal to any relevant security interest” as to suggest “a deliberate decision to burden human lives to make a public point.” I would add that the detailed rundown Ben provides of the deliberateness with which the administration bypassed the normal executive vetting procedures is itself particularly important evidence of the administration’s “malevolence.” The subversion of process, not just utter perversion of substance, is what signals intentional disregard both for the harm that this order would cause and for the objective the order was supposed to fulfill (you know, increasing our security).
In some sense, the press is playing “useful idiot” to the Trump administration on those occasions when it downplays the significance of the administration’s repudiation of anything approaching normal decision-making protocol. Consider this bizarre snippet of weekend analysis from CNN:
Trump's unilateral moves, which have drawn the ire of human rights groups and prompted protests at US airports, reflect the President's desire to quickly make good on his campaign promises. But they also encapsulate the pitfalls of an administration largely operated by officials with scant federal experience.
If this description strikes you as unobjectionable on its face, look closer: actually, it reduces the mess that the administration has made of countless lives to some kind of collision of honest intentions and administrative naïveté. This framing gives the order’s supporters a nonsense defense to rally around however obvious the ensuing fallout and underestimates the strategic course charted by the fringe elements inside the White House. It is one thing to say the order itself is incompetent—it absolutely is—but to suggest Trump’s team simply didn’t know any better is false.
As Ben emphasized, and notwithstanding the administration’s vague denials, the order was reportedly not submitted for normal review by the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the State Department or the Department of Defense (Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a vocal opponent of Trump’s Muslim ban during the campaign was not asked for input), and NSC lawyers were barred from even assessing it. These protocols are in place specifically to ensure that executive policies satisfy legal requirements, account for practical complications, and avoid unintended consequences. You sidestep this process if your goal is to get a directive or order to press irrespective of those parameters—in other words, if you decide your policy or political goals simply trump them.
Process is crucial to factual accuracy, ideological neutrality, and operational efficacy—and that’s precisely why Trump’s presidential memorandum inserting Bannon, a political adviser, into the NSC Principals Committee is disturbing to so many (the technical phrase, courtesy of former national security adviser Susan Rice, is “stone cold crazy”). The change strikes fear in us because it is a formalization, at the NSC level, of what we just witnessed with the drafting and issuing of the immigration order: the wrong people calling the shots and the wrong people being left out. And let’s dispense with the shoptalk in favor of real candor: we are not this upset simply because the national security adviser is sitting in that seat—as unusual and inadvisable as it is, past presidents have in the past used all sorts of configurations to customize their use of the NSC and Principals Committee. What truly has us jumping up and down is that the man sitting in that seat is Stephen Bannon.
This is not an overreaction. We are living in an age when Reddit has taken it upon itself to ban an alt-right group from its megaforum, but the White House is allegedly being run by the man responsible for building the biggest alt-right platform in the world.
I woke up Sunday to David Rothkopf’s warning in the Washington Post that Bannon’s addition to the NSC could pose, in the long term, more dangerous consequences for our national security than Trump’s immigration order. But given the president’s broad discretion when it comes to NSC meetings, and more importantly, given that Bannon’s fingerprints are all over the immigration order—both what’s in it and how it was issued—we should focus not on which edict is worse but on the total continuity between them. Both evince the administration’s anti-professional approach to security decisions of the utmost magnitude. And many in the national security community are rightly frightened.
I believe deepening that fright is the apparent gap between how so much of the national security community feels and how our lawmakers are behaving. Almost nothing Trump had done is at odds with the person and president he promised to be on the campaign trail. This is true, too, of his top advisers. And yet from the outset, denial has been the favored approach of several prominent legislators. In November, when civil rights groups and commentators on both sides of the aisle sounded the alarm about Bannon’s appointment, Rand Paul and others insisted on “giv[ing] the guy a chance.” We don’t have reason to think he is personally racist, their argument went, notwithstanding the concededly horrific material he had built his professional career disseminating and his numerous personal statements endorsing ideology repugnant to American values. This line of argument is most disingenuous because it ignores the very talent for which Bannon was explicitly recruited by the Trump campaign: he is a strategy professional with an astonishingly successful track record in reality distortion. As I emphasized in November: “Bannon’s website, Breitbart, is not a vacuous hate site, as is so often suggested. Breitbart is a carefully honed platform, and its clear and consistent approach to communicating the alt-right messaging on national security issues should give policy experts and principled politicians pause.”
This thing goes deep and wide. The project now underway in the highest office in the land—the sowing of prejudice as fact in what, at least so far, amounts to methodical alt-right revisionism—already extends well beyond immigration policy and counterrorism. Trump’s fondness for Putin dominated news cycles before the inauguration, and rabid anti-Islam policy has been the administration’s focus since, but we should take careful stock of all the other reality revisions emerging in the overlap between the alt-right and White House agendas.
A conspicuous example that we too readily forgive as an inherently divisive political issue, notwithstanding shifting public trends and growing poll data to the contrary: climate change. The administration has signaled its likely rejection of climate change as a national and global security priority, despite the nonpartisan assessments of U.S. intelligence and military experts who have made clear that climate change is a “threat multiplier” creating expansive national security risks. Trump has already made numerous statements that indicate his readiness to dismantle the previous administration’s far-reaching work on the issue. Most worryingly, his administration has already moved to cut off public access to facts. Last week the communications head for Trump's EPA transition team declared that EPA scientists will undergo "case by case" review before presenting or publishing their work outside the agency. Days earlier, references to climate change were eliminated from the White House website. And Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s pick to head the staggeringly powerful Office of Management and Budget is not just a climate change denier; he has, on the record, suggested doing away with government-backed scientific research altogether.
The bottom line is that in less than two weeks, the Trump administration has ripped any semblance of facade off the palazzo and has asserted its commitment to building a new national security order—one centered not on empirical reality but on an alternative threat reality.
This may not be 1925 Italy, but anyone who thought Bannon and Flynn would stand quietly in the wings, whispering in the president’s ear—that they would be a nefarious, largely unseeable fringe force—has been proven wrong. Bannon, in particular, is pursuing his revisionist project with high-level visibility and underappreciated deliberation. At minimum, principled politicians should refuse to confirm Trump’s remaining cabinet picks until Bannon is removed—not from the NSC Principals Committee but from the White House altogether.
The stakes really are that high. They are reality itself.