How Bannon Turned On Trump … And Where The Nationalist Right Goes Next

On a crisp summer morning in Washington DC, a UKIP veteran sits in the shadow of the Trump International Hotel, smoking cigarettes, swilling pints of ale and diligently making his way through an English breakfast consisting of two fried eggs sunny side up, two rashers of bacon and a ramekin of baked beans.

The location is the Elephant & Castle, a shabby British-style pub which provides home comforts to Brits who reside in the city. It is a far cry from the chandeliers and high ceilings of the hotel directly opposite. It is further still from the grandeur of another Trump residence located just a ten-minute walk down very same street: the White House.

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Yet this regular customer sinking pints and cracking jokes is anything but unfamiliar with Trump’s world. He is a Brit called Raheem Kassam – Nigel Farage’s ex-Chief Adviser and now an adviser to Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, the man who masterminded Trump’s path to victory; the man who has recently dedicated his time to fomenting populist rebellion in Europe, advising and meeting Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Boris Johnson in Britain; the man who has launched a Brussels-based political organisation he says is designed to undermine, and ultimately paralyse, the EU.

No one encapsulates the alliance between the British and American alt-right quite like Kassam – who grew up in Uxbridge and embodies the kind of pro-Brexit politics that many MPs deem ‘toxic’: politically incorrect, hostile to migrants, sceptical of refugees, opposed to Islam.

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‘You have to be here to affect here,’ says Kassam, who moved to DC shortly after Trump’s election and who has accompanied Bannon on many of his recent travels. ‘I go to the bar at Trump International, speak to people there. You have to do it. It’s like any other set of relationships,’ he says. For those seeking to befriend Trump’s staff or gather gossip on the administration, the Trump-owned hotel is a solid place to start. A single G&T costs $25, but it comes with hickory-smoked almonds, jelly beans and the prospect of a chance encounter with a White House staffer or long-time Trump associate. ‘You can’t expect these people to care about Brexit or what happens in Britain without talking to them,’ the 32-year-old continues.

If in Britain Kassam was once a provocative if irrelevant figure – as a former Editor-in-Chief of Breitbart London, who staged an abortive run for UKIP leader in June 2016 – he is now anything but; instead he has sway with alt-right figures occupying the corridors of power in Washington and is by proxy exerting influence in London (of which more later).

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Meanwhile, in the other direction, Steve Bannon – who was sacked from the White House last summer – spent much of July and August in London. He held meetings with MPs and appeared on the airwaves to savage Theresa May’s brand of Brexit days after several of the Cabinet’s leading members had resigned in protest.

As part of his tour, the alt-right ideologue – once beyond the pale for the Eurosceptic establishment – met with its two most recognisable faces: Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, saying the former ‘would make a great prime minister’ and describing the latter as ‘one of the best thinkers in the conservative movement on a global basis’.

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It can also be revealed that Bannon held secret talks on his London summer tour with parliamentarians including David Campbell Bannerman, the Conservative MEP for the East of England and former deputy leader of UKIP, whom he met in central London to discuss, over a lunchtime sandwich, how to make Brexit happen in the face of establishment opposition. ‘It was informal,’ Campbell Bannerman insists.

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For his part, Johnson has certainly appeared happy to court the British alt-right, lately making a number of brash and incendiary comments that wouldn’t seem out of place on Trump’s Twitter feed. Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph that he was uncomfortable with women who wear niqabs and look ‘like letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. And then soon after, writing in the Mail on Sunday, he likened Theresa May’s version of Brexit to strapping a ‘suicide vest’ on the British constitution. Moderate Tories condemned Boris for his crass choice of words, some calling them ‘disgusting’, while columnist Matthew d’Ancona suggested that Johnson had ‘morphed into a snarling populist’ and that Britain should worry about his ‘flirtation’ with Bannon.

‘Boris and Steve got on when they met in the first year of the Trump administration when one was Foreign Secretary and the other was Trump’s strategist,’ said a source familiar with both parties. ‘They have kept in touch by text. They feel that Brexit has been captured by the establishment. It’s funny, they’re not personally close, but they’re happy to watch the media make out that they are.’

Such relationships give credence to the Shakespearean warning

uttered by David Cameron back in 2015, when he and his Chief of Communications, Craig Oliver, sat in a government car and privately discussed the arguments against holding an EU referendum: ‘You could unleash demons of which ye know not,’ he said.

Early accounts of the transatlantic alt-right relationship

focus on a familiar cast list of individuals, particularly Trump and Farage, pointing to the moment in November 2016 when a group of Kippers became the first people to visit the president elect after his election victory. The moment was immortalised in a picture of Trump, Farage, Kassam and UKIP’s millionaire donor Arron Banks standing and smiling giddily outside a golden door on the top floor of Trump Tower in New York – something Kassam finds difficult to forget.

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‘The night after the election, I had dinner with Steve [Bannon] and his family,’ he recalls, ‘and he says, “Why don’t you [guys] come to Trump Tower?” So we went along the next day. Everyone was there. Jared [Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law]. Joe Scarborough [the Republican congressman turned TV host]. We were sitting in Steve’s office shooting the shit when Kellyanne [Conway, Trump’s close adviser] came in and said, “Why don’t you guys come in?” We go upstairs, we go in [to Trump’s apartment] and Trump takes one look at Nigel and goes... “There he is!” He gave him a big bear hug, Nigel’s feet were off the ground. We sat there for an hour with him – the Diet Coke came on little golden coasters. He was humble, he was so humbled the American people had put this trust in him. We reflected on what it all meant, and at the end he said, “Let’s stay in touch. Get in touch with my people any time.”’

It was soon after that Kassam moved to Washington and swiftly began schmoozing Trump staffers, Fox News journalists and right-wing hacks, and studiously attending events like the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the right-wing convention where the who’s who of America’s hardcore conservatives meet once a year.

Quite how effective he is was seen this summer, as he campaigned to free the far-right English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson from prison. Kassam defended Robinson (who was jailed in June after live streaming the trial of Muslim men in Rotherham accused of child rape) in public both in the US and the UK, privately updated journalists and liaised with his family and lawyers as they appealed to free him.

Bannon gave his support, calling Robinson a ‘solid guy’, describing his sentence as ‘outrageous’ and exploding at an LBC reporter who challenged him. What is extraordinary is that Farage would not campaign for Robinson, seeing it as a losing battle on behalf of a fringe extremist. Yet the United States federal government was on hand to help.

Tatler can reveal that Kassam spoke extensively to Sam Brownback – Trump’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom – about the sentencing of Robinson, who agreed that it posed serious questions for the British criminal justice system, and who emailed the British Ambassador to the US about it. And contact was made with Donald Trump Jr – Trump’s eldest son – who also weighed in publicly on the subject, tweeting about Robinson’s arrest to his 14 million followers and writing: ‘Don’t let America follow in those footsteps.’ His support fed the issue into the bloodstream of Fox News and after that the story rippled across the American right – indeed, a prominent neo-Nazi leader in rural Pennsylvania, Daniel Burnside, was photographed with a banner emblazoned with ‘Free Tommy Robinson’. In the UK, hundreds of protesters, led by Kassam, marched on Westminster demanding his release. Robinson was ultimately released on bail following an appeal, with the judge citing technical errors in the way the previous trial had been conducted.

The whole episode demonstrates the improbable strength of the new transatlantic alt-right alliance. The effects of Bannon’s ideological zeal should not be underestimated either. Trump may face a constitutional crisis at home; Farage may no longer play a significant role in British politics and is instead a radio shock jock; and UKIP may have imploded as an electoral force, gaining just 1.7 per cent of the vote in the 2017 general election, but since leaving the White House, Bannon has not gone away. His presence looms large over Trump’s agenda, with practically every policy taken straight out of his playbook. ‘Tell me where I’m losing,’ he recently challenged a journalist, citing the President’s Muslim travel ban, his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and Paris Agreement on climate change, his confrontation with China, his opposition to free trade.

Proximity to characters such as Bannon has raised eyebrows in Westminster over the judgement of Conservative MPs such as Johnson and Rees-Mogg. It poses a litany of questions: How does one reconcile angry anti-establishment identity politics with conservatism? Can Trump’s economic nationalism coexist with the Tory ideal of free trade? Can a politician belong to the Conservatives while benefiting from the alt-right’s support?

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You can see what’s in it for Bannon: As an outsider, Bannon is happy to focus on exploiting populist dissent in Britain, as he does elsewhere, on seemingly never-ending tours of Europe. Sensing popular sentiment on the right-wing and the rancourous mood inside the Tory party, Bannon said of Johnson’s becoming PM: ‘I believe moments come. It is like Donald Trump... people dismissed him.’

No surprise, then, that Johnson is happy to play up his friendship with Bannon, who recognises a historic opportunity in the way the ‘establishment’ represented by Theresa May and the civil service has cannibalised Brexit and shorn it of its central promises regarding migration. As our source says, ‘It is helpful for Boris to look like he’s now part of a bigger anti-establishment movement, like someone who would rather blow the whole thing up than let May get away with a compromise. It’s helpful to look one speech away from calling a populist revolt.’

It’s a revolt the alt-right in Britain, not to mention the Kassams and the Bannons of this world, would be only too happy to see.

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