Steve Bannon has always cultivated an aura of mystery, so it is no surprise that his current doings are an enigma to many.
The man who took center stage as the manager of Donald Trump’s victorious 2016 presidential campaign doesn’t appear to be playing a role in the next iteration in 2020.
Behind the scenes, however, Mr. Bannon is thriving, according to many who know him well, and the key to understanding his operations lies in realizing that, three years removed from being a controversial figure inside Washington, he now wants to have the same impact outside the capital.
Mr. Bannon addressed the biggest of his far-flung projects, an effort to reconfigure U.S. policy toward China and its ruling Communist Party, on Thursday at the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, part of Hillsdale College’s extension curriculum.
“This issue is about the de-industrialization of the United States. It is the defining issue of our time with many facets, from global capital to currency manipulation,” Mr. Bannon said at a meeting of the Committee on The Present Danger: China.
The specific topic at hand was a push to keep federal pension money from being invested in international indexed funds that include shares in companies controlled behind the scenes by China’s Communist Party leaders.
Without the oxygen provided by Western capital and in particular U.S. markets, China’s long-term policy of gaining an upper hand in global finance will suffocate, Mr. Bannon and others say.
Mr. Trump’s hard-line policy in terms of tariffs and other economic items is precisely the one he must maintain, Mr. Bannon said.
“We are bringing them to their knees, and their sponsors on Wall Street don’t like it,” he said.
His work, which includes livestreaming content into China — with Hong Kong, the Asian finance capital currently rocked by protests over Beijing’s iron fist — is an example of how Mr. Bannon, 65, has shifted his operations away from candidates and elections and toward the issues he thinks should influence them.
“He’s absolutely still going. He’s very active,” said Corey Lewandowski, who also managed Mr. Trump’s campaign for a time and is now mulling a U.S. Senate bid in New Hampshire. “I believe you are either a visionary, big picture, idea guy — you are proselytizing for something. Or you aren’t. He is.”
Mr. Bannon’s consulting star waned when he departed the White House and got behind the Senate candidacy of Roy Moore in Alabama. The campaign unraveled in spectacular fashion when decades-old complaints of sexual approaches to teenagers and young women resurfaced and dominated coverage of the candidate.
Since then, Mr. Bannon has not typically been out front as the face of a political campaign. Rather than throw his weight behind candidates, Mr. Bannon, has put out the word that he is working on issues, according to interviews with several people who are either close to him or have partnered with him on endeavors.
Mr. Lewandowski’s possible Senate bid is a case in point. He said Mr. Bannon is not advising him on the matter, but the two were recently together on the Mexico border where one of Mr. Bannon’s many projects, We Build the Wall, unveiled a mile-long fence on private property.
Mr. Bannon’s interests span west to China and east to Italy and involve efforts to influence matters in Hong Kong and Europe, according to interviews with several of his associates. The international interests expand a peripatetic career in which he has bounced from the Navy to Goldman Sachs and from Washington to Hollywood.
Despite repeatedly insisting he was eager to speak with The Washington Times, Mr. Bannon’s personal team ultimately said he would not have the time to comment for this article.
In a radio interview Sunday, however, Mr. Bannon confirmed that he has been involved for several months in livestreaming news into mainland China and its semiautonomous region Hong Kong.
“What you see in Hong Kong is a fight for freedom,” he said. “Young people in the streets have created an insurgency against the totalitarian Chinese Communist Party.”
The protests roiling Hong Kong are part of an international pattern, Mr. Bannon said. With Brexit, the U.S. political scene, immigration and the trade wars along the Asian rim, Mr. Bannon said, “you are living in historic times. They will talk about this in 100 years.”
“It looks like a world in chaos, but I think in this regard President Trump is the stabilizing factor,” Mr. Bannon said.
Indeed, Mr. Trump’s reelection is one of his principal goals, according to Mr. Bannon’s circle, and he sees the Democrats’ obsession with long-term global warming in the midst of a momentous present as evidence that they are “running for student council president.”
Such biting, off-the-cuff comments are typical Bannon style. Although they have earned him the enmity of the left, they are not representative of the man, according to several who know him well.
“He’s a happy warrior,” said Noel Fritsch, a Republican consultant who has worked with Mr. Bannon. “I’m always taken aback by media depictions because I don’t sense, feel any negativity with him.”
For the moment, Mr. Bannon lives in an old diplomatic house in the U.S. capital, a holdover from his days as a co-founder and president of the conservative Breitbart news site, longtime colleagues said.
While media photos often portray Mr. Bannon as a sort of brooding, unshaven, right-wing guru, the man is unfailingly well-mannered and intelligent, friends insisted.
“He’s never been anything but super polite around me,” said Chris McDaniel, a Mississippi state senator whose unsuccessful runs for a U.S. Senate seat have had Mr. Bannon’s backing.
Mr. Bannon is able to live such a far-flung life in part because of his own fortune, built on Wall Street and an entertainment stint that includes a piece of the “Seinfeld” syndication pie.
Because Mr. Bannon sometimes moves under the radar, “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David reportedly did not learn of Mr. Bannon’s link to the show until 2017, when Mr. Bannon was established as a senior adviser in the Trump administration. Mr. David reacted with predictable Hollywood outrage.
“I had no idea he was profiting from the work of industrious Jews,” Mr. David was quoted as saying in The New Yorker.
Mr. Bannon describes his political philosophy as “economic nationalism.” In his Thursday speech at Hillsdale, he drew a contrast between his view and what he called the radical chic of “socialist nationalism.”
His opponents use less-charitable language to describe his work, and some left-wingers insist Mr. Bannon is a white supremacist.
The notion that there is something sinister and faintly fascistic about Mr. Bannon’s work has been a staple of coverage of his activities, either of his Breitbart days or his current efforts to create a conservative intellectual center at the Trisulti Charterhouse, a 13th-century Italian monastery.
The think-tank-type endeavor has been tied up by Italian politics, and some European news outlets have depicted the operation in conspiratorial tones, with hints of secret alliances with an underground right-wing clerical cabal in the Vatican.
The Art newspaper called it “a nationalist boot camp,” and the left-wing establishment in Europe has tried to throw a cloud of potential fascism over the effort.
But neither Mr. Bannon nor Benjamin Harnwell of the Human Dignity Institute, who would be the president on the ground, is secretive or modest about the goals.
“The global headquarters of the fight to defend the Judeo-Christian basis of civilization, not just here in Europe but across the world,” Mr. Harnwell told Britain’s Sky News in a piece on the monastery’s possible transformation.
It’s that kind of sweeping vision and frantic pace that conservatives need, even if Mr. Bannon provides it from a position on the sideline, Mr. Lewandowski said.
“I do think he’s needed,” Mr. Lewandowski said. “Because other than the president, he is the head of the ‘MAGA’ movement. There is definitely a need for someone like Steve, a firebrand leader on the outside, and we don’t have that now without him.”