Steve Bannon's Fever Dream of an American Gulag

Mexico border wall
Multiple layers of steel walls, fences, razor wire and other barricades are viewed from the United States side of the of the U.S.-Mexico border on January 26, in San Ysidro, California. President Donald Trump has ordered work to begin on building a wall along the Mexican border, angering his southern neighbor. David McNew/AFP/Getty

UPDATED | Imagine: Miles upon miles of new concrete jails stretching across the scrub-brush horizons of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, with millions of people incarcerated in orange jumpsuits and awaiting deportation.

Such is the fevered vision of a little-noticed segment of President Donald Trump’s sulfurous executive order on border security and immigration enforcement security. Section 5 of the January 25 order calls for the “immediate” construction of detention facilities and allocation of personnel and legal resources “to detain aliens at or near the land border with Mexico” and process them for deportation. But another, much overlooked, order signed the same day spells out, in ominous terms, who will go.

Related: Twitter users plead: 'Stop President Bannon'

Trump promised a week after the November elections that he would expel or imprison some 2 million or 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions—a number that exists mainly in his imagination. (Only about 820,000 undocumented immigrants currently have a criminal record, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Many of those have traffic infractions and other misdemeanors.)

"Some 6 million to 8 million people in the country illegally could be considered priorities for deportation," according to calculations by the Los Angeles Times

The spectre of new, pop-up jails housing millions of people is as powerful a fright-dream for liberals as it is a triumph for the president’s “America first” Svengali, Steve Bannon. But, like the fuzzy Trump order dropping the gate on travelers from seven Muslim-majority states, the deportation measure presents so many fiscal and legal restraints that is also looks suspiciously like just another act of ideological showboating from the rumpled White House strategy chief.

“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed to the writer Ronald Radosh at a party at his Capitol Hill townhouse in November 2013. “Lenin,” he said of the Russian revolutionary, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

The executive orders were “not issued as result of any recommendation or threat assessment made by DHS to the White House,” Department of Homeland Security officials conceded in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, according to a statement from Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. They were all Bannon-style revolutionary theater.

Mainstream Republicans, watch out: If you oppose the deportation orders, you may end up like Eric Cantor, the not-conservative-enough House majority leader from Virginia brought down with Bannon’s help by a virtually unknown, far-right college economics professor, Dave Brat, in the 2014 election. Two years later, Cantor still could not fathom the success of Bannon’s politics of resentment and hate. “Negativity, attack and anger will not be a sustainable campaign narrative in the general election,” he predicted in a June 2016 interview with The Washington Post. “It will not.”

Yes, it will, to borrow a line from Barack Obama.  And they’ve only just begun.

“Even as confusion, internal dissent and widespread condemnation greeted President Trump’s travel ban and crackdown on refugees this weekend, senior White House aides say they are are only getting started,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Trump’s top advisors on immigration, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior advisor Stephen Miller, see themselves as launching a radical experiment to fundamentally transform how the U.S. decides who is allowed into the country and to block a generation of people who, in their view, won’t assimilate into American society.”

How broadly radical their vision is can be seen in “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,”  the companion order to the travel ban, which lists aliens for “prioritize[d] removal.” It includes those who “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,” and also aliens who have “abused any program related to receipt of public benefits.” 

In other words, some targets can be deported because a DHS agent believes the person has broken a law of any kind, “regardless of whether that person has been charged with a crime,” as one analyst put it.  And what does “abusing” a welfare-oriented program mean? Judges and lawyers could be fouled up with that matter alone for years.

Other candidates for the Trump roundup include aliens who have made “a willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a government agency.”

What is “any official matter”?

“If these items were not broad enough,” noted Walter Pincus, the venerated former Washington Post national security reporter, “the final category for being detained for deportation is ‘in the judgment of an immigration officer, [the aliens] otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.’”

“If ever a category encouraged racial profiling, that is it,” Pincus wrote for the Cypher Brief, a new publication by intelligence professionals covering national security issues.

But it’s not just racial profiling. The new militancy unleashed by Trump’s campaign and election seems to be empowering the administration’s most fired up supporters, and at least some authorities to take out their rage on white protesters as well. Last week, a 22-year-veteran New York cop posted a video of a protester in Washington being struck in the face, twice, by an anonymous passerby. “The officer shared the video on his Facebook wall with the text, ‘Grow up bitches and get a job,’” according to a report by ProPublica. “Two retired Port Authority police officers joined in, saying, ‘This needs to happen more often!’ and ‘Thats [sic] what the [sic] all need, a little ass kicking.’”

Bannon, the former executive editor of far-right Breitbart News, presumably would approve. “If there’s an explosion or a fire somewhere,” Matthew Boyle, Breitbart’s Washington political editor, said in 2015, “Steve’s probably nearby with some matches.”

Steve Bannon Donald Trump U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Steve Bannon during a swearing in ceremony for senior staff at the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 22. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The former Goldman Sachs investment banker has amassed immense sway in the White House, not just over Trump, but over the machinery of foreign and domestic policy, including the deportations plan. The president gave him a seat on the elite “principals committee” of the White House National Security Council, effectively bestowing him parity with cabinet chiefs, including the secretary of homeland security. Democrats are complaining that the appointment should require Senate confirmation.

Trump will ignore them. The personalities of the grandiose president and the self-described Leninist perfectly mesh, especially on matters involving immigrants and the Department of Homeland Security, where they are replacing Obama holdovers with officials who have with impressive track records for rounding up and deporting aliens.

One of them is Thomas Homan, who Trump just elevated to run ICE, the homeland security department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau. “The White House cited his success expanding arrests and detention beds for the recent surge in children and families fleeing violence in Central America,” The Washington Post reported. ”While the number of deportations of illegal immigrants with criminal records has declined in recent years, last year this group made up almost 60 percent of the total number expelled from the country, the largest percentage in recent memory, ICE officials said.” The White House also removed Mark A. Morgan, the chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, who had clashed with the powerful Border Patrol union, which endorsed Trump for president.

What will bog down the administration’s promise to round up and deport millions of immigrants is Congress—not so much its Republican majority’s distaste for the program, but paying for it. Trump has authorized the hiring of 10,000 additional immigration officers, as well as 5,000 additional Border Patrol officers. “Between the two, he has called for the hiring of more government employees than his highly publicized saving of manufacturing jobs at Carrier and Ford,” Pincus noted. The White House order also directs DHS to make money available to “immediately assign asylum officers to immigration detention facilities for the purpose of accepting asylum referrals.” The Justice Department has been told to get with the program, as White House spokesman Sean Spicer advised unhappy foreign service officers—and fast. The executive order directs it to “immediately assign immigration judges to immigration detention facilities.”

All this thrashing about resembles nothing so much as the botched rollout of the administration’s travel entry ban—with an important difference. All it took to implement the airport chaos was an order and a few hundred confused, overwhelmed DHS agents and officials. In sharp contrast, the detention and deportment orders mostly require tons more bricks-and-mortar construction and an immense influx of new federal agents — all subjected to “extreme vetting,” one presumes, considering the recent spike in corruption in the  border patrol service.

Pincus noted that Mark Sandy, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, rushed out a statement saying the White House “anticipated…increased costs,” not only in the current budget but in those beyond, for “steps related to immigration enforcement” as well as for “a wall along the southern border.” All that will require vast amounts of money from the only governmental body that has it: Congress.

“To fully implement [the detention] part of the executive order would require Congress to appropriate funds to the specific project,” says Kate Brannen, deputy managing editor of Just Security, which covers the intersection of law, national security and human rights.

“Until then, [DHS] Secretary [John] Kelly will be limited in how much money he can move around in his budget for it, which is why it says ‘legally available resources.’”

Expect DHS to start advertising for bids from private prison operators, a much-maligned industry that was collapsing in the latter years of the Obama administration. Two of the largest, GEO Group Inc. and CoreCivic Inc., are already seeing windfalls from their second chance at life: Their stock prices have nearly doubled since the election.

All of which recalls another Leninist idea that Bannon may have forgotten: Prisons are universities for revolution.

This story has been updated with calculations by the Los Angeles Times that 6 to 8 million people could be deported.