A Window into Bannon's Thinking

Ronald Beiner

Ronald Beiner is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Every anxious citizen on this currently deranged planet of ours should feel a keen interest in penetrating the hyper-active political brain of Steve Bannon, the “senior strategist” of President Donald Trump. Up until the point when he joined the Trump campaign, Bannon was a manically voluble communicator. He gave strident lectures to right-wing groups. He made films celebrating conservative icons from Reagan to Sarah Palin; there are reports that as a film-maker, Bannon modeled himself on Leni Riefenstahl. He even collaborated on the script for a rap version of Coriolanus, “drawn to Shakespeare’s Roman plays,” according to the woman with whom he co-authored the script, “because of their heroic military violence.” Then Bannon closed up like a clam. Presumably, the time for words had ended; the time for deeds had begun. Bannon is on record as welcoming darkness and destruction. And in Trump, Bannon seems to have found the suitable political instrument of the darkness and destruction for which he yearns.

A fair bit of attention has been given to a discussion in which Bannon participated via Skype in the context of a 2014 conference held in the Vatican, the full transcript of which is available online. Given the paucity of direct evidence with regard to how Bannon thinks politically, what his policy agenda is, and what might define his vision of a desirable politics, it is not surprising that this text is getting attention. Here is a summary of leading themes.

Bannon claims that there is both a crisis of capitalism and a crisis of Judeo-Christian values, and the two crises are interwoven. Bannon endorses a Christian rejection of liberal secularization; in fact, the contempt for Christianity on the part of ruling elites constitutes proof, for him, of the cultural arrogance of those elites. He suggests that Christianity was a key part of what sustained the health of capitalism, so secularization is simultaneously anti-religious and anti-capitalist.

Again and again, Bannon rails against “crony capitalism.” (This from a former investment banker working for Goldman Sachs!) At the same time, he attacks what he calls “state-sponsored capitalism” (in China and Russia). Bannon endorses a quasi-Marxist critique of the kind of Wall St. capitalism that treats people like commodities. But this doesn’t deter him from also saying: “We are strong capitalists; the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better." He claims that God favors capitalism (“divine providence” intends for us to be committed job-creators and wealth-creators). But Christian capitalists must support “putting a cap on wealth creation and distribution.”

Bannon endorses a Samuel Huntington-type thesis of a clash of civilizations between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam. He suggests that the coming fight between Christianity and Islam will be of the same order of magnitude as the civilizational cataclysms associated with the First and Second World Wars. He more or less assumes that jihadi versions of Islam are what represent Islam in this coming civilizational struggle.

Bannon aligns himself with a Tea-Party critique of the Republican establishment (the fight against which is more urgent than the fight against the Democrats); with right-wing Catholic anti-abortion and pro-traditional-marriage politics; and with far-right European populist parties like UKIP and the Front National. He repeatedly refers to the latter as “center right,” because they represent a backlash of “the middle class, the working men and women in the world” against arrogant cosmopolitan elites. Washington, Beijing, and Brussels all belong to the same international elite that disdains ordinary people and bosses them around. Bannon even goes so far as to suggest that the centralized U.S. government matches the E.U. in its elitism and detachment from the ordinary citizenry. Should both be disbanded? Bannon definitely gestures in that direction. Tellingly, when Bannon allegedly called himself a “Leninist,” he elaborated what he meant as follows: “Lenin 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.” As is fairly clear, many of Trump’s cabinet appointments are suggestive of this agenda.

While conceding that Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy, Bannon defends far-right (“center-right”!) populist movements in Europe with respect to admiring Putin because Putin stands for a firm concept of committed nationality. Insofar as Putin’s nationalism draws sustenance from fascist sources, that doesn’t seem objectionable to Bannon. (He cites Julius Evola and alludes to Alexander Dugin—both figures of the ultra-right.) Overall, Tea-Party themes (particularly outrage at the complicity between big government and the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crisis) seem much more salient than alt-right themes, though Bannon puts a lot of emphasis on the “Judeo-Christian” foundation of the West. He believes (or says that he believes) that racial and ethnic aspects of contemporary populism will fade as populism attains its ends, which largely consist in the humbling of ruling elites.

Putting it all together, his worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of (liberal) elites. As the statement of a political philosophy, one has to say that it is pretty shallow and poorly thought-through. How do Bannon’s professed Christian beliefs comport with his commitment to hard-nosed capitalism (the harder-nosed the better)? How does his vehement anti-statism mesh with his forbearance for authoritarian Putinite nationalism? Why are Bannon and Trump themselves exempt from membership in the despised elite? It suggests to me that people whose whole life revolves around the making of money and the consolidating of power (including media power) -- and this is true of Bannon no less than Trump -- haven't had the time to reflect on what their actual political principles are, or didn't think it was worth bothering about. To be sure, there is a distinctive Bannonite ideology, but it is, to say the least, a highly tension-ridden ideology, and all the various contradictions between thought and practice in Bannon’s career (Harvard Business School, Goldman Sachs, Hollywood, and now membership in the ruling elite) express those very tensions. In any case, whether Bannon and Trump have a coherent political vision or not, they have conducted themselves in practice simply by appointing the most right-wing people they could find.

Bannon the political agitator rails against what the bankers got away with during the crisis of 2008; Bannon the senior strategist almost certainly supports a relaxation of post-2008 regulatory controls on Wall Street. The political activist Bannon casts “crony capitalists” as the root of all evil, yet the Trump cabinet (surely with Bannon’s encouragement) exhibits no lack of crony capitalists – on the contrary, they seem to predominate. “Globalism” is supposedly the enemy, but that seems not to rule out appointing Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil executives to positions of consummate power. In truth, the disparate balls being juggled in Bannon’s juggling act – Tea-Party libertarianism, compassionate conservatism, Christian piety and moralism, European-style populist nationalism (not excluding its Putinophile aspects), clash-of-civilizations Islamophobia, with ominous “gestures” to the alt-right – are much too eclectic to be taken at face value. Despite what he says, Bannon is emphatically not a political thinker or political doer of the “centre-right” (or at least, what he takes to be centre-right is very far removed indeed from what the vast majority of us understand by the centre-right). The Vatican correspondent for Breitbart News, Thomas Williams, gave his then-boss, Bannon, the following excellent advice: “If you are going to tear down, you better know what you are building.” Yet Williams knew that Bannon was incapable of taking that advice: “I think he prefers tearing down to building up, honestly.” The overriding purpose is to throw a brick through the window of the political establishment, and Trump is that brick.

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