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Steve Bannon, Trump’s incoherent ideologue

The words and deeds of Stephen K. Bannon

by Ronald Beiner

What we are witnessing now is the birth of a new political order.

— Stephen Bannon

 A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.

— Bernie Sanders


Every anxious citizen on this currently deranged planet of ours should feel a keen interest in penetrating the hyperactive political brain of Steve Bannon, the “senior strategist” of President Donald Trump.

Up until the point when he joined the Trump campaign in August 2016, Bannon was a manically voluble communicator. He gave strident lectures to right-wing groups. He made films celebrating conservative icons from Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin – there are reports that as a filmmaker Bannon modelled 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.”1

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.2

Since teaming up with Trump, Bannon seems to have broken his silence mainly for the purpose of denying, through Trump spokespersons and in a couple of interviews, that he is a racist. Are these denials reliable? If so, one has to ponder why white supremacists like Richard B. Spencer seem so enthused by the Bannon-Trump consortium. Spencer, one will recall, immediately became the most visible face of the alt-right (neofascist) movement in America by greeting the Trump victory with the proclamation, “Let’s party like it’s 1933,” and by eliciting Nazi salutes from his followers when he shouted “hail Trump!” at a postelection alt-right conference in Washington.3 In any case, soon after earning this notoriety, Spencer released a provocative podcast in which he offered the following astonishing commentary on Bannon:

I think Bannon is a wild card, and a wild card is good … Bannon has made gestures towards us; he’s said Breitbart is a platform for the alt-right. He’s apparently read Julius Evola and Alexander Dugin. Make of that what you will … We want a wild card; we want change. So, I think Bannon is a good thing.4

What’s wrong with this picture?

Julius Evola (18981974) was a ferocious racist and anti-egalitarian who characterized his politics as being to the right (!) of European fascism and who helped inspire far-right terrorism in Italy; Aleksandr Dugin (born 1962) is a Russian fascist who despises liberal democracy and believes in Russian imperial expansion far beyond anything aspired to by Vladimir Putin.5 Clearly, Spencer refers to Bannon’s awareness of Evola and Dugin because he sees it as a further indication that Bannon is with “us.” (Spencer is an English-language publisher of Dugin.) In the same podcast, Spencer also tellingly pointed out that the final video ad of the Trump campaign (surely inspired by Bannon) “reminded me quite a bit” of videos produced by NPI (National Policy Institute, Spencer’s far-right, white-nationalist outfit).

Perhaps the most salient commonality between Bannon’s ideology and Dugin’s ideology is the yearning for a grand apocalypse (World War III) expressed in both. In fact, the yearning for a cleansing apocalypse seems to be a conspicuous feature of several of the scariest ideologies that confront us today, including the ideology of the Islamic State, Duginism and now Bannonism.6 When an earlier version of this article was posted on the Crooked Timber blogsite, a comment by Bruce Wilder cited a disturbing exchange between Bannon and David Kaiser, in which Bannon expresses his strong conviction that “the current crisis” will lead to a conflagration “at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term.” Kaiser, as quoted by Wilder, said that Bannon “did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.” As a comment by Andrew Brown on the Crooked Timber thread rightly pointed out, this is fully consistent with what Bannon said in a discussion in which he participated via Skype in the context of a 2014 conference held in the Vatican.7

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 the transcript of this discussion (which is the “text” alluded to in the Spencer podcast discussed above) is getting attention. The Skype exchange can be employed as a preliminary window into Bannon’s political thinking:

  • 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 antireligious and anticapitalist.
  • Again and again, Bannon rails against “crony capitalism” (this from a former investment banker who worked 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 Street 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 favours 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 Front National as “centre-right” because it represents 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 is as elitist and detached from the ordinary citizenry as the European Union. Should both be disbanded? Bannon definitely gestures in that direction. (Tellingly, when Bannon allegedly called himself a “Leninist,”8 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 (“centre-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 Aleksandr Dugin; hence the remarks made by Richard Spencer.) 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 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.


One suspects that Bannon consistently refers to “Judeo-Christian” morality for the same reason that he calls far-right politics “centre-right” politics: to mask (though not with any real effectiveness) the ugly radicalism of his commitments. As Spencer rightly points out in the podcast discussed above (and as was evident to countless people who viewed the ad), the Bannon/Breitbart-inspired final ad of the Trump campaign featured a visibly anti-Semitic subtext. Also, it’s hard to believe that Bannon and Trump are unaware of the unpleasant lineage of the inaugural address’s slogan of “America First.”

Putting it all together, his worldview comes across as a hodgepodge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of (liberal) elites.9 One can speculate that Trump was drawn to Bannon because Bannon gave expression to the political opportunities ripe to be exploited in European-style right-wing populism: whatever is driving the rise of populism in Europe can drive populism in America as well.10 Beyond this strategic instinct or insight, Bannon fails to articulate a coherent set of ideas, apart from the notion of a conspiracy on the part of a sinister liberal-cosmopolitan elite (“the party of Davos”) against common folk in Kansas and Colorado. 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 consort with his commitment to hard-nosed capitalism (“the harder-nosed the better”)? How does his vehement antistatism 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 making money and consolidating 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. That was reflected in the hollowness and inconsistency of Trump’s campaign; and (dangerously) this lack of thought-out principles defines the new Trump Administration.11

Of course, Bannon has very strong opinions, and those opinions follow identifiable patterns. What’s less clear is whether those opinions (the nefariousness of ruling elites, the evil of the dominant liberal-secular culture, the threat posed to the West by “Islam,” the need to shake up the political culture in a thoroughly radical way) jell into something that’s particularly coherent, with intelligible or predictable policy implications. 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) reflect those very tensions.

It should not be assumed that speech and deeds, logos and praxis, will be in harmony. Bannon and Trump are ruthless operators, playing the political game in a hyper-Machiavellian fashion. Words are not used primarily to express political intentions or to articulate a sincerely held political vision. To a much greater extent, they serve to keep people guessing, or to provide active smokescreens for their real designs, or to manipulate people by pushing the right buttons – or maybe it’s just a question of getting a “buzz” from knowing that one has the power to stir up millions of people with one’s words and images (hence the Riefenstahl fixation). The Bannon-led Breitbart News is reported to have had 45 million readers.12 That’s a lot of power especially when one considers that fewer than 63 million votes sufficed for Trump to win the presidency. If Bannon insists that he’s not alt-right,13 yet also says that he was content to turn Breitbart into “a platform for the alt-right,” then that in itself is a clear acknowledgement that purposes were being served other than the expression of actual political commitments (the pursuit of truth not being one of those purposes!).

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.14 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 doesn’t seem to rule out appointing Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil executives to positions of consummate power.

The politics of The Joker

In truth, the disparate balls being juggled in Bannon’s juggling act – Tea Party libertarianism, compassionate conservatism, Christian piety and moralism,15 European-style populist nationalism (not excluding its Putinophile aspects), clash-of-civilizations Islamophobia, with ominous “gestures” to the alt-right – are too eclectic to be taken at face value.16 Still, the overall political effect is in deadly earnest. Recent reports suggest that the Trump crew has welcomed the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party at Trump Tower.17 This is fully consistent with the pattern of Bannon’s political alignments as we know them. 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 bizarre news that Trump reportedly offered Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has promoted the theory that vaccines are responsible for autism, a position as “vaccine czar”18 tells one everything one needs to know about the Bannon style of “governing.” Surely, that could only have been Bannon’s idea. It’s his perverse sense of humour, which then supplies the foundation for his politics (or antipolitics). Responsible government is all a big joke. The point is to laugh in the faces of the established political class, and to make sure that they know that you’re laughing in their faces. As Bannon himself more or less suggested in his Hollywood Reporter interview, and as seems to be subtly intimated in the inaugural address itself, it’s a politics of The Joker.19 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.”20 The overriding purpose is to throw a brick through the window of the political establishment, and Trump is that brick.

Another initiative of the Trump Administration that has Bannon’s fingerprints all over it is the startling plan to require weekly publication of crimes committed by immigrants and/or aliens: “This proposed list is a move reminiscent of Breitbart News … Infamously, Breitbart had a ‘black crime’ section, opened as a response to Black Lives Matter.” And the relentless attacks on the mainstream media during the first week of the new administration unquestionably represent another area where Trump and Bannon think as one, as Bannon himself made clear in a characteristically pit-bull interview given to the New York Times.21 In short, we have good reason to suspect that Trump’s most radical initiatives are all Bannon-inspired (or at least, Bannon encourages and cheers on Trump’s most radical impulses).

To keep our sanity in the Trump era, I think we’ll need to hold before our mind’s eye a picture of some imaginable scenario that might redeem this absurdity of a Steve Bannon occupying a prominent office in the West Wing. Here’s mine: Trump makes a complete fool of himself every day for the next four years. (So far, that’s pretty much what he’s been doing.) The 2020 Democratic nomination goes to Andrew Cuomo, who picks a dynamic young Hispanic (Julián Castro?) as his running mate. They make mincemeat of Trump and Pence in the next election and win by a landslide. Then, as soon as a vacancy opens up, Cuomo appoints Obama to the Supreme Court. If something along those lines happens, then the bad guys lose and the good guys eventually have the last laugh. This is not impossible. If it were, it’s hard to see how we would be able to fend off the despair of witnessing the current political ascendency of Bannon and his Tea Party philosophy. In any case, of one thing we can be absolutely certain: the inauguration of Trump’s successor as president, hopefully in January 2021, will attract a far larger crowd than Trump’s.



[1] See, for example, “Steve Bannon Lays Out His AMAZING Political Philosophy,” November 18, 2016, retrieved from, in which Bannon claims that he gives such lectures “three times a week all across the country”; Matt Pearce, “Stephen Bannon Found Inspiration in Ancient Thinkers, Ronals Reagan and Nazi Propaganda,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2016, retrieved from; Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, “Bannon’s ‘Coriolanus’ Rewrite,” New York Times, December 18, 2016, p. SR 2.

2 Ronald Radosh, “Steve Bannon, Trump’s Top Guy, Told Me He Was ‘A Leninist’ Who Wants To ‘Destroy the State,’” Daily Beast, August 22, 2016, retrieved from; Daniella Diaz, “Steve Bannon: Darkness Is Good,” CNN, November 18, 2016, retrieved from; Scott Shane, “Combative, Populist Steve Bannon Found His Man in Donald Trump,” New York Times, November 27, 2016, retrieved from

3 John Woodrow Cox, “‘Let’s Party Like It’s 1933’: Inside the alt-right World of Richard Spencer,” Washington Post, November 22, 2016, retrieved from

4 “Crunch Time for Immigration Restrictions,” December 1, 2016, retrieved from; on the question of the Bannon/Breitbart quasi-endorsement of the alt-right, see Sarah Posner, “How Donald Trump’s New Campaign Chief Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists,” Mother Jones, August 22, 2016, retrieved from, and Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the alt-right,” retrieved from

5 For an account of Dugin’s ideology and why he’s so dangerous, see my “Russia’s Ecumenical Jihadist,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2015, pp. 92–99. The Bannon-Dugin connection also arouses the interest of David Brooks in a helpful and perceptive column in the New York Times (January 10, 2017) entitled “Bannon Versus Trump,” retrieved from However, Brooks makes two mistakes. First, he’s wrong in referring to Dugin as “Putin’s ideologist”: Dugin was purged from the Putin circle after berating Putin for failing to grab the whole of Ukraine. Second, Brooks reproduces a mistake in the Vatican transcript. In the section referring to Evola and Dugin, Bannon is not speaking of “traditionalism” but of “Traditionalism” – the source of Dugin’s zany and deranged worldview. The fact that Bannon refers to it respectfully proves that Bannon too is zany and deranged. See Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004). Jason Horowitz takes note of Julius Evola’s influence on Bannon in the New York Times of February 10, 2017 (“Taboo Italian Thinker Is Enigma to Many, but Not to Bannon,” retrieved from

6 Bannon has also raised the possibility of war with China. See Andrew Griffin, “Donald Trump’s Closest Advisor Steve Bannon Thinks There Will be War with China in the Next Few Years,” Independent (London), February 1, 2017, retrieved from We need to take this very seriously.

7 A transcript of Bannon’s Vatican remarks is available at J. Lester Feder, “This is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World,” BuzzFeed, November 15, 2016, retrieved from Bannon’s apocalypticism is also on display in the movie trailer of a Bannon documentary titled Torchbearer, For the Crooked Timber thread, see, comments 10 and 27.

8 See Radosh, “Steve Bannon, Trump’s Top Guy.”.

9 In the version of this essay posted on the Crooked Timber blogsite, I referred to Bannon’s worldview as “a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies.” A comment by someone named J-D (comment 12) objected to the word fairly in this sentence. Fair point.

[1]0 Rosie Gray, “A ‘One-Stop Shop’ for the Alt-Right,” The Atlantic, January 12, 2017, retrieved from

[1]1 I think it’s fair to say that Trump’s inaugural address communicated a consistent message. Its animating themes were angry populism and aggressive economic nationalism (which are also familiar Bannonite themes). This isn’t an especially attractive political vision, but it’s better than the alt-right.

[1]2 Shane, “Combative, Populist Steve Bannon.”

[1]3 For Bannon’s denial that he is a white nationalist, see Michael Wolff, “Ringside with Steve Bannon at Trump Tower,” Hollywood Reporter, November 18, 2016, retrieved from, and Kimberley A. Strassel, “Steve Bannon on Politics as War,” Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2016, retrieved from It appears that these were Bannon’s only postelection interviews. In the Hollywood Reporter interview, he volunteers this memorable self-characterization: “I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.” This is a rather curious suggestion, especially since Thomas Cromwell’s career ended with his execution, with his decapitated head displayed on a spike on London Bridge.

[1]4 Trump has just announced support for precisely this policy. Bernie Sanders is right to point out (fairly indignantly but justly) the rank hypocrisy of these supposed “populists” (David Edwards, “‘This Guy is a Fraud’: Bernie Sanders Blasts Trump for Selling Out Voters to Help Wall Street,” Raw Story, February 5, 2017, retrieved from

[1]5 As regards the right-wing Catholic aspect of Bannon’s multiplex ideology, see Samuel G. Freedman, “Church Militant Theology is Put to New, and Politicized, Use,” New York Times, December 30, 2016, retrieved from, and Jason Horowitz, “Steve Bannon Carries Battles to Another Influential Hub: The Vatican,” New York Times, February 7, 2017, retrieved from Horowitz suggests quite clearly that Bannon regards Pope Francis as unacceptably left-wing, and is not above conspiring with other right-wing Catholics with a view to trying to undermine the Pope's authority within the church.

[1]6 Consider the following comment by someone named Pamela on the New York Times website in response to David Brooks’s “Bannon Versus Trump” column: “David Brooks, you are giving the Trump administration way too much credit for having a deep-rooted political philosophy. Even if Bannon has spouted a bunch of nonsense about the end of Judeo-Christian morality and humane forms of capitalism, he certainly doesn’t care about that. Trump is a symbol of the spread of globalism, anti-Christian morality, inhumane capitalism, and relativism, practically everything you mention (except diversity). The Trump administration is a bunch of rich old White men who believe that rich old White men should run the show. Their beliefs are not rooted in any conception of morality. They are corrupt.” A comment by “passer-by” (comment 39) on the Crooked Timber thread similarly complains that it is foolish to expect coherence in any ideology designed for mass consumption. I agree: an ideology is an ideology, not an exercise in philosophical reflection. But that’s not a reason not to do what one can to expose it as (mere) ideology.

[1]7 Tina Nguyen, “Trump’s National Security Adviser Met Group with ‘Nazi Sympathies,’” Vanity Fair, December 20, 20167, retrieved from Also, Marine Le Pen was spotted in January 2017 in Trump Tower. At least one source claims that the visit “was [Bannon’s] handiwork” (Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols, “What Steve Bannon Wants You to Read,” Politico, February 7, 2017, retrieved from

[1]8 “Vaccine Sceptic Robert F Kennedy Jr Says Trump Asked Him to Lead Safety Study,” BBC News, January 11, 2017, retrieved from The Trump people are denying that Trump offered Kennedy such a position. See Dan Merica, “Trump Team Denies Skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was Asked to Head Vaccine Commission,” CNN Politics, January 10, 2017, retrieved from

[1]9 See Nathan Amzi, “Oh Man This Is Good. Thought I’d Heard That Somewhere Before …,” January 20, 2017, retrieved from

20 Jason Horowitz, “Breitbart’s Man in Rome: A Gentle Voice in a Strident Chorus,” New York Times, January 10, 2017, retrieved from

2[1] Annalisa Merelli, “The White House Will Publish a Weekly List of Crimes Committed by Immigrants,” Quartz, January 25, 2017, retrieved from; Michael M. Grynbaum, “Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media Should ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut,’” New York Times, January 26, 2017, retrieved from


Ronald Beiner is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Conversations with Louis Pauly and email exchanges with Stephen Newman have been helpful to the author in developing some of the lines of thought in this essay.

About the Author

Ronald Beiner
Ronald Beiner is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Political Philosophy: What It Is and Why It Matters (Cambridge University Press, 2014).


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