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
Steve Bannon, who became Donald Trump’s “senior strategist” soon after Trump won the November election, has enjoyed a meteoric rise, and a seemingly equally spectacular fall from grace, in the short time since Trump improbably became President. The rise and fall are closely connected. As soon as the mainstream media began dubbing the chief strategist “President Bannon,” it was obvious to anyone with any familiarity with Trump’s psyche – and no one who isn’t a total hermit cut off from all media can get away from Trump’s psyche – that Trump would quickly sour on his top adviser in the West Wing. Hence Trump, all too predictably, now assures us that he’s his own strategist. When dealing with Trump, what could be a worse sin than shoving him out of the limelight for which he so palpably hungers?
Bannon may hang on, or he may resign, or he may get the axe. We don’t know. But whether he’s in the White House, or back at Breitbart News, or somewhere else, Bannonite politics expresses something important and disturbing about the contemporary zeitgeist. Regardless of how much longer he lingers in the White House, we still have a real interest in penetrating Bannon’s hyperactive political brain. Hence the following attempt to sketch a political-intellectual profile of this cantankerous and wily operator. If this turns out to be a political obituary of Stephen K. Bannon, so be it.
A short history of Bannonism
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 seemed to have found the suitable political instrument of the darkness and destruction for which he yearns.2
Yes, there has been the odd interview with Bannon, often for the purpose of denying that he is a racist. Were those denials reliable? If so, one has to ponder why white supremacists like Richard B. Spencer were so visibly 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 (1898–1974) 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. 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.)5 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 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 (And one should hasten to point out: even if Bannon is turfed out of the West Wing tomorrow, that doesn’t guarantee that “Bannonism” as a far-right populist movement is finished. In fact, there have been pointed suggestions from the Bannon camp that Bannon’s removal would prompt “the movement” to retaliate against Trump for having betrayed it; that very possibility of rebellion against Trump by the populist base may well be precisely what is currently keeping Bannon in place.)
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 expressed 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) has gotten substantial 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 National Front. He repeatedly refers to the National Front 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,” 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” – what has been aptly referred to as Bannon’s “right-wing-revolutionary schtick.”8 As is fairly clear, many of Trump’s cabinet appointments have been suggestive of such an 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 were 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: the idea was that 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 made it a priority to reflect on what their actual positive political principles are (insofar as it’s appropriate to speak of “principles” in this context). Needless to say, we saw a lot of that in the the hollowness and inconsistency of Trump’s campaign; and we’ve been seeing more of the same (a conspicuous lack of thought-out principles) during the early months of Trump’s chaotic and flip-flopping Administration.11
Of course, Bannon has some 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 railed against what the bankers got away with during the crisis of 2008; Bannon the senior strategist almost certainly supported a relaxation of post-2008 regulatory controls on Wall Street.14 The political activist Bannon cast “crony capitalists” as the root of all evil, yet the Trump cabinet (surely with Bannon’s encouragement) has exhibited no lack of crony capitalists – on the contrary, they seem to predominate. “Globalism” was supposedly the enemy, but that obviously didn’t rule out appointing Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil executives to positions of consummate power. Bannon famously told the Wall Street Journal that his whole commitment to populist politics flowed directly from the plunge in his father’s AT&T stocks owing to the 2008 financial crisis.15 But it would require pretty twisted political reasoning to see the personnel or policies of the Trump administration as a reasonable redress for Marty Bannon’s anguish about his ravaged savings.
Ross Douthat, an astute New York Times columnist, summed up the first 72 days of the Trump Administration as follows: “A core weakness of this White House … is the absence of anyone who seems to have thought through how one might translate Trumpism, the populist nationalism on which the president campaigned, into substantive policy on any specific issue except a temporary visa freeze.” Douthat explicitly directed this judgement against Bannon: “It was probably unreasonable to expect a sixtysomething whose life experience is all in media and Hollywood to suddenly turn into a one-man think tank, no matter how many French far-right agitators he name-drops.”16 This fits neatly with my argument that Bannon/Trump’s philosophical and policy incoherence was perfectly apparent even before the Trump administration took office.
The politics of The Joker
In truth, the disparate balls being juggled in Bannon’s ideological juggling act – Tea Party libertarianism, compassionate conservatism, Christian piety and moralism,17 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.18 Still, the overall political effect is in deadly earnest. At the end of 2016, it was reported that the Trump crew had welcomed the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party at Trump Tower.19 This was fully consistent with the pattern of Bannon’s political alignments as we’ve come to 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 it.
At one point we got the bizarre news that Trump had reportedly offered Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has promoted the theory that vaccines are responsible for autism, a position as “vaccine czar.”20 Surely, that could only have been Bannon’s idea, and tells one everything one needs to know about the Bannon style of “governing.” 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 seemed to be subtly intimated in Trump’s inaugural address, it’s a politics of The Joker.21 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.”22 The overriding purpose was to throw a brick through the window of the political establishment, and Trump was that brick.
Another initiative of the Trump administration that had Bannon’s fingerprints all over it was 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 weeks of the new administration unquestionably represented another area where Trump and Bannon thought as one, as Bannon himself made clear in a characteristically pit-bull interview given to the New York Times.23 In short, we have good reason to suspect that Trump’s most radical early initiatives were all Bannon-inspired (or at least, Bannon encouraged and cheered on Trump’s most radical impulses). Also fairly disturbing was something reported in the wake of the initial defeat of Trump’s anti-Obamacare American Health Care Act. Bannon and Trump, according to this report, insisted on a roll call in the House of Representatives, despite being assured by Speaker Paul Ryan that the vote was sure to fail. The idea was to use this roll call as the basis for an “enemies list” (what Bannon himself apparently referred to as a “shit list”) – with all its sinister Nixonian echoes. Ryan, to his credit, refused to play this game and cancelled the vote.24
Prior to being put in charge of the Trump campaign, Bannon famously confessed that Trump is “a blunt instrument for us. I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”25 Well, blunt instrument for the pursuit of what political project exactly? And who exactly is the us in Bannon’s “for us”? How does this us relate to Spencer’s us when he said in his podcast that “Bannon has made gestures towards us”?
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 (which, as of this writing, he still does). 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 election and win by a landslide. Then, as soon as a vacancy opens up, Cuomo appoints Obama to the Supreme Court. 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 no later than January 2021, will attract a far larger crowd than Trump’s.