Before he fell out with his president and was ejected from the White House, and after that from Breitbart News, Steve Bannon was the influence who crystalised and codified Donald Trump’s thinking. Gone he might be from the locus of power, but not, to date, the legacy of his prescription for US renewal
Bannon: Always the Rebel
by Keith Koffler
Regnery, 2017, 256 pages, US$28.99
In the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, and Steve Bannon’s subsequent appointment to the position of his chief strategist, media speculation reached a near-hysterical pitch regarding the degree to which Bannon was the puppet master pulling the strings of an apparently dirigible and clueless President. On Saturday Night Live, Bannon was portrayed as the grim reaper and actual President, and Time magazine featured him on its cover with the accompanying title “The Great Manipulator”.
In a matter of months, Bannon had gone from anonymity to political stardom—one of the most recognised (and reviled) figures in American politics.
Since leaving the White House and returning to his post as chairman of Breitbart News — a post he has only recently relenquished under pressure from the site’s financial backers after his dalliance with Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff — Bannon turned his attention back to grassroots political organising, attempting to galvanise (and, moreover, bring into being) the “economic nationalist” base that can support Trump-friendly candidates in the congressional elections of 2018.
This essay appears in the current edition of Quadrant.
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Despite having left his post at the White House, Bannon still exerts a tight grip on the imagination of the political media. He has been lambasted with every imaginable political epithet from the Left (“white nationalist”, “fascist”, “anti-Semite”) and until recently he rarely bothered to dispute any of these labels.
Like Trump, Bannon is a savvy media operator, who realises that notoriety confers its own form of power—something he noted to the Hollywood Reporter’s Wolff in a piece written shortly after he was appointed. Depictions of Bannon as the puppeteer behind Trump may have annoyed the President, and possibly damaged Bannon’s standing in the White House, but they also amplified his image beyond Trump—and outside the White House he is using his newfound celebrity to continue pushing his agenda for a comprehensive remake of US policy, domestically and abroad.
Keith Koffler’s Bannon: Always the Rebel is the first full-scale biography, tracing Bannon’s peripatetic career and elucidating the biographical and intellectual influences that underpin his political philosophy. While largely hagiographical (Koffler is clearly an admirer) the book offers a corrective to the many unhinged assessments of Bannon that have come to dominate the mainstream media. Koffler interviewed many people close to Bannon for the book, allowing for personal perspectives that illuminate his character through the different phases of his career. Koffler also interviewed the man himself for over ten hours, and the book does a fine job of discussing the intellectual influences of an notoriously non-bookish President’s bookish adviser.
Born in 1953 to a working-class family of Irish-Catholic provenance in Richmond, Virginia, Steve Bannon was raised amidst the turmoil of 1960s America, the civil rights movement, and a major realignment of political sympathies between traditional supporters of the Democrats and the Republicans. While the family were pro-Kennedy Democrats, Bannon’s sympathies later turned Republican after what he perceived to be Jimmy Carter’s craven response to the Iran hostage situation of 1979.
Before turning his mind to politics full-time, Bannon served in the Navy, worked briefly as an assistant at the Pentagon, went to Harvard Business School, was an investment banker first with Goldman Sachs then with his own firm, briefly headed the earth-systems research project Biosphere 2, and dabbled as a Hollywood producer (he was one of the producers for Julie Taymor’s 1999 Shakespeare adaptation Titus). Like Trump, Bannon apparently sleeps very little and is an indefatigable worker. Of his time at Goldman Sachs, Koffler writes:
Bannon’s competitive advantage was not only that he could out-think most people, but he could outwork them too. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence,” Calvin Coolidge once said. “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.” No one ever accused Stephen Bannon of a lack of persistence. His capacity for work was phenomenal, his apparent need for sleep minimal. He was almost always working.
Indeed, Bannon cuts very much the figure of a political romantic and fanatic. One thing this volume underscores is the centrality of Catholicism to his sense of discipline, politics and purpose. Of the six books Bannon described as most influential to his life and thinking, three relate to the inward spiritual life of Catholicism. But one gets the impression from reading the account of Bannon’s faith—and the part it plays in his politics—that he values Catholicism more for its value as an institution, its ability to bind people together socially, and as a means of spiritual self-discipline (he employed The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola to quit booze) than for the stark metaphysical certitudes that animate many Protestants on the American fundamentalist Right.
The best chapters in this volume come in the middle, discussing Bannon’s views on economics and the Western tradition. Bannon believes that capitalism unmoored from proper concern for your fellow man, and society as a whole, is dangerous—and he views the influence of Ayn Rand on the American Right as disastrous. His 2010 film Generation Zero argues that the financial crisis of 2008 was the logical consequence of a culture of greed and entrenched elitism that emanated from the Baby Boomer generation. The 1960s, for Bannon, brought on a culture of narcissism and hyper-individualism that was destructive of social responsibility. Koffler quotes Bannon from a 2014 Vatican conference in which he participated:
I can see this on Wall Street today. I can see this with the securitization of everything … everything is looked at as a securitization opportunity. People are looked at as commodities. I don’t believe our forefathers had that same belief.
An important book for Bannon, and one that explains the cultural and economic disconnect between “elites” and the middle and working classes, is Christopher Lasch’s 1995 The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. Indeed, the rhetorical character of Trump’s campaign as run by Bannon was undergirded by the contest between the coastal “elites” and the “deplorables” (Hillary Clinton’s designation for Trump voters) in flyover America. Importantly, for Bannon, economic and cultural opportunities are interconnected, and the absence of one generally entails the absence of the other. Lasch foresaw all of this:
Lasch condemns what Bannon would call “the Party of Davos,” a reference to the Swiss Alpine city where the world’s economic elite gather every year to figure out what’s best for mankind. “The market in which the new elites operate is now international in scope. Their fortunes are tied to enterprises that operate across boundaries … They have more in common with their counterparts in Brussels or Hong Kong than with the masses of Americans not yet plugged into the network of global communications.”
Bannon’s grievance against the elites of Washington and Wall Street came to a head in 2008, when his working-class father lost a sizeable chunk of his retirement savings while big banks were bailed out with taxpayer money. To Bannon’s mind, the game was “rigged” and the little guy shouldered all the downside of risky investment practices carried out by the bigwigs of Wall Street, while never seeing any of the upside.
What Bannon wants to return to is the “American System” economy that powered the United States throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The American System was characterised by protection and subsidisation of American manufacturing, large infrastructure projects, and a business-friendly economic policy. Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Treasury Secretary, discerned that “the United States would come out on the losing end long-term if it adopted the laissez-faire ‘British System’ of economics” because Britain was then the giant of world manufacturing and would crush emerging American businesses if they were forced to compete on Britain’s terms:
Bannon believes the American System needs to be reinstated. America still needs a manufacturing base for all the reasons that Washington, Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt knew, and for all the new challenges that they would understand: to support the working class, to reduce the income gap between rich and poor, to ensure our national security, and to perpetuate traditional American culture … “A country is not an economy. A country is a culture that has an economy …”
It is because of his insistence on viewing the economy in political and historical terms that Bannon is opposed to illegal immigration and mass legal immigration, because the flows of human capital strongly dictate the allocation of resources among the citizens of a country. Low-skilled, low-wage (and off the books) illegal immigrants drive down wages amongst the most vulnerable working-class Americans. Koffler quotes Bannon:
“The people most affected by illegal, alien labour, are the black working class and the Hispanic working class,” he said. “Go into the inner city. That’s why they’re not paying a guy 12 bucks or 13 bucks to flip burgers at McDonald’s. Because they don’t have to! They get all the labour they want.”
Compounding the problem, in Bannon’s eyes, is the crowding out of would-be upwardly mobile American students by higher-paying foreign students (often subsidised by their own home governments). To Bannon’s mind, black and Hispanic students are taught a “STEM” program in school (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) yet are unable to secure places in graduate schools and jobs—preventing the kind of integration into the economy that is the precondition of full integration into society.
On the foreign policy front, Bannon is bullish on the topic of radical Islam without being utopian with regard to what American intervention can achieve. He believes American troops should not be put in combat unless completely necessary, and that nation-building and attempting to export American-style democracy are a fool’s errands. He believes that the cultures of the Islamic world are fundamentally different, and that they can only come to a more democratic and liberal form of government on their own terms, if and when they’re ready. To that end, Bannon prefers Muslim leaders who can impose order on their societies, are more moderate, and are friendly to the United States. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with whom the Trump administration is cultivating a closer relationship, is a case in point. He also favours drastically cutting the number of Muslim refugees and immigrants arriving in the country, particularly in the wake of the European migration crisis and the lax vetting methods often employed on European borders.
But to what extent do Bannon’s views coincide with Trump’s? And what was Bannon able to bring into the Trump campaign and administration that would otherwise not have been there?
While many have speculated that Trump is simply an empty vessel into which Bannon attempted to pour his economic nationalist ideology, this is far from being the case. As Charlie Laderman and Brendan Simms show in their recent volume, Donald Trump: The Making of a Worldview, Trump has been consistent on a handful of political themes since the 1980s. Like Bannon, Trump is a product of the 1950s apogee of American supremacy, where global hegemony was a fact of life. Trump has always been sceptical of foreign wars, and forever sounding the alarm that the United States is being “ripped off” by foreign competitors (in the 1980s Japan was the chief nemesis, today China). Bannon therefore sees himself and Trump as kindred spirits, and his role as guiding Trump towards his better (more nationalist) angels.
When Bannon was brought into the 2016 campaign in August, Trump was trailing badly in the polls, and Bannon’s role was to impose order on the messaging and scheduling, as well as to double down on the nationalist image that motivated Trump’s support base, rather than trying too hard to make him a more traditional Republican candidate (a path pushed by the previous campaign head, Paul Manafort, a long-time Republican strategist). Bannon channelled messaging to the groups he had cultivated through his Breitbart work and as an organiser in the Tea Party movement.
Bannon thought Trump needed to accomplish two things to win. First, hit home hard with his nationalist message, spoken in the Trump style that established a “visceral connection” with the average person over and above the highly practised tones of an Obama or a Clinton. Second, forefront enough traditional Republican issues to persuade those Republicans who weren’t Trump enthusiasts to come out and vote:
“Put enough Republican stuff in there about the courts, about all that stuff that they would say, ‘Hey, Donald Trump’s terrible, but he’s not Hillary Clinton,’” Bannon said. Bannon believed there were plenty of issues in Trump’s platform—from the courts to deregulation to tax reform to boosting the nation’s military—that could be deployed to convince reluctant Republicans to vote for Trump.
Bannon also focused on blacks and Hispanics as part of the broader working-class message, pushing the view that a Trump administration would bring better economic opportunities and protect their jobs more than another four years of sclerotic economic management by the Democrats. The working-class focus paid off, with Trump taking de-industrialised “Rust Belt” states that Obama had convincingly won four years earlier, and picking up a greater share of the black and Hispanic vote than Mitt Romney had in 2012.
Bannon has stated more than once that his policy goals for the Trump administration consisted of “three verticals”—national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and “deconstruction of the administrative state”. While much attention has been focused on the supposed incompetence of the Trump administration, and the antics of the Tweeter-in-Chief, much has been accomplished by the administration in the furtherance of these three goals.
With regard to national security, the Trump administration adjusted its strategy against ISIS to a goal of complete annihilation—rather than the war of attrition favoured under Obama—and achieved the near complete destruction of the physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria in a year. The administration has also fostered closer ties with Saudi Arabia, and received commitments from them to stamp out regional support for terrorism (whether they actually do so is another question). Bannon also achieved ideological victories with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate Accords, as well as having the administration renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
On economics and immigration, executive orders signed by the administration have cut apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the border by 58 per cent (from February to June) compared with the same period the previous year. There have been large cuts to regulations on industry and energy—and to the authorities that administer such regulations (the “deconstruction of the administrative state”):
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) said Trump’s deregulatory efforts had helped boost business confidence to a twenty-year high. “One of the biggest changes is the trajectory of regulatory burdens over the course of this presidency,” said Rosario Palmieri, NAM vice president of labour, legal, and regulatory policy.
The last two quarters under Trump have seen economic growth in excess of 3 per cent of GDP. Furthermore, at the time of writing, the GOP is set to enact their tax reform bill (having passed it in the House and the Senate), which will cut the corporate tax rate from 35 per cent (the highest among major industrialised economies) to 20 per cent, likely further boosting growth and putting Trump’s America over 3 per cent growth for its first financial year.
Crucially missing from the Bannon agenda, however, are the major infrastructure works that are part and parcel of the American System. While the border wall promised by Trump is yet to be built (although prototypes are being modelled and tested), that is more important symbolically for Trump’s re-election strategy than as a real driver of economic growth and social wellbeing. What Bannon would really like to see are the kinds of large works he envisioned upon being elevated to chief strategist at the end of 2016. As he stated to Michael Wolff at the time:
“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he says. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution—conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
If Trump does manage before the end of his first term to initiate a large-scale infrastructure program (he would require substantial Democratic congressional support for any such bill) it will be a signal victory both for the administration and for Bannon, and would likely guarantee another Trump victory in 2020.
Koffler’s engaging (although largely uncritical) account of Bannon paints a picture of what a new Right might look like, shorn of the free-market fundamentalism that has dominated conservative discourse over the last three decades. It is too early to tell whether Bannon’s brand of economic nationalism will catch on in American politics, much less make the leap to other countries (Britain or Australia, for instance). But if it does, he will be enshrined as one of the defining figures of our turbulent political age.
Online editor’s note: this essay has been updated to reflect Steve Bannon’s fall from grace.
Edward Cranswick is completing a postgraduate degree in law at the University of Melbourne.