Politics & Policy

Who Was Steve Bannon?

Bannon (at left) at a White House meeting, February 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
And will his parade go on?

Editor’s note: The following article appears in the February 5, 2018, issue of National Review.


Who is Steve Bannon? That’s a question that is of less and less interest with each passing hour. He’s the guy who got out in front of the guy who got out in front of the parade. The right-wing populist fervor that swept Donald J. Trump into the White House predates the Trump campaign. In its most recent iteration, it began with the financial crisis of 2008–09, which drove a wedge between the big-business/free-market wing of the conservative movement and those elements of the Right that are less enthusiastic about what we call “capitalism” and the rest of the world calls “liberalism.” The first fruits of that division was the tea-party movement, the Right’s version of Occupy Wall Street. Barack Obama’s sneering and lordly style of politics — “I won!” — helped to amplify the Right’s angry populist voices, and the coincident weakness of the economy, especially the stagnation of wages and employment, helped those anti-capitalist voices to find wider resonance. The ongoing problem of uncontrolled illegal immigration fed cultural anxiety, as did a series of terrorist incidents perpetrated by immigrants from the Islamic world and Americans connected to Islamic groups at home and abroad. The woeful failure to assimilate Somali immigrants drove resentments, but so did the successful integration of thriving immigrants from poor countries ranging from Nigeria to India, the success of whom provides an unflattering point of comparison for struggling and downwardly mobile native-born communities ravaged by opioid addiction and elusive socioeconomic mobility.

Donald J. Trump, with his television fame and reputation (undeserved though it may be) for entrepreneurial excellence, his unsubtle, gold-plated public persona, and his Archie Bunker mannerisms, was suited to that moment in a way that more traditional conservative Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were not. Americans in 2016 were not in a mood to hear about any shining city on a hill — they were in the mood to hear about building a wall around that city. They were not primed to be lifted up but to see brought down those condescending “elites” in politics and culture they blamed for . . . everything, really. They already felt like they had been, as the future president would put it, “schlonged.” Trump just put in words (and sneers) what they already were feeling.

Trump is a habitual liar, but one thing about which he has told the truth is that Steve Bannon’s contribution to his rise and his success has been grossly exaggerated. Bannon has posed as many things — media magnate, shrewd political operative, and cold-eyed Svengali to Trump’s undisciplined playboy — but what he actually is is a rich dilettante with a talent for convincing other rich dilettantes that he is a deep-thinking visionary. One of those rich dilettantes was Donald Trump. It was a good scam while it lasted, and surely it ended sooner than would have been ideal for two would-be intellectual biographers: Just before Bannon was cast into the outer darkness by Trump, Breitbart, and his financial benefactors, Joshua Green brought out Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, while Keith Koffler offered up a hilariously stupid exercise in long-form brown-nosing, Bannon: Always the Rebel, in which he gives Bannon approximately the treatment Debbie gave Dallas. Timing is everything.

Bannon is over. But what about Bannonism?

Bannon is not an uneducated man — he holds a master’s in defense studies from Georgetown and an MBA from that funny little business school tenuously attached to Harvard — but as a would-be political philosopher, he is a casual autodidact, with the usual attendant limitations. (His undergraduate studies, at Virginia Tech, were focused on urban planning.) He cites Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War the way other Wall Street types (Bannon made his bones at Goldman Sachs) used to cite Sun Tzu’s Art of War. He likes to talk about the broad sweep of capital-H History in quasi-Hegelian terms, and Green connects his thinking to that of a few intellectual figures familiar to the anti-liberal European Right, especially Julius Evola, who adopted ancient Hindu beliefs about cyclical ages of ascent and decadence to explain the social condition of interwar Europe, and René Guénon, a 20th-century French anti-modernist who eventually embraced Sufi Islam. (Bannon himself flirted with Zen Buddhism before returning to his mother’s Catholicism, in which he is a Latin Mass traditionalist in principle but a thrice-divorced partisan of Mammon in practice.) Burnishing his cosmopolitan credentials, Bannon has sought to associate himself with various broadly like-minded European anti-liberal movements, his philosophical Francophilia matched by his admiration for the Le Pen gang. (Green notes that he approvingly described Marion Maréchal–Le Pen, granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the youngest French MP in modern history, as “practically French medieval.”) Bannon has found common cause with Alternative für Deutschland, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, and others. Green argues that the European nationalists, loosely allied against the overreach of the European Union, appeal to Bannon’s Catholic appreciation for “subsidiarity,” the principle that social problems should be addressed at the most local level possible, with national governments restricted to truly national issues such as war and foreign trade (about which Bannon has some daft opinions), while transnational organizations such as the European Union (and NATO, and NAFTA) are treated with suspicion or contempt.

But Green, and others who see in Bannon an American expression of Continental anti-liberalism, may be explaining more than is strictly necessary. Bannon may or may not believe in subsidiarity, but one thing he certainly believes in — one thing he knows, as Donald Trump knows — is the value of a good enemies list. Freedom — political and economic — does not create a nation’s character. The French were the French under Louis XIV as much as they were under Napoleon . . . or Mitterrand, or Sarkozy, or are under Macron. Freedom reveals a nation’s character. And in the 21st century, with its frictionless capital flows and highly integrated global markets, it reveals a nation’s character rapidly. The anti-liberal project, with its scapegoating of immigrants and Davos-haunting bogeymen, is dedicated to camouflaging that by finding someone — preferably someone foreign and, in the case of many of Bannon’s European friends, someone Jewish — to blame. The United States doesn’t have cultural and political problems because it has 5.6 million illegal immigrants from Mexico; it has 5.6 million illegal immigrants from Mexico because it has cultural and political problems. One of those is its habit of entrusting power, both hard power and soft, to unserious men such as Donald Trump, who often find themselves under the influence of unserious men such as Steve Bannon.

Green, in his book and elsewhere, makes a manful effort to place Bannon’s thinking, such as it is, in the context of a broader and more meaningful philosophical framework. But, ultimately, he fails to establish that there is any there there. Bannon, like Trump, seems to be a creature of fleeting enthusiasms and conflicting appetites, a would-be scourge of coastal elites who is a product of Wall Street and Hollywood. Bannon’s best investment, after all, was accepting an interest in Seinfeld syndication rights rather than cash payment for a deal he worked on as a boutique entertainment financier. Like Seinfeld, like the Trump administration itself, Bannon’s so-called philosophy is a show about nothing.

Bannon, like Trump, seems to be a creature of fleeting enthusiasms and conflicting appetites, a would-be scourge of coastal elites who is a product of Wall Street and Hollywood.

But it does have a style. And while Always the Rebel is in fact almost too stupid to write about, Koffler does provide a little insight in spite of himself. While Green, mindful of the Kali Yuga and Evola, sees Bannon reacting to a crisis of civilization, Koffler’s knee-scraping approach to Trump speaks to a different kind of crisis: a crisis for American masculinity to which Trump, with his tough-guy posturing and tabloid-friendly hound-dogging, offers a response that is, from a certain point of view — a deeply stupid and perverse one — kind of persuasive. Koffler has drunk deeply from the well of weird homoeroticism surrounding the Trump movement, and his attempts to enshrine Bannon and those around him as — inescapable phrase — alpha males are at times hilarious, that hilarity being greatly abetted by Koffler’s apparent illiteracy. He describes in admiring tender detail virile late-night tussles on the Harvard Bridge, and he straight-facedly quotes Bannon describing Corey Lewandowski as a “rough piece of trade,” with both men apparently unaware of what that phrase actually means. (Think Tom of Finland, the Village People, etc. I’ll note without commentary that chapter three of his book is titled “In the Navy.”) That’s part of a long and tedious discussion of Lewandowski’s roughing up of Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, that being the sort of thing that excitable alpha boys obviously do from time to time. By way of comparison, the discussions of Bannon’s drinking problem and his marital failures are remarkably economical. “A flawed visionary,” Koffler insists. The flawed bit seems obvious enough, but, like Green, Koffler never makes the case for Bannon as a visionary of any more substance than a million men just like him on a million bar stools in front of a million televisions tuned to Fox News.

The key to Bannon’s fleeting success wasn’t ideas at all. It was what Trump promised: winning. Once Bannon started losing, first with the disastrous Roy Moore campaign in Alabama and then by having to walk sideways away from Paul Nehlen, the off-the-chain white nationalist Breitbart talked up as an alternative to Paul Ryan, the shine was off. Post-Bannon Breitbart is not alone in now having to decide whether it wants to be a journal of a sort or a series of political campaigns that stakes its reputation on delivering wins — and winning streaks in politics are rarely very long. If it is to be a journal, what ideas will it espouse? Batty and atavistic meditations about the American System and tariffs? Le Pen–style reaction? Nehlen-style white-identity politics? Bannon spurned Richard Spencer and other explicit racists, but it is not at all clear what he was spurning them in favor of. The alternative to liberalism is blood-and-soil nationalism, the American answer to Europe’s throne-and-altar conservatism. But a politics of blood and soil will, in a genuinely diverse society such as ours, have to come calling on Richard Spencer et al. sooner or later, either by way of Evola or more directly.

One wonders whether there is anything more to the American Right’s dalliance with the Le Pens of the world than jackboot envy. The SS had a great sense of style, and European fascists have long had a talent for spectacle. What the American Right always has lacked that the American Left has in spades is an aesthetic. The Left excels at protests, at political theater, at the making of images and the production of icons. There is no right-wing Shepard Fairey, no right-wing equivalent of the black-power fist in the air or the quiet but insistent protest of kneeling during the national anthem at sporting events. And it has been a generation since the Right has produced an iconic book such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which every progressive intellectual feels obliged to at least pretend to have read. What do they wave around at right-wing protests? Atlas Shrugged, maybe, but also Confederate flags and, things being what they are, a lot of canes. The tea party may have had its heart in the right place, but those rallies were an embarrassment to many young conservatives, as indeed is much of conservative activism. The American Right doesn’t really do riots, as much as our Democratic friends tried to convince us that there was a “Brooks Brothers riot” during the Florida recount in 2000. The Right isn’t very good at dramatics at all, even on Fox News, which is almost all drama, all the time. Trump has an aesthetic: the ill-cut Brioni suits, the too-long ties, the roadkill hairdo, sure, but also his name in ten-foot-tall gold letters on big buildings from Manhattan to Singapore, the airplane, the trophy wives, the boardroom. The problem with that is, as others have argued, that there is no Trumpism without Trump, and, similarly, the Trump style is not scalable or transferable. But those 10 million Twitter accounts with pictures of Julius Evola in the profile?

That’s a real style, one with a promise of intellectual frisson, a mode of political fashion of which Bannon was not the originator but only a momentary practitioner. That’s who Steve Bannon was.


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