Just hours before Breitbart announced that Steve Bannon was stepping down from its news network, I spent more than an hour with him in Washington, D.C., listened carefully to his “stump speech” about the case for economic nationalism in America, and discussed with him some of my differences of opinion regarding the current plight of working-class Americans. The experience made clear to me what I believe is the tragedy of Steve Bannon — and, more particularly, the tragedy of Bannonism.
I have never encountered anyone who more passionately and sincerely holds his beliefs. Bannonism is essentially the notion that a blend of populism and nationalism, with a bit of nihilism sprinkled in for good measure, is the need of the hour — if one’s objective is to save Western civilization, or at least America’s place within it. Bannonism is not only ideological, though; it’s tactical. In Bannon’s view, blowing up congressional and senatorial races is a good thing if it means hurting “the establishment.” His benchmark does not seem to be success traditionally defined but rather, “Whom did we make mad here?”
The tactics and personality associated with Bannonism are contemptible, as I see them, but the ideological foundation is intriguing. Wrong, but intriguing: More analysis is in order.
In a nutshell, Bannon believes that the “elites” gave us a rules-based global order a generation ago, and the “deplorables” are now paying for it. He equates elitism with globalism, and, by “globalism,” he largely means China’s ascendancy. There is virtually no problem in American society, and certainly no impediment to working-class Americans’ quality of life, that cannot be explained by the “authoritarian, mercantilist” enemy: China. I asked him whether he believed there was any cultural, social, or ethical explanation that might make sense of the problems facing working-class middle America. His answer: Social disintegration is the result of the actions of the global elites, not the cause of their own distress.
As with all populists, his message has broad appeal. The “elite Ivy leaguers caused the financial crisis,” for instance, is a blame-casting message that is delicious for those who speculated irresponsibly in the financial crisis, but the accusation does not hold up to scrutiny. Demonizing the elites for all they have gotten wrong creates fertile ground for all sorts of counter-narratives.
This is where Bannon goes to work. We must view China as an enemy, not as a strategic partner. We must blow up the conventional thinking about trade and capital flows; it is an obsolete by-product of a failed elite. (Would Adam Smith agree?) For the past 40 years, the “deplorables” have been the victims of one external force and circumstance after another: China, Mexico, free trade, NAFTA, the Iraq War, immigration, job outsourcing, etc.
The frustration for me is not where Bannonism goes wrong, but what it gets right. “Communism as an economic experiment failed miserably, but Communism as a cultural experiment is alive and well,” Bannon says. “Cultural Marxism is as real and dangerous now as it ever was in the Cold War, probably more so.” This is an obvious and profound truth that demands our attention and a response, but when it comes packaged alongside a plethora of Bannonist deficiencies, we could well ignore it. That would be tragic.
Bannonism has misdiagnosed what has broken down in our nation’s immigration system, has completely misunderstood the realities of working-class America, and has reconstructed modern history to fit into a ready-made nativist framework. To accept the underlying premises in Bannonism is to reject the most basic understanding of economics, cultural formation, and good civic society. We can avoid the dangers of globalism without rejecting globalization wholesale. We can embrace the melting pot of immigration without bowing at the altar of multiculturalism. And while we ought to acknowledge that China is a Marxist state guilty of frequent and grave human-rights violations (criticisms I’ve never heard from Bannon, by the way), we don’t need to blame the travails of blue-collar Americans on China’s economic ascent
We can embrace the melting pot of immigration without bowing at the altar of multiculturalism.
Steve Bannon’s spectacular fall from grace over the last week — in the eyes of the president, his key financial supporters, and now the media outlet that served as his instrument — is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. Frankly, Bannon seemed unaffected by it yesterday, though I know that is more show than truth. I cannot bring myself to celebrate his demise; I have a visceral disdain for grave-dancing and for piling on someone when he is down.
But I would celebrate the demise of Bannonism if I felt it was really being dumped on the ash heap of history, where it belongs. The trouble is, I am not sure that Bannonism is quite as dead as many believe Bannon himself to be.
The challenge conservatives and patriots face is that they must answer the call of populist angst without condoning its most vulgar impulses. We must understand the challenges of the working class, repudiate cultural Marxism, and defend a patriotic sense of American national interest, but we can do all this only without Bannonism. We can do it without adopting depression-inducing isolationist trade policies and other such frivolities. We can do it without assenting to progressives’ argument that the well-off pay too few taxes. We can do it without making bedfellows of alt-right ne’er-do-wells. And we can reject the nihilism that disingenuously blames the “establishment” for all that is wrong while taking credit for all that goes right.
Steve Bannon is correct that a lot rides on the next two decades of American politics. For my money, I’d say that the conservative cause in these years will fare better without the drag of Bannonism. But removing that drag is not contingent upon anything Bannon’s followers, the alt-right, or Breitbart readers do. It is up to movement conservatives to learn the positive and negative lessons, and remain rooted in truth and grace.