Steve Bannon will soon be entering the White House as senior strategist for the new president.
What’s his political vision, insofar as he has one? Much attention has been given to a discussion in which Bannon participated via Skype in the context of a 2014 conference held in the Vatican, the full transcript of which is available online. It is not surprising that this text is getting attention, since we have few direct windows into Bannon’s political thinking. What follows is a summary of leading themes.
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 anti-religious and anti-capitalist.
Again and again, Bannon rails against “crony capitalism.” (This from a former investment banker working 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 St. 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 favors 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 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 latter as “center right,” because they represent 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.
While conceding that Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy, Bannon defends far-right (“center-right”!) populist movements in Europe with respect to admiring Putin, because the latter stands for a firm concept of committed nationality. Insofar as Putin’s nationalism draws sustenance from fascist sources (Bannon cites Julius Evola and alludes to Alexander Dugin), that doesn’t seem objectionable to Bannon. He even goes so far as to suggest that the centralized U.S. government matches the E.U. in its elitism and detachment from the ordinary citizenry.
Should both be disbanded? Bannon definitely gestures in that direction.
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 that 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.
Putting it all together, his worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of elites. One can speculate that Trump was drawn to Bannon, because the latter shared former’s sense of the political opportunities ripe to be exploited of European-style right-wing populism. Whatever is driving the rise of populism in Europe can drive populism in America as well.
Beyond this strategic instinct or insight, neither of them seems to have any particularly coherent idea of what they believe in, 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 comport with his commitment to hard-nosed capitalism (the harder-nosed the better)? How does his vehement anti-statism mesh with his forbearance for authoritarian 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 the making of money and the consolidating of 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 this lack of thought-out principles now defines the incoming Administration. Welcome to the Age of Trump.
Ronald Beiner is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1982 he published an edition of Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (foreign-language editions have appeared or are forthcoming in 15 other languages). He is the author of Political Judgment (1983); What’s the Matter with Liberalism? (1992); Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit (1997); Liberalism, Nationalism, Citizenship (2003); and Civil Religion (2011). His other edited or co-edited books include Democratic Theory and Technological Society (1988); Kant and Political Philosophy (1993); Theorizing Citizenship (1995); Theorizing Nationalism (1999); Canadian Political Philosophy (2001); and Judgment, Imagination, and Politics (2001).