The Radical Anti-Conservatism of Stephen Bannon
Donald Trump’s campaign manager wants to destroy the left. And the GOP nominee is just the most recent vessel of convenience in his consequences-be-damned crusade.
The quote captures a key attribute of the former U.S. Navy officer, whose stints at Georgetown University, Harvard Business School, and Goldman Sachs afforded a foothold at the core of America’s elite, enabling him to launch a film career that began with a Sean Penn collaboration before segueing into polemic right-wing documentaries.
His films, like the web content that Bannon would later oversee at Breitbart.com, which he took over after the untimely death of its eponymous founder, often appear to stand for something––for Ronald Reagan, the subject of one of Bannon’s early efforts, In the Face of Evil; or for Sarah Palin, who got her own standalone biopic; or for the Tea Party, which Bannon would frequently laud in the years after it began, praising Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, even as he excoriated the GOP establishment, declaring, “What we need to do is bitch-slap the Republican Party.”
In that sense, Bannon is radically anti-conservative, with no apparent regard for custom or continuity or prudence or the need to fear and restrain populist passions.
He has allied with Donald Trump against Tea Party politicians he formerly lauded and conservative intellectuals like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, who he once praised, because for him, most on the right were never allies to engage in a cautious, constructive project. They were inconvenient obstacles that lay in the way of fighting the real enemy––a Belgium to blitzkrieg through en route to the real battle.
This anti-left focus was illustrated by Bannon’s telling responses to the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing bailouts. Despite his Goldman Sachs past, he repeatedly harkened back to those events as if they radicalized him, aptly noting that they constituted unconscionable crony capitalism in a country where the middle class is struggling. He even expressed worry about young people, noting “70 percent of our college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed––we’re in a crisis.”
"Goldman Sachs isn’t the firm it once was when I worked for it,” he explained in a gentle 2010 critique, but “is still one of the building blocks of our capitalist society."
In contrast, the following autumn, when protesters outraged by the bailouts descended on Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, inspiring a movement that took hold around the country, Bannon did make the Occupy movement the subject of a hostile film.
Released just prior to Election 2012, it savaged the protests. “After making the Occupy movie, when you finish watching the film, you want to take a hot shower,” he said that October. “You want to go home and shower because you’ve just spent an hour and fifteen minutes with the greasiest, dirtiest people you will ever see.”
An entire ecosystem of irresponsible finance industry professionals had created toxic mortgage-backed securities, given them egregiously misleading ratings, brought about a global catastrophe, and left millions of Americans worse off. Occupy Wall Street was mostly underemployed young people who never wielded enough power to do anyone harm. Still, Bannon’s visceral disgust turned to hippy-bashing soon after they set up camp in Zuccotti Park. He chose to target a movement that, like it or not, had grievances he shared and that caused no significant harms.
This is a representative story in that Bannon’s visceral hatred of the left and self-righteous desire to destroy it frequently appears to overwhelm whatever other moral or ideological beliefs he holds. To the question, “What should Donald Trump’s position on immigration be?” it is not surprising that the answer, now that Bannon runs the campaign, seems to be whatever might boost the candidate’s poll numbers, regardless of how inconsistent that is with what came before.
The desire to destroy the left informs the series of alliances he has made, too.
When Sarah Palin seemed like the most viable vehicle, Bannon urged conservative audiences across the country to consider her a potential presidential candidate in 2012.
Circa 2013, Bannon continued to believe that the only way to destroy the left was a populist uprising of a sort that requires the destruction of the GOP establishment.
“We don’t believe there is a functional conservative party in this country and we certainly don’t think the Republican Party is that,” he told a gathering of conservatives in Washington, D.C. “It’s going to be an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment, and it’s going to continue to hammer this city, both the progressive left and the institutional Republican Party.”
He attributed Breitbart.com’s exponential traffic growth to “showing people that they can have a voice and you can channel that anger, where before you were defenseless. You can take that anger. And by the way, I think anger is a good thing. This country is in a crisis. And if you’re fighting to save this country, if you’re fighting to take this country back, it’s not going to be sunshine and patriots. It’s going to be people who want to fight. I mean, Andrew Breitbart was all about the fight.”
Internally, he said, Breitbart calls itself “The Fight Club,” a reference to a novel-turned-Hollywood-blockbuster about a mentally disturbed white-collar worker. He comes to lead a group of unfulfilled men with aggression issues. They start out fighting each other in basements, morph into a cult, and carry off an act of domestic terrorism. The lead character, who ultimately realizes in horror that his split-personality delusions have led him to become a monster, decides to kill himself.
If that dark streak isn’t enough to portend Breitbart.com’s subsequent embrace of Trump, Bannon added in 2013 that winning requires harnessing outrage, which is needed “to give the system a shock” thereby bring about a better “negotiating position.” What better vessel for stoking outrage than a billionaire with a desperate need to be at the center of attention and decades of practice saying outrageous things to get it?
Here he is speaking in 2014 about Russia’s aggression toward the Ukraine––Bannon felt that President Obama wasn’t doing enough to counter the rival power:
The Russians are very serious about this. They’re not going to let Ukraine fall into the sphere of the United States and the European Union without a fight. And we’re going to see in a couple weeks what they’re prepared to do about it and what we’re prepared to do. And I think it’s very scary, whether you’re a liberal Democrat or a right-win Republican, the president has not comported himself with the gravitas you need when you’re up against really tough hombres like Vladamir Putin and his guys. I think it’s going to get a lot more serious before it gets better.This seems to be an earnest expression of alarm at an American president who, in Bannon’s eyes, possesses neither the knowledge nor the inclination to aggressively counter Russia. Bannon felt an assertion of American strength was geopolitically important. And yet, Bannon would soon turn Breitbart.com into a propaganda arm of the Trump campaign, and then join that campaign itself–– never mind that Trump had spoken admiringly of Putin, suggested he might do nothing if Putin seized neighboring territory, cast doubts on America’s commitment to NATO, demonstrated utter ignorance of events in the Ukraine, and, as if that weren’t enough, employed a campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who “was tangled up in a corruption inquiry and designated to receive millions insecret cash payments from the party of a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine he had helped to elect.”
What he said over the last couple days is really quite infantile… It’s very ironic this happens in the same weak Obama’s Secretary of Defense is going to cut the army to less than World War II levels... They’re out to cut America’s core strength. And part of that core strength is our military apparatus. And they’re doing everything possible to make the military weaker. We’re going to start to see the payoff for that in places like Ukraine when the Soviets can have force projection and we’re sitting there basically hapless: we don’t have the political will; we don’t have the leadership; and we don’t have the military force projection to really do anything, we have to stand by helplessly.
Bannon is eager to elevate Trump to the presidency, despite a record on a matter Bannon himself finds very important that could hardly be more alarming by Bannon’s standards.
G.K. Chesterton once offered sage advice to all who see flaws or corruption and seek reform:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”Bannon is the antithesis of this intelligent reformer.
“This is going to be a very nasty, long, protracted fight,” he told that same 2013 meeting of conservatives. “There is a permanent political class in this city that dominates it, and by that dominates the country. And there is a dedicated group of libertarians and grassroots conservatives and Tea Party conservatives and limited government conservatives that are here to destroy that. And that is going to be ugly tough work. That’s just reality. People are not going to give up an aristocracy easily.”
But the Trumpist movement that Bannon fueled and later joined has been so thoughtless, in its zeal to wage war on its enemy, that it alienated libertarians; divided the Tea Party; stripped the principles that motivate limited government conservatives from the core of the Republican Party; and put America in the unenviable position of possibly handing off its foreign policy and nuclear arsenal to a geopolitically ignorant, erratic, thin-skinned man who picks needless fights and is manifestly unqualified to command a campaign staff, never mind a military.
Bannon may be attacking an “aristocracy.” But his methods are as responsible as a Jacobin. Trump is not his idea of a good president of the United States. Trump is his guillotine.
*He told one audience of presumably wealthy, middle-aged conservatives, “We did cross a line this past week on the Occupy Wall Street. Only I believe in the Revolution were there any marches on Tories’ houses. When they left and they marched on Rupert Murdoch’s house, and Jamie Diamond’s house, and Mr. Koch’s house, and there was one other––four houses that they actually marched on––that shows you the types of things that are going to happen.” I am not a fan of marches on the homes of individuals. Put another way I’d have applauded the critique. But in a nation where General Sherman burned his way through the South; where World War I era “patriots” marched on the farms of German Americans, shaking them down for donations to fight the Kaiser; where the Klu Klux Klan not only marched on the homes of African Americans, but burned crosses on their lawns and dragged them from their beds to lynchings; and where SWAT raids gone wrong are a ubiquitous part of urban life in many communities, Bannon dared to cast fleeting marches on the houses of a few people, none of whom were harmed or even at risk of harm, as a historic rubicon crossed.