Steve Bannon is thought to be the ideological force behind the Trump administration. What does he think? And does Trump agree with him? The indented passages below are quotations taken from Bannon’s remarks for a Conference at the Vatican in 2014. The remaining text is my commentary.
And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … that [if we do not prevail] will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years…. [W]e are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.
Bannon is an apocalyptic (or, more accurately, a kind of millenarianist, as he does not seem to believe that the world will come to an end anytime soon): he believes that a war between good and evil has begun and that its outcome will determine the course of the future. While Trump often speaks in violent terms about the conflict with Islam, Trump presents himself as the strong man who will protect us from security threats rather than as a prophetic figure who will lead us to the promised land. Trump sees the political benefits of demonizing Muslims and throwing up walls on our borders, but doubts that Americans will find appealing the prospect of a never-ending religious war against one and a half billion people.
Critique of Capitalism 1: Crony capitalism
One is state-sponsored capitalism. And that’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. I believe it’s what Holy Father [Pope Francis] has seen for most of his life in places like Argentina, where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people.
… General Electric and these major corporations that are in bed with the federal government are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists. We’re backers of entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re not. They’re what we call corporatist. They want to have more and more monopolistic power and they’re doing that kind of convergence with big government.
Bannon thinks that our market system has been corrupted with cronyism. He appeals to a mythical age of smallholder capitalism. Trump, by contrast, is the crony capitalist par excellence. On the campaign trail, he bragged about his manipulation of government officials in order to advance his business interests. As president, Trump has invited plutocrats into his cabinet while profiting from conflicts of interest and hawking Ivanka’s jewelry.
Critique of Capitalism 2: Libertarian capitalism
The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism…. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as many of the precepts of Marx — and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive. And if they don’t see another alternative, it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of “personal freedom.”
Bannon also objects to what he sees as amoral features of capitalism celebrated by Ayn Rand. He worries about the cultural contradiction of capitalism: that by rewarding greed, it undermines the moral values, like trust and self-discipline, that make capitalism possible in the first place. Bannon, again:
One thing I want to make sure of, if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West.
Trump, by contrast, celebrates all the features of capitalism that moralists like Bannon detest: its glitz and superficiality, its Darwinian obsession with “winning,” and its contempt for “losers.”
The right sort of capitalism
What is the moral style of capitalism that Bannon endorses? In answer to just such a question from a participant at the Vatican conference, he stumbles.
So I think the discussion of, should we put a cap on wealth creation and distribution? It’s something that should be at the heart of every Christian that is a capitalist — “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us, that divine providence has given us to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”
Bannon thinks that faith should guide the capitalist but he does not know what it should tell the capitalist to do. All that one can be sure of is that similar thoughts have never entered Trump’s brain.
Religion and traditional values
I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?
… If you go back to your home countries and your proponent of the defense of the Judeo-Christian West and its tenets, oftentimes, particularly when you deal with the elites, you’re looked at as someone who is quite odd. So it has kind of sapped the strength.
Bannon, like a lot of conservatives, believes that the west has lost (or is in danger of losing) its capacity to defend itself from barbarism because of the collapse of its self-confidence, which in turn can be traced to the rise of moral relativism and the decline of religious values. (An almost perfect fictional depiction of Bannon’s view is Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.) Trump? No.
The central thing that binds that all together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos…. [T]here are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado, and they have more of this elite mentality that they’re going to dictate to everybody how the world’s going to be run.
… And by the way: It’s all the institutions of the accounting firms, the law firms, the investment banks, the consulting firms, the elite of the elite, the educated elite, they understood what they were getting into, forcibly took all the benefits from it and then look to the government, went hat in hand to the government to be bailed out. And they’ve never been held accountable today. Trust me — they are going to be held accountable. You’re seeing this populist movement called the tea party in the United States.
Trump and Bannon find common ground in their hatred of cosmopolitan elites, who arrogantly lord it over the common people. But there is division even here. Bannon’s populism is more thoroughgoing; it is impossible to imagine him approving of Trump’s appointments of plutocrats from Goldman Sachs. While he seems to have genuine populist instincts, Trump trusts rich people, the people he knows best; Bannon does not.
However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s [Putin] talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.
Bannon does not worship Putin, who he recognizes as a kleptocrat. But, like many people on the right, he finds common ground with Putin’s rejection of liberal internationalism. Trump’s view of Putin is best left to future psychobiographers, but Trump, like Bannon, is clearly a nationalist who celebrates state sovereignty.
Bannon versus Trump
It is hard to imagine how Bannon’s romantic apocalyptic thought, and Bannon’s role in the White House, can survive contact with reality. The botched travel ban is only the first illustration. The ban was not sure it was anti-Muslim or pro-national security, and this equivocation doomed it in court.
Trump, I think, has no desire to launch a crusade against Islam—what he wants to do is shut the doors and withdraw America in on itself. He also does not feel any attachment to the sort of religiously based smallholder capitalism that Bannon apparently seeks (whatever it would entail). Trump is pro-business, pro-crony-capitalism, pro-Ayn-Rand-libertarian capitalism, pro-corporatism, all at once. Trump’s views, if pursued rationally, may have a chance of political success based on the interests of business and on the fears of ordinary people frightened of immigration and international trade. Bannon’s do not.