Every anxious citizen on this currently deranged planet of ours should feel a keen interest in penetrating the hyper-active political brain of Steve Bannon, who has been appointed as “senior strategist” by President-elect Donald Trump. Up until the point when he joined the Trump campaign, Bannon was a manically voluble communicator. He gave thundering lectures to right-wing groups. He made films celebrating conservative icons from Reagan to Sarah Palin; there are reports that as a film-maker, Bannon modeled himself on Leni Riefenstahl. He even collaborated on the script for a rap version of Coriolanus, “drawn to Shakespeare’s Roman plays,” according to the woman with whom he co-authored the script, “because of their heroic military violence.” Then Bannon closed up like a clam. Presumably, the time for words had ended; the time for deeds had begun. Bannon is on record as welcoming darkness and destruction. And in Trump, Bannon seems to have found the suitable political instrument of the darkness and destruction for which he yearns.
Since teaming up with Trump, Bannon seems to have broken his silence only to the extent of denying, through Trump spokespersons, that he is a racist. Are these denials reliable? If so, one has to ponder why white supremacists like Richard B. Spencer seem so enthused by the Bannon-Trump consortium. Spencer, one will recall, immediately became the most visible face of the alt-right (neo-fascist) movement in America by greeting the Trump victory with the proclamation, “let’s party like it’s 1933,” and by eliciting Nazi salutes from his followers when he shouted “hail Trump!” at a post-election alt-right conference in Washington. In any case, soon after earning this notoriety, Spencer released a provocative podcast in which he offered the following astonishing commentary on Bannon: “I think Bannon is a wild card, and a wild card is good…. Bannon has made gestures towards us; he’s said Breitbart is a platform for the alt-right. He’s apparently read Julius Evola and Alexander Dugin. Make of that what you will…. We want a wild card; we want change. So, I think Bannon is a good thing.” What’s wrong with this picture?
Julius Evola (1898-1974) was a ferocious racist and anti-egalitarian who characterized his politics as being to the right (!) of European fascism and who helped inspire far-right terrorism in Italy; Alexander Dugin (born 1962) is a Russian fascist who despises liberal democracy and believes in Russian imperial expansion far beyond anything aspired to by Putin.
Clearly, Spencer refers to Bannon’s awareness of Evola and Dugin because he sees it as a further indication that Bannon is with “us.” We’ll turn next to the Bannon “text” to which Spencer is alluding in this commentary. Spencer, in the podcast, goes on to say that the final video ad of the Trump campaign (surely inspired by Bannon) “reminded me quite a bit” of videos produced by N.P.I. (National Policy Institute, Spencer’s far-right, white-nationalist outfit).
A fair bit of 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. Given the paucity of direct evidence with regard to how Bannon thinks politically, what his policy agenda is, and what might define his vision of a desirable politics, it is not surprising that this text is getting attention. In the interests of employing this Skype exchange as a preliminary window into Bannon’s political thinking, we offer the following 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 Republican 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 Putin stands for a firm concept of committed nationality. Insofar as Putin’s nationalism draws sustenance from fascist sources, that doesn’t seem objectionable to Bannon. (He cites Julius Evola and alludes to Alexander Dugin, hence the remarks made by Richard Spencer.) 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 Bannon shared Trump’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 Putinite 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 (dangerously) this lack of thought-out principles may well define the incoming Trump Administration. Whether they have a coherent political vision or not, they conduct themselves in practice simply by appointing the most right-wing people they can find. Welcome to the Age of Trump.
It should not be expected that speech and deeds, logos and praxis, will be in harmony. Bannon and Trump are ruthless operators, playing the political game in a hyper-Machiavellian fashion. Words are not used primarily to express political intentions or to articulate a sincerely-held political vision. To a much greater extent, they serve to keep people guessing or to provide active smokescreens for their real designs (or maybe it’s just a question of getting a “buzz” from knowing that millions of people are getting stirred up by one’s words and images – hence the Riefenstahl fixation). The political activist Bannon casts “crony capitalists” as the root of all evil, yet the Trump cabinet nominations (surely with Bannon’s encouragement) exhibit no shortage of crony capitalists – on the contrary, they seem to predominate. “Globalism” is supposedly the enemy, but that seems not to rule out appointing Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil executives to positions of consummate power.
In truth, the disparate balls being juggled in Bannon’s juggling act – Tea-Party libertarianism, compassionate conservatism, Christian piety and moralism, European-style populist nationalism (not excluding its Putinophile aspects), clash-of-civilizations Islamophobia, with ominous “gestures” to the alt-right – are much too eclectic to be taken at face value. Still, the overall political effect is in deadly earnest. Recent reports suggest that the Trump crew has welcomed the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party at Trump Tower. This is fully consistent with the pattern of Bannon’s political alignments as we know them. Despite what he says, Bannon is emphatically not a political thinker or political doer of the “centre-right” (or at least, what he takes to be centre-right is very far removed indeed from what the vast majority of us understand by the centre-right).
Ronald Beiner is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
In the lecture, Bannon claims that he gives such lectures “three times a week all across the country.”
 Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, “Bannon’s ‘Coriolanus’ Rewrite, New York Times, December 18, 2016, p. SR 2.
 For an account of Dugin’s ideology and why he’s so dangerous, see: http://crookedtimber.org/2015/03/10/who-is-aleksandr-dugin/