Since Trump elevated Steve Bannon to be his Karl Rove, several of you have pressed me to say what I think of him. It has been framed as, “Now that Trump will be bringing such a berserk bigot into the White House, you are obliged to denounce them all. What’s taking you so long?”
I’ll tell you what was taking so long: I genuinely can’t get a handle on Bannon. As I started reading up on him, I realized that I had absorbed the narrative that he is a complete and total villain. But something about the stories and opinion pieces I was reading about him didn’t quite fit. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I read the transcript of a 2014 speech he gave at a Vatican conference, and it set me back. Excerpts:
It’s ironic, I think, that we’re talking today at exactly, tomorrow, 100 years ago, at the exact moment we’re talking, the assassination took place in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the bloodiest century in mankind’s history. Just to put it in perspective, with the assassination that took place 100 years ago tomorrow in Sarajevo, the world was at total peace. There was trade, there was globalization, there was technological transfer, the High Church of England and the Catholic Church and the Christian faith was predominant throughout Europe of practicing Christians. Seven weeks later, I think there were 5 million men in uniform and within 30 days there were over a million casualties.
That war triggered a century of barbaric — unparalleled in mankind’s history — virtually 180 to 200 million people were killed in the 20th century, and I believe that, you know, hundreds of years from now when they look back, we’re children of that: We’re children of that barbarity. This will be looked at almost as a new Dark Age.
But the thing that got us out of it, the organizing principle that met this, was not just the heroism of our people — whether it was French resistance fighters, whether it was the Polish resistance fighters, or it’s the young men from Kansas City or the Midwest who stormed the beaches of Normandy, commandos in England that fought with the Royal Air Force, that fought this great war, really the Judeo-Christian West versus atheists, right? The underlying principle is an enlightened form of capitalism, that capitalism really gave us the wherewithal. It kind of organized and built the materials needed to support, whether it’s the Soviet Union, England, the United States, and eventually to take back continental Europe and to beat back a barbaric empire in the Far East.
That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana. It was many, many years and decades of peace. And I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.
And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.
Yes, right! A guy with this kind of insight is the white supremacist ogre moving into a White House office? Really? More, from the Q&A:
Benjamin Harnwell, Human Dignity Institute: Thank you, Steve. That was a fascinating, fascinating overview. I am particularly struck by your argument, then, that in fact, capitalism would spread around the world based on the Judeo-Christian foundation is, in fact, something that can create peace through peoples rather than antagonism, which is often a point not sufficiently appreciated. Before I turn behind me to take a question —
Bannon: 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. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything is that, everything is looked at as a securitization opportunity. People are looked at as commodities. I don’t believe that our forefathers had that same belief.
This is the anti-Semite troll I’ve been told so much about? Again: really? Bannon, a veteran of Goldman Sachs, spends a big part of the Q&A period criticizing crony capitalism, in particular conservative politicians who support it. Excerpt:
In fact, one of the committees in Congress said to the Justice Department 35 executives, I believe, that they should have criminal indictments against — not one of those has ever been followed up on. Because even with the Democrats, right, in power, there’s a sense between the law firms, and the accounting firms, and the investment banks, and their stooges on Capitol Hill, they looked the other way.
So you can understand why middle class people having a tough go of it making $50 or $60 thousand a year and see their taxes go up, and they see that their taxes are going to pay for government sponsored bailouts, what you’ve created is really a free option. You say to this investment banking, create a free option for bad behavior. In otherwise all the upside goes to the hedge funds and the investment bank, and to the crony capitalist with stock increases and bonus increases. And their downside is limited, because middle class people are going to come and bail them out with tax dollars.
Read the whole thing. Note well that Bannon gave this speech, and answered questions about it (also in the transcript), in 2014. I agree with a lot of what he says here, though I fear that his belief that the racists and anti-Semites of the Alt-Right will “all burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement” — I fear that that is too naive. If Bannon and Trump really believe that these people are fringey creeps that they don’t want in their movement, then they need to clearly and forcefully distance themselves from that crowd. They can’t play footsie with them, cultivating them when it’s politically useful, then claiming they have nothing to do with them.
Okay. Then I read Michael Wolff’s interview with Bannon last week. Excerpts:
In these dark days for Democrats, Bannon has become the blackest hole.
“Darkness is good,” says Bannon, who amid the suits surrounding him at Trump Tower, looks like a graduate student in his T-shirt, open button-down and tatty blue blazer — albeit a 62-year-old graduate student. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they” — I believe by “they” he means liberals and the media, already promoting calls for his ouster — “get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
Whoa! When I first read that, my jaw dropped. Then I realized that context is everything here. Bannon seems to be speaking in a joking manner, saying that the fear Team Trump’s enemies have of them blinds them (the enemies) to what Team Trump is up to. More:
It’s the Bannon theme, the myopia of the media — that it tells only the story that confirms its own view, that in the end it was incapable of seeing an alternative outcome and of making a true risk assessment of the political variables — reaffirming the Hillary Clinton camp’s own political myopia. This defines the parallel realities in which liberals, in their view of themselves, represent a morally superior character and Bannon — immortalized on Twitter as a white nationalist, racist, anti-Semite thug — the ultimate depravity of Trumpism.
So: is Bannon trolling the media, and the rest of us? More:
Bannon, arguably, is one of the people most at the battle line of the great American divide — and one of the people to have most clearly seen it.
He absolutely — mockingly — rejects the idea that this is a racial line. “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist,” he tells me. “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over. If we deliver” — by “we” he means the Trump White House — “we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years. That’s what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.”
Read the whole thing. I still can’t say I know what Steve Bannon is really all about, but I will say for certain that I do not trust the reporting on him. Take a look at this short piece about the neurological basis of confirmation bias. I think Bannon, intentionally or not, is operating on the borderline between what is and what we would like to believe.
Last night, I received an e-mail from a friend, someone you’ve heard of, someone who is an acute observer of American political culture. The topic of his letter: Steve Bannon. He started his e-mail with:
Do you ever feel like the liberal freakout makes it hard for you to actually form an opinion?
I have spent too long trying to figure this out. Like: what do I actually feel?
The answer is, I think, that I think he’s not a racist and has no interest in white nationalism. But that he also has a remarkable faith that the ethnic nationalist side of the alt-right will just go away with time. That’s led him to tolerate and even cultivate relationships with certain parts of the alt-right, and some of them have been remarkably ugly people whose views could cause a lot of damage if allowed to spread.
I can’t tell you what a relief it was to read that an actual famous smart guy had the same sense that I did about Bannon: that he has some pretty nasty associations that he doesn’t take seriously enough, but that the liberal media reporting on him is not trustworthy. I thought I was being irresponsible or dense by not being able to get a handle on Bannon. Maybe I am. Maybe we both are. But I don’t think so.
This is not a satisfying conclusion for you, I admit. It is not a satisfying conclusion for me. But it’s what I have now.
UPDATE: In this context, let me lend my emphatic support to what Yuval Levin wrote in the wake of Trump’s victory, especially this:
In a similar spirit, and even more important, we should also recognize that for many Americans, regardless of their politics, this turn of events cannot help but be somewhat frightening. They have been witness in recent months not only to talk of Donald Trump’s obvious proclivities to viciousness but also to evidence of the depravity of some—a few, to be sure, but some—among his supporters. I have myself experienced a torrent of anti-Semitism that I had pleasantly imagined might not exist in America, and others have experienced and witnessed far worse.
To acknowledge that some among our fellow citizens have this concern is not to say that Trump’s support is rooted in racism, which it is not. It is not to say that his concerns about immigration are fundamentally xenophobic, which they are not. It is only to say that as good neighbors and good citizens we ought to be sensitive to the fears and concerns of those with whom we share this wonderful country. We must see that their worries, even if ultimately not well founded in the reality of the election, are nonetheless rooted in some realities of American life that have been both made clearer and exacerbated by this election season. And it is incumbent upon us on the Right, perhaps especially among those who championed Trump but also among those who didn’t, to offer some respectful, even loving, reassurance. It is above all incumbent upon Trump himself to offer reassurance that such worries, experienced by some as genuinely existential worries, are unfounded with regard to him, and to be clear that whatever his past he will not govern as a bully. His remarks last night certainly gestured toward such reassurance, which was very good to see.
Meanwhile, these tweets from a NYTimes reporter who interviewed Trump today:
Trump on alt-right supporters: “It’s not a group I want to energize. And if they are energized I want to look into it and find out why.”
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
On Bannon:”If I thought he was a racist or alt-right or any of the things, the terms we could use, I wouldn’t even think about hiring him.”
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
Trump on Bannon: “I think it’s very hard on him. I think he’s having a hard time with it. Because it’s not him.”
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
UPDATE: Reader Liam recommends this interview with Ben Shapiro, who used to work for Bannon at Breitbart. It’s good. Shapiro’s basic take is that Bannon is not an anti-Semite or a racist, but his hunger for power makes him willing to make common cause with anti-Semites and racists of the alt-right, which is pretty horrible. Excerpt:
I think that Steve will stop if it becomes politically convenient for him to stop. Steve is not a deeply principled guy on politics; it’s not like he’s coming in with this ramrod agenda. He’s coming in and he’s talking about big government spending. He’s talking about trillion-dollar infrastructure packages. If you had to peg Steve down on ideology or philosophy, you’d say he’s sort of like a European far-right leader. He’s more like Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage than he is like a constitutional conservative. He doesn’t like constitutional conservatism; he thinks that it’s an obstacle in the way of building this new Third Way movement, this independent political movement that is focused on heavy spending—even some redistribution inside the country—but closed borders and tariffs for everybody outside. He calls himself an economic nationalist. They say, “Are you a white nationalist?” and he says, “No, I’m an economic nationalist.” And then when he’s asked about white nationalism and its effect on the far-right in Europe, he says that will sort of fade away as time goes on, and they’ll legitimize. I don’t think so. I’ve never seen a bad movement or a bad person, yet, given power and they become better people.
I understand why people are concerned about Trump being president; I’m concerned about Trump being president. I think that it’s up to everybody to hold him accountable. But if you’re asking what’s going to impact policy? As I said to Charles Blow on CNN, please do not turn everything up to 11. Everybody’s going deaf. If you’re all going to go nuts over a Hamilton tweet, wait until he’s using the White House to do business for Trump Inc. Look at what his people want. And I’m not talking about the alt-right; the alt-right is going to back him no matter what. I’m talking about the traditional Republican voter who wants to see him do certain things. Watch where he commits a heresy and then say, “If the shoe were on the other foot and this were Obama, you’d be ticked.”
So for example, if Barack Obama went to an event, was booed, and then started tweeting about how terrible the event was and how all the people should shut up and apologize, you’d be ticked. It wouldn’t mean that he was censoring anything, but you’d be ticked, and you’d have a right to be ticked.
The same thing is true for some of the Trump business reports. There’s a report today that may or may not be verified—we’re still finding out—about him trying to hit up the president of Argentina for a special favor on Trump Tower. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but we do know, according to the Washington Post, that Trump Hotel representatives have been telling ambassadors to use Trump Hotels when they come to town. That’s a serious conflict, obviously.
I think that the more the left focuses on the things that are actually serious regardless of your politics—like corruption, like policies that are self-directed, that kind of stuff—that will have more of an impact than just going around shouting, “Racist, racist, racist!” I think one of the big problems here is that if you called Mitt Romney a racist in 2012—as Bill Maher said, if you turned it all the way up to 11 for Mitt Romney—it’s very difficult for people to hear you when you turn it up to 12 for Trump.