To what can we compare Stephen Bannon? I’m always tempted to see him as the picture to Donald Trump’s Dorian Gray, his face bursting another capillary every time Trump provokes North Korea on Twitter. A more serious analogy is to a sort of non-violent Jean-Paul Marat, the French Revolution-era scientist-turned-radical journalist. Like Bannon, Marat was a fervid nationalist. Like Bannon, he had his own populist newspaper, L’Ami du peuple (“The people’s friend”), which, as with Breitbart, became a case study in how a media outlet can undermine establishment politics. Like Bannon, Marat was obsessed with rooting out moderates wilting before his revolution, for him the Girondin members of France’s new assembly. And like Bannon, he was ultimately felled by the same supposed accommodators he’d tried to purge, in the former’s case the increasingly pliable Trump, in the latter’s a young Girondin named Charlotte Corday who stabbed Marat to death in his bathtub.
The most persuasive similarity between the two, however, is simply that Bannon is also a radical whose tactics, if not principles, have been lifted from the left rather than the right. Bannon himself has admitted as much, telling historian Ronald Radosh that he’s a “Leninist” who wants “to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Barbara Boland was absolutely right in her recent essay at TAC to note that Bannon measures up poorly against the powerful advisors of history: he doesn’t have the flexibility of a Machiavelli or the cognitive dissonance of a Seneca the Younger; his interest is in broadly enforcing his ideological blueprint, not dabbling in the minutiae of White House administration. Trump was only ever a vessel for his agenda. Though our ham-handed politics labels Bannon a “conservative,” he has about as much in common with Edmund Burke as your average sans-culotte, something I wager he’d readily admit to.
Bannon is an imperfect ideologue. He has a gargantuan ego that often leads him astray, perhaps lately towards the delusion that he himself would be a better populist messenger than the man he helped elect. But he’s also hit on a paradox at the core of today’s American conservatism. Conservatives, in theory at least, look with skepticism upon grand projects and giant leaps, which too often end up rupturing with the societal traditions they hold dear. Yet much of what conservatives support today is actually quite radical: banning all or most abortions, rolling back the regulatory state, rejecting decades of orthodoxy on the issue of climate change, a massive downshift of power from the federal government to states and localities, a moral ethic rooted in Christianity rather than identity politics—and lately questioning the “liberal international order” in favor of something more nationalist and protectionist. The enactment of such an agenda would cause a good deal of upheaval and uncertainty, exactly the sort of void conservatives’ forebears feared most.
Some have wrangled with this contradiction by scaling back their proposals, claiming great problems can be addressed with light-touch solutions, like child tax credits to arrest sagging birth rates. Others, much of Conservative Inc. it seems, are fine pretending this tension doesn’t exist at all. Bannon’s approach has been to gleefully embrace conservatism’s radical side. Disagree with him all you like (and I do), but his is a perfectly logical position. His ascent—some would say his transformation—is a predictable consequence of conservatives yearning for something increasingly distant from the modern world, just as did young people in the quietly simmering 1950s. Indeed, there are many stylistic similarities between the radicals of today and those half a century ago: the “for the lulz” performance art of a Milo Yiannopoulos contains an echo of the prankster Yippies, for example. Those who lack cultural power can sell out, they can evolve, they can retreat to the catacombs—or they can take Bannon’s approach, they can transgress and pump their fists and try to burn it all down.
Bannon’s digestible binaries—establishment versus the people, globalists versus Americans—are easily superimposed on an electorate that’s itself divided both economically and culturally. Red states and the Rust Belt have for decades been the victims of bad federal policy; Bannonism gives them an abstract enemy to blame, a valve for their fury. The algorithmic and library-voiced Mitt Romney and the earnest Paul Ryan seem woefully inadequate by comparison: have those praying they run for higher office again learned nothing? In The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek critiques conservatism by defining it as “a brake on the vehicle of progress” and observing that a mere decrease in speed “cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving.” Likewise, while conventional taxes-and-terrorism Republican rhetoric doesn’t feel like much of a heave on the ship’s wheel, Bannonism furnishes a clear vision, a real change, swords to wield, dragons to slay. Guess which one has greater appeal right now?
The modern right has always had a whiff of radicalism about it, with origins in pushback against the 60s counterculture, a second wind in Newt Gingrich’s legislative reformation, and late-life vitality in the Saul Alinsky-invoking tea party. But it’s with Bannon that the odor has become most pungent. He is an unlikely revolutionary. An early profile from Bloomberg Businessweek in 2015 portrays him as more of an operative than anything, determined to professionalize a conservative movement that had made too many unforced errors. Other pre-Trump appearances found Bannon worrying about the national debt and extolling his Catholic faith. It’s a windy road from there to storming the barricades under Donald Trump’s sigil, but it’s one many conservatives have traveled in recent years. The challenge for more traditional Republicans will be fashioning a new politics that quenches voters’ burning thirst for change—a position they’ve arrived at themselves, not been brainwashed into by Fox News—while circumventing Bannonism’s conflagrations and The Camp of the Saints ugliness.
As for Bannon himself, his downfall has been fast and unceremonious: trashed by the president after he gossiped to Michael Wolff, abandoned by his deep-pocketed Mercer family funders, sacked by Breitbart, and then forced to watch as Trump indicated in a meeting earlier this week that he could sign a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Marat’s downfall saw him elevated into a revolutionary martyr; Bannon has been banished into exile. But revolutions don’t die with their figureheads. Bannonism won’t either because, unlike the ethereal ideas behind liberalism and conservatism, it’s found visceral real-world resonance—among blue collars who see economic nationalism as a glimmer of hope among boarded-up plants, service-members frustrated with fruitless wars, young men flummoxed by modern feminism, right-wing activists frustrated with their political party’s perceived impotence. Taunt Bannon all you like, but the imprint he leaves behind will be far larger than one spurious tell-all.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.