Steve Bannon phoned up the editor of a left-wing website, and proceeded to have a conversation about China, North Korea, white nationalism, and internal battles in the Trump administration.
The resulting piece, “Steve Bannon, Unrepentant” went so viral that The American Prospect’s servers keep crashing.
Everyone seems to have a hot take on this interview, and there’s a lot to unpack. So let me first start with why Bannon may have placed the call.
More puzzling is the fact that Bannon would phone a writer and editor of a progressive publication (the cover lines on whose first two issues after Trump’s election were “Resisting Trump” and “Containing Trump”) and assume that a possible convergence of views on China trade might somehow paper over the political and moral chasm on white nationalism.
Is Bannon laying the ground for his own termination? Is he falling on his sword to make the decision easier for Trump to fire him?
A message to Trump?
I think it’s more complicated than that. The relationship between Trump and Bannon is one of mutual manipulation. Trump used Bannon to help organize and contain his ugly shock troops, and Bannon used Trump to featherbed Breitbart and his own career. They both used each other very effectively.
Since John Kelly took over, there’s no free access to the Oval Office, even (especially) to Bannon. If he wants his views presented to Trump, Bannon has to go through the filter–and the filter is not particularly friendly to his views. Another way to reach Trump is through the media. Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus and others, past and present, in the White House, have used this method to get the boss’s attention.
So the interview may have been a message to Trump–in essence sneaking a note onto the president’s desk without going through Kelly.
It could also have been Bannon’s attempt to throw a lifeline to Trump, whose own bluster on North Korea, and utter failure to engage the Chinese and allow them to save face has painted him into a corner. Doing the end-around on Kelly may, in Bannon’s thinking, give Trump some elbow room to move, and help break the personnel logjam bedeviling Rex Tillerson at State.
Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, remarked that he’d never before spoken with Bannon. “I came away from the conversation with a sense both of his savvy and his recklessness,” Kuttner wrote. “The waters around him are rising, but he is going about his business of infighting, and attempting to cultivate improbable outside allies, to promote his China strategy.”
A collection of clowns
Most startling to many, is Bannon’s blasé public dismissal of the “alt-right” white nationalists he so carefully cultivated at Breitbart. Is he lying to make himself look good or is he serious?
He dismissed the far right as irrelevant and sidestepped his own role in cultivating it: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more.”
“These guys are a collection of clowns,” he added.
Efforts to paint Bannon himself as a racist have been around since he elevated his role in the Trump campaign. It’s very clear that Bannon did cultivate the “alt-right,” but Trump cultivated them first. Bannon corralled them and made money doing it, promoting the fabulous Milo Yiannopoulos.
To me, and this is likely a position counter to many conservative pundits, Bannon is not allied with the “alt-right,” particularly the racist “ethno-nationalist” movement. I believe him when he calls them losers.
In his 2014 Skype talk to the Human Dignity Institute, published by Buzzfeed in late 2016, Bannon articulated his beliefs rather clearly as nationalist-capitalist. He is not a “blood and soil” nationalist, but a capitalist who realizes national sovereignty and cultural proclivities is a means to efficient trade among self-interested nations. His main complaint about the world is the rise of cronyism that denies the benefits of capitalism to working-class people.
Questioner: Very simply put, there’s a growing movement among young people here in Europe, in France and in Austria and elsewhere, and they’re arguing very effectively against Wall Street institutions and they’re also appealing to people on an ethnic and racial level. And I was just wondering what you would recommend to counteract these movements, which are growing.
Bannon: One of the reasons that you can understand how they’re being fueled is that they’re not seeing the benefits of capitalism. I mean particularly — and I think it’s particularly more advanced in Europe than it is in the United States, but in the United States it’s getting pretty advanced — is that when you have this kind of crony capitalism, you have a different set of rules for the people that make the rules. It’s this partnership of big government and corporatists. I think it starts to fuel, particularly as you start to see negative job creation. If you go back, in fact, and look at the United States’ GDP, you look at a bunch of Europe. If you take out government spending, you know, we’ve had negative growth on a real basis for over a decade.
And that all trickles down to the man in the street. If you look at people’s lives, and particularly millennials, look at people under 30 — people under 30, there’s 50% really underemployment of people in the United States, which is probably the most advanced economy in the West, and it gets worse in Europe.
I think in Spain it’s something like 50 or 60% of the youth under 30 are underemployed. And that means the decade of their twenties, which is where you have to learn a skill, where you have to learn a craft, where you really start to get comfortable in your profession, you’re taking that away from the entire generation. That’s only going to fuel tribalism, that’s only going to fuel [unintelligible]… That’s why to me, it’s incumbent upon freedom-loving people to make sure that we sort out these governments and make sure that we sort out particularly this crony capitalism so that the benefits become more of this entrepreneurial spirit and that can flow back to working-class and middle-class people. Because if not, we’re going to pay a huge price for this. You can already start to see it.
Unemployed, disaffected, discouraged people tend to gravitate toward extreme philosophies. Whether its antifa, BLM, ISIS, or “alt-right” nationalism, the have-nots tend to find solace and acceptance in groups devoted to getting them what they don’t have and feel they can’t get themselves.
To Bannon, the natural affection of middle-class populism to Trump was an easy choice. He knew there were fringe elements that embraced racism in the mix, and dismissed them then as he does now.
By the way, even in the tea party, we have a broad movement like this, and we’ve been criticized, and they try to make the tea party as being racist, etc., which it’s not. But there’s always elements who turn up at these things, whether it’s militia guys or whatever. Some that are fringe organizations. My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right? People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.
Consistent and unrelenting
Bannon has one core principle: Governments shouldn’t pick economic winners and losers. Crony capitalism, bad trade deals, hegemony. He wants to beat foreign interests who try to beat America economically and militarily, while dismantling crony capitalism and over -regulation at home.
This, fundamentally, is a conservative message.
Where Bannon splits with many conservatives is his somewhat amoral and cynical application of strategy to achieve his goals. He uses people, like Trump uses people. He’s not a nice person by all accounts.
To his credit, Bannon seems to care that “ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes” of any war with North Korea. I agree with that sentiment, although I’m not sure Trump himself does.
In the end, I think Bannon simply doesn’t care if he gets fired. If it happens, he’ll fight his battle from another fort. If not the White House, he’ll go back to Breitbart or another venue. But while in the White House, Bannon will remain consistent and unrelenting in his efforts. Even if that means he has to call on someone on the other end of the political spectrum to be heard.