This week, President-elect Donald Trump named Steve Bannon as his chief White House strategist. Coverage of the appointment has (rightly) focused on the fact that Bannon ran a far-right website frequented by white supremacists and once, allegedly, told his ex-wife that he didn’t want their children going to school with “whiney” Jews.
But even if Bannon had never employed Milo Yiannopoulos or objected to all the “Hanukkah books” in the library of his daughter’s school, his appointment would still be remarkable — because it means that the next Republican president’s chief strategist will be a man who considers the GOP House Speaker his political archenemy.
Bannon informed his staffers at Breitbart that a core part of their editorial mission was to “destroy Paul Ryan’s political career.” In December, he told one of his reporters that his “long game” was to have Ryan ousted from his Speakership by spring 2016. Both of these directives came after Trump had launched his campaign — and before Ryan had expressed any approval of the GOP front-runner. But the roots of Bannon’s antipathy for the Speaker and his ilk predates this election cycle — in 2014, Trump’s chief strategist told his fellow religious conservatives that “the tea party’s biggest fight is not with the left,” but rather with “the Republican establishment, which is really a collection of crony capitalists.”
Donald Trump spent much of his campaign taking positions that put him at odds with Republican orthodoxy, and thus with Ryan’s vision for the GOP. But the president-elect’s stances also proved relentlessly vague and malleable. And his most heretical rhetoric — about the need to raise taxes on the rich or crack down on Wall Street, for example — often belied conventionally conservative policy proposals.
It isn’t hard, then, to imagine Trump and Ryan reconciling their disparate political beliefs, since the former may not truly have any, while the latter appears ready to compromise on nearly any principle save the righteousness of redistributing wealth upward.
But Bannon may be a different story. The phrase “alt-right” often functions as a pernicious euphemism for meme-savvy white nationalism. But there’s a sense in which the term is an apt descriptor of Bannon’s political project — the Breitbart mastermind has spent a lot of time and intellectual energy trying to update and popularize an alternative to mainstream American conservatism that was previously championed by the likes of James Burnham and Pat Buchanan.
On Tuesday, BuzzFeed News provided us with what is perhaps the richest elaboration of Bannon’s worldview yet published — a transcript of a 2014 talk Bannon gave to the Human Dignity Institute, a conservative Christian group founded to promote a “Christian voice” in European politics.
Some of the ideological divisions between Bannon and Ryan have long been clear and unambiguous. Breitbart has routinely savaged the Speaker for supporting various forms of expansionary immigration and failing to take a strong enough stance against the threat of radical Islam.
But in his 2014 remarks, Bannon offers a much broader and more radical critique of the movement conservatism that Ryan embodies.
Perhaps, the most critical disparity between the two men’s worldviews is the way they conceptualize the relationship between working people and America’s economic elites. While Paul Ryan champions our nation’s corporate titans as “job creators” — whose prosperity is inextricably linked with that of the middle class — Bannon paints them as rootless, godless elites whose wealth is harvested from the exploitation of ordinary people.
This split is reflected in Bannon’s and Ryan’s diametrically opposed assessments of libertarian novelist and theorist Ayn Rand. Ryan heralds Rand as one of his greatest intellectual influences, and requires his interns to read Atlas Shrugged.
In his 2014 remarks, Bannon took a different view. Lamenting the erosion of a “form of capitalism” that adhered to the “spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity,” Bannon decried the “state capitalism” ascendant in China and Russia — and the libertarian capitalism taking over the United States.
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…that form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. 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.”
At times, it can be difficult to discern precisely what part of libertarianism Bannon objects to. He evinces admiration for “entrepreneurial capitalists,” explaining that he only resents the “corporatist” rich, whose wealth derives from rents secured via the government. And his vision of economic utopia — a “harder-nosed” capitalism where the market is truly free from government distortions like the Export–Import Bank — is identical to that of Rand acolytes like the Koch brothers.
But in other moments, he expresses skepticism about libertarianism’s idolatry of the market, and suggests that the economic sphere cannot be separated from the moral one in a truly Christian nation.
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?”
He further decries the greed and faithlessness of today’s economic elites, explaining that “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.”
His opposition to those elites becomes concrete, in policy terms when he reflects on his own experience as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. Bannon not only voices disdain for the bailouts, but complains that “not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis. And in fact, it gets worse. No bonuses and none of their equity was taken.” What’s more, he appears to endorse some version of Glass-Steagall and the Volcker rule in Dodd–Frank:
I think you really need to go back and make banks do what they do: Commercial banks lend money, and investment banks invest in entrepreneurs and to get away from this trading — you know, the hedge fund securitization, which they’ve all become basically trading operations and securitizations and not put capital back and really grow businesses and to grow the economy.
Bannon’s belief that working people and corporate America (as currently constituted) have radically different interests informs Breitbart’s attacks on Paul Ryan over immigration policy.
In July, Breitbart’s Neil Munro criticized Ryan’s support for designing immigration policy around the “gaps” in America’s labor market:
By offering foreign workers to fill so-called “gaps” in the labor market, Ryan would give employers a huge gift — the ability to hire foreign workers whenever American employees or young job-seekers ask for higher wages, and without ever having to train any Americans to take higher-tech, higher-wage jobs. That’s a huge giveaway to employers and to Wall Street, where stock prices rise when wages drop.
Wall Street treats Americans as “commodities” — as labor costs, not citizens. In Bannon’s view, the crony capitalists’ callous indifference to the economic stability of “working people” is paired with a similar indifference to their cultural stability, arguing that “there 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 that these elites impose their secular, cosmopolitan values upon the people.
With immigration, the economic, cultural, and (arguably) racist aspects of Bannon’s populist critique converge. This point is well illustrated in an exchange between Bannon and Trump on the former’s radio show last fall, which was highlighted Wednesday morning by the Washington Post:
Last November … Trump said he was concerned that foreign students attending Ivy League schools have to return home because of U.S. immigration laws.
“We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said.
He paused. Bannon said, “Um.”
“I think you agree with that,” Trump said. “Do you agree with that?”
Bannon was hesitant. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think … “ Bannon said, not finishing the sentence. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
In Bannon’s view, these South Asian CEOs are not bringing valuable human capital to our economy — they are putting downward pressure on American wages and making it possible for corporatists to thrive even as our education system fails to provide the native-born with the skills necessary to compete at the highest levels of the tech industry.
On foreign policy, Bannon has evinced skepticism about NATO, arguing that promises of military protection make a future world war more likely — even as he insists on framing the fight against ISIS as a “global war” between irreconcilable civilizations.
Ryan, for his part, is a staunch defender of NATO and is generally careful to insist on the distinction between “radical Islamic terrorism” and Islam more broadly.
How these ideological tensions will actually inform policy in a Trump administration is impossible to anticipate. For one thing, while Bannon has a far more coherent and elaborate political philosophy than Trump does, it’s possible than his is similarly insincere. After all, what opponent of crony capitalism and kleptocracy would help Donald “my kids will run the blind trust” Trump into the White House?
And while Bannon has railed against Wall Street speculation, his beloved president-elect has proposed deregulatory measures that would encourage even riskier trading activity.
Still, the central policy concern of both Bannon and his following is immigration — and their goal is to vastly restrict the inflow of newcomers, both legal and undocumented, no matter the objections of Paul Ryan, mainstream economists, and the Chamber of Commerce. And on this matter, a significant portion of the GOP base is more “alt-right” than conservative.
For now, though, Ryan isn’t worried about the man who ostensibly wants to end his career.
“This is a person who helped him win an incredible victory,” Ryan said Tuesday, when asked about the propriety of Bannon’s appointment. “We’re confident about moving forward. We’re confident about the transition.”