Reince Priebus, Chief of Staff to Donald Trump as president-elect, is part of America’s political establishment. (He has been chairing the Republican National Committee). Steve Bannon, who was appointed as Trump’s chief strategist at the same time, is not. (He has been editing Breitbart.) Bannon has thus been cast as the hard cop – or perhaps nasty cop – to Priebus’s soft cop. We all know the type, or think we do. A conspiracy theorist, if serious. A shock jock, if not. Either way, doubtless a gun nut, and an admirer of Ayn Rand. And perhaps someone whose vocabulary – as Gwenda Blair’s, Trump’s biographer, has written of the president-elect, “is extremely simple, almost to the point of being childish”.
But if the text of remarks Bannon made to a conference in 2014 is at all characteristic – which it seems to be – it is such a caricature which would be childish, not to mention completely misleading. The event took place in “a small conference room in a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican”. It was a conference hosted by the Human Dignity Institute which, to cut a long story very short, is a conservative Catholic organisation. The chair of its advisory board is Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly the head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, who was demoted by the present Pope. According to Buzzfeed, which posted the transcript, the institute was founded by Benjamin Harnwell, “a longtime aide to Conservative member of the European Parliament Nirj Deva”.
Bannon wasn’t actually there; he broadcast via Skype. But once one grasps the Catholic context, one has the key to him, or at least so it appears. He is more than a former banker (at Goldman Sachs, of all places) and an executive producer in Hollywood (of all things), though these facts alone should demolish some of those preconceptions. In sum, he is a traditionalist Catholic whose fundamental belief about capitalism is that it is built on moral foundations – and explicitly, Judeao-Christian ones. He opposes not only “state-sponsored capitalism…the capitalism you see in China and Russia”, but also “the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism”. So much for any assumption that he might be a fan of Ayn Rand!
There are qualifications. He may not like state-sponsored capitalism, but he thinks that Putin is “quite an interesting character. He’s also very, very, very intelligent”, and that there are other problems more pressing for America than Russia. He may not care for objectivism either, but “look, I’m a big believer in a lot of libertarianism. I have many many friends that’s a very big part of the conservative movement – whether it’s the UKIP movement in England, it’s many of the underpinnings of the populist movement in Europe, and particularly in the United States”. But the base of his thought is that capitalism won’t flourish if it is severed from its Judaeo-Christain roots, which is exactly, he says, what is happening now, and what led to the crash.
In essence, the banks got too greedy, and a combination of private avarice and government acquiesence brought the system tumbling down. Changes in leverage rules made many banks “not really investment banks, but…hedge funds – and highly susceptible to changes in liquidity…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”. Bannon has conservative views on family policy: “we’re the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement, and I can tell you we’re winning victory after victory after victory”.
But there is one socially conservative force to which he is strongly opposed, and it presents the problem which is more urgent than Putin’s “kleptocracy”, to quote his own term – namely, Islam. He draws little distinction between Islamism and Islam – or, as he calls it, “jihadist Islamic fascism…trust me, that is going to come to Europe. That is going to come to Central Europe, it’s going to come to Western Europe, it’s going to come to the United Kingdom. And so I think we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism”. Bannon peers at the relationship between Christianity and Islam through the gates of Vienna.
Like a lot of interesting people, he appears to be a bundle of contradictions – a scourge of bankers who worked at Goldman Sachs; a champion of the family who has been married three times. Breitbart has also been accused of anti-semitism. There is no evidence of it in the transcript – though a single broadcast is obviously a swallow, not a whole summer. Bannon thinks that there may some anti-semitism in the Front National, but that “fringe elements” make movements of the populist right look worse than they really are, and 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 marginalised more and more”.
He specifically exempts UKIP: “I’ve spent quite a bit of time with UKIP, and I can say to you that I’ve never seen anything at all with UKIP that even comes close to that. I think they’ve done a very good job of policing themselves to really make sure that people including the British National Front and others were not included in the party”. It is this aspect of the broadcast that may most grip British Conservatives. “The biggest fight the tea party has today is just like UKIP. UKIP’s biggest fight is with the Conservative Party,” he said. Bannon clearly sees UKIP’s struggle with the Tories as mirroring his own with the Republican establishment. That doesn’t bode well for the relationship between the Trump administration to come and Theresa May’s Government.