Acton Institute Powerblog

How Donald Trump’s chief strategist thinks about capitalism and Christianity

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bannon-capitalismSoon after winning the election, President-elect Donald Trump created waves of controversy by naming Steve Bannon, his former campaign CEO, as chief strategist and Senior Counselor in the new administration.

Yet while Bannon’s harsh and opportunistic brand of political combat and questionable role as a catalyst for the alt-right are well-documented and rightly critiqued, his personal worldview is a bit more blurry. Much has been written of Bannon’s self-described “Leninist” political sensibilities and his quest to tear down the GOP establishment, but at the level of more detailed political philosophy (or theology), what does the man actually believe?

Offering a robust answer to that question, BuzzFeed recently unearthed a transcript from an extensive Skype interview Bannon gave to a conference held inside the Vatican in 2014. Though the topics range from ISIL to Russia to the racial tensions within the conservative movement, Bannon spends the bulk of his initial remarks on the intersection of economics and Christianity, offering what’s perhaps the most detailed insight to Bannon’s own thinking that I’ve found.

Given the growing mystery of the man and his newfound position of influence in the next administration, it’s well worth reviewing his views on the matter.

Bannon on wealth creation and “enlightened capitalism”:

I want to talk about wealth creation and what wealth creation really can achieve and maybe take it in a slightly different direction, because I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian west, is in a crisis…It is a crisis both of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west in our beliefs.

The underlying principle [that got us out of the 20th century’s wars] 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.

On the “disturbing” emergence of crony capitalism:

One is state-sponsored capitalism. And that’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. I believe it’s what Holy Father [Pope Francis] has seen for most of his life in places like Argentina, where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century.

On Ayn Rand and objectivist capitalism (“almost as disturbing”):

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. And, 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.

However, 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.”

On stewardship and wealth creation / distribution:

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?”

I think it really behooves all of us to really take a hard look and make sure that we are reinvesting that back into positive things. But also to make sure that we understand that we’re at the very beginning stages of a global conflict, and if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries that this conflict is only going to metastasize.

On the importance of religion and faith to capitalism:

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.

On “entrepreneurial capitalists”:

General Electric and these major corporations that are in bed with the federal government are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists. We’re backers of entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re not. They’re what we call corporatist. They want to have more and more monopolistic power and they’re doing that kind of convergence with big government. And so the fight here — and that’s why the media’s been very late to this party — but the fight you’re seeing is between entrepreneur capitalism, and the Acton Institute is a tremendous supporter of, and the people like the corporatists that are closer to the people like we think in Beijing and Moscow than they are to the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the United States.

There is much to applaud throughout these remarks (not least of which his favorable mention of the Acton Institute). And yet just as many questions remain as to how he might apply or reconcile this perspective with the protectionist priorities and nationalistic blind spots of the alt-right and Trump’s stated policy agenda.

As we continue to review and question the patterns of Bannon’s political tactics and partnerships through his former platform, we’d do well to also assess the actual views that lie beneath. Let’s hope for more explanation to come.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • Twisting Ayn Rand’s political/financial philosophy into:

    “It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them…”

    … reveals much. 1) He thinks Christ moderates selfishness and greed; 2) he deliberately spins Rand to be the anti-Christ.

    That’s an agenda. When you put such a confirmed theist in power, can theocracy be far behind?

    Note: speculation on my part…
    If Ayn Rand said, wrote and did everything exactly as she did, but on the side said she believed in Christ, Bannon would elevate her to sainthood with ecstatic praise.

    • “she believed in Christ”

      Well yeah! Her economics was pretty good. But her atheism and immorality were disgusting.

  • Unfortunately he is as confused about capitalism as is the Pope. None of the countries he mentions were or are capitalist.

  • Via Wall Street Journal: Mr. Bannon offered a few hints about how Mr. Trump intends to govern. One focus will be a dramatic new public works building program that takes advantage of low interest rates – a project that Democrats have long favored.

    “It’s everything related to jobs,” Mr. Bannon said. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

  • theriddles

    Does the so called “alt right” even exist? It appears to me as if this “movement” is really just one guy, and it’s not Stephen Bannon. If you want to understand Bannon, watch his movie “In the Face of Evil”

  • Steve

    Interesting, I’ll have to get back to this.

  • Stephen Carlisle

    Bannon appears to be radically confused about Ayn Rand. I’ve read all her works. I don’t recognize anything about it that Bannon claims. He inveighs against crony capitalism and its swinging-door ties to politicians. But Rand beat him to the punch, inveighing against “businessmen of pull,” men who gain and/or keep their wealth through political influence, like the Democrat who’s the present Governor of Virginia, or worse, who earn their wealth by selling political favors, like the Democrats W. Jefferson and H. Rodham Clinton.

    But the worst part of Bannon’s confusion is his typical conservative BS about creating a “good society.” Rand’s point was that no rational moral argument has ever been formulated that justifies some men, e.g., Bannon, infringing on the free-agency of other men who disagree with his moral assumptions, forcing them to be the means to his religiously inspired end.

    By contrast with Bannon, Kant’s point is the same as Rand’s, that the individual moral agent is not to be treated as the means to others’ ends, no matter how noble the latter think their ends are. Rather, the individual moral agent is an end in himself, by definition. Otherwise is the determinist fallacy. And Bannon and any other crusading do-gooder cannot rationally justify infringing on the individual’s unfettered freedom. I’d like to see him cough up a rational argument justifying his religious BS.

    The social system Rand inferred from her rational egoist ethics is laissez faire, men’s hands off each other. The natural upshot works out to be capitalism–free-market capitalism, that is. But laissez faire is laissez faire. So, if you want to establish a voluntary socialist economic system, e.g., a commune, as many did and ultimately failed in 19th century America, you’re free to do so. And if Bannon wants to establish a voluntary Christian economic system, whatever that is, he and his ilk won’t be stopped. But they will not be permitted to force others to knuckle under to their notion of a good society.

    And if a businesman wants to treat customers as commodities, to objectify people, that’s his prerogative. That kind of treatment has nothing to do with Rand’s ethics of rational egoism, which is Aristotle’s ethics, by the way. [I have a sneaking suspicion Bannon is a neo-Platonist like the early Catholic Church Fathers. Everything he says is suffused with its unreality. 1,700 years later and we find Neo-Platonism raising its ugly head in the White House. Yikes.]

    In any event, “the people” in a laissez faire system will be free to accept or reject being treated as commodities. Let’s see how long a businessman’s treating them as such is successful.

    To the objection that big business can force people to accept their being treated as commodities, I reply that the objection relies on the assumption that fascism. a government and business partnership and mutual crony influence peddling, is laissez faire capitalism. It isn’t. In Rand’s system the government will be so small, its being limited to the police, courts, and armed services, it won’t have anything to peddle.