Soon 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.
In The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark advances the idea that Christianity is directly responsible for the most significant intellectual, political, scientific, and economic breakthroughs of the past millennium.