Farewell, Steve Bannon
It's been a bad few months for Steve Bannon. He was fired from his White House job in August. Then he supported Roy Moore and other political dead ends in an attempt to put himself forward as the leader of "Trumpism." Bannon then decided to provide a variety of juicy quotations denouncing Donald Trump in order to help Michael Wolff with his anti-Trump expose. Shortly thereafter, Bannon backtracked and apologized. After that, Bannon lost one of his most prominent sources of funding — the wealthy Mercer family. Finally, to cap it all off, Bannon was fired from his position as an adviser and radio host at Breitbart, where he had long enjoyed positions of leadership.
This year-long run of total failure comes at the end of a remarkably short period of fame for Bannon, who, prior to Andrew Breitbart's untimely demise in 2012, was neither especially influential or well known.
In his short period at Breitbart, Bannon did, however, manage to cozy up with Donald Trump and many within his movement, and turn this into an influential position at the White House. But Bannon quickly faded as an influential figure in Washington.
In spite of his short and not-especially-notable tenure as a senior political adviser, Bannon continues to benefit from myths about his status as a kingmaker in Washington and around the nation. But, as Barbara Boland notes this week at The American Conservative, the myth was always just that — a myth.
Bannon — always a relentless self-promoter — also managed to create the impression that he was the purveyor of some new kind of insightful and revolutionary political plan and vision. The idea was that he was going to create a Republican majority that would persist for generations.
Upon closer inspection, however, there was never anything especially insightful, creative, or unique about this vision. It has always been nothing more than a re-tread of economic populism in which the Republicans would buy votes with lavish government spending on pensions and other social programs that are allegedly attractive to the "working classes." This would be coupled with economic nationalism opposed to free trade and devoted to aggressive foreign policy.
David Stockman explains how Bannon's position was just the usual warfare-welfare state vision dressed up in nationalist and culture-warrior rhetoric:
The last thing America needed was a conservative/populist/statist alternative to the Welfare State/Warfare State/Bailout State status quo. Yet what Bannonism boiled down to was essentially acquiescence to the latter — even as it drove politicization deeper into the sphere of culture, communications and commerce.
Stated differently, the heavy hand of the Imperial City in traditional domestic, foreign and financial matters was already bad enough: Bannonism just gave a thin veneer of ersatz nationalism to what was otherwise the Donald's own dogs' breakfast of protectionism, nativism, xenophobia, jingoism and strong-man bombast.
As Stockman correctly notes, Bannon never exhibited any real understanding of how central banking, Wall Street cronyism, and economic policy were driving the American cultural and economic trends that Bannon so often condemned.
Instead, Bannon took to blaming people who do understand economics — i.e., Austrian-school economists and various free-market activist types — for various national ills, and for leading the Republican party astray. Says Bannon:
And then the Republicans, it’s all this theoretical Cato Institute, Austrian economics, limited government — which just doesn’t have any depth to it. They’re not living in the real world.
Later, Bannon returned to the theme, claiming that free-market ideas don't matter, and that "it is workers, not libertarian theorists, who are the backbone of the country.” (It's unclear if Bannon intends to imply that all libertarians are pie-in-the-sky "theorists" or if he is willing to admit that many libertarians do, in fact, work for a living.) This sort of right-wing Leninism-Maoism functions on the idea that "the working man" is all that matters, and that entrepreneurship, capital, and markets, are all somehow at odds with ordinary people being able to make a living. Not surprisingly, Bannon proposed to prop up the working classes with prohibitions on free trade, on migration, and by protecting federal social programs — thus expanding the debt burden and tax burden on everyone.
The realities of economics matter little, though, when your political ideology relies primarily on sentimentalism. Bannon bases much of this position on his own nostalgia for the good ol' days in "an observant Catholic family" in a working class neighborhood.
For Bannon, though, his devotion to this worldview never gets much beyond politics. Indeed, Bannon has an odd way of expressing his supposed devotion to the Catholic social milieu he praises. Divorced three times, Bannon apparently couldn't be bothered to personally do much toward creating the “typical fifties-sixties Americana neighborhood” that he says he wants to re-create. And this well illustrates the problem with turning to politics to cure every social ill. Erecting trade barriers and trashing immigrants isn't going to rehabilitate the American family, or convert people to a devout religious life. That sort of thing requires a lot of difficult non-political action. Were Bannon committed to getting government off the backs of people so they could pursue these goals voluntarily — via decentralization or other practical measures — that would be a good thing. But that has never been Bannon's goal.