Probably not, but he keeps some pretty unpleasant company. And his approach to remaking America will ultimately fail.
The sinister figure concocted by SNL, a cross between the grim reaper and Darth Vader, may give more credit than is due to the rumpled strategist feeding ideas to Donald Trump. Yet while he’s no genius, Bannon has a coherent theory for America’s ostensibly-fallen state.
A one-time banker, Bannon believes that entrepreneurs made America great. Thus, he regards the rise of the large corporations as a sort of slide into decadence: run by bureaucrats, their CEOs stifle innovation and instead lobby politicians for favourable treatment. With businessmen and politicians thus lining each other’s pockets, there results the little clique spotted at Davos each year – remote from the common people, tight with each other.
Bannon therefore breaks with his old colleagues who see the bank bailouts of 2008-2009 as having successfully staved off economic collapse. He, instead, sees them as a catastrophic failure, engineered by a crony-capitalist elite, to pass the cost for cleaning up their mess onto ordinary Americans — a sentiment most of his compatriots share. He thus hews closely to the Austrian Economics so widespread in the Tea Party, which sees market crashes are nature’s way of culling an economic herd.
However, in one vital respect, he parts with the great Austrian thinkers of the past, like Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich Hayek. Whereas they took a Darwinian view of life, believing the free market the best way to weed out nature’s fittest while allowing little role for morality, Bannon injects his conservative Catholicism into his worldview. What made America great, he maintains, was Christianity. It was when America strayed from its moral foundation, amid the secularism and individual liberation of the sixties generation, that it began to decay. Not loose regulation, but loose morals, caused the financial crisis.
At the heart of Bannon’s worldview is an age-old thesis: that moral and material abundance coincide. One of the most famous expressions of this thesis is Edward Gibbon’s monumental work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Published in 1776, the year America threw off British rule, Gibbon’s theory has had a lasting impact on American conservative thought.
That it should do so is ironic, because Gibbon argued that Christianity toppled Rome. He said the Empire’s greatness had been built by its civic religion, which gave its governing elite a unity and sense of purpose. Once Christianity wormed its way into the empire, Romans lost their sense of natural superiority, and the martial spirit that had united the governing class broke down. They lost the will and stomach to fight the barbarians at their gates.
Bannon transposes this theory onto modern America. Substituting Christianity for Roman paganism, he maintains that religion was central to the mission of the founding fathers — a point, incidentally, of considerable debate among historians. He thus blames America’s relative decline on America’s turn away from its Christian heritage, something for which he blames the baby-boom generation of the 1960s. Ergo, it is vital to him that America shore up its cultural integrity by stemming the flow of immigrants, and by favouring Christians among those it does accept.
You don’t have to be a conservative to hold that America has suffered a moral decline. You could, as do many liberal Christians, believe that Westerners have become too selfish, abused the environment, and exploited colonised peoples. Yet Bannon’s type of spirituality takes a contrary view. Attributing the ability to dominate other peoples to an inherent superiority – to the moral winner goes the spoils, if you will – he sticks to the Gibbon line, echoed in the works of twentieth-century authors like Oswald Spengler, that culture makes a great civilisation, and its erosion marks its decay.
Despite Spengler’s own uneasy relationship with Germany’s Nazis, he shaped their thinking about German racial superiority. It’s thus through such channels that fascist thinkers have entered Bannon’s world. He may not embrace fascist thinkers like Julius Evola and their American progeny, like Richard Spencer. But he kind of gets them. He mightn’t turn President Trump into a fascist stooge. But he has helped create a more welcoming environment for those who want America to assert its greatness in aggressive ways.
The fatal flaw in Bannon’s worldview isn’t that it is offensive, though, it’s that it’s wrong. As Peter Heather has written, Gibbon was mistaken about Rome: it fell not due to decay from within, but because Roman imperialism created countervailing forces that led its victims to turn against it. As I have written before, and as Peter and I argue in our upcoming book, this is an eternal rule of empires: they sow the seeds for their own eventual demise, and nothing Steve Bannon or anyone else tries to do can change this fact of life.
But that’s not to say we can’t creatively engage this transition and exploit its opportunities – of which there will be many. We have to change, but we don’t have to fall. But a turn to Bannon’s vision risks converting a gentle decline into a crash.