A lot of journalists have been talking up a profile of Steve Bannon that the Wall Street Journal published on Tuesday. It is indeed a well-written deep dive into the "economic nationalism" and family background of Trump’s campaign CEO, senior strategist and supposedly all-powerful right-hand man.
And I believe barely a word of it.
The piece locates Bannon’s economic nationalism in the effects of the 2008 financial crisis on his father, Marty. The elder Bannon, a long-retired AT&T employee, had panicked as the value of the company’s stock cratered in October of that year. He made the snap decision to sell the shares he had been holding onto for decades and lost about $100,000 of his net worth.
In the aftermath, his son watched as the banks received financial bailouts while the government did nothing for his father. The younger Bannon's anger drove him to become the tribune of forgotten, hard-working, middle-class Americans — men like his dad, who saw a lifetime of savings wiped out by the cosmopolitan elitists and technocrats who ran the financial world until it caved in.
I don’t want to cast aspersions on Marty Bannon’s story, though Kevin Drum does raise some smart questions about it. But as an origin story for Steve Bannon’s economic nationalism, it sits uneasily alongside his work as a filmmaker, a career he took up years before the financial crisis and in which he pushed a nativist, nationalist message all along.
It certainly does nothing to explain the gap between Bannon’s repeated denials of being a racist or a white nationalist and his track record of running Breitbart News as a racist hate site devoted to demonizing illegal immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, feminists and every shibboleth of liberal identity politics.
But mostly what caught my eye was this passage:
Steve Bannon says his ideology is less about Republicans and Democrats than about middle class versus elites — nationalists versus globalists. He says that explains his opposition to open borders, political corruption and what he views as political correctness.
So in response he has helped bring to power a presidential administration so awash in conflicts of interest that it will likely go down as the most corrupt in the nation’s history. He has aligned himself with a political party dedicated to an ideology that calls for fewer protections for people like his father — a party that wants to roll back every banking and financial industry regulation put in place after 2008 in order to prevent Wall Street from causing another meltdown like that which hurt Marty Bannon in the first place.
And the elder Bannon, by his own admission, got off easy. What about the millions of middle-class families who lost their homes and became destitute? What about the people who will lose their access to affordable health insurance or Medicaid if the president Bannon serves signs some form of the Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill currently being battered around in Congress? How is Steve Bannon helping them?
Or take the budget blueprint unveiled by the Trump administration on Thursday. It calls for cuts that would be absolutely devastating to poor people in this country. But many of the programs that would get cut also affect the hardworking families Steve Bannon claims to care most about — people whose wealth never recovered from the Great Recession, families who have lost relatives to the nation’s opioid addiction crisis or whose children need the free or reduced-price school lunches that may now be eliminated.
These are the families who would have been considered middle-class back in Marty Bannon’s day. They always have needed more help than anyone acknowledged, which is why Vox called Trump’s budget blueprint “a fiscal manifestation of nostalgia politics.” They are the people Steve Bannon claims to want to help, through the vehicle of a plutocratic president whose budget priorities are clearly destructive to them.
A better clue to Bannon’s economic nationalism might be found in a speech he gave to a Tea Party rally in 2010:
Now I ask you, why would you be discontented with a system that provides socialism for the very poor and the wealthy, and a brutal form of capitalism for everybody else?
Seven years later, he is a champion of a presidential administration that will keep socialism for the wealthy while sticking everyone else, including the middle class he claims to love, with that same brutal form of capitalism.
There may be some logic to the results flowing from Bannon’s nationalist economic ideology that eludes me. But maybe journalists do the public a disservice when we try to discern its roots as if they had some rational basis. Maybe it is much simpler than that. Maybe, as David Foster Wallace once said about another older and incoherent white man, he’s just an asshole.