Key Trump policies advanced classical liberalism, but his association with them may damage them in the long run.
President Donald J. Trump benefitted from his lack of ideological moorings. Trump has never presented himself as a principled conservative. Had he been beholden to conservative shibboleths, he would have probably lost the election. Unfortunately, this also makes him an unpredictable President, and leaves the ultimate definition of “Trumpism” up for grabs. Other people will probably define the long-term ideological orientation of Trump’s right-wing populist movement. Few people are in a stronger position to do so than Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and current executive chairman of Breitbart News.
For that reason, understanding Bannon’s political philosophy—if he ultimately has one—is important. Unlike Trump, Bannon has surely thought a great deal about politics and the direction he wants to steer American life. Unfortunately, Joshua Green’s book, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, left me more confused than before.
This is frustrating because Devil’s Bargain is a phenomenal book, full of fascinating details. Green offers a remarkable behind-the-scenes look at the figures that put Trump in office, describing the audacity, nastiness, luck, and, yes, brilliance that led to the most spectacular upset in the history of presidential politics.
Green credits Bannon, correctly in my view, with saving then-candidate Trump’s presidential campaign. Other Republican leaders, those who supposedly understood how politics really works, were horrified by Trump’s uncouth and unconventional approach. Once he secured the nomination, they hoped a new Trump would emerge, one that finally began acting presidential. Bannon recognized that this would be a mistake, that unapologetic right-wing populism, combined with every vicious attack they could muster against Hillary Clinton, represented the only plausible pathway to victory.
Green’s description of Bannon’s use of the New York Times and related venues was particularly enlightening. Notwithstanding the Right’s purported hatred of the mainstream media, and its efforts to build powerful alternatives, Bannon recognized that credible journalists were indispensable to the Right. Bannon concluded that conservatives made a crucial mistake during their assault on President Bill Clinton during the 1990s. During that time, the anti-Clinton machine operated largely in isolation. Those who resided within it steeped themselves in a series of Clinton outrages, real and imagined, but those outside the right-wing media bubble were unmoved. Thus, when Bannon’s research teams uncovered damaging information about Hillary Clinton two decades later, they deemphasized reaching conservatives with the information and emphasized getting it out to the supposedly pro-Clinton mainstream press. Only once a story had the mainstream’s seal of approval did Breitbart and related sites run with it, giving it a new hyperbolic spin.
Green’s book offers insights into how Bannon’s experience made him ideally suited to wage political warfare in the digital age. Most readers will be surprised to find out that Bannon was among the first to personally learn the power of anonymous Internet message boards. Years before so-called #GamerGate, persistent, hot-tempered young men at their keyboards delivered Bannon one of his few significant defeats. When World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game, was at the peak of its popularity, Bannon joined a company that engaged in “gold farming”—hiring low-wage Chinese workers to earn digital gold that can be traded for digital goods in the game, and then selling that digital gold to players for real-world money. Gamers, however, despised this practice, viewing it as cheating. The gamers spontaneously organized to stop gold farming, taking their grievances to online gaming boards and lobbying the game’s creators to crack down on the practice. One irate gamer even filed a class-action lawsuit.
The end result was a financial disaster for Bannon’s company. Yet Bannon came away from the experience with insight into a world most people never noticed, one he could harness for political ends. Years later, of course, similar message boards supplied the digital foot soldiers of the so-called Alt-Right and Trump’s army of volunteer trolls. Green unfortunately gives few details about how Bannon sought to utilize this dark corner of the Internet, but there can be no doubt that Bannon understood it well.
Green also helps clarify Bannon’s relationship with the Alt-Right—now well established as a white nationalist movement. Like many, I was shocked when Bannon, during the 2016 election campaign, described Breitbart as a “platform of the Alt-Right.” My sense at the time was that Bannon was using the term in the broadest sense; there was a period during the election cycle when Alt-Right seemed to refer to anyone who supported Trump and rejected mainstream conservatism. Green confirmed this suspicion. Questions remain, however. Given Bannon’s obvious familiarity with the Internet’s more unsavory elements, it is hard to believe he did not understand that explicit white identity politics were always the Alt-Right’s driving force.
The book has surprisingly little to say about Bannon’s personal views on race relations, given the frequent race-baiting that occurred at Breitbart. Bannon now declares that he wants race-neutral economic nationalism, and is vigorously denouncing white nationalism. Green’s book gives us few clues about Bannon’s sincerity on this subject.
Devil’s Bargain left me ultimately uncertain about Bannon’s deepest ideological commitments. It certainly shows that Bannon has a dark view of the world, viewing history as a constant life-and-death struggle between civilizations. He deeply believes that Islam represents an existential threat, and he developed this view long before 9/11. President Carter’s weak response to the Iranian hostage crisis, more than any other event, was responsible for pushing Bannon into the Republican Party. While in the Navy, Bannon was tangentially involved with the disastrous attempt to rescue those hostages.
Despite Bannon’s years in conservative politics, Green gives little indication that he ever showed much interest in conservative political theory. He despises the “Republican establishment” and the conservative intelligentsia, but his main criticism is apparently that they are weak, apologetic, and possess an unearned sense of entitlement. Aside from his support for trade barriers, however, it is not entirely clear how Bannon’s long-term vision for America differs from that of, say, National Review’s editorial board. In this regard, Bannon is similar to the broader Tea Party movement (which Bannon enthusiastically supported). The Tea Party was eager to present itself as something new, yet in substance it was the same GOP conservatism we have known for decades—just louder, more obnoxious, and perhaps even less effective.
Throughout the book, Green gives the impression that Bannon is a natural fighter with a passion for political combat. We see few indications that he is interested in thinking about bigger issues. Yet there are passages that indicate otherwise. Unfortunately, these portions of the book raise additional questions.
Aside from the lessons he absorbed at Catholic school, the ideas that shaped Bannon’s thinking are barely present in Devil’s Bargain. In biographies of prominent conservatives, we typically hear how the subject was inspired by F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, or William F. Buckley. Not here—instead we learn that Bannon was profoundly influenced by René Guénon and Julius Evola. The latter was among the most radical right-wing thinkers of the 20th century, much read in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Although this is now well known and often remarked upon, few seem to grasp how bizarre this is.
Green provides a competent description of the strange, mystical worldview promoted by Guénon and Evola (“Traditionalism,” always capitalized). They argued that secular modernity is the very lowest point, the Kali Yuga, in the current historical cycle, a time when the true nature of the world—a world full of gods and magic—is concealed from most people. They did not view the recent past as an idyllic time, as many American conservatives do. Instead, the Traditionalists rejected modernity entirely.
Aside from a brief window during the Middle Ages, a time when he perceived glimpses of his vision of a well-ordered society, Evola argued that the West had been on a steady downward trajectory since the days of the Roman Empire. Evola also despised the United States and everything it stood for—viewing it as more destructive to Tradition than the Soviet Union. Yet these ideas apparently resonated with the same Steve Bannon who later promoted Sarah Palin as the nation’s savior and wanted to help Donald Trump “make America great again.”
Green attempts to reconcile these two aspects of Bannon’s thinking, noting:
Anyone steeped in Guénon’s Traditionalism would recognize the terrifying specter Trump conjured of marauding immigrants, Muslim terrorists, and the collapse of national sovereignty and identity as the descent of a Dark Age—the Kali Yuga.
I disagree. Only the most superficial reader of Guénon (who converted to Sufi Islam and moved to Egypt) could see an argument that leads to economic nationalism and Muslim bans. If Bannon himself saw such a connection, then his understanding of Traditionalism was similarly superficial.
Steve Bannon’s ideas may prove to be of enormous consequence. Few people are better positioned to lend long-term intellectual coherence to Trump’s movement, allowing it to become more than “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas”—to borrow Lionel Trilling’s description of American conservatism. Perhaps there is more to Bannon than Green was able to discern, but Devil’s Bargain presents the architect of Trumpism as little more than a ferocious and dangerous scrapper—a honey badger—who revels in the political fight for its own sake. If Bannon represents the future of the American Right, then this tumultuous and confusing period is far from over.