Introduction

Steve Bannon appeared on our collective radars four years ago in August 2016, as the chief strategist of Trump’s campaign. After Trump won, baffled voters on the left looked to Bannon as the explanation, the eminence grise, the man behind the curtain. Bannon was mysterious, said some fascist-sounding things, and looked unhealthy like a Hollywood villain. It was easy to box him in as Darth Sidious.

Bannon lasted twelve months with Trump. He was fired in August 2017 after he pushed the “fine people on both sides” line for addressing Charlottesville. He then disappeared from media coverage, as swiftly as he emerged. I had forgotten about him until I heard a quick line in an interview:

Millennials, they’re like 19th century Russian serfs. They’re in better shape, they have more information, they’re better dressed, but they don’t own anything. Millennials don’t have a chance.

That was very true. Bannon’s comments about millennials being a generation of permanent renters, whose economic situation resembled feudalism1 more than anything else, struck me as succinct, correct, and hardly expressed by anyone else.

From there, I was curious: surely there’s more to Bannon than the one-dimensional media caricature, especially due to his significant impact on the success of Trump’s election. So, I asked: what does Steve Bannon really think? I present my findings, as well as my reflections, below. My view is that Bannon’s publicly advertised positions make significant sense and are worth discussing, but Bannon himself is a suave trickster: some of his purported views are certainly not genuine.

Views

Commentary

Most of these views were expressed between 2018 and 2020. Taken at face value, they seem reasonable. Bannon’s articulation of why Trump won is clearer than any pundit’s or leftist’s, and he raises a serious question about priorities: are we on the left wasting our time arguing about pronouns when our children will get shipped to concentration camps in Xinjiang? Are we dumb for sweating the small stuff and the optics, while not paying attention to the big issues that, on net, might be a million times more impactful? Bannon’s mission is clear: the CCP is the great threat to Western democracy and way of life; boycott it at all costs, bring back American technological expertise in manufacturing, and in the process restore the welfare of the working/lower-middle classes.

But what’s suspicious about Bannon’s “economic nationalism” is that while he’s all about economic problems, he has little to say about economic solutions. While he aggressively blames the elites for 2008 and for shipping jobs to China, he doesn’t have anything to say for solving neofeudalism. Obviously bringing back jobs will help a little, but it’s neither a full solution, nor does it address the core problem. Neofeudalism comes out of highly efficient, industrialized wealth inequality, which occurs because the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of return on labor. This was the big problem that Piketty pointed out in 2013. While Bannon points out the same problem, and says that it’s important to restore asset ownership to the working/middle classes, he doesn’t offer any solutions for how. Shouldn’t an economic nationalist have cogent economic solutions to propose?

There’s good journalism from people who have tracked Bannon more closely than I, who claim that Bannon’s “economic nationalism” angle is new. Immigration has been his core issue forever. It’s central to his economic nationalism, which raises a crucial question: is Bannon’s economic nationalism just a vehicle for advancing his hostile views on China and immigration, which he has made the #1 and #2 priorities in his agenda? While there’s no debate that Bannon is a nationalist, it’s suspect how sincere the economic part of his economic nationalism is. If it is sincere, then there’s a real question as to how well thought-through it really is, since an overwhelming number of economists across the political spectrum view immigration as a net economic benefit.

Indeed, there’s something unsettling and sly about Bannon’s purported economic nationalism: he insists that he’s not an ethnic nationalist, but somehow he always ends up very closely aligned with them. Debaters point this out, but Bannon is a slippery debater: “everyone keeps calling me a fascist, but fascists, by definition, want bigger states! I want to deconstruct the administrative state.”9 Bannon plays excellent definitions-games – he is able to easily refute the accusation by definition, and in turn totally evade the connotation that his counterparties mean.

Bannon also always has well-prepared counterexamples to his opponents’ predictable attacks, but he never refutes them on an abstract level. For example, when confronted about Breitbart’s hateful, misleading content, he skillfully outmaneuvers his leftist interrogator by describing how Breitbart was made to subvert the Republican establishment. His defense of the “fine people on both sides” comment is an especially powerful example of his argumentative contortions. Bannon’s refutations regarding allegations of his ethnic nativism leave me with the feeling of when someone is playing games, moving the goalposts and feeding you bullshit, but you don’t have the time in the venue to pick them apart.

Bannon’s insincerity is clear in his Frontline interviews with PBS: he plays to the intellectual audience with the most centrist-populist version of his beliefs, but he’s hoodwinking the viewer: he fawns over Trump, both personally and politically. But we know that Bannon had been fired from the White House, and had then publicly disparaged Trump, and his family, in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. In the interview, Bannon is plainly lying in attempt to preserve whatever relationship with Trump.

Indeed, no matter how candid Bannon seems, his integrity is weak. Allegations have emerged that Bannon lied to congressional investors during Mueller’s Investigation. More shockingly – and in brazen irony – he’s now even been arrested for embezzling money from his “We Build the Wall” non-profit fundraising campaign. Convincing Americans they need to build a border wall, privately raising money for it, then defrauding them of those funds, takes unbelievable chutzpah.

The conclusion that I’m led to is that Bannon is a special type of grifter: sly, insincere, and self-serving. What kind of nationalist lies to congressional investigators? He’s a deeply skilled political operative. Who knows what his true personal goals are; but I suspect the “economic nationalist” agenda he laid out above is not the whole story.

That said, the economic nationalist agenda Bannon advocates is coherent, and many points seem reasonable, certainly worthy of serious discussion. Perhaps the issue with Bannon is the same as with Trump – they find a valid platform to run on, something that deeply resonates with the masses, and where there is genuine need for great change – but they wrap that in their own buffoonery and grift. It turns out that even when running on a righteous cause, all the habits formed over the decades, the little cons and lies, they stick. No man can escape himself.



  1. Millennials’ economic situation is feudalistic since millennials do not own the underlying goods they are adding value to. Just like how the agrarian serfs were allowed to subsist on their lord’s farm land, the lord always captured more value. Similarly, millennials do not have any equity in the enterprises they contribute to, and their cash compensation is usually a small minority of the economic value they create for their employers. Like the agrarian serfs of old, millennials are locked into a life of subsistence. 

  2. Bannon thinks that this issue is not just specific to the US, but across the board: in most western nations, the value of citizenship has suffered. 

  3. Possibly to thwart accusations of racism or ethnic nationalism as opposed to economic nationalism, Bannon will often remark that those lower-middle and working class populations are, to a significant extent, Hispanic and African-American. 

  4. In passing, Bannon also accuses Republicans of covertly encouraging illegal immigration as cheap labor. 

  5. While Bannon repeatedly sticks to the “right track, wrong track” anecdote as one of the key reasons for Trump winning, I couldn’t actually find polling that substantiated his “record high” claims. It seems like voter outlook in 2016 was similar to that of 2008 and 1992. 

  6. Bannon clarifies that he views the Chinese people as fine like any other, and the ruling CCP cadre as a great evil. 

  7. See currency manipulation, stockpiling PPE while telling the rest of the world that COVID-19 is no big deal, etc. 

  8. His presidential ambitions became clear around 2010, when he started writing cheques to major conservative leaders, and he published Time to Get Tough, a policy book. 

  9. In none of the interviews that I watched could I get a read on what exactly Bannon understands to be the administrative state, or the precise issues with it. Bannon paints with a broad brush.