As both chairman for Donald Trump’s campaign and onetime chief strategist for his White House, Steve Bannon cultivated a reputation for a kind of vulgar brilliance—the erudition of an intellectual matched with the instincts of, in his words, a “street fighter.” And the political press has obliged this image. Joshua Green, author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, approvingly quotes one scholar who says that Bannon is “someone who comes out of a very serious intellectual tradition,” not “just some weird guy who likes playing politics.” On Twitter, New York Times political reporter Glenn Thrush argued that “Whether [you] respect him or not Bannon is a deep if narrow reader who is trying to create an ideological/intellectual foundation for Trumpism.”
It is true that Bannon crafted the attacks that helped sink Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. But once you step outside the narrow world of election-year messaging (or, alternatively, propaganda), it’s not obvious that Bannon deserves his reputation for deep thinking or even tactical brilliance. Just the opposite. His recent statements and White House record show someone skilled at self-promotion but unable to advance a coherent (or even accurate) narrative or take advantage of political opportunity.
Steve Bannon’s reputation for deep thinking rests on his reference points. To read an interview with Bannon is to absorb constant references to history, philosophy, and religion. You saw some of this in his recent appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes with interviewer Charlie Rose, where Bannon articulated his vision of “economic nationalism,” defending it as a return to the approach that made the United States dynamic and prosperous in the 19th century.
America’s built on our sys—on our citizens. Look at the 19th century. What built America’s called the American system, from Hamilton to Polk to Henry Clay to Lincoln to the Roosevelts. A system of protection of our manufacturing, financial system that lends to manufacturers, OK, and the control of our borders. Economic nationalism is what this country was built on. The American system. Right? We go back to that. We look after our own. We look after our citizen, we look after our manufacturing base, and guess what? This country’s gonna be greater, more united, more powerful than it’s ever been.
On the surface, this is almost interesting—the kind of reference that makes its wielder seem erudite. The “American system” was a program for the development of the nation’s infrastructure (financed by high tariffs for selected industries and sustained by a national bank), a project of the Whig Party and its leaders, like Kentucky’s Henry Clay. Abraham Lincoln was an admirer of this system and promoted key elements as president. And one could say that the Roosevelts, or at least Franklin Roosevelt, were pioneers of a second American system, whose ideas were contiguous with the first. But that’s where the actual history ends.
Bannon’s opening declaration that America was “built on our citizens” is pure ideology, with little relationship to the facts of the matter. It ignores the critical role enslaved Africans played in building—and through the trade in their bodies, financing—the nation’s infrastructure. It ignores the labor of Chinese immigrants who performed backbreaking labor to help build the transcontinental railroad. It ignores those immigrants, none of them “citizens,” who fought to preserve the union in the face of secession. And to say that this America was built on the control of borders is to imagine a regime of immigration control where none actually existed.
Part of the story of the 19th century is how the men and women who lived under the flag of the United States, citizen and noncitizen alike, forged and fought over ideas of citizenship and what it meant to be an “American.” The process of Reconstruction and the fierce battle over the status of freed slaves exemplifies this integral part of America’s history. To a great extent, Bannon’s framing is a presentist error, an overlay of modern notions of citizenship and national boundaries over a time when those very things were still fluid and contested. Which is to say that Bannon fundamentally mischaracterized an era in a way that ought to challenge (if not topple) his constructed image.
As for Bannon’s alleged tactical genius? His ability to craft potent messages against Hillary Clinton lost its utility on the day after the election. What we should judge instead is his seven months as “chief strategist,” where, far from bolstering the president, he led him into a series of missteps and blunders, including a de facto “Muslim ban” that immediately mobilized large parts of the public against him. You can see the fruits of Bannon’s influence in Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, a response that earned near-universal condemnation from both parties and large numbers of Americans. What has Steve Bannon helped President Trump accomplish? Nothing, save a low and sinking approval rating.
Bannon’s carefully cultivated reputation obscures the truth. Far from being a mastermind or a “street fighter,” he is simply a provocateur, skilled at manipulating and exploiting prejudice—hence his success with Breitbart—but unable to do much else. Perhaps he will carry out his threat to challenge the Republican establishment and hold it accountable for what he views as insufficient fealty to the president. But if the past tells us anything about the future, that is doubtful.