In 2013 and 2014, Steve Bannon organised “The Uninvited”, an event on the fringes of the Conservative Political Action Conference which gave a platform to right-wing thinkers deemed too extreme for the largest annual gathering of American conservatives. But on 23 February this year, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist took to the CPAC stage in his trademark uniform of an open-necked shirt, boxy jacket and rumpled chinos and greeted the audience with the self-satisfied swagger of a game-show host. Having surveyed the room with a smile, he quickly revealed a flash of malice. “Is that the opposition party back there?” he asked, gesturing towards the press corps, before jutting out his chin and nodding his head, like a brawler preparing to exchange blows.
Bannon, a 63-year-old former naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker and propagandist film-maker who owes his fortune to an early investment in the hit comedy Seinfeld, has rarely spoken in public since he joined Trump’s inner team, but on this occasion he was expansive. He hailed the president for ushering in a “new political order” and described the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history”. Asked to list the new administration’s priorities, he cited three “lines of work”: first, the protection of “national security and sovereignty”; second, the promotion of “economic nationalism” by renegotiating US trade deals; and third, the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. The crowd applauded.
Bannon usually outlines his end goal using less bureaucratic language but the message is unchanged. He has described himself as a “Leninist” who shares with the Bolshevik leader a desire to “destroy the state”. “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” he told the historian Ronald Radosh in 2013. (Bannon has since said he does not recall their conversation). Described by one ally as a “walking bibliography”, Bannon is fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly ambitious, and believes that America is facing an existential crisis that can be averted only through radical action. He was one of the most widely anticipated speakers at CPAC this year and, by many accounts, is the chief manipulator and mastermind behind the Trump presidency, yet he is resolutely anti-conservative: Bannon wants to break things.
Last August, he took leave from Breitbart, the provocative, far-right news organisation he began leading in 2012, to become the chief executive of the Trump campaign. Bannon’s influence has grown since then. On 28 January, eight days after Trump’s inauguration, the president gave him a full seat on the principals committee of the National Security Council, a body made up of senior military officials and top policymakers that discusses the most pressing foreign policy issues. Although presidential aides have occasionally attended NSC meetings in the past, many see Bannon’s formal presence as demonstrating an unprecedented politicisation of national security decisions and an alarming rise to power of a man with no previous experience of government.
In an editorial following his appointment to the NSC, the New York Times suggested that Bannon was positioning himself as “de facto president” and expressed concern about his “penchant for blowing things up”. A week later, the paper published an investigation alleging that Trump was angry that he had not been fully briefed before he signed the executive order granting Bannon this exceptional access. The suggestion that Bannon may be taking advantage of the president’s short attention span and thin policy knowledge to serve his own interests is not far-fetched. Trump is “a blunt instrument for us”, Bannon told Vanity Fair last year, seemingly referring to American nationalists. “I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”
Former colleagues have described Bannon as a “bully”, a “nasty human being” and a “monster”. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, has repeatedly slammed him as a “white supremacist”, and he has faced accusations of anti-Semitism, misogyny and Islamophobia. From an office at the White House that he calls “the war room”, he has driven, reporters say, some of Trump’s most contentious policy decisions, such as the ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States (subsequently reduced to six). He is also reported to have been one of the authors of Trump’s dystopian inauguration address, with its vision of “American carnage”.
Described in a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek profile as “the most dangerous political operative in America”, Bannon delights in his evil overlord persona. “Darkness is good,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in November. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
Stephen K Bannon was born in 1953 to a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, Democrat-voting family in Richmond, a city then of just over 230,000 people in the Southern state of Virginia. His father, Martin “Marty” Bannon, started out repairing telephone lines for AT&T and eventually moved into management. Bannon was the middle of five children and attended the all-boys’ Benedictine High School (now Benedictine College Preparatory), a Catholic, military-type institution owned and run by the monastic order. The headmaster and some of his teachers were Benedictine monks. The pupils, or “cadets”, wore military tags and were known by their surname only.
“It was a very traditional education, if you will, and definitely a very conservative school. I remember when we did mock elections, they’d be 90 per cent for the Republicans,” John Pudner, who also attended Benedictine High School, told me.
Pudner now leads Take Back Our Republic, a group that aims to break the influence of big donors on campaign financing, and he has worked with Bannon on several occasions, serving at one point as the launch sports editor for Breitbart. He believes their schooling helped shape the contours of Bannon’s world-view: a commitment to small government and conventional family values, combined with a distrust of political and economic elites of all persuasions. Bannon maintained a close relationship with his alma mater. He served for a while on its board of trustees and in 2011 he joined a campaign, together with Pudner, to prevent the school from relocating from the diverse inner city to Richmond’s wealthy, all-white suburbs. Pudner says they were motivated by a sense of “Catholic mission”. “That’s part of what we understood our Catholicism to be, that you weren’t just kind of off in an elite spot . . . you mingle, and you convey ideas but you’re also part of the community,” Pudner said. They lost the campaign but not, Pudner was quick to point out, without claiming a few scalps: three county supervisors who supported the move lost their seats in that year’s election.
Bannon studied urban affairs at Virginia Tech university and was elected president of its student government association in 1975. On graduating, he joined the navy. Though he was not directly involved in the operation, he was serving as a junior officer aboard the destroyer USS Paul F Foster in 1980 when US forces launched a failed attempt to rescue 52 people held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran. “I wasn’t political until I got into the service and saw how badly Jimmy Carter f***ed things up. I became a huge Reagan admirer. Still am,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. After Ronald Reagan’s election that year, Bannon worked in naval operations at the Pentagon while taking an MA in national security studies at Georgetown University.
In 1983 he made the first of many career changes and enrolled at Harvard Business School. A classmate from those years told the Boston Globe that Bannon was “top three in intellectual horsepower in our class – perhaps the smartest”. After completing his MBA he joined Goldman Sachs but left in 1990 to set up his own investment firm, Bannon & Co, specialising in the media industry. He acquired his stake in Seinfeld in 1993, when the sitcom, centred on the lives of four highly strung New Yorkers, was in its fourth series and still drawing relatively small audiences. Within a year, the show became one of the most popular in America. It is not known how large Bannon’s stake is, but in 2013 the Financial Times reported that Seinfeld had earned $3.1bn through syndication in the previous five years. He continues to earn royalties today.
The Seinfeld windfall helped fund his career as a film-maker. Julia Jones, a screenwriter who worked with Bannon on and off for two decades, remembers first meeting him at a party in Beverley Hills in 1991; they spoke of his plans to adapt Shakespeare for the big screen. Bannon’s overgrown hair, pasty complexion and dishevelled clothing recently prompted the comedian Stephen Colbert to describe him as “Robert Redford dredged from a river”, but in the 1990s, Jones told me: “He dressed down, but he was still neat and clean. He was preppy. He was really very attractive, good-looking, charismatic – and he weighed a lot less.”
They struck up a close friendship. Jones describes him as “very, very smart, but not in an obnoxious way”, and an avid reader with a keen interest in ancient philosophy and military strategy. He was fun to be around, largely because he had “an idea a minute”, some quirkier than others. When he called one day to say he had written the opening to a rap adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus set in LA during the 1992 race riots, she agreed to work with him on it.
Bannon’s faith was evidently important to him – at one point he considered adapting St Mark’s Gospel for the cinema – but the writing partners rarely discussed politics. Jones, who considers herself left-of-Bernie-Sanders, told me that though he expressed “the usual GOP views” he usually ignored rather than confronted the opinions of liberals he worked with. The most overtly political project Jones and Bannon co-wrote was his directorial debut – In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, released in 2004. The trailer splices Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech with footage from the Second World War, Communist-era Russia and the 9/11 attacks, intercut with pseudo-religious captions: “In mankind’s bloodiest and most barbaric century . . . came a man with a vision. An outsider, a radical with extreme views . . . of how to confront evil. Evil is powerless . . . if the good are unafraid.”
Jones says: “The Reagan documentary really launched Steve into the world of Washington politics. Before that he was a wannabe film-maker in Hollywood.” It was at an early screening of In the Face of Evil that he first met Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the eponymous news group. He later began making films with David Bossie, who leads the conservative advocacy group Citizens United. Bossie introduced Bannon to Donald Trump in 2011, when Trump was contemplating running for the Republican presidential ticket. Bossie and Bannon worked together on hagiographic documentaries of the Tea Party leaders Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, as well as Generation Zero (2010), which attributed the 2007 financial crash to a “failure of culture”, and Occupy Unmasked (2012), which promised to tell “the true story of the radicals behind the Occupy movement”.
“People have said I’m like Leni Riefenstahl,” Bannon told the Wall Street Journal in 2011, adding that he was a “student of” the Nazi propagandist, as well as the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and the liberal documentary-maker Michael Moore.
In his new incarnation as a crusading film-maker, he started to dress differently. Jones recalls how, while he was working on The Undefeated, his 2011 film about Sarah Palin, “I looked up one day and I couldn’t tell him from Michael Moore.”
After the 11 September 2001 attacks, Bannon’s world-view grew darker. He has consistently argued that Islam is at odds with Western values and civilisation. In a speech delivered to a conference at the Vatican in 2014, he argued that the West is “at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism”, using the phrase popularised by Christopher Hitchens. He sees the whole religion, and not just its violent fringes, as a threat. “If you look back at the long history of the Judaeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world,” he said.
Pudner, his friend from Richmond, says Bannon first expressed an interest in entering politics after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Bannon’s father, who is in his nineties and with whom Bannon is very close, lost almost all his life savings as the stock market crashed. “He felt like, ‘My dad’s working class, worked his whole life, put money away to save up and now he has no money to do anything, and all my old friends at Goldman Sachs are figuring out how all the rich people are not hurt in this recession,’” Pudner told me. “That was his first motivation, when he just said, ‘You know something? I’m going to have to get into politics because something’s wrong here.’”
Bannon’s anger at the financial elite did not forestall his profound hatred for the Occupy movement. While promoting Occupy Unmasked, he said, with characteristic crudeness, that the film would leave viewers wanting “to go home and shower because you’ve just spent an hour and 15 minutes with the greasiest, dirtiest people you will ever see”. He is also no champion of the poor. The focus of his concern is those in the middle, who he believes are hardest hit in an economy that provides “socialism for the very poor and the wealthy and a brutal form of capitalism for everybody else”.
He argues that the United States faces a threat to its existence, not only because of its financial vulnerability but also because capitalism has become separated from its “Judaeo-Christian” roots. The solution he proposes is a populist, middle-class revolt against the Democratic Party and the “apparatus on the left”, which includes the mainstream media and the education system, as well as the Republican leadership.
In a speech to the Liberty Restoration Foundation in 2011, Bannon described the challenge facing post-crash America as the “great fourth turning in American history”. The Fourth Turning is a 1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe which argues that history works in 80-to-100-year cycles, each culminating in a two-decade “turning” or “crisis”, in which the old civic order is replaced by a new one. “Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyse a Crisis mode. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire,” the book warns. The result could be war, civil violence, a break-up of the US, or authoritarianism, “Yet Americans will also enter the Fourth Turning with a unique opportunity to achieve a new greatness as a people.”
By 2012 Bannon had transformed himself again, this time from film-maker to far-right media chief. Two years earlier, he had begun offering free office space to Andrew Breitbart for his pugnacious news site. When Breitbart died of heart failure at the age of 43 in March 2012, Bannon, already a board member of the Breitbart group, was appointed chairman. Under his leadership, breitbart.com pursued an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda and ran such incendiary headlines as “‘Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?’”. Bannon has proudly declared that the website is “the platform for the alt right”; this term covers a broad spectrum of far-right ideologies that share a core belief that white identity is under attack. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights group, told me that “alt right” is best thought of, in essence, as “a whitewashing rebranding of old-fashioned white supremacy, or white nationalism”. Among the writers Bannon championed was Milo Yiannopoulos, banned from Twitter in 2016 for racially abusing the actress Leslie Jones and encouraging his followers to do the same, and who most recently made headlines for appearing to condone paedophilia.
Many of Bannon’s former colleagues, including some of his fiercest critics, have denied that he is racist or anti-Semitic. Yet he appears, at the very least, untroubled by the prejudices of those who write for Breitbart and comprise much of its readership. In July 2016, speaking to the progressive magazine Mother Jones, he conceded that some white nationalists, anti-Semites and homophobes were attracted to the alt right, but argued that the American left also attracts “certain elements”.
Ex-staffers at Breitbart have accused Bannon of exerting dictatorial control over the site’s content, using it to curry favour with friends and take down enemies, and ordering changes to articles he deemed not vitriolic enough. “Everyone who works with Steve in a position of subordination is scared shitless of him. Because he’s a bully and he yells at people and he harasses people and he’s a nasty human being,” Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor-at-large, told me.
In March 2016 several staff members, including Shapiro, left Breitbart. The trigger was the organisation’s refusal to stand by one of its reporters, Michelle Fields, after she was allegedly assaulted by Trump’s then campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. But many also objected to Bannon transforming Breitbart into a “propaganda outlet” and “a whorehouse for Trump”, as Shapiro put it. Bannon’s media strategy was two-pronged: in 2012, as he built a growing audience on the fringe right through Breitbart, he co-founded the Government Accountability Institute, a non-profit organisation whose sophisticated investigations into subjects such as the Clintons’ finances were picked up by the wider media.
In November 2015, Bannon became the founding host of the Breitbart News Daily radio show. Donald Trump was a repeat guest. Here, the frequently offensive Bannon showed himself to be also an effective sycophant. “I know you’re a student of military history . . . ” he told the candidate who professed to have too little time to read books. The pair enjoyed an easy rapport, Bannon asking leading questions and pontificating on Trump’s wealth, the size of his rallies, his skill as a deal-maker.
“The way he gets in people’s ears is by telling them that they are the greatest geniuses he has ever met and he will make them famous and powerful,” Shapiro told me. “And then he proceeds to give the go-ahead to all of their worst instincts because if you’re the yes-man you never get fired.”
Bannon often boasts that he was among the first to recognise Trump’s political potential. The property tycoon and reality-TV star announced his candidacy in June 2015 with a speech in which he pledged to build a wall between Mexico and the United States to keep out immigrant rapists, drug dealers and other criminals. “The idea of somebody running for president – of all things – who talks about essentially ethnic nationalism was a wake-up call, an electrifying event for people like Bannon and in general what is called the alt right,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the Centre for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Even before Bannon formally joined Trump’s campaign the two men enjoyed a close relationship. Trump consulted Breitbart and other fringe websites for news and echoed their anti-foreigner, America First rhetoric.
“Bannon saw in Trump someone who could be a vehicle for realising at the presidential level those kinds of ideological tenets. While Trump saw in Bannon someone who was very effective at messaging along the lines of what Trump had already understood about nativism: anti-immigrant, that kind of nationalist rhetoric,” Rosenthal says. He believes that Bannon “reveals the ideological heart of Trumpism”.
An unnamed former associate described Bannon to Politico as “the Rain Man of nationalism” because of his speed-reading habits. The Politico site reported that he had urged White House staff to read books such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, a treatise on how to thrive in an age of chaos and uncertainty.
Public comments made by Bannon show his familiarity with writers who remain obscure beyond far-right circles. In his 2014 Vatican speech, he cited the work of Julius Evola, whose writings provided inspiration for the Italian Fascists. He has repeatedly described the European migrant crisis as mirroring The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel by Jean Raspail, in which France and the rest of Europe are overrun by dark-skinned, faeces-eating, sexually predatory refugees bent on
overpowering the white population. However, Bannon may read more widely: late last year a New York Times reporter spotted him at an airport poring over The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s account of foreign policy mistakes made by the brilliant young advisers who worked for J F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. He told the reporter he had asked several people in the Trump administration to read the book, saying it’s “great for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later”.
Bannon has been divorced three times and has three daughters, to whom he is reportedly devoted. During the presidential campaign, journalists uncovered police records showing that he was charged with domestic violence during his second marriage (he pleaded not guilty) as well as court records from after their divorce in which his ex-wife alleges that he didn’t want their twin daughters “going to school with Jews”, because he “doesn’t like Jews”. (He denies having said this.) Generally, however, those close to him say that the self-styled Prince of Darkness is enjoying his time in the spotlight and is thriving under the pressure of his new role.
The chief strategist had a glaringly obvious influence on Trump’s inaugural address, and is reported to have pushed for the administration’s hard line on immigration. Under Trump, the White House website no longer mentions climate change, nor does it have a section on LGBT rights. Bannon has described global warming as a “manufactured crisis” (implying it isn’t real); Breitbart similarly dismisses climate change as a “hoax” and a “scam”. He has little patience with left-wing identity politics but is obsessed with right-wing identity politics. On his watch, Breitbart published several articles under the tag “Black Crime” and stories on “immigrant” and “illegal alien” crime before Trump landed on the same theme.
He is also reported to have been responsible for some of Trump’s more reckless executive orders, such as the so-called Muslim ban, overturned by the courts again this month. His rash approach to policymaking may be a product of his combative personality. “Any time there’d be a sort of controversial move his first instinct was always: go for it . . . and that’s what blows up in his face,” Shapiro told me. Having made the transition from outsider agitator to ultimate political insider, Bannon may find his long-term success depends on an ability to curb his attack-dog instincts and to compromise.
Bannon once compared himself to “Cromwell in the House of Tudors”, the history buff perhaps having forgotten that ultimately Thomas Cromwell was executed for treason. The Trump administration having spent its first weeks in near-permanent crisis mode, that boast may yet come to haunt him. Yet the master of reinvention could equally outlast Trump. “If they all get swept out of the White House, Bannon’s still going. He’s still got an agenda; Trump isn’t all he’s interested in,” Julia Jones told me.
It is not clear where he might end up, should Trump no longer serve his interests, but this much is evident: the right-wing Leninist is unnaturally good at getting what he wants and to where he wants to be.
Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer
This article appears in the 22 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution