When Steve Bannon took over as the head of Trump’s floundering, disorganized, and underfunded campaign, electoral victory seemed a dim possibility. The Republican establishment, in their panic, went into damage control mode: prominent figures such as Mitt Romney scathingly criticized their candidate in public, while House Speaker Paul Ryan expressed that his priority was to preserve the Republican majority in Congress rather than putting effort into supporting the presidential campaign. The Democrats simply gloated, confident of their victory.
How different everything looks now. Establishment Republicans like former RNC Chairman Reince Priebus are in Trump’s cabinet, while Paul Ryan has offered a truce—for now. It must be admitted that Bannon has played an important role in this turnaround. According to a report in the New York Times, Bannon injected much needed “discipline” into the campaign, intensifying the tempo of what “had been a 9-to-5 campaign.” He tightened its scattered message, focusing on “more consistently presenting [Trump] as a populist outsider.” And many of the media stunts that were crucial in honing this populist image—such as the visit to Flint, Michigan (a state Trump later won), site of the lead water crisis—were engineered by Bannon. Not for nothing does campaign manager Kellyanne Conway call him “the general.”
Bannon has years of experience in media and corporate America. Not only during his tenure as executive chair of Breitbart News, an online news and commentary website widely touted as the heart of the “alt-right” movement, but also in the years before, as a film producer. Beginning in 2004, with the Ronald Reagan hagiography In the Face of Evil, he was responsible for a string of documentaries that brought him recognition within the right-populist “Tea Party” movement. His documentary adaptation of Clinton Cash provides a case study in his adoption of “left” rhetoric to serve a right-wing audience, with its name-dropping of “disaster capitalism.”
What stands out especially is his knack for sensing the discontent simmering beneath the surface of society. As a result, his instinctive reactions seem to be more farsighted than your run-of-the-mill bourgeois strategist. For example, Bannon was deeply impressed in 2014 when an insurgent Virginia Republican, David Brat, pulled off an unexpected primary race upset of Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader. “‘He began casting around for other unconventional candidates to support—people that were not a part of the establishment and would run populist campaigns.’”
In this, Bannon had a two-year headstart over the majority of pundits, who wrote Trump off until the last hours of the election. Against the data of any number of “empirical” focus-tested polls, Bannon’s hunch proved to be correct.
Trump’s core base is the “enraged petty bourgeoisie” who are desperate to curb the falling standard of living due to the crisis of capitalism. It is through them that some working-class voters, in the absence of a clear socialist leadership to channel their discontent, were drawn into voting against the status quo. Indeed, detailed analysis of the exit polls confirms this view. This also explains the contradictory economic program that the campaign proposes, with its calls for lower taxation yet increased infrastructure building, combined with a hearkening back to the 1950s—a world of fabled prosperity and stability, tight-knit nuclear families, and so-called religious values—verily a petty-bourgeois heaven.
But how did Bannon become such an effective representative of this current, and what aspects of his personality allowed him to play the role of strategist who could give coherent expression to their aspirations (insofar as we can call it that)?
According to the New York Times, he “was the middle child of five in an Irish Catholic family from a leafy North Richmond neighborhood. His father, Martin, 95, to whom he remains very close, was a telephone lineman who had worked his way into middle management at the phone company.” We can see Bannon as the typical offspring of the postwar boom, a time when a substantial layer of workers, and especially white workers, were able to climb socially or psychologically into the petty bourgeois. Having thoroughly absorbed the morality of that period and environment, Bannon’s personal code of self conduct, concern for self image, and narrow egotism are an exaggerated caricature of the typical upper-middle-class upstart:
“‘He said he joined the Navy so it would look good on his résumé because he wanted to go into politics someday,’ said Mr. Mickle, a retired defense contractor. Another officer, Sonny Masso, . . . recalls a devoted reader of the Wall Street Journal who picked stocks to buy through a San Diego broker . . . He was fit, too. ‘He’d run five miles at lunch and he had a 32-inch waist,’ Mr. Masso said. ‘Very preppy when we were out of uniform—polo shirts with alligators on them, and penny loafers with no socks.’”
No wonder he is so in tune with the hopes and fears of his “alt-right” base!
However, the other crucial element is his current social standing as a solid supporter of the big bourgeoisie, having been an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before moving on to start his own company, Bannon & Co. And there is no contradiction, in fact, between his current social position and his “fight for the little man” persona. Marx long ago explained that “[One must not] imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers. . . . According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven and earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.”
Such a description fits Bannon perfectly. His upbringing gives him an intuitive bond with his base.
Nonetheless, contrary to what liberal bourgeois media claims, he represents a small minority without mass influence. Partially bankrolling the hit TV show Seinfeld was crucial in earning him the capital he could then reinvest in producing right-wing media. His wealth artificially inflates the support his views appear to have in society. In a sense, only someone like him could be the political champion of the “alt-right.”
So is Bannon a kingmaker who can conjure up Donald Trumps at will? He himself seems to think so. He has expressed a cynical attitude towards his boss: “[Trump is a] blunt instrument for us. I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”
But Marxists understand that, in the last analysis, it is not individual intentions that decide the course of history. In Bannon’s case, he represents a small section of a dwindling class that’s being hammered daily by the prolonged crisis of capitalism. Without a mass base, he can play no independent historical role, and his undoubted talent remains that of reflecting the mood swings of the petty bourgeoisie. He may soon be surprised to find himself, in turn, the “blunt instrument” of history.
In order to continue his political career within the executive of the bourgeois state, he will be forced to play by the rules of the big bourgeois. This rapprochement can already be seen in his meeting with long time GOP rival Paul Ryan. Although his Breitbart base is hailing this as a victory for their side—an assertion seemingly backed by Trump’s inauguration speech, which reaffirms most of his promises to the Bannon wing of his administration—reality behind the scenes may yet paint a different picture. Though Bannon and Ryan agree on slashing the top marginal tax rate (no surprise), they don’t “see eye to eye on entitlement reform, import tariffs, or Trump’s proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.” A small disagreement indeed!
In this contest it is very much the House Speaker, leading solid majorities in both houses of Congress, and not Bannon, with his vaguely defined position as chief strategist and Senior Counselor to Trump, who ultimately has the upper hand. It is no surprise that fractures between two wings of bourgeois strategists should manifest within Trump’s cabinet. As the ominous headline of the Wall Street Journal states, Trump is “seen bringing deliberate chaos to the White House.” True to his maverick style, Trump does not seem to mind members of his cabinet openly contradicting his policy line and displaying their disagreements in public; indeed, he prefers that they duke it out so he can swoop in as the final arbitrator. It remains to be seen whether this tactic will work in managing the bourgeois executive.
In such a situation, Bannon has a tricky hand to play. The “alt-right,” jittery over fears of Trump’s betrayal of their core demands, threaten disobedience. Bannon, true to his populist roots, flirts with their moods, even actively encouraging them to hold Trump’s administration “accountable.” But in the real world, with his supporters being an insignificant force in the grand scale of things, and the core needs of the bourgeoisie dictated by the need to maintain stability and to keep the economy on course as long as possible, he may soon find himself forced to knuckle down to the demands of the serious bourgeoisie. Whether he can manage the delicate balancing act between that and satisfying his base, remains to be seen.