March 23, 2017
Steve Bannon’s Political Mythology does not stand up to strict rational analysis
Steve Bannon is the keeper of the secret formula—that peculiar and potent mix of aggressive bluster and selective empathy—that enabled Donald Trump to be elected. It’s worth remembering how unlikely the success of the formula seemed even a year ago. Before Trump got to Hillary Clinton, and when Bannon was an informal adviser, the candidate mowed down a long list of Republican opponents, without being the biggest spender or having the best organization. That was because the formula worked. It isn’t conventionally liberal or conservative, and it doesn’t have much in common with the standard views of either political party. Essentially, all of Trump’s Republican opponents were more pro-market, more pro-trade, and more anti-government than he was. And Clinton, by virtue of unexpected pressure from Bernie Sanders, had moved slightly in the direction of the Trump formula before she was nominated.
Last week, Bannon gave an extended interview to the Wall Street Journal, in which he offered an origin story about his (as the Journal’s headline put it) “journey to economic nationalism.” He said that Marty Bannon, his ninety-five-year-old father, a devout Catholic whose education ended at the third grade, had, like his father before him, worked at A.T. & T. for half a century, rising slowly from a blue-collar job to a white-collar one; his loyalty to the company was so great that he put all his savings into A.T. & T. stock. Then, in October of 2008, he was watching Jim Cramer on the “Today” show, and heard Cramer say that it was time to sell—so he did. Poof, a hundred thousand dollars of painstakingly accumulated savings were gone, even as the financial institutions that perpetrated the crisis were being bailed out. Bannon told the Journal, “Everything since then has come from there. All of it.”
This is political mythology, and it doesn’t stand up to strict rational analysis. Steve Bannon was well into his career as a conservative documentary filmmaker who sounded nationalist notes before the 2008 financial crisis. And, after watching Cramer on television, Marty Bannon had lots of better options than selling his stock. He neglected to consult his sons—two of whom, including Steve, had worked in finance—before selling. They would have told him not to. Had he not sold, he would not have lost any money, because A.T. & T. stock regained its value over time. There were many other, more prudent ways he could have invested his savings over the years than putting it all into a single company’s stock, like buying shares in a mutual fund. He had bought some of his A.T. & T. stock with borrowed money, which he should not have done.
“He’s the backbone of the country, the everyman who plays by the rules, the hardworking dad that delays his own gratification for the family,” Steve Bannon told the Journal. People like that were often treated like dirt during the early Gilded Age days of industrial capitalism in America; that situation was corrected by an expanded federal government, and Marty Bannon was the beneficiary. He lived under a social compact that was created during the two liberal heydays of the first half of the twentieth century, the Progressive Era and the New Deal, and that shaped the lives of many millions of Americans. Beginning in 1913, A.T. & T. was a heavily regulated, government-sanctioned monopoly. It was able to provide the rock-solid stability that the elder Bannon remembers because it had no competitors but did have passive and widely dispersed investors (for decades, A.T. & T. had by far the highest number of individual stockholders of any American company), as well as the heavy hand of the state pushing it to treat its employees generously, through unionization and other means.
A.T. & T., when Bannon worked there, was hardly an exemplar of the prevailing values of the modern Republican Party—or the modern Democratic Party, for that matter. In the nineteen-eighties, the government broke A.T. & T. up into seven smaller companies. Today, many mergers and acquisitions later, two of the seven survive, and telephone service is a duopoly—A.T. & T. and Verizon—rather than a monopoly. Along the way, the company, along with many other big corporations, dropped most of the welfare-state aspects that Marty Bannon misses so keenly. All of this happened because the consensus about economic regulation changed profoundly: telephone deregulation began during the Nixon Administration and proceeded through the Presidencies of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. But it’s fair to say that, between big government and the free market, the latter is far more to blame than the former for what happened to Marty Bannon.
Steve Bannon himself, as he acknowledges in the Journal story, has none of the fanatical loyalty that has been the touchstone of his father’s life. He is an educated-élite type who has switched jobs and locations repeatedly. One can call him a hypocrite, but he has been able to use his sense of his father’s life effectively in service of his own, and Trump’s, political ambitions. (Remember that Franklin Roosevelt had nothing in common with most of his constituents, either.) Bannon told the Journal, “The problem we’ve had is that in the ascendant economy—Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood—the Marty Bannons of the world were getting washed out to sea, and nobody was paying attention to them.” This is potent stuff, best thought of as a powerful political weapon that could conceivably be used for good or for evil, and by the Republicans or the Democrats. It could easily be deployed against the Trump Administration, which is now trying to dismantle the Obama-era government agency that was created after the crash to protect small investors like Marty Bannon, and has Goldman Sachs alumni (like Steve Bannon) in its top economic-policy posts. Liberals are missing a big opportunity if they don’t try to tell stories like Marty Bannon’s in a different way, and to offer people who are touched by them a different kind of hope.