Steve Bannon, in his much discussed comments at a 2014 Vatican conference of fellow conservative Catholics, proclaimed his support for a latter-day Crusade against Islam. But, his observations on contemporary capitalism have received less attention.
But there’s a strand of capitalism today — two strands of it, that are very disturbing. One is state-sponsored capitalism. And that’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. I believe it’s what Holy Father [Pope Francis] has seen for most of his life in places like Argentina, where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century. The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. And, look, I’m a big believer in a lot of libertarianism. I have many many friends that’s a very big part of the conservative movement — whether it’s the UKIP movement in England, it’s many of the of the populist movement in Europe, and particularly in the United States. However, that form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as many of the precepts of Marx —and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive. And if they don’t see another alternative, it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of ‘personal freedom’.
Bannon, ironically, has been the primary influence on Donald Trump, an aspiring kleptocrat, who would define “enlightened capitalism” as knowing how best to fleece investors, workers and consumers. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to manipulate a President who shares his bigotry, while being deeply ignorant, incurious and consequently gullible. But Trump does not rule, yet, by fiat. He has to contend with the Republican-controlled Congress, which, especially in the House under the leadership of Paul Ryan, is sympathetic to Randian capitalism---with some members even more enthralled than Ryan himself. Moreover, despite the media’s caricature of Trump voters as solely from the white working-class, it included most college-educated whites. They probably find Objectivist ideology more appealing than Bannon’s mythical paternalistic “enlightened capitalism,” which neglects actual economic history, because only organized workers and government legislation have inhibited capitalism’s “unenlightened” proclivities. Bannon, however, is likely more disingenuous than ignoramus in his muddled economic philosophy. He is a sham humanist and populist, as well as an opportunist (Besides being a Trump-whisperer, he has a symbiotic relationship with Robert Mercer, the billionaire libertarian whose extreme devotion to Objectivism makes Ryan seem like a Communist).
Bannon’s deepest ideological commitment is probably to white supremacy at home and abroad. Ryan and a large part of the GOP in Congress want to gut social spending, reverse as much progressive taxation as possible and de-regulate business. But, there are plenty of bigots there as well as in the electorate, so Bannon and Trump find little GOP opposition to their anti-immigrant orders, travel bans, or efforts to weaken the enforcement of civil rights. Moreover, Objectivism, when guiding policies in the existing US, is implicitly racist because massive reductions in social spending disproportionately affect non-whites, who are more apt to be public sector employees and beneficiaries of programs serving the poor.
There are, however, several areas where Bannon and the GOP would be at odds if he took non-affluent whites’ well-being seriously. Healthcare is one. House Republicans wanted minimal subsidies, and some wanted none, for those with insufficient incomes. Bannon knew, however that many white people have or will get expensive medical problems (what was God thinking?) and might be unable to afford health insurance if Obamacare was not delicately reformed. Moreover, Trump and the GOP might suffer at the polls in 2018 and 2020 if their policies alienate these whites. Yet, Bannon, whose influence hinges largely on Trump’s whims, decided not to fight for his alleged populist ideology and put himself at odds with his patron’s doomed quest to get Obamacare “repealed and replaced” in any form and then declare victory.
Infrastructure is another major policy arena where Trump’s pledge to aid beleaguered working-class whites should clash with the GOP’s inclination to spend money only on the military and law enforcement. Trump and Bannon say they want to bring temporary construction jobs to rural white communities―-building new bridges, roads, and repairing crumbling ones---if only to garner future votes. Republicans will then demand even steeper cuts in every imaginable expenditure benefiting the non-white poor, but it would still account for a tiny fraction of Trump’s promised trillion dollars’ worth of infrastructure. If Trump agrees to further decimate what Bannon calls the “Administrative state” (e.g., FDA, FEMA, EPA, OSHA, CFPB), ordinary white people’s quality of life will also be adversely affected, and relatively little money saved. Bannon knows this. Does he care? If so, will he fight? Don’t bet on it.
One wild card affecting the outcome if there was ever any significant conflict between Bannon and the GOP Congress for Trump’s allegiance is the President’s Russia problem. Whether Trump and his team merely passively benefited from Putin’s “active measures” during the election campaign, or illegally colluded with Russian operatives, probably will be known only if the GOP allows for a non-partisan inquiry. Despite speculation about “another Watergate,” two critical distinctions between then and now exist: the Democrats controlled the Congress at that time; there was no Fox-Breitbart Axis mass distributing alt-facts. Nixon, had he been President today, very possibly would have survived the scandal.
Trump knows it is in the hands of the GOP to scuttle any Russia inquiry―-or not. With Pence waiting in the wings, should Trump be impeached, the Republicans in Congress has a strong hand if unified, and willing to demand Trump do its bidding. However, on the two issues, healthcare and infrastructure, it is fractured, and there may be others to come (e.g., trade). This offers Trump breathing room and might give Bannon more clout if his populism, and the President’s, was more than simply demagoguery. As it isn’t, white supremacy and Objectivism are not in a struggle with each other, just serving affluent whites in distinct but compatible ways. If Bannon’s influence fades, as may be the case, the white working-class won’t even notice.