"We’re the ones on the right side of history": interview with Steve Bannon

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 5 December 2018 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview with the former White House Chief Strategist

Steve Bannon - Image credit: Matt Beech

Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former political strategist, is on manoeuvres in Europe. Having helped catapult Donald Trump into the White House in 2016, Bannon claims he is now in demand from right-wing populist leaders throughout Europe hoping his campaigning skills can help them win in next year’s European Parliament elections.

And despite an early setback which could see his influence thwarted because of electoral rules on foreign interference, Bannon is pledging to ensure that next year’s European elections move up a notch by taking news about the elections from their usual spot, hidden deep inside newspapers, and onto the front pages.

Bannon is a mercurial character. As the architect of Trump’s dog whistle-style politics and divisive policy agenda, there is much debate about whether journalists like me should even give him a platform to speak.

He has been accused of being a racist, a xenophobe, a misogynist, a homophobe and everything beyond and in between. The First Minister recently pulled out of a major global broadcasting conference, the annual News Xchange event held jointly between the BBC and the European Broadcast Union (EBU), in Edinburgh, because she refused to share a platform with Bannon. Even though they were scheduled to speak on different days, she said she didn’t want to risk “legitimising or normalising far-right, racist views”.

In response, the BBC said on behalf of the EBU’s News Xchange committee: “Good journalism in a world of fake news and disinformation is more vital than ever. Journalism is about asking tough questions and understanding what is happening in the world and why.

“A conference designed to analyse the big issues impacting that world isn’t an endorsement of anyone or anything – it is a function of what journalism is.”

I agree and having sat in the audience of over 600 influential broadcasting executives from all over the world at the conference, I think Nicola Sturgeon missed a trick in demonstrating on a global stage how progressive politics can look.

Bannon says he is disappointed in Scotland’s FM for refusing to engage: “You’ve got to respect the opinion of almost a majority of American people about this economic populism, this economic nationalism, and you can’t just virtue signal from your fence on the left, I think you’ve got to engage and you’ve got to listen.”

When I ask him if he is a racist, he says, “that’s not even a question”.

“You were at the conference and you saw the BBC announcer [Scotland editor, Sarah Smith] and how she spent of the 40 minutes of the interview, 20 minutes trying to play ‘catch me’ on the racism thing. I said, hey, we’re going to be here all day. It’s a waste of time.

“Look, ethno-nationalism is a dead end, it’s for losers. Economic nationalism and civic nationalism bind you together as citizens regardless of your race, regardless of your ethnicity, regardless of your religion. That’s what we stand for. They [the liberal elites] are so afraid of it, that’s why they run. They will not debate you on the economic arguments, they gotta call you a racist, a homophobe, an anti-Semite, a nativist, a xenophobe, all of it, and when they start calling you that, I say, wear the accusations as a badge of honour.

“And by the way, I want to say one thing, I’ve got thousands of hours of radio interviews. I ran my own radio show, thousands of hours of speeches, and you don’t think they went through every line of speech, every radio show, everything, they’ve never come up with an anti-Semitic, racist comment from my mouth, ever.”

That could be true, but I suggest that when he associates himself with people like Tommy Robinson, the convicted fraudster, former leader of the English Defence League and now adviser to UKIP on gang rape and prison reform, who, he tells me, is “a real solid guy” who is simply “vilified because he is working class” or that it is just “overkill on behalf of the left” accusing Boris Johnson of racism when he described Muslim women wearing the burka as looking like ‘letter-boxes’ or ‘bank robbers’, that can be interpreted as Bannon supporting racism.

“People say things and sometimes figures like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, who are provocative, they say some stuff, does it make them racist? It absolutely does not make them racist.”

I suggest to him that some political leaders do not “say some stuff”. The First Minister, for instance, wouldn’t.

“Well, fine, she’s extremely politically correct and that’s fine for her. She may feel those things, but I don’t think it takes away from Boris Johnson and it certainly doesn’t make him a racist. Anyone who knows Boris Johnson will know he’s anything but a racist, and I think that when they accuse Boris Johnson of being a racist and accuse Steve Bannon of being a racist because he gave Boris Johnson or Viktor Orbán [the prime minister of Hungary] a pass on that, that to me is why the media is so untrusted.”

Until August 2017, Bannon, a former naval officer, investment banker and executive of Breitbart, a news website which Bannon himself once called the “platform for the alt-right”, was one of Trump’s most trusted aides. Credited for getting him elected, he was key in the Trump administration that many are still struggling to understand. And while he left government acrimoniously and was accused of ‘losing his job and his mind’ by the president, he continues to champion right-wing political causes and Trump.

“He’s a guy’s guy,” he says.  “I like him a lot, he’s a throwback to what I call the Mad Men era, the Rat Pack era, he’s a guy’s guy and yes, I understand that triggers the ‘Time’s Up’ movement. He’s an athlete, he’s a golfer, he thinks in sports metaphors, if you’re kind of raised in that kind of sports environment, he’s somebody you can very easily communicate with.

“What I really like most about him is that he’s not a politician, he’s a businessman. He’s not politically correct, he’ll give it to you with a bark on, the rough way. I kind of like that, I like him quite a bit. Even when I read the quotes of things he has said, I say, look, I come from an Irish Catholic family with a couple of brothers, I’ve been called worse at the dinner table. He’s got his own house style and you’ve got to accept that if you work with him, it comes as a whole package.”

Bannon looks as if he’s gone a few rounds. He’s your archetypal bellicose political protagonist who defies conventional labels.

He has jokingly referred to himself as ‘Bannon the Barbarian’ but more seriously, describes himself as an economic nationalist. His close involvement in European politics via a project he has called the ‘Movement’ in countries that have seen a rise in right-wing populism has set alarm bells ringing.

He has shared a platform with Marine Le Pen in France, advised Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who he has called the “Trump before Trump” and he has the support of Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini. His influence is not insubstantial, therefore his motivations deserve scrutiny and what and who he represents. 

You might be offended by Bannon’s style and disagree with his politics, but to ignore him, or the issues he raises, risks further feeding into an easy narrative around the people who support his rally-calls and who have felt ignored by the so-called political elites, for well over a decade.

The challenge with Bannon is to understand what connects him with the people that coalesce around his platform. He may very well be riding on the coattails of an alt-right nationalism sweeping through Europe rather than leading it but given his success in getting Trump into the White House, his influence cannot be underestimated.

As he told the Guardian: “Remember Bannon’s theorem. You put a reasonable face on right-wing populism and you get elected.”

That perceived threat to liberal democracies prompted the Guardian, which previously argued against giving Bannon publicity, to conduct a four-month-long investigation into his activity in Europe and to start a campaign in the newspaper about the rise of right-wing populism.

We live in a time of contrary views. We know that a large portion of the electorate feels ignored by politicians. It’s how many – including Guardian readers – explains the majority that voted to leave the EU – and yet we still ignore the reasons why. It’s recognised that immigration played a major part in the vote, yet there’s an unpreparedness to discuss it. But Steve Bannon does. And he luxuriates in what he sees as his part in engaging the electorate and dismisses the idea that division is a bad thing. Politics, he says, is “war by other methods”.

Organising this interview was shrouded in a comical level of intrigue: texts from one number, replies from another; a preppy-looking man sidling up to me in a hotel lobby and telling me, in hushed tones, he’d tell me where to meet in ‘ten’ and not to talk about the photographer who, while so obviously with me, was desperately trying to disguise a camera bag, background screen and a set of lights. A text with a request to meet at the elevator and then a silent ride up to the 4th floor of a central hotel before being met by three men who silently indicated a bedroom door. It was almost then a relief to find a smiling Steve Bannon welcoming me in with an offer of a can of Red Bull – he’d already had two. When all the bedroom lights mysteriously went out, he joked he was “the force of darkness”.

The problem with Bannon is that there is an uncomfortable kernel of truth in much of what he says. He holds a mirror up to your prejudices and when I say that at a time of global chaos, it’s not surprising that people become more insular and are perhaps  attracted to right-leaning, populist movements, he calls out my inherent bias.

“Ha,” he exclaims, having caught me out just minutes into the interview. “The world seems in chaos, in your view, if you’re a globalist and the reason it’s chaos and swirling with confusion is because you’re losing. If you’re a populist nationalist, it’s the sunlit uplands because we’re winning. This shows the bias, I’m just saying.

“For populists and nationalists in Europe, in the US with Trump, in Pakistan, and you’re seeing populism all over the place, we’re the ones on the right side of history. If you’re a globalist or a multi-nationalist, it does seem pretty grim, it does seem chaotic, it does seem destructive, but not for us.

“People say that the US is so divided. But here’s the point, we are a revolutionary country. We broke off from the British, the biggest empire in the world, part of that is because of all those tough Scots/Irish that came over to the mid-Atlantic states with that born fighting attitude.

“People have different ideas about the direction of the country and they are very deeply embedded. We’re going to fight this out and where we’re going to fight it out is the ballot box and that’s why I think November 6th [the mid-term elections in which the Republicans lost their majority in the House of Representatives] was so great because it is the most engaged the electorate has ever been, I think it’s tremendous. We’re two different philosophies. These people [the Democrats] won because of grit and determination and knocking on doors and convincing people, I think it’s fantastic. I think we got beat and I’ve told people the reason we got beat is because they outworked us. I think it’s great when they say the country is divided because the political process is bringing people together, because now so many people are engaged in it.”

Bannon believes that the European elections next year will impact on the presidential election in 2020 and that the election of Trump was made possible by the Brexit vote. One thing made the other possible because, he says, it allowed the rank and file to believe that “victory against all the odds was possible”.

Bannon describes how at a rally in Mississippi during the 2016 presidential election and in the face of sliding polls, Trump said his presidency would bring ‘American independence’ before introducing Nigel Farage to the stage as the man who stood up against the EU.

Bannon, meanwhile, was watching the Morning Joe political programme which had on its panel a journalist from the New York Times who, he says, was laughing about “this English guy who no one knew”.

“We wanted Nigel to be there because Nigel was a legend after Brexit, a legend among the working-class readers of Breitbart, etc, so the New York Times journalist is sitting there and literally laughing, saying how can these dudes in Mississippi understand who this English guy is, and in the background, they have the rally on the TV screen and Nigel is getting a standing ovation, people are jumping up and down, he literally is a rock star on the Breitbart right, and I’m sitting there going, look at the condescension of the elite and seeing that these guys just don’t understand how these things are connected.

“They don’t understand how Brexit and Nigel gave people in the US hope that comes from a victory that the media tells you is not going to happen and that you’re on the losing side.”

Bannon makes the ‘little guy’ feel he is not alone. He tells the beleaguered working classes that he will give them back their country and their jobs. And while bleeding heart liberals might not like the consequences of what he says, or indeed the people that he courts, he hasn’t created the audience for his views, they were already there.

People’s fears are real and while Bannon may pour accelerant on them, he is at least engaging with them. He told the Bloomberg Opinion     columnist Michael Lewis that it was fear and anger that got people out to vote for Trump. “We got elected on ‘drain the swamp, lock her up, build a wall’,” he told Lewis. “This was pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.”

The Chinese have a word for the people whose names don’t make it into the history books: the ‘laobaixing’ or ‘old 100 names’. They are the commoners and it is these people that Bannon says he is on the side of because they are his people, they are what he comes from.

“The ‘old 100 names’ is basically the working class of China, which is always getting screwed over by every emperor. It’s the backbone of society,” says Bannon. “I say ‘old hundred names’ is nothing but the ‘deplorables’, and that’s what we see everywhere, the same working-class people, that same working class that had Churchill’s back to take the Nazis on, and I think there was a lot of the same elements that were there then were also apparent in Brexit.

“I think there’s commonality among the working classes. I say it’s commonality of fighting spirit and that’s why I’ve always dismissed this ethno-nationalism accusation as a joke. There is a commonality of this kind of fighting spirit with working-class people throughout the world and I think now you’re seeing that they basically are the backbone of all their different societies and what they want is their countries back, they want their citizenship to mean something, that’s why I’m in this fight. These are my people.

“Trump is the first guy to be in the room for the working class, that’s why we have historic low black unemployment, that’s why we have 25-year low Hispanic unemployment, that’s why wages in agriculture and construction, oil field services, at the lowest levels are starting to rise for the first time. We’re a long way from success, it’s a process, but it’s a start and we’re bringing manufacturing jobs back, and around high value manufacturing jobs, you can build a family around that, you can have family formation, you can have some stability. That’s what the purpose of this is, that’s what the populist movement is, the populist movement is to get more power down to the little guy, because you know why, if I had a choice between being governed by the first 100 people that turned up at a Trump rally or UKIP or the Brexit rallies, the Trump rally in the red hats, or the top 100 partners at Goldman Sachs, where I was honoured to work, I’d take the deplorables every day. They’ve got more humanity, more grit, they know more about life, more decency, more common goodness and the world would be fine if they ran it.

“I was raised in a working-class family. We were Kennedy Democrats and I had the fortune after I volunteered for the navy to go to university, I went to basically the blue-collar university, in fact, our football team is called the blue-collar football team. I come from a blue-collar family, my sister was the first one in the history of the family who went to college. I’m the first officer in a whole list of guys from the military in my family and I was then able to go to places like Georgetown, Harvard and Goldman Sachs. I had the opportunity to work in these institutions because I proved my merit, these are meritocracies, I proved myself”

There’s something faintly desperate about the way Bannon has to constantly assert himself. I tell him that an American academic I had met at the News Xchange conference had asked me if he was starved of praise from his parents.

 “Oh God, no. My mum was the greatest. I’m coming up for my 65th birthday. On my 60th birthday, what I did is I paid the cemetery so I could go and visit her grave on the exact minute I was born 60 years before. I have personal interaction with the richest people in the world, billionaires, multi billionaires, [but] what I was given as a child is priceless. The love and the family unit and the dedication of the parents who put everything aside for the education of their kids. I don’t need affirmation, I got her affirmation every day. She is still an engaged part of my life. I think about her all the time and in my own way I’ve bounced my ideas on a ‘what would Doris think’. She’s a very living presence of mine.

“My dad is 97 years old and I think he’s proud of the fact that what I am standing up for are the family’s values, standing up for working-class people, he’s very proud. We’re a tough group of Irish. We come from phone company people and cops and firemen and all of those. There’s not many doctors in there. I don’t think there’s a single doctor in our entire family.”

Bannon wears his blue-collar credentials like a badge. He literally wears two blue collars. He frames his political argument around a battle between the ‘little guy’ and any number of elites collectively condemned by him as the ‘the party of Davos’. There’s a fairly crude inverse snobbery about him and I ask him if that is fuelled by grievance.

“It’s never about grievance, my problem is not grievance. What I don’t like is the unfair treatment of what I consider the backbone of society. The backbone of society is to me the blue collar working-class people and the lower middle class. They’re the ones that run our schools, coach the little league sports teams, serve in the military. They’re the glue that holds civic society together. And I think throughout the West, the party of Davos, particularly in these financial crises which are made by themselves, they just bail themselves out.

“That’s on the back of the little guy. We have set up a two-tier system with the party of Davos and the elites taking care of themselves and kind of this Darwinian form of capitalism for everybody else. Donald Trump is not the cause of that. Donald Trump is the product of that. The populist movement and these nationalist movements are not the cause of that, they’re the product of that, and you’ve got to understand what was the fuse that lit this, until you can understand how this thing plays out.

“What’s happening in the US is called economic nationalism, where regardless of your race or ethnicity, Trump is putting in programmes, putting in policies that look after American citizens, and particularly American workers, first.It’s a huge priority. The whole NAFTA deal was done to create a geostrategic manufacturing base in North America that offset China in East Asia. That’s why you have growth here, you’ve got record growth, record low unemployment, wages are finally starting to rise, particularly at the lowest level, and the vision is to bring manufacturing jobs back. You must bring manufacturing jobs back. Once you do that, to me, that’s the key to a healthy and successful society.

“Remember one thing: in the US, all the studies show the number-one issue with family formation by people in their 20s is not that they don’t want to get married and form families, but that they have this economic anxiety, this economic angst, and the reason is that they’re in a gig economy, one or two pay checks away from oblivion, and that anxiety that eats on you every day like battery acid. I think it has caused many problems in society.

“One of the central problems in the US is minority involvement in high technology jobs. We’ve turned the entire education system over to STEM in grade school, yet Hispanics and African Americans don’t get to Silicon Valley because they don’t get into engineering schools. And why don’t they get into engineering schools? I went to a university for blue-collar kids, definitely not Ivy League. That engineering school today, I think, is 75 per cent Asian. Why is that? It’s not that Asians are any smarter than African Americans or Hispanics, it’s because those nations are paying full fees. They pay $47,000 a year, financed by the government, they don’t take student aid, and it drives a lot of the finances of the school. The Hispanic or black kid comes in at $11,000 or $12,000, that arbitrage is what, it’s a business set up. I’m saying that if you want to get representation in Silicon Valley, you must stop or severely limit the H-1B visa program [visas for highly skilled foreign professionals] because all that’s doing is providing cheaper labour.

“I was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, I’m an honour graduate of Harvard Business School, I can do the math. We must give American citizens priorities for those jobs. You’re not going to solve the problems of inner-city St Louis or Baltimore until you solve the tech job problem and secure high value manufacturing tech jobs for our minority communities.

“I’m frustrated when I see the arrogance and the dismissive nature of it all, because it’s very much a class thing. I go around in the New Yorks of the world, the Londons of the world, and the elites; they’re definitely looking down on working-class people, the lower middle class. And I tell people I’m a populist not just because of globalisation, but I look at the whole next stage of this convergence of AI and robotics and so on, and there are people in Silicon Valley that already refer to working-class people as the ‘useless class’. Useless.

“What I find interesting is that no one wants to debate the underlying thing, the H-1B visa, or mass illegal immigration labour and I keep saying why is it that I was so vilified by the chamber of commerce and by the Republican establishment? Remember, Breitbart very rarely took on the left because we said, hey, we have such little influence, let’s see what we have influence over, and that was with the  establishment Republican party and we pounded away for years at the hypocrisy where they essentially want cheap labour, and they want cheap labour in tech jobs, they want cheap labour in lower class jobs, etc, and that’s one of the things we fought, saying, you can’t build a civic society while you’re always flooding the zone with cheap labour.

“I was raised in a predominantly black neighbourhood, my parents have had this same house for 60 years, and when the white flight started in the 60s, my parents refused to move. They said, this is our neighbourhood, this our home, we’ve had black neighbours ever since I grew up, so it’s not even a question of racism.

“But look, these accusations of racism, xenophobia and nativism, they’re not for the weak at heart. You just got to say, hey, I’m doing this because I firmly believe it and it’s for the greater common good and I’ll take it. That’s why Trump is such a hero. They tried to destroy him, and he just keeps powering on and hey, if this is why you call me a racist, then you carry on calling me a racist because I’m not going to back off supporting the little guys.

“People are rational, and people are mature, there’s no need to try and hide things. They say the country is so divided, well, the country is divided and there’s two fundamental philosophies about how the country should go forward and the country is kind of evenly split on that. That means we fight it out at the ballot box. That’s why I think 2016 and 2018 were incredibly positive elections for the country. 2018 was positive because the left, who didn’t take us seriously in 2016 and got caught napping, came in with everything they had, and now we’re really engaged in a fight and so in 2020 victory for Trump is possible, but it’s a long tough road and people have got to get to work today to build the apparatus that the left have.

“I think what’s uniting us is the political process and people saying, hey, I can beat Trump, I like that, or Trump saying, I can beat these guys. To me, that’s positive.

“The turnout was 114 million people so no, I don’t buy this Pollyanna-ish attitude of, we all got to have a group hug and make up. We’re not going to have a group hug, we’re just not.”

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