On Sunday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the White House to decry President Donald Trump’s sweeping executive order banning Syrian refugees and visa holders from seven majority-Muslim nations. But at times, the crowd chants switched from criticizing Trump to “Stop President Bannon!”
Trump may have signed the executive order, but critics have gleaned that the policy’s severity was the work of his chief strategist Steve Bannon, formerly an executive at Breitbart — an ultra-conservative platform for the views of alt-right.
Bannon has reportedly gained unprecedented sway in the White House, not only shaping policy but also taking a formal seat on the National Security Council. To those familiar with Bannon’s ideology, it’s clear that Trump’s executive order fits snugly into his worldview.
Two years ago at a conference at the Vatican, Bannon declared a crisis of both global economy and moral standing. Now that he’s become one of the most powerful men in the country, his remarks are worth reexamining.
At the conference, Bannon said that godlessness and libertarianism have “sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals,” and the Muslim world is growing in numbers. “Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act,” he said.
BuzzFeed first published the transcript of Bannon’s remarks in November. At the conference, hosted by the Human Dignity Institute and attended by some of Europe’s most conservative religious voices, Bannon made a case for an international populist conservative movement, explained what he believes are the biggest dangers facing the Christian world, and downplayed the roles racism and bigotry often play in similar fringe, far-right movements.
Here are 10 key passages from the transcript of Bannon’s remarks, which frame a worldview that is already shaping the Trump administration’s first executive moves — and what they tell us about the man who spent years mainstreaming white nationalism.
1) Bannon says: We are in an era of global economic crisis
Bannon believes in a golden era of economic prosperity; a period in the mid-20th century — the Pax Americana — as a time of peace in the Western Hemisphere. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, he says, the world has come off track, and what has ensued is a crisis in capitalism:
The underlying principle is an enlightened form of capitalism, that capitalism really gave us the wherewithal. It kind of organized and built the materials needed to support, whether it’s the Soviet Union, England, the United States, and eventually to take back continental Europe and to beat back a barbaric empire in the Far East.
That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana. It was many, many years and decades of peace. And I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.
This “enlightened capitalism” has been replaced with a “disturbing” form of “libertarian conservatism,” Bannon explains:
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.”
The idea of a golden era resonates with Trump’s rise: He made the tagline of his political ascendance “Make America Great Again,” harking back to an undefined period of great wealth. The motto led many on the left — including President Barack Obama — to question which era Trump was referring to with his “again,” pointing out the immense social and cultural strides that have been made since the Pax Americana era began.
2) The best capitalist leaders held Judeo-Christian beliefs
There is a religious and moral underpinning to Bannon’s understanding of economic prosperity and “enlightened capitalism.” In other words, the golden era of capitalism he speaks of — when the Western world was enjoying an abundance of wealth and peace — was dictated by Judeo-Christian ideals:
One thing I want to make sure of, if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything is that, everything is looked at as a securitization opportunity. People are looked at as commodities. I don’t believe that our forefathers had that same belief.
Judeo-Christian ideals have a long history in conservative movements, from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, emphasizing the importance of traditional American religious values in all aspects of life. The notion feeds the image of a simpler and more homogeneous nation, which Trump largely signaled to throughout his campaign.
3) The secular and Muslim worlds have put the Judeo-Christian West in crisis
Therefore, Bannon’s “crisis of capitalism,” as he talks about earlier in his remarks, is paired with a crisis of faith — a weakening of Judeo-Christian ideals, brought on by the recent popularity of secularism and the growth of the Muslim world.
Bannon sees secularism as a crisis among younger generations: With “younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration.”
That tendency, as well as the rise of Eastern religion, has weakened the pillars of Western ideals, Bannon believes:
I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?
If you go back to your home countries and your proponent of the defense of the Judeo-Christian West and its tenets, oftentimes, particularly when you deal with the elites, you’re looked at as someone who is quite odd. So it has kind of sapped the strength.
But I strongly believe that whatever the causes of the current drive to the caliphate was — and we can debate them, and people can try to deconstruct them — we have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today.
Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations and the “othering” of Muslim American communities is not too far a leap from these remarks. Trump’s insistence upon looking at Islam with the utmost skepticism implies an us-against-them mentality between most Americans and Muslim Americans.
4) These crises have given way to ISIS
The byproduct of these crises in Judeo-Christian faith and capitalism “converges” on ISIS, Bannon says. “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it,” he said:
If you look at what’s happening in ISIS, which is the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, that is now currently forming the caliphate that is having a military drive on Baghdad, if you look at the sophistication of which they’ve taken the tools of capitalism. [...]
They have a Twitter account up today, ISIS does, about turning the United States into a “river of blood” if it comes in and tries to defend the city of Baghdad. And trust me, that is going to come to Europe. That is going to come to Central Europe, it’s going to come to Western Europe, it’s going to come to the United Kingdom. And so I think we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.
Trump has not only maintained this rhetoric — asserting that the incompetence of the left led to the rise of ISIS (Trump even once wrongly claimed Obama was the “founder” of ISIS) — but has also acted on it with his visa ban.
5) ISIS is the biggest threat, and the Judeo-Christian West needs to stand up against it
Bannon’s conclusion on much of this is the need to again strengthen the Judeo-Christian stronghold against, most importantly, ISIS, but also what he implies are the creeping ideals of the East, or Islam:
I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive, and that’s fine.
If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West 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, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places. … It bequeathed to us the great institution that is the church of the West.
Trump has made numerous efforts to heighten the fear of ISIS and terrorism since he began campaigning — even as Americans’ direct threat of terrorism is vanishingly small. His promise to make Americans safe again, which has manifested in sweeping policy that restricts Muslim migration to the United States and in extreme calls for increased surveillance on Muslim communities, could very easily be interpreted as the execution of Bannon’s call for a Judeo-Christian pushback.
6) The populist uprising is driven by economic anxiety
There has been a lot of talk this election about the ideas behind Trump’s rise and whether they stemmed from economic anxiety or racial resentment. The two are clearly not mutually exclusive. Bannon, however, explained it as a byproduct of the 2008 bailouts:
So you can understand why middle-class people having a tough go of it making $50 or $60 thousand a year and see their taxes go up, and they see that their taxes are going to pay for government sponsored bailouts, what you’ve created is really a free option. You say to this investment banking, create a free option for bad behavior. In otherwise all the upside goes to the hedge funds and the investment bank, and to the crony capitalist with stock increases and bonus increases. And their downside is limited, because middle-class people are going to come and bail them out with tax dollars.
And that’s what I think is fueling this populist revolt. Whether that revolt is in the Midlands of England, or whether it’s in Middle America. And I think people are fed up with it.
This populist revolt fell behind Trump this year. He was able to energize the white working class, a contingent of voters that largely led his victories in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, and Pennsylvania.
7) Bannon has seen incremental Tea Party success throughout the years
The strength of what were once fringe movements has proved shocking to many. But Bannon has been seeing their growing strength for years, arguing that even while losing in the election, the need to address Tea Party concerns has become increasingly visible in Washington:
And I think that’s why you’re seeing — when you read the media says, “tea party is losing, losing elections,” that is all BS. The elections we don’t win, we’re forcing those crony capitalists to come and admit that they’re not going to do this again. The whole narrative in Washington has been changed by this populist revolt that we call the grassroots of the tea party movement.
And it’s specifically because those bailouts were completely and totally unfair. It didn’t make those financial institutions any stronger, and it bailed out a bunch of people — by the way, and these are people that have all gone to Yale, and Harvard, they went to the finest institutions in the West. They should have known better.
Bannon’s own Breitbart may be the best articulation of the smaller successes. This year, alt-right media outlets entered the mainstream, and as Bannon explained, these ideas, once only shared by the fringe, have been mainstreamed to the White House.
8) In 2014, Bannon said conservative populism would take over the world
These remarks were given long before Trump’s rise or the passing of Brexit. But in 2014, Bannon saw a shifting tide globally, a brand of conservative populism taking hold:
And that center-right revolt is really a global revolt. I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India. Modi’s great victory was very much based on these Reaganesque principles, so I think this is a global revolt, and we are very fortunate and proud to be the news site that is reporting that throughout the world.
Breitbart found its niche with these “working” people, Bannon said, pairing it with social conservatism:
We’re the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement, and I can tell you we’re winning victory after victory after victory. Things are turning around as people have a voice and have a platform of which they can use. [...]
I will tell you that the working men and women of Europe and Asia and the United States and Latin America don’t believe that. They believe they know what’s best for how they will comport their lives. They think they know best about how to raise their families and how to educate their families. So I think you’re seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels.
Bannon was right to cue a change in tide; conservative populist movements have been gaining steam globally, whether with the Brexit win in the United Kingdom, Trump’s rise in the US, or the Front National in France. But each of these anti-elite movements has also been paired with strong racial resentments and xenophobic tendencies, which Bannon’s understanding of the working and “socially conservative” right seems to leave out.
9) He believes racism and nativist beliefs have been “washed out” in the alt-right
On multiple occasions, Bannon was asked to comment on the racist undertones — and at times explicit overtones — of these alt-conservative populist movements. He answered once, downplaying the role racism plays in the movement.
“I think when you look at any kind of revolution — and this is a revolution — you always have some groups that are disparate. I think that will all burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement,” he said.
In other words, there will always be the more extreme factions of a movement — but racism and nativism are “washed out” on the whole, he said:
It seems that they have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial. By the way, even in the tea party, we have a broad movement like this, and we’ve been criticized, and they try to make the tea party as being racist, etc., which it’s not. But there’s always elements who turn up at these things, whether it’s militia guys or whatever. Some that are fringe organizations. My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right? People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.
Of course, as we have seen throughout both the movements in the United Kingdom with the Brexit referendum and Trump’s rise, racial anxiety and xenophobia have played central roles — and have often translated to objectively discriminatory policy proposals like, the Muslim registry.
10) He also believe Putin is a kleptocrat — with good leadership ideas
Two years before Trump’s presidential victory, and a campaign during which Trump openly complimented Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s leadership qualities, Bannon summed up Putin similarly, calling him a strong traditionalist leading an important nationalist movement:
I’m not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents, because he eventually is the state capitalist of kleptocracy. However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.
You know, Putin’s been quite an interesting character. He’s also very, very, very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he’s playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it’s something that we have to be very much on guard of.
Putin had a central role in the American election — he was an open supporter of Trump, and Russia was at least somewhat involved in attempting to meddle in the democratic process. Bannon’s understanding of him is in line with both these realities: that he has leadership qualities Trump seems to admire, and that he is a self-serving dictatorial leader.