Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, Steve Bannon—ex-Breitbart editor and chief strategist in the White House—now comes with a charming villain origin story.
On the face of it, the story is meant to serve as an explanation for Bannon’s economic nationalism. Unlike many others, I think that it does, but not in the way that many have assumed it might. Some are inclined to explain it away. Gary Legum, at Salon, suggests that Bannon just might just be “a creep.” He also notes that “[t]here may be some logic to the results flowing from Bannon’s nationalist economic ideology that eludes” him. Both of those can be true. Bannon is an economic nationalist and, at the same time, the meaning of ‘economic nationalism’ has eluded Legum. Or, put more simply, Bannon is an economic nationalist because he is a creep. Bannon’s völkisch backstory glides directly off the now-standard (and inaccurate) framing of neoliberalism—discussed here. The result being that it is far easier to argue that Bannon, and by implication Trump, do not really believe in economic nationalism, or that the story is untrue, than it is ask what economic nationalism means.
Bannon’s story goes like this: as the financial crisis bit deep into share-prices, in October 2008 his father took the advice of a CNBC’s Today segment ‘Money Mad,’ hosted by Jim Cramer, and withdrew his investment. Marty Bannon had invested in the company where he worked, in later years (though this is not mentioned) as part of middle-management. He sold the stock at a low point in its value and, in so doing, his father lost $100,000 of money that would have gone to his children. Steve Bannon’s rightful inheritance, as Steve Bannon no doubt sees it. Of Bannon’s story, Legum says he believed “barely a word of it,” and Legum makes a persuasive case as to why it does not ring true. The policies and appointments of the Trump Administration hardly seem to be the work of someone injured by financial misfortune or capable of empathizing with those who have. Kevin Drum, at Mother Jones, running the numbers suggests that the story is unlikely to be true: “Unless he [Marty Bannon] bought practically his entire nest egg during the 2007-08 boom or the dotcom bubble of the late 90s [rather than over the 50 years claimed], there’s really no way that he posted a net loss when he sold, let alone a $100,000 loss.” I expect that the real backstory here concerns management bonus schemes constructed so as to evade paying income tax and poor judgement, but no matter.
As it happens, Bannon’s story is also very close to being the plot-line of Money Monster, a 2016 film directed by Jodie Foster, starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney, who once described Bannon as a “a failed film writer and director.” Money Monster is, despite the absence of a (white) hostage-taking suicide-bomber in Bannon’s story, nevertheless uncannily replete with many of the same figurative trappings: the white worker-father whose inheritance and heritable wealth is wiped out because he takes bad financial advice from the host of a television show about investment and who, as a consequence, is looking to retaliate.
Yet already, prior to and during the years of the financial crisis, Bannon was deep into the conspiratorial, far Right politics he espouses today. After a stint in an online gaming currency-farming operation established with Goldman Sachs investments, between 2007 through 2011, he was running a media company, writing scripts and producing films on themes of white America’s catastrophic decline. In one of these scripts written in 2007, the broadsheet press, the NPR, the ACLU, ‘the American Jewish Community,’ the White House and the security agencies all featured as ‘enablers’ of a covert mission to establish an Islamic Republic in the United States. Closer to the topic of the financial crisis, in 2010 Bannon made Generation Zero, based on the book, Generations (1991), by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book rewrote Anglo-American history through the narrative of a patterned, generational cycling through which each generation births a personality type—its mythic and recurring premise is easily readable to anyone acquainted with structure of role-player games and the astrological method of deriving personality types from orbiting planets. It certainly reads better as revised fiction, “to every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world” etc. Strauss and Howe’s books seem to have found their niche market in lifestyle coaching. In Bannon’s film, the financial crisis is characterized as a deliberate catastrophic event brought about by dark forces.
Yet even as fiction, Bannon’s economic nationalist backstory does not have the elements of fatalism or causal necessity that would drive a compelling, generational tragedy for our nomadic protagonist of Generation Zero. There are too many other, far more believable scenarios which might follow on from Scene One, Act One. Since Cramer was not a financial adviser but the host of a segment on a television show, he was not bound to any conditions, such as pressure against conflicts of interest or any requirement to know anything about finance and the stock market. Marty Bannon’s misfortune, if it is true, could have just as easily served as an argument for regulating financial services and who can legally give advice. It could also have been a rudimentary allegory about the dangers of putting one’s savings into the stock market rather than a bank, of buying high and selling low (shorting oneself), of placing one’s trust in what someone on the television told you to do with your money, or of investing in the company where one works through what seems to have been a voluntary employee stakeholder arrangement. Since Marty Bannon was in middle-management at AT&T, it seems more plausible that the investment was part of some salary arrangement. Not quite the premise of a white working class tragedy. Marty Bannon’s story could have been a story about an error of judgment which invites a range of conclusions, none of which have anything to do with economic nationalism. As Aristotle pointed out in the Poetics, the tragedy that explains misfortune as an error of judgment would invite pity for the protagonist; it does not inspire an audience’s fear at being subject to the same catastrophic forces. Economic nationalism, however, requires precisely that fear, of dark, destructive forces issuing from a foreign place; not, in other words, pity for old white fathers, let alone feeling sorry for white people as Tom Robinson learned but, on the contrary, identification with them. And so, in Bannon’s story, the deployment of racial feeling can forgo a plausible chain of causes and sequence of actions in deference to paternal character; even though formally, in tragedy, it is not character but action that weaves the tragedy into historical mimesis, an emphasis on causes and likelihood of events which demonstrate the decline in the protagonist’s fortunes. Moreover, if what distinguishes a tragedy from a well-written conspiracy thriller is not the loosening of causal connections but their tightening around turns and the reveal, by contrast a conspiracy theory only needs to load and aim the rancor. As Bannon put it: “The government created this problem. The elites, they got bailed out.”
Whether or how much of Bannon’s backstory is true, how those elements are stacked up to make a persuasive case for economic nationalism would not be clear, were it not for a tacit conflation between home, race and nation. The spontaneous sense that it makes to some, and the patent nonsense it is for others, point to an confusion about the very meaning of economic nationalism on the part of Bannon’s critics. “Elites” is not a synonym for wealth or class but, instead, is a longstanding trope for an array of figures cast outside the bounds of political populism, based as it is on representing a singularized, dehistoricized ‘people,’ as with the foreigner or, more simply, the ‘rootless cosmopolitan,’ itself a pejorative for stateless Jew. When Bannon says “[t]he elites got bailed out,” the only way that would make sense is as a coded distinction between the family company and banking—put more explicitly, a distinction between the white family company and ‘Jewish bankers.’
In a 2011 speech, Bannon elaborated on how he and many others on the far Right think “government created this problem,” from which it bailed out “the elites.” It has nothing to do with financial policies or instruments, accounting or regulatory systems, or even the declining incomes of the poorest that elevated debt into the only means of affording housing, education or temporary respite from hunger. Nor is it the usual conservative complaint that bailouts increase moral hazard. Indeed in Bannon’s account, the bailout has less to do with governments failing to allow private companies to fail as a principle of free enterprise than it concerns fractional reserve banking, a fixation cultivated by contemporary Right-wing Libertarians, but which harks back to German National Socialist accusations that Jewish bankers facilitated the outbreak of war and the humiliating devastation visited upon the German nation in the post-war period. The problem for Bannon et al in the US is not government intervention into the workings of the market, but that while the US Government was bailing out large banks, many of the US’s most wealthy were confronting a contraction of credit and declining equity and asset values. They went looking to sources for loans that had mostly weathered the US-based financial crisis—and this is where, as far as I can tell, Russian financiers start to play a not insignificant role in boosting the Trump family assets, and possibly a decisive role in keeping Trump LLC afloat after 2007-08. Trump was an ‘outsider’ because the number of bankruptcies means it is unlikely he would have been able to loan money from regular sources and was, instead, forced to license out the Trump name for a small percentage rather than build and own the property.
The broader key, then, to understanding Bannon’s backstory is the conjuncture between financialization and race, but the key to understanding Trumpism is the cleavage that the 2007-08 financial crisis opened up between the world of regulated securities trades (and abstract regulation more generally) and the substantialist, pseudo-biological tenets of the private family company, such as Trump’s. Put simply, the latter believe the former betrayed and humiliated them, and so any commitment to abstract regulation should be replaced by the substantialist terms of familial-racial property—much like, in matters of law, the National Socialist jurist Carl Schmitt insisted that Hegel’s rationalist bureaucracy should be dismissed in favor of the fuhrerprinzip. This precise argument, between the fuhrerprinzip and abstract rules, or between presidential sovereign power and equality before the law, also happens to be at the core of legal debate over the Muslim ban. Moreover, the very reason why fractional reserve banking so easily becomes the subject of fascist conspiracy theories is because it involves mathematical abstractions that, for the foundationalist, familial-national far Right, seem to be a magical, defoundationalist sleight of hand. Other kinds of wealth-creation based on property, such as assets, and equities whose value is based on speculative bets about the future value of a property, are far more easily understood through a foundationalist, bio-racial lens.
Between the late 1970s and the 1990s, an enormous gulf opened up between, on the one hand, assets and equities such as shareholdings and, on the other, wages and consumer prices. Wages are not inherited; household and real estate equity and assets, or dynastic wealth, are; and the shift of any increases in incomes to non-wage sources locked in and strengthened social inequalities across generations—in part because few governments are inclined to levy a meaningful inheritance tax, but also because it reversed the impact of the trend of more people having a wage. Until the financial crisis of 2007-08, the value of assets and equities grew without dramatic fluctuations. In this context, almost every asset-holding family became a de facto or registered private company. Wages and consumer prices, by contrast, were highly volatile and their real value was either stagnant or falling. The demographic distinction between these two is markedly racial, a legacy of marriage and property law as well as the broader history of slavery, citizenship laws and the gendered division of labor. Notably, the period of falling real wages from the late 1960s corresponds to increasing labor force participation by women, the expansion of anti-discrimination measures in hiring practices and so on. The reversal of this trend did not simply involve a massive transfer of wealth from poorer to richer, as many socialists are fond of repeating. It entailed an enormous amplification of historically racialized, gendered forms of wealth and inequality through a reversion to dynastic wealth, and this occurred at a time when women were gaining greater economic independence, people of color had begun to access higher paying work than before, and both were graduating at greater rates than ever. There are parallels in the history of loans which I discuss elsewhere, but suffice to note here that as declining wage levels made housing and education unaffordable (not to mention by increasing house prices because they were deemed assets), the recourse to financial loans by poorer people eventually led to a crisis in the value of equities and assets that had, well before subprime, been inflating for decades. This too was a reversal of trend, returning value back to its familial-racial, dynastic and overwhelmingly white foundations.
These interlocking, oikonomic dynamics are pivotal to understanding the course of neoliberalism and the contemporary rise of fascism—Trumpism emerged from a prior, financial conflation of family, race and nation, exploiting its tensions and coming down on the side of the closely-held corporation (eg, Trump family company, its brand-name and ‘nest-eggs’), and against the abstract regulatory systems that have shaped both banking and central exchanges, such as Wall Street. No doubt large parts of Wall Street will realign themselves in due course, especially if Trump makes it possible to decrease (the amount of money spent on) corporate compliance with exchange rules. ‘Insider trading’ barely describes the kind of things that Trump appointees, such as Tom Price, have already engaged in before their confirmation. ‘Economic nationalism’ in the twenty-first century may well turn out to be a field of increasingly private transactions between a cluster of family companies in increasingly unregulated and mostly unsecured markets—doing ‘deals, the best deals’ for their family estates, as it were, marked by a heavy patriarchal authoritarianism, a tremendous emotional investment in hatching bigger, whiter nest-eggs, and an unprecedented military reach and power.