Steve Bannon may be the most wildly caricatured, criticized, and, in some quarters, reviled figure in American politics. He crisscrosses the country with badass bodyguards in tow because, one assumes, he needs them. But in researching for my new book “Bannon: Always the Rebel,” which included ten hours of one-on-one talks with the man, I discovered and wrote about someone quite different than the popular image of a goose-stepping neo-fascist who wants to withdraw the United States from the world and make Donald Trump dictator for life.
Here are just a few of the popular misconceptions about Bannon that normally can’t be disputed in polite society—which, as anyone who has expressed a politically incorrect opinion can attest, becomes very impolite when challenged.
1. Bannon is a racist
This, for many people, goes without saying. “Racist” is Bannon’s calling card. He longs achingly for a return to Jim Crow and wants a nation drained of any and all skin pigmentation.
And yet, when you talk to people who have actually spent time with Bannon over the years, you encounter remarkably consistent testimony that the man is not a racist. “He does not have a sexist, racist bone in his body. I don’t even remember a single, solitary inappropriate word that he used, let alone any action,” said Susan Oliver, who served as student body vice president in the Bannon administration at Virginia Tech.
One of Bannon’s former business partners in Hollywood, Jeff Kwatinetz, defended Bannon—at some risk to his career among the liberal movie business set. “If it hurts my career to tell the truth about someone, then I guess it’s going to have to hurt my career, because he is a good person,” Kwatinetz told the Hollywood Reporter in May 2017. “As a liberal, I don’t judge people on their politics, I judge them on their character, and from what I knew then and what I know now, Steve has great character. He’s not a racist or anti-Semitic.”
Bannon could hardly be anti-Semitic. His partner on Breitbart.com, the late Andrew Breitbart was Jewish, as are several of the most senior people at the website, which Bannon took over after Breitbart’s death. The site is ardently pro-Israel. And personally, I can still remember the look of disappointment on his face when, after he asked if I were a religious Jew, I told him that I was observant and attended services occasionally but was not as involved in the religion as I’d like to be.
Notions of Bannon’s racism and anti-Semitism stem from a comment he supposedly made two decades ago about Jews populating his daughters’ school and his assertion in 2016 that Breitbart.com was a “platform for the alt-right.” But “alt-right” at the time was not a well-defined term, though it was pretty clear there were racists among it. Bannon told me he hadn’t understood it as a racist movement. “The alt right . . . at least as I saw it, was just young, kind of almost libertarians, that were radical, you know, almost like patriots. These guys were the guys that kind of came from the chat boards, etc. And I said, they’re going to be an amazing innovative force.”
A Harvard, MIT study, cited by the New York Times in August 2017, found that. unlike some extremist publications, “Breitbart is not the alt-right.” Bannon can perhaps be accused of allowing too much racist content in the Breitbart comments section, where he admits things “got a little rough,” though it’s now moderated.
2. Bannon despises Islam
In fact, Bannon appeared during our conversations to be quite knowledgeable about Islam and said he respected it as a religion. “Islam as a faith” is not a problem, he said. It is a legitimate “path to God.” What he believes is that Islam, unlike Christianity, has not had its reckoning with the modern world, and that too often its adherents are fundamentalists and literalists, and that this can pose a danger. “It is very evident when you look at Islam, it has not had its meeting with the Enlightenment. It has not had that transition to modernity,” he said. Reformers within the religion may yet prevail, he suggested. “I think you’re seeing the civil war in Islam, between Shiite and Sunni, but most importantly, I think, between the radical adherents of an austere, puritanical aspect of it, against the more moderate Islam, that’s kind of going through a realignment.”
3. Bannon has no plan and just wants to “blow things up”
What I found in our interviews was in fact someone with a very specific plan for America based on a wide reading of history, philosophy, sociology, and current events. There were, I found, no thinkers that I could reference to that Bannon wasn’t more familiar with than I.
Bannonomics is a mixture of traditional Republican ideas and other thoughts more usually associated with Democrats. He supports lower taxes, slashing government, and reducing the debt. But he also backs limits on free trade and is less amenable to immigration reform than establishment Republicans.
The centerpiece of Bannon’s ideology is that economics flows from culture, that it is America’s culture that has given it its success, and that the culture is harbored mainly by U.S. workers and the middle class, not the “elites.” These average Americans are so valuable to the long-term prosperity of the United States, he believes, that capitalists consumed by short-term greed must not be permitted to replace them with cheap labor — whether that means vast hordes of immigrants in the United States or low-wage laborers working overseas.
4. Bannon is an isolationist
Bannon is not an isolationist, but he wants to be more careful about choosing where and how America gets involved with the rest of the world. Poorly conceived overseas adventures such as the American incursion into Iraq, he believes, lead to disaster. “So between the Iraq war and [Afghanistan], what has the little guy got to show for it? The lives of his sons and daughters completely thrown away. Let’s be brutally frank,” he told me.
Bannon believes America should only get involved in foreign wars if there is a true national security threat, and then that the war must be prosecuted as if we were pursuing victory. In fact, during a conversation we had while he was still at the White House, he bragged about the Trump administration’s military progress toward destroying the Islamic State. Bannon also views the Chinese threat to U.S. military and economic hegemony as the critical national security issue facing the United States in the twenty-first century, telling me “half of what I do going forward” will center on China. He believes the United States must confront Chinese expansionism and vigorously compete with China on the economic front.
Bannon is more susceptible to the charge of isolationism with respect to trade. He does oppose broad trade alliances, which he believes make international rules that impinge on U.S. sovereignty. And he is hawkish in confronting what he believes are unfair trade practices that cheapen imports and have gutted U.S. manufacturing, harming U.S. workers and the middle class. His “protectionism” is less, in his view, about withdrawing from the world than saving average Americans from the ravages of unfair trade.
5. Bannon doesn’t care how he looks
With his oddly layered shirts, open collars, and protruding waistline, Bannon is thought to be not the least bit concerned how he presents himself. But the young Bannon looked like Robert Redford, and college classmates told me he was well aware of his looks and was a man about campus at Virginia Tech. Bannon knows those days aren’t quite coming back, but in my last interview with him he was downing strange green and vinegary concoctions in a desperate effort to lose some weight.