My late friend Bill Safire, the tough and joyous New York Times columnist, once gave me good advice. I was not then a newspaper columnist, but he’d apparently decided I would be. This is what he said: Never join a pile-on, always hit ’em when they’re up. Don’t criticize the person who’s already being attacked. What’s the fun in that, where’s the valor? Hit them when they’re flying high and it takes some guts.
So, in the matter of Steve Bannon:
I think we can agree he brings a certain amount of disorder. They say he’s rough and tough, and there’s no reason to doubt it. They say he leaks like a sieve and disparages his rivals, and this can be assumed to be correct: They all do that in this White House. He is accused of saying incendiary things and that is true. A week into the administration he told Michael Grynbaum of the Times the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” “I love a gunfight,” he reportedly said in the middle of his latest difficulties. When he tried to muscle members of the Freedom Caucus to vote for the ObamaCare replacement bill, a congressman blandly replied, “You know, the last time someone ordered me to do something I was 18 years old, and it was my daddy, and I didn’t listen to him, either.” When I said a while back that some of the president’s aides are outlandish, and confuse strength with aggression, he was in mind.
But there’s something low, unseemly and ugly in the efforts to take him out so publicly and humiliatingly, to turn him into a human oil spot on the tarmac—this not only from his putative colleagues but now even the president. “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Mr. Trump purred to the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin.
So let’s take a look at something impressive Mr. Bannon has done. I’ve been meaning to write of it for a while. In 2014 he did a live Skype interview for a conference on poverty at the Vatican. BuzzFeed ran it during the campaign under the headline “This Is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World.”
It shows an interesting mind at work.
The West is currently facing a “crisis of capitalism,” he said. The world was able to recover after the world wars in part thanks to “an enlightened form of capitalism” that generated “tremendous wealth” broadly distributed among all classes. This capitalism was shaped by “the underlying spiritual and moral foundations . . . of Judeo-Christian belief.” Successful capitalists were often either “active participants in the Jewish faith” or “active participants in the Christian faith.” They operated on a kind of moral patrimony, part tradition, part religious teaching. But now the West has become more secular. Capitalism as a result has grown “unmoored” and is going “partly off track.”
He speaks of two “disturbing” strands. “One is state-sponsored capitalism,” as in China and Russia. We also, to a degree, see it in America. This is “a brutal form of capitalism” in which wealth and value are distributed to “a very small subset of people.” It is connected to crony capitalism. He criticizes the Republican Party as “really a collection of crony capitalists that feel they have a different set of rules of how they’re going to comport themselves.”
The other disturbing strand is “libertarian capitalism,” which “really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost.” He saw this strand up close when he was on Wall Street, at Goldman Sachs . There he saw “the securitization of everything” and an attitude in which “people are looked at as commodities.”
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Capitalists, he said, now must ask: “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us . . . to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”
With both these strands, he says, the middle class loses ground. This has contributed to the “global revolt” of populism and nationalism. That revolt was fueled, too, by the financial crisis of 2008. None of those responsible on Wall Street were called to account: “No bonuses and none of their equity was taken.” The taxes of the middle class were used to bail them out.
There’s more in the conversation, which lasted 50 minutes and included the problem of racist and anti-Semitic overtones in populist movements. But it’s a thoughtful, serious talk, and its themes would reverberate in the 2016 election.
You can see Mr. Bannon’s basic or developing political and economic philosophy as half-baked, fully baked, or likely to explode in the oven. And it is fair to note his views haven’t seemed to gel or produce very much in the first dozen weeks of the Trump era.
But what Mr. Bannon offered in the interview was a point of view that was publicly declared and could be debated.
What will take its place if he leaves the White House or recedes as a figure? What worldview will prevail, to the extent Mr. Trump does worldviews? Policy changes accompanying Mr. Bannon’s diminishment this week included the president’s speaking approvingly of the Export-Import Bank and NATO, declaring that China isn’t a currency manipulator after all, suggesting the dollar may be too strong, and hitting Syria and Afghanistan.
None of that sounds like Candidate Trump.
It is possible what we are seeing is simply the rise of a more moderate or conciliatory or establishment Trump White House. But it also looks like the rise of the Wall Street Mr. Bannon painted as tending to see people as commodities. Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, is said to be Mr. Bannon’s most effective internal foe. He is the new rising figure. There are many Wall Street folk—some from Messrs. Bannon and Cohn’s old stomping ground, Goldman Sachs—in influential administration posts. They don’t come across as the kind of people who exhaust themselves pondering the meaning of the historical moment or tracing societal stresses and potential responses.
Will all these changes, in policy and perhaps personnel, hurt Mr. Trump? Probably a little. But nothing dramatic right now, because his supporters knew they were making an unusual choice in making him president, and they will give him time.
But if the Trump White House is itself changing dramatically, we’ll look back on this week as the moment the change became apparent.
I end with Safire, who’s been gone eight years. I still miss him, and I thought of him this week when I received good news. He’d received the same news 39 years before. I think he’d be happy, clap me on the back, call me kid. And I’m telling you the first chance he got to take a deserved shot, he’d take it. And if instead I’d endured some personal or professional loss, he’d be first one on the phone.
He had style. Style is good.
Beautiful Easter and Passover to my readers, who wrote in this week and reminded me how beautiful they are. I know that’s corny, but sometimes life is corny.