Whether he’s being depicted as the devil or as the Grim Reaper, former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon has come to symbolize the triumph of a supposedly new form of right-wing politics. Early this year, CNN concluded that he was one of the “chief architects” of President Trump’s agenda. Bannon had a hand in creating this image, styling himself as the leader of a pro-Trump “cabal” out to topple an insufficiently populist Republican establishment. Bannon’s brand of politics, with its appeals to white nationalism, has never reached the White House before, we are told, and his brazen assault on democratic norms is basically unprecedented.
Yet for all of the impressions of him as a far-right pioneer imperiling American democracy, the Bannon style of American politics actually has deep roots in the modern conservative movement. Bannon’s victories — and he has had more than his fair share over the past year, including, most recently, former judge Roy Moore’s nomination as the GOP Senate candidate from Alabama — are best seen as the product of a decades-in-the-making project that stretches back to about the time of Bannon’s birth in 1953.
The Bannon style of American politics is defined by his anti-establishment and anti-elitism sensibility; his oratory with overtones of white nationalism aimed at stoking white working-class fury; his deep ties to and the financial support he draws from super-rich business titans; his deft manipulation of modern media to spread his ideas; and his protectionist “America first” stance on foreign affairs.
On all of these counts, however, Bannon is drawing on strains important to the making of conservative politics in the mid-20th century. The Bannon style of American politics, then, isn’t really new at all, although Bannon has woven these disparate strands together in ways that have become freshly resonant and helped spark a rebellion.
Bannon’s anti-elitism is hardly surprising. It draws on the pioneering efforts by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and John Birch Society members to lash elites as the cause of the nation’s problems, particularly the aid they extended to an all-consuming enemy destroying the United States from within. McCarthy inveighed against pompous, pin-striped-suit-wearing diplomats who were, he claimed, betraying U.S. interests and selling Americans out to international communist conspirators.
John Birch Society founder Robert H.W. Welch Jr. picked up in the late 1950s where McCarthy left off, and Welch ultimately drew tens of thousands of members to his organization on the premise that elites from both parties were members of the international communist conspiracy. “Fight dirty,” Welch implored his followers, because the communist goal was to ruin “the usefulness of the individual to society.”
Thus, Bannon’s rage against the so-called establishment — “the establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country,” Trump declared in his inaugural address — has a long, dark pedigree in which elected officials are depicted as a source of self-interested evil trampling on the interests of regular, hard-working Americans.
Another conservative tradition animating Bannon’s style is the mutually beneficial relationships forged between captains of industry and conservative strategists and politicians. At first glance, the alliance between Bannon, himself a wealthy entrepreneur, hedge-fund managers such as Robert and Rebekah Mercer and the likes of Moore, a disgraced Alabama judge twice suspended from office, who is now running for Senate and who has said that homosexuality is unconstitutional, appears bizarre and unnatural.
Yet if we look deeper, the Bannon-Mercer alliance, based on free-enterprise policies and oratory aimed at a white-nationalist base, is also rooted in the symbiotic politics of race and libertarianism that emerged between 1945 and 1960. In fact, conservative businessmen and women have a long record of backing racially divisive candidates and causes, seeking to tar liberalism as a big-government assault on free market values and individualism.
As historian Joseph Crespino shows in his biography of Strom Thurmond, South Carolina industrialists such as Roger Milliken formed an alliance with Thurmond in the 1950s based on an anti-labor, pro-free-market platform and a robust defense of white supremacy and the segregationist Jim Crow system. This coalition reflects both the white supremacist views of some conservative businesspeople, and their faith that federal intervention in any area of domestic society, including civil rights, invariably results in market interventions inimical to their profit margins.
Thurmond railed against Washington for seeking to regulate private enterprise and urged white South Carolinians to wage “total and unremitting war” against federal efforts to “force us to mix the races in our schools.” Far from being mutually exclusive, the simultaneous defense of Jim Crow and free enterprise went hand in hand.
There are countless examples of white-nationalist defenders of Jim Crow also favoring a limited-government, anti-interventionist agenda. In 1956, the one-time Internal Revenue Commissioner T. Coleman Andrews, who called for the abolition of the federal income tax, ran as the States’ Rights Party pro-segregation presidential candidate. Fred Koch, the oil and gas industrialist and Koch family patriarch, once warned that “the colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” and described welfare as a left-wing plot to concentrate African Americans in cities yielding “a vicious race war.”
It is hard to distinguish the Bannon-Mercer backing of Moore, who had refused to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex marriage, from the massive resistance campaigns in defiance of federal civil rights laws.
But the Bannon style of American politics is also highly dependent on the insights culled from midcentury right-wing radio hosts and publishers who used modern media tools to create an alternative universe of counterprogramming and “alternative facts.” As Nicole Hemmer (a co-editor of Made by History) reveals in her book “Messengers of the Right,” conservative media activists “crafted and popularized the idea of liberal media bias,” provided audiences with different approaches to understanding public events and “developed an oppositional identity that enabled conservatives to identify as outsiders.”
Long before Bannon came of age, conservative media activists of the 1950s built a network of alternative publishing, magazine and talk-radio outlets run by Henry Regnery, Clarence Manion, Kent and Phoebe Courtney and, of course, National Review’s William F. Buckley Jr. They also pioneered a Bannonesque sensibility that pressured conservative politicians to stay true to their principles — even if they never managed to wield the same amount of power within the GOP.
Their interpretations of current events stood in explicit contrast to how the mainstream media was portraying these same events, and their slashing, dark style featured comments such as Buckley calling the behavior of citizens “more closely related to the beasts than to the saints.” Manion described his broadcasts as a tool that he would use to “revive our American faith and then to defend it with determination,” casting conservative media as the necessary means for saving values on the verge of being lost forever.
The last identifiable element in the Bannon style derives from a decades-long minority effort on the right to reject military intervention abroad and U.S. international commitments to the United Nations, among other institutions. Bannon has warned of Trump being co-opted by foreign policy elites who favor military intervention. Thus, when Trump decided to increase troop levels in Afghanistan this summer, one of Bannon’s editors at Breitbart news claimed that the decision wasn’t about Trump changing his mind. It was about “the swamp getting to him.”
Hawkish interventionists on the right have held the upper hand since World War II, but the isolationist wing of conservatism never dissipated. During the 1950s, Sen. Robert A. Taft, a GOP presidential candidate on multiple occasions, warned that “political power over other nations … leads inevitably to imperialism.” During the Vietnam War, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly co-wrote books denouncing the foreign policy establishment and described the war as a misadventure draining national defense and aiding the communist cause.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the anti-intervention tradition gained fresh momentum. In 1992, Pat Buchanan ran a primary campaign seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush in part on the basis of an “anti-imperialist” platform. (Buchanan later wrote a book, “A Republic, Not an Empire.”) Even after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, anti-interventionists could be heard on the right. When the Iraq War descended into civil war in 2004, conservative pundit Tucker Carlson confessed that this turn in the war made him “feel foolish. I’m just struck by how many people like me who were instinctively distrustful of government forgot to be humble in our expectations.”
For all the talk that Bannon’s “alt-right” sensibility is a post-George W. Bush phenomenon, a radical break from the conservative past, Bannon’s style was prevalent in conservative circles long before Bannon became a household name. Bannon’s anti-establishment, anti-interventionist, media-savvy, white nationalist politics represent the apotheosis of a far-right style of politics pioneered in the decades after World War II. Far from having become antiquated, the Bannon style of American politics has slowly grown more powerful, and gained increasing currency in the Republican Party, a reminder that developments decades in the making can yield bitter fruits in the most unexpected of ways.