What 'Citizen Bannon' Misremembered and Misread on His Path to Becoming a Top Trump Adviser
The Wall Street Journal’s decade-long decline as a trustworthy source of news about politics can't have surprised anyone who knows that it’s been owned since 2007 by Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump’s closest and most powerful friend in news media. (I predicted the Journal’s decline in 2006 in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” rebutting a fawning profile of Murdoch as he was winning ownership of the paper.)
Now the Journal’s untiring efforts to normalize Trump have turned its decline into an implosion, nowhere more glaringly than in reporter Michael Bender’s fawning interview with Steve Bannon, (subscription may be required) which faithfully credits the Trump adviser’s pseudo-populist fable of how his working-class father's setbacks made the son an “economic nationalist.”
Bannon was a thoroughly sinister, plutocratic “economic nationalist” long before his supposed conversion by his aging, working-class Dad’s loss of all his hard-earned investments in the financial meltdown of 2008. A day after the Journal gave Bannon’s sob story wings, Bloomberg’s Francis Wilkinson shot it down by contrasting the true development of Bannon’s economic nationalism with what Wilkinson rightly calls “Bannon’s preposterous ‘Rosebud’ moment” – an American approximation of a “road to Damascus” moment when his father was devastated in the meltdown.
The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann rebuts Bannon’s fable, too, in the rather more subtle, insouciant manner of that magazine’s effort to assist its typical reader’s unending search for what the critic Robert Warshow called "the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict.”
Bannon has been busy mythologizing not only his political and economic but also his higher-intellectual development, as the uncompromising American social critic and Baffler editor-in-chief Chris Lehmann revealed last week, exploding Bannon’s claim, to another reporter, that he’d been inspired by the late, heterodox historian and social critic Christopher Lasch’s last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.
Certainly one can imagine that title capturing Bannon’s attention. But, as it happens, Lehmann was Lasch’s student and closest assistant in writing his magnum opus, The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites, which incorporates some of Lasch’s prescient essays into a complex, searing examination of much of what Bannon champions. (As it also happens, as Lehmann notes, one of the book’s essays is about me and my The Closest of Strangers, which Lasch had reviewed.)
To say that Bannon misread Lasch on his own journey toward plutocratic, racist economic nationalism would be an understatement. Bannon misappropriated and plundered him in telling a reporter what an inspiration the book had been, hoping perhaps to claim a patina of intellectual respectability.
I won’t unpack Bannon’s misappropriations of Lasch’s critiques of racial and sexual identity politics and of “neoliberal” elites’ other false-compensations and pretentions, since Lehmann unpacks them so well in The Baffler. But I can imagine how thrilled Bannon may have been, if he followed Lasch’s advice, by reading my own prediction, in The Closest of Strangers, 1990, that “the disintegration of white working-class family life, replete with the pathologies of violent essentially homeless youths,… may well overshadow the problems of the black underclass in the popular mind in the years ahead.” There I portray working-class white ethnics in New York with as much empathy as I do their African-American and Latino antagonists, among whom I lived and worked for several years at that time.
Mightn't work such as Christopher Lasch's help start the conversations across lines of ideology, party, and racial and sexual identity? It didn't in the 1980s, when both progressives and right-leaning populists like Bannon misread Lasch (and me, and others like us) for their own ends. Now, though, forays such as Chris Lehmann's and Frank Wilkinson's into the mind of the man who really has Trump's ear should prompt earnest conversations among honorable conservatives and progressive activists of many stripes, all of us more worried and perhaps chastened now than we were two decades ago.