What liberals can learn from Stephen Bannon's dad

Marty Bannon saw his life savings decimated by the crash of 2008

Steve Bannon at the Presidential Inauguration.
(Image credit: WIN MCNAMEE/AFP/Getty Images)

For liberals in the era of President Trump, there is no greater bête noire than Stephen Bannon. Before he became Trump's chief strategic adviser, Bannon used to run the media site Breitbart, which unapologetically dabbled in toxic cultural reaction. His blend of economic populism and white nationalism links the Trump administration to the rising right-wing movements in Europe.

But Bannon's personal history may also be a mirror in which liberals must confront their own failures.

According to a new profile in The Wall Street Journal, Bannon's father saw his life savings decimated by the crash of 2008. Marty Bannon spent over 50 years working for AT&T, and took great pride and faith in the company: "At their peak they were the best company for service," the elder Bannon said in an interview. He put his savings in AT&T stock. Besides his house, that was all of Marty Bannon's net worth, and his legacy to his family.

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Then came the Great Recession. As the markets crashed, Marty Bannon panicked and sold off his shares, losing over $100,000 in the process.

To hear the Journal tell it, this event was the genesis of the 63-year-old Stephen Bannon's economic nationalism and his raging opposition to globalization. "The problem we've had is that in the ascendant economy — Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood — the Marty Bannons of the world were getting washed out to sea, and nobody was paying attention to them," the White House adviser said. "He's the backbone of the country, the everyman who plays by the rules, the hardworking dad that delays his own gratification for the family."

Now, lots of Americans had it way worse in 2008 — and have it way worse in general — than the Bannons. Marty himself acknowledges this. But Marty's story emphasizes how widespread the trauma was: Even Americans safely ensconced in the middle class had their faith in society "shattered." Losing $100,000 may not be everything, but for the overwhelming majority of people it's a life-altering event.

Marty Bannon's story also illuminates the nature of the trauma. It wasn't just that he lost a lot of money — nor can his loss be chalked up to a bad personal choice to sell at the wrong time, as a lot of capitalism's fans might argue. Bannon placed his faith in a series of American social institutions to guide him: AT&T, the financial markets, the government, the job market, etc. He would do right by being a hard worker, a good citizen, and a responsible and devoted member of his community. In turn, American elites would make sure those institutions did right by him by providing a dignified livelihood.

But the elites failed catastrophically.

And when they failed, they bailed themselves out and left everyone else to rot: Democrats and Republicans alike uncritically embraced globalization and the macroeconomic policies that hollowed out the mid-century middle class. Both parties have become more pro-corporation and sympathetic to austerity. Deregulation of Wall Street was a thoroughly bipartisan affair. The Bush administration engineered the Wall Street bailout, but the Obama administration carried it out, throwing homeowners under the bus to stabilize the financial system and totally whiffing on prosecuting the banking executives who created the disaster.

Liberals have celebrated global free trade, internationalism, the European Union, etc. as the flowering of a new cosmopolitanism. They never grappled with how these changes upended the lives of people who, while they may not be poor per se, still go unheard.

Of course, lots of people got hammered by the Great Recession, and they didn't all become frothing xenophobic nationalists. But it's also true that racism and bigotry are far more widespread than most of us want to admit. What's striking is that lots of Americans experience these anxieties without necessarily voting on them. It takes a society-wide cataclysm to crystallize them into a political ideology. Not everyone will go down Stephen Bannon's road or one similar. But spread the trauma across a population of 320 million people, and enough will.

An effective counterpoint to Bannonism would have been something along the lines of the worker movements of old: a muscular, pro-labor leftism that promised to do whatever it took to fix the job market and bring back prosperity for all. But liberals and Democrats have largely abandoned this kind of politics for the technocracy of taxes and transfers.

In this context, it's more understandable why Stephen Bannon took the toxic turn he did. He stands almost entirely outside the liberal-conservative split we're all used to: "Steve Bannon says his ideology is less about Republicans and Democrats than about middle class versus elites — nationalists versus globalists," the Journal wrote. Bannon's own comments make it clear he sees himself orchestrating a hostile takeover of the Republican Party's royal court.

But without a real critique of the way the wealthy bleed and exploit workers, Bannon's politics defaulted to something like mysticism: As Thomas Frank pointed out in The Guardian, Bannon blames the financial crisis on the moral permissiveness of the '60s counter culture rather than American capitalism. That leaves Bannon with an incoherent blood-and-soil narrative about protecting America's essence. Hence all the xenophobia.

As a result, Bannon's economic populism is what's most likely to break apart after crashing into GOP orthodoxy. What will survive is Bannon's cruelty to the immigrants and nonwhite Americans who are themselves members of the working class he claims to champion. Disgusted by the moral obtuseness of liberal global elites, Bannon fashioned himself into their polar opposite in every last particular — becoming his own sort of monster in the process.

But to defeat the monster, Democrats and liberals cannot simply concentrate on its monstrosities. They must grapple with what it gets right about the world they have helped create. They must figure out how to repair the trust that America broke with the Marty Bannons of the world.

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Jeff Spross

Jeff Spross was the economics and business correspondent at TheWeek.com. He was previously a reporter at ThinkProgress.