The media mythologising of presidential or Downing Street campaign managers – from James Carville to Lynton Crosby – is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s only the failures who don’t manage to get a documentary made about their efforts.
When it comes to political mavericks, nobody has higher billing than Steve Bannon, the man who put Trump in the White House in 2016. With its chinoiserie mural wallpaper, and old-fashioned American Revolution rifle over one fireplace, Bannon’s Washington home – located just behind the Supreme Court, and dubbed the “Breitbart embassy” – could be a southern lawyer’s home in the upper-middle class suburb of Richmond, Virginia, where Bannon was born.
So what is it about these larger-than-life mavericks that makes them campaign winners? What is the fire in the belly that drives a man like Steve Bannon, who the media has caricatured as a modern-day media Savonarola. What’s the man himself really like?
“We’re in a war,” Bannon tells me as we sit in his dining-room and eat a takeaway salad out of a plastic container. “A war of good and evil around the decline of the West, against new enemies in China, Iran, Turkey. And to me this is a struggle. I don’t have time to clink glasses.”
Bannon comes across as intense and ruthless, certainly, but there are other qualities that you might not expect. He is, for one thing, funny, and fully aware of his own human failings. “I’ve got so many faults, I do so many wrong things every day, but I aspire to be a good Catholic and I aspire to be a Christian.”
Downstairs on the basement floor – where guests are first invited in – there is a large leather sofa and a big flat screen TV where sports or news (including CNN) is playing 24 hours a day. It has the feel of an eccentric philosopher don study at Georgetown University (he also went to Virginia Tech and worked 18 hour days in LA for Goldman Sachs) with the occasional sound of a juic-maker grinding in the background. A Bannon nephew, security, and young staffers glide in and out. This is the dining room table, he says, that almost every major meeting and event in the new populist American Revolution has happened.
Although Bannon is hyped by the world’s media – from left and right – as America’s rebel-in-chief professor of populism, Bannon has little time for academic experts. He is fond of a mischievous quote from America’s previously best known DC-based public intellectual, William F Buckley Jr, founder of the National Review. “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by two thousand facility members of Harvard University.”
Bannon only ran the Trump campaign for the last 80 days but was “100 per cent metaphysically sure”, he tells me, he would win if he rejected the “orthodoxy” of the political and media class, and liberal Establishment and spoke up for the so-called “Deplorables” – the working- and middle-class voters whose neighbourhoods had been made unrecognisable as a result of crime, factory closures, opioid addiction and illegal immigration.
Bannon comes from an Irish working-class family. His father, who’s now 98, was a telephone engineer whose Catholicism, says Bannon, “imbued every part of our life – from the Lent to Advent”. He says that persecution regarding what family’s orthodox beliefs is something he has dealt with from an early age. It has even helped to forge him. Bannon was an altar boy and can remember his mother being “spat on” outside church during the Vietnam war. Why? His father had sent Steve to a private military prep school, and so was perceived as pro-Vietnam and thus from a family of “baby killers”.
It was at his prep school that he also picked up his sartorial habit of wearing two shirts in the Preppy style. Maybe it’s a form of armour. “I realise that I’m a lot harder-edged than most, but Christ said: ‘Don’t be lukewarm or I’ll spit you out of my mouth.’” (Bannon is actually referring to a verse from the Book of Revelations (3:16): “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”) He continues: “And if you’re prepared to do that you’re not going to make a lot of friends – you’re going to be bounced out of some social clubs. I don’t roll like that. I’m all in. And if I’m all in, it’s going to be a brawl. And I’m fine with that.”
His parents were not Republicans but Kennedy-voting Democrats. Even so, this sense of a world’s foundations falling away remains something that fuels his fight today against “the Davos Party”, meaning globalisation and the corporate elites who don’t care for the American working class in the rust belts of the Midwest.
“You can see every day that that’s slipping away,” he says. “And people say, ‘Oh Bannon you’re just a racist’, but it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with our elites. Our elites are so secularised.”
There’s a portrait of Lincoln on one mantelpiece and an unframed photograph of Trump on another. What about the question on everyone’s lips: impeachment. Bannon had been saying for months that he thought it was inevitable that Trump would be impeached by the House for his role in the Ukraine quid pro quo telephone call.
“They should be prepared for a trial” he told me before Christmas. “This thing is not going in the president’s direction. The poll numbers are going in the wrong direction, the feeling in the city is going in the wrong direction. Somebody in the White House better start taking this seriously. We’re hearing no messaging from the White House, no talking points: we’re not getting guidance.”
Bannon’s loyalty to the president is such that he organised a fight back on radio with allies of the president sticking up for him and trashing the democratic charges against him. But Bannon isn’t convinced the “this is a witch hunt” strategy is working.
“It’s not going to stop this,” he says. “This will be highly contested, highly negotiated, and we’ll end up with what I call a conditional acquittal.”
The books on the table of the dining room give further clues to Bannon’s intellectual priorities. He tells me that he is an admirer of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Also on his top five reading list is The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.
Beside his phone is a well-thumbed copy of Unrestricted Warfare, a book written in 1999 by two colonels in the People’s Liberation Army, which describes how China can conquer a superior enemy (ie, the United States) using economic warfare, trade secrets and international law. It has yellow Post-it notes on almost every page.
Other books include French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy’s The Empire and the Five Kings, which has the grandiose subtitle ‘America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World’. The premise of Lévy’s book is that without America’s military strength and influence, five former empires – Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and radical Sunni Islam – are starting “to stir again’.
“That is what globalisation has brought us, and what Davos has brought us. Hedge funds have blood on their hands,” says Bannon.
His role as a torchbearer for the populist cause connects back to the tradition of pre-Reformation Europe when individuals were taught that they had “sovereignty” over their destiny, and that Europe’s strength came from its cultural diversity. “I’ve never really had a dark moment,” says Bannon, referring to his faith. “Yes, there are ups and downs – but you’ve just got to keep pressing on because you believe in something greater. So, even in the worst times, I think of the Gospel of St John. He’s not meek. This is a warrior, he’s a warrior…That’s why people call me the honey badger, you know that a honey badger doesn’t give a shit.”
Did he ever discuss faith with Trump? “No, never,” says Bannon. “I very rarely discuss my faith unless someone draws it out of me or I have a conversation like this. It’s a very personal thing, I read The Imitation of Christ [a 15th-century devotional book by Thomas à Kempis] every day or read the gospels every day. I meditate in the morning, following The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyala. I also do Zen meditation.”
Whatever happens, Bannon says he isn’t going back to the West Wing himself as head of the 2020 campaign. But he continues to see Trump as God’s (admittedly unlikely) instrument at this point in world history. “It is providential that Trump won,” he says. “Trump is an instrument. A very imperfect instrument. But he’s done so much.”
I ask him whether Trump agreed with him that Western civilisation needs to be saved? “If you have that discussion, he would look at you like you’d lost your mind. Because he’s in the middle of the fight. It’s like these warriors in the crusades or these knights – they’re not thinking of Thomas Aquinas.”
To this end, Bannon has taken a lease at the 15th century Trisulti monastery outside of Rome which he plans on turning into a new ‘Civilisation’ Gladiator School. Despite efforts by the Italian authorities to take away the lease of this Judaeo-Christian intellectual boot camp, he recently won a reprieve in that battle. Bannon is that rare thing: a Beltway anti-establishment insider insurgent who is closer to mainstream political culture than you might think.
He’s been married three times and has no plans to marry again. “Marriage is not something I aspire to, no. First off, I would not wish me upon any woman in the world. I’m a failure in marriage.”
He continues. “Look, I got so much on my plate, that’s why people say, ‘Why don’t you go back to the White House? Why don’t you go work for the campaign?’ I got so much that I’m working on right now that it’s just not… to have any personal relationship is just not practical.”
I press him one last time on returning to the White House. Would he not feel a sense of duty? “No, I wouldn’t. Right now, I’m sure the White House is looking for people. I would never go back to the White House, ever.”