President Trump presents a problem to those who look at politics in terms of systematic ideologies. He is either disinclined or unable to lay out his agenda in that way. So perhaps it was inevitable that Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who does have a gift for thinking systematically, would be so often invoked by Mr. Trump’s opponents. They need him not just as a hate object but as a heuristic, too. There may never be a “Trumpism,” and unless one emerges, the closest we may come to understanding this administration is as an expression of “Bannonism.”
Mr. Bannon, 63, has won a reputation for abrasive brilliance at almost every stop in his unorthodox career — as a naval officer, Goldman Sachs mergers specialist, entertainment-industry financier, documentary screenwriter and director, Breitbart News cyber-agitprop impresario and chief executive of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. One Harvard Business School classmate described him to The Boston Globe as “top three in intellectual horsepower in our class — perhaps the smartest.” Benjamin Harnwell of the Institute for Human Dignity, a Catholic organization in Rome, calls him a “walking bibliography.” Perhaps because Mr. Bannon came late to conservatism, turning his full-time energy to political matters only after the Sept. 11 attacks, he radiates an excitement about it that most of his conservative contemporaries long ago lost.
One month into the Trump administration, Mr. Bannon has already made his influence felt. He helped draft the president’s Inaugural Address, acquired a seat on the National Security Council and reportedly was the main force behind the president’s stalled ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Reports that the administration has considered designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization echo Mr. Bannon’s own longtime preoccupation with the group, as both a screenwriter and a talk-radio host.
Many accounts of Mr. Bannon paint him as a cartoon villain or internet troll come to life, as a bigot, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a crypto-fascist. The former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, have even called him a “white nationalist.” While he is certainly a hard-line conservative of some kind, the evidence that he is an extremist of a more troubling sort has generally been either massaged, misread or hyped up.
There may be good reasons to worry about Mr. Bannon, but they are not the ones everyone is giving. It does not make Mr. Bannon a fascist that he happens to know who the 20th-century Italian extremist Julius Evola is. It does not make Mr. Bannon a racist that he described Breitbart as “the platform for the alt-right” — a broad and imprecise term that applies to a wide array of radicals, not just certain white supremacist groups.
Nor does it make Mr. Bannon a fringe character that during the meetings of the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013 and 2014, he hosted rival panel discussions called the Uninvited — although it did show a relish for the role of ideological bad boy. Mr. Bannon’s panels included such mainstream figures as the former House speaker Newt Gingrich and the former Bush administration attorney general Michael Mukasey, and discussed such familiar Republican preoccupations as military preparedness and the 2012 attacks on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya. It wasn’t much different from watching Fox News.
Where Mr. Bannon does veer sharply from recent mainstream Republicanism is in his all-embracing nationalism. He speaks of sovereignty, economic nationalism, opposition to globalization and finding common ground with Brexit supporters and other groups hostile to the transnational European Union. On Thursday, at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, he described the “center core” of Trump administration philosophy as the belief that the United States is more than an economic unit in a borderless word. It is “a nation with a culture” and “a reason for being.”
So some of the roots of Mr. Bannon’s ideology, like the roots of Mr. Trump’s popularity, are to be found in the disappointed hopes of the global economy. But Mr. Bannon, unlike Mr. Trump, has a detailed idea, an explanation, of how American sovereignty was lost, and of what to do about it. It is the same idea that Tea Party activists have: A class of regulators in the government has robbed Americans of their democratic prerogatives. That class now constitutes an “administrative state” that operates to empower itself and enrich its crony-capitalist allies.
When Mr. Bannon spoke on Thursday of “deconstructing the administrative state,” it may have sounded like gobbledygook outside the hall, but it was an electrifying profession of faith for the attendees. It is through Mr. Bannon that Trumpism can be converted from a set of nostalgic laments and complaints into a program for overhauling the government.
Mr. Bannon adds something personal and idiosyncratic to this Tea Party mix. He has a theory of historical cycles that can be considered elegantly simple or dangerously simplistic. It is a model laid out by William Strauss and Neil Howe in two books from the 1990s. Their argument assumes an 80- to 100-year cycle divided into roughly 20-year “highs,” “awakenings,” “unravelings” and “crises.” The American Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, World War II — Mr. Bannon has said for years that we’re due for another crisis about now. His documentary about the 2008 financial collapse, “Generation Zero,” released in 2010, uses the Strauss-Howe model to explain what happened, and concludes with Mr. Howe himself saying, “History is seasonal, and winter is coming.”
Mr. Bannon’s views reflect a transformation of conservatism over the past decade or so. You can trace this transformation in the films he has made. His 2004 documentary, “In the Face of Evil,” is an orthodox tribute to the Republican Party hero Ronald Reagan. But “Generation Zero,” half a decade later, is a strange hybrid. The financial crash has intervened. Mr. Bannon’s film features predictable interviews with think-tank supply siders and free marketers fretting about big government. But new, less orthodox voices creep in, too, from the protectionist newscaster Lou Dobbs to the investment manager Barry Ritholtz. They question whether the free market is altogether free. Mr. Ritholtz says that the outcome of the financial crisis has been “socialism for the wealthy but capitalism for everybody else.”
By 2014, Mr. Bannon’s own ideology had become centered on this distrust. He was saying such things about capitalism himself. “Think about it,” he said in a talk hosted by the Institute for Human Dignity. “Not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis.” He warned against “the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism,” by which he meant “a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people.” Capitalism, he said, ought to rest on a “Judeo-Christian” foundation.
Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, The Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.
If so, this was bad news for the Republican Party. By the time Mr. Bannon spoke, Ayn Rand-style capitalism was all that remained of its Reagan-era agenda. Free-market thinking had swallowed the party whole, and its Judeo-Christian preoccupations — “a nation with a culture” and “a reason for being” — along with it. A business orientation was what donors wanted.
But voters never more than tolerated it. It was Pat Buchanan who in his 1992 run for president first called on Republicans to value jobs and communities over profits. An argument consumed the party over whether this was a better-rounded vision of society or just the grousing of a reactionary. After a generation, Mr. Buchanan has won that argument. By 2016 his views on trade and migration, once dismissed as crackpot, were spreading so fast that everyone in the party had embraced them — except its elected officials and its establishment presidential candidates.
Mr. Bannon does not often go into detail about what Judeo-Christian culture is, but he knows one thing it is not: Islam. Like most Americans, he believes that Islamism — the extremist political movement — is a dangerous adversary. More controversially he holds that, since this political movement is generated within the sphere of Islam, the growth of Islam — the religion — is itself a problem with which American authorities should occupy themselves. This is a view that was emphatically repudiated by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush.
Mr. Bannon has apparently drawn his own views on the subject from intensive, if not necessarily varied, reading. The thinkers he has engaged with in this area tend to be hot and polemical rather than cool and detached. They include the provocateur Pamela Geller, a campaigner against the “Ground Zero Mosque” who once suggested the State Department was “essentially being run by Islamic supremacists”; her sometime collaborator Robert Spencer, the director of the website Jihad Watch, with whom she heads an organization called Stop Islamization of America; and the former Department of Homeland Security official Philip Haney, who has argued that officials in the Obama administration had compromised “the security of citizens for the ideological rigidity of political correctness.”
President Trump being unpopular among intellectuals, any thinker in his cabinet will be, at some level, a nonconformist, a rebel or an individualist. That may yet make things interesting for the country. It will certainly make Washington a hostile environment for Mr. Bannon. Many policy intellectuals in the capital have paid a steep price in swallowed misgivings and trimmed convictions to get to the place that Mr. Bannon has somehow blown into town and usurped. He never had to compromise or even modify his principles. His boss didn’t even get a majority of the popular vote. Establishment conservatives may be prone to mistake their jealousy for a principled conviction that Mr. Bannon is unsocialized and dangerous.
Is he? Last summer the historian Ronald Radosh contributed to this image with his (later contested) recollection that, years ago, Mr. Bannon, in the only conversation the two ever had, described himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “bring everything crashing down.”
But Mr. Bannon’s ideology, whatever it may be, does not wholly capture what drives him, says the screenwriter Julia Jones. Starting in the early 1990s, Ms. Jones and Mr. Bannon began writing screenplays together, and did so for a decade and a half. She is one of the few longtime collaborators in his otherwise peripatetic career. As Ms. Jones sees it, a more reliable key to his worldview lies in his military service. “He has a respect for duty,” she said in early February. “The word he has used a lot is ‘dharma.’ ” Mr. Bannon found the concept of dharma in the Bhagavad Gita, she recalls. It can describe one’s path in life or one’s place in the universe.
When Mr. Bannon came to Hollywood, Ms. Jones says, he was less political. For two years, according to Ms. Jones, the two of them worked on the outline of a 26-part television series about seekers after the secrets of the human self, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Nietzsche to Madame Blavatsky to Ramakrishna to the Baal Shem Tov to Geronimo. “It was his idea,” she said. “He assembled all the people.”
But the Sept. 11 attacks, Ms. Jones says, changed him, and their collaboration did not survive his growing engagement with politics. Speaking of his films, she says, “He developed a kind of propaganda-type tone of voice that I found offensive.” Ms. Jones is a literary person, left-liberal in politics. She regrets that Mr. Bannon “has found a home in nationalism.” But she does not believe he is any kind of anarchist, let alone a racist.
Those focused on Mr. Bannon’s ideology are probably barking up the wrong tree. There are plenty of reasons for concern about Mr. Bannon, but they have less to do with where he stands on the issues than with who he is as a person. He is a newcomer to political power and, in fact, relatively new to an interest in politics. He is willing to break with authority. While he does not embrace any of the discredited ideologies of the last century, he is attached to a theory of history’s cycles that is, to put it politely, untested. Most ominously, he is an intellectual in politics excited by grand theories — a combination that has produced unpredictable results before.
We’ll see how it works out. Barack Obama, in a similar way, used to allude to the direction and the “arc” of history. Some may find the two theories of history equally naïve and unrealistic. Others may see a mitigating element in the cyclical nature of Mr. Bannon’s view. A progressive who believes history is more or less linear is fighting for immortality when he enters the political arena. A conservative who believes history is cyclical is fighting only for a role in managing, say, the next 20 or 80 years. Then his work will be undone, as everyone’s is eventually.
Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, is at work on a book about the rise and fall of the post-1960s political order.