Who Is Steve Bannon?

Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Rome-based Institute for Human Dignity, discusses the “intuitive genius” of one of the most influential Catholics in the new Trump administration.

Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist & senior counselor on Nov. 13, 2016.
Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist & senior counselor on Nov. 13, 2016. (photo: Wikipedia)

Stephen Bannon, a Catholic of Irish descent, has been catapulted into the corridors of power after president-elect Donald Trump chose him to be his chief strategist and senior counselor, giving him equal status to his chief of staff.

As former executive chairman of Breitbart News, the news organization popular with Tea Party members and libertarians, his appointment provoked a fair amount of controversy in the mainstream media. But beyond the labels and name calling, what does Bannon really believe? And will he help defend the Church from his new vantage point in the White House?

On the eve of Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States, the Register spoke with Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) and occasional Register blogger, to find out more about Bannon, as well as to discuss the recent election, and possible Church-State relations under Trump. Harnwell has known Bannon for a number of years and invited him to speak at a DHI conference at the Vatican in 2014.


At your conference at the Vatican in 2014, Bannon defended the faith in the public square. How does he view the Church and politics?

I have to say this right at the beginning: although I’ve known Steve Bannon for a number of years, I’m not his official spokesman and I don’t speak for him. With that in mind, I think it’s fair to draw the conclusion, from what he said at our conference, that he sees Christians of all denominations bringing their faith in a vital way into the social fabric of American life — mirroring America’s first president, in fact, who said: “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.”

In terms of how he views politics, looking back at what he said at that conference in 2014, the year before Donald Trump declared his candidacy, I think Steve Bannon has not only proven himself to be — like Donald Trump himself — an intuitive genius, but strikingly prophetic, too. He has a crystal-clear identification of the fundamental issues, which was proven to be 100% on target.


He discussed “enlightened capitalism” at your conference. What does he mean by this, and how does it coincide with your Institute’s wish to promote human dignity?

Bannon referenced three types of capitalism at the DHI’s conference session on poverty and wealth creation. “Crony” capitalism (which he clarified isn’t actually capitalism), where powerful economic and financial interests — using the state through lobbying and connections — achieve an outcome that would never have resulted in an open, free market. By the way, this is the form of corrupt corporatism that Bannon suggests Pope Francis is personally familiar with from his Latin American background, and of which the Pope has in mind when he criticizes capitalism in general.

Then Bannon critiques “objectivist” capitalism, which treats people as if they were only economic commodities. Fascinatingly, he draws the explicit parallel of this atheistic view of the human person with the same view found in the godless materialism of Marxism.

And then, finally, he arrives at “enlightened” capitalism, that version which has as its moral underpinning the Judeo-Christian culture, where there is a moral responsibility to use the wealth one has for the common good, where the Almighty on Judgment Day will call us each to account for the fortune with which He has prospered us individually.

I might add, that my reading of the totality of Steve's line of thought is that the onus is really on the individual to comport himself righteously, driven by his faith and a well-formed conscience, and that he’s not really looking to the state to force people to behave in a way it arbitrarily defines as “correct” — or certainly not in its omnipresent, omnipotent contemporary manifestation.

As to the coincidence between Steve Bannon’s idea of “enlightened” capitalism and the DHI’s vision of human dignity, I really think they are in perfect synergy with one another. I think it’s there in the heart of the magisterium, too, all the way from [Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical] Rerum Novarum to [Pope St. John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical] Centesimus Annus.


How much does Steve Bannon represent the silent majority, and uphold human dignity in the image and likeness of God?

Well, it used to be called the silent majority. It’s not so silent anymore, and to some considerable extent this is down to Steve Bannon and the international team at Breitbart that he led until recently.

I think recognition of the imago Dei runs all the way through Steve’s thought in a sincere way: it’s the basis for his philosophical exposition on ‘enlightened’ capitalism. And it’s there in pretty much everything he said at the conference on the Judeo-Christian underpinning of Western civilization.


Some of the themes covered in your conference were part of the Trump campaign, such as crony capitalism and “draining the swamp” of corrupt politics in Washington DC. Does DHI have a certain synergy with Bannon’s view of the world more generally?

The DHI is an organization that seeks to influence politics by building the broadest coalition possible around the pro-life, pro-traditional family axis. Our mission is to help Christians be actively Christian in the public square. The DHI is firmly at the immovable center of the Church and generally avoids taking an institutional position on “prudential” matters.

Speaking therefore only in my own capacity, I personally have a total synergy, to use your words, with Steve Bannon’s view of the world. I was championing these very issues myself when I arrived to work at the European Parliament as chief of staff to Nirj Deva MEP ten years ago.


As the Trump Inauguration is almost upon us, what can American Catholics expect from the new administration?

They can expect to see the president delivering on his campaign promises, and cementing his outreach to the legitimate aspirations of disillusioned Democrat blue-collar workers, who were largely ignored by both parties since the close of the Reagan era.

I think the mainstream media still hasn’t realized what actually took place on Nov. 8. President-elect Trump is redefining the boundaries of American politics: he created a majority out of the working class bases from both the GOP and the Democrats, while at the same time disenfranchising the corrupt vested interests of both parties. In short, Trump conceptually gerrymandered the whole of the United States using intuition, charisma and courage alone. He has also pushed this realignment together with an unmistakable passion for an authentic social justice.


Many are waiting to see if the Trump administration will follow through on his pro-life pledges. How confident are you that it will? 

I think Trump will certainly follow-through on the life issues, remembering the 58% loyal support from Evangelicals that he achieved, and the 52% of Catholics who voted for him. But also because, as far as one can tell, he has come to believe sincerely in the natural justice of the pro-life cause.


How can we trust that Trump will uphold the dignity of the human person given his treatment of women and past business practices? 

The president-elect is a hard-nosed New York property and casino developer. He’s not Mother Teresa. He’s not claiming to be, and he wasn’t elected to be. He was elected because he has demonstrated over decades to have the mettle it will take to “drain the swamp”. In fact, he turned this tough business reputation to his advantage when said words to the effect that in the past, he’s always tried to make money for himself. Now he’s going to use that ruthlessness for the American people.

On the “women” question, it’s not like he has a long retinue of women who credibly claim that they have been raped by him, following him at his events publicly demanding justice. It’s not as if he has a wife who has been covering for this behavior and enabling it for decades. 

I think the prospects for promoting human dignity have never looked so encouraging, especially when it comes to the pro-life, pro-family justices he’s likely to nominate to the Supreme Court.


You are quite unusual in that, despite being British, you were one of the few people who openly supported Trump after he declared in June 2015. Why did you choose to go against the trend?

Donald Trump has been saying pretty much the same thing since the ’80s: that other countries are smarter in trade deals, that the U.S. lets itself get taken for a ride in shouldering the defense burden, that the political system is corrupt and the politically-connected elite pulls the game in favor of itself at the expense of the ordinary worker.

People who have been accusing Trump of cynicism in saying today only what people want to hear haven't been paying any attention over the last 30 years!

I supported him because he gave every indication of wanting to tackle a system that, through its corruption, had become poisonous to the common good (and actually being able to tackle it, through his immense financial independence). And, because he had been saying these things since the Reagan era, he had — as far as I am concerned — the greatest credibility of all the candidates.


In view of your experience in politics, how do you think Trump's leadership style will be different from his immediate predecessors?

I think the president-elect is a lot like Pope Francis when it comes to exercising authority: he expects to be obeyed.


Given past comments by the Holy Father and other officials, do you think it’s possible the two might still be able to cooperate together?

What is disappointing is that, for all the talk about going out to the peripheries, to the forgotten man, when it came to it in America we, as a Church, could not have turned a deafer ear to his fears and aspirations. Our pastors largely proved themselves to be “coastal elite” in their outlook, and the reasonable anger of those living in what are dismissed as the ‘flyover states’ could not have been further removed from consideration.

This is a great learning opportunity for us all. With key elections coming up in France and Germany this year, let’s — as a Church — try some actual listening rather than simply talking about listening. The truth is, until now, we weren’t listening because we weren’t interested in hearing.

And people say in their own defense: “Nobody saw this coming”, but that’s not true. Sarah Palin saw it coming. The folks at Breitbart saw it coming. Matt Drudge saw it coming. In the Catholic ambit, Austin Ruse, Father George Rutler and Father Frank Pavone likewise had their eyes wide open. These are the people who demonstrated the ‘smell of the sheep’. The bridge-building with the new White House might want to start with these impressive personalities.

And if there really is a will to build bridges with the Trump administration, I think the Church would do well to warmly and sincerely congratulate the president-elect on his well-earned victory, and ask how we, as a Church, can help in making America great again.


Inset photo: Bannon addressing DHI conference in 2014 (DHI)