What 'Citizen Bannon' misremembered and misread on his way to guiding Trump

What 'Citizen Bannon' misremembered and misread on his way to guiding Trump.

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper
24 March 2017

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 07.09.41.png

Screenshot of the actual sled in Orson Welles'Citizen Kane.

The Wall Street Journal’s decade-long decline as a trustworthy source of news about politics can't have been a surprise to 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 profile of Steve Bannon, which faithfully repeats the Trump adviser’s pseudo-populist fable of how his working-class father's setbacks made him 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 Lemann 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 for himself a patina of intellectual respectability.

I won’t unpack Bannon’s misappropriations of Lasch’s critiques of racial and sexual identity politics 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 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 set out to 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 like 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.

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