One moment on '60 Minutes' made it perfectly clear how Steve Bannon fools so many people

Steve bannon60 Minutes, screenshotSteve Bannon on 60 Minutes
  • In an interview on CBS’s ’60 Minutes,’ former White House advisor Steve Bannon pushed back against the idea that the United States is a nation of immigrants.

  • He did so by oversimplifying some complicated pieces of American history while sounding confident.
  • In fact, you’ll find that a lot of his worldview is just that — an overconfident oversimplification.

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon was on ’60 Minutes’ on Sunday, and there was one moment in his interview that made it crystal clear how he’s managed to fool so many people into thinking he knows so much about America.

It was this quote:

“America’s built on our citizens… Look at the 19th Century. What built America is called ‘The American System.’ From Hamilton to Polk to Henry Clay to Lincoln to the Roosevelts. A system of protection of our manufacturing, financial system that lends to our manufacturing, and control of our borders.”

Bannon was responding to the idea (from his interviewer, Charlie Rose) that America was built on immigrants. And his response, without context, sounds impressive. He sounds like a man with clear conviction who not only knows history, but also has a clear way of interpreting and connecting the past to the future. It seems like heady stuff.

But of course, the context is very real, and reality has a way of asserting itself in history.

With the proper context, Bannon’s statement is word salad — a cherry-picked version of events that ignores some real drivers of American history. You can pick out the basic inconsistencies if you want to — like the fact that Hamilton was an immigrant, for example. But the scope of Bannon’s misinformation is more grand than that. He’s talking about an America that doesn’t exist.

But he says it with conviction, and people like that.

The American System was an actual thing — and a lot of Americans hated it

The way Bannon tells it, America has had a winning game plan from the beginning — a combination of nationalism, federal government and business through which it has achieved greatness throughout history. This is what he calls “The American System.”

And there was an American System, but it wasn’t an ideology passed down from President to President. In fact, American Presidents and legislators fought against it throughout its brief life in the 19th century.

The American System was a set of ideas formed by legendary Kentucky politician Senator Henry Clay. After the War of 1812 he convinced Americans that there should be a harmonious relationship between tariffs protecting American goods, the national bank (Hamilton’s brain child), and infrastructural and agricultural development. From 1816 to about 1828 it seemed everyone was on board to a certain extent, and Congress passed legislation supporting this thesis.

This time of national unity is what people is called The Era of Good Feelings, and for good reason. High off of their victory against the British, Americans believed they could do pretty much anything.

Andrew JacksonWikimedia CommonsMany political cartoons criticised Jackson during the time of his presidency. This one was about his struggle against the federal government.

That all ended with the election of President Andrew Jackson, who Trump and Bannon both revere. Jackson hated Clay’s American system because he thought it was an overreach of the federal government, and he did as much as he possibly could to dismantle it.

In doing so Jackson ultimately set the stage for one of the worst financial crisis’ in American history — The Panic of 1837. To champion his ideas Clay broke with Jackson and formed the Whig party, which would ultimately die in just a few decades.

The American System as Bannon describes it is his own fantasy. In reality it was not a grand overarching thesis of American governance. It didn’t make it anywhere near President Roosevelt (either of them). In fact if it were a person it wouldn’t have ever gotten old enough to drive a car. Bannon likes to take the simple, and overlay it over the complicated to create a narrative that suits him. When you do that you lose a lot — most importantly, you lose the truth.

Stop making sense

Back to the ’60 Minutes’ quote because it’s actually astonishing how much history Bannon throws away in just a few sentences.

Here are a few more American complications Bannon prefers not to grapple with.

  • It’s unclear what Bannon was referring to when he mentioned “protecting our borders” in that quote, but perhaps he was talking about President Polk, who presided over the Mexican War (1846-1848). That war led to the Mexican Cession (1848), which was less about protecting our borders, and more about a naked land grab from Mexico.
  • President Lincoln was very much opposed to the Mexican War, so he probably wouldn’t appreciate being lumped in with Polk.
  • Lincoln did support industry and manufacturing, but probably in a way Bannon wouldn’t have liked. During the Civil War Lincoln presided over an expansion of what Bannon might call “the swamp,” centralizing power in the federal government’s hands like never before. For more on this check out ‘Richard Franklin Bensel’s book, ‘Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877.’
  • I stress again that all of these people were, and this history is, complicated. As for the Roosevelts, yes, Theodore’s administration did enact immigration restrictions, but it was also one of the first to talk seriously about free trade agreements. As for Franklin D., he swept into power after the Smoot-Hawley tariff laid waste to the American economy under his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. He understood their destructive power.

That’s not even all the delusion Bannon managed to pack into that sentence. Again, if I weren’t so horrified, I would be impressed — and some people are. When you talk to people who know Bannon or work for him they will tell you breathlessly that he’s incredibly smart. They will tell you that his office and car are filled with books — sometimes two copies of the same one even, if you can imagine it. They’re being fooled too.

Bannon is a simple man

The point is, this stuff is complicated. But we know from the way Bannon sees history that he doesn’t like things complicated at all. Back in February I wrote about his obsession with “The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny.”

The book argues that the history of a people moves in 80-to-100 year cycles called “saecula.” Within those saecula are four shifts, which ultimately end in “ekpyrosis,” a cataclysmic event that destroys the old order and brings in a new one in a trial of fire.

This is how Bannon organizes a complicated world in his head. And in a way — if take away the whole world burning thing — you’ve actually got a really comforting thought here. You have a map of history that tells you how things work and where things are going to go. Of course, any historian will tell you that it’s nonsense — that history is a dynamic conversation of complicated events that produce outcomes that are interpreted and reinterpreted to make sense of the present.

But that’s not comforting, that’s chaos. And that’s not what worried people trying to make sense of their own worlds want to read on the internet. Bannon would have you believe that American identity is simple — that there is a clear line of logic throughout our history, and that if we could just get back to that perfect place, we’ll be ok again. It’s a comforting thought, but it’s wrong. Moreover, it’s why white nationalists and neo-Nazis are attracted him, so it’s also dangerous.

Now to be fair, none of this is to say that Bannon is being purposely malicious in his misunderstanding of history. In fact, it’s very likely he’s fooled himself harder than anyone else. It’s always tragic when that happens.

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