Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign CEO and White House counselor, has a lot to say. In a 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday night, Bannon unloads on the media, the Republican establishment, and everyone else who gets in President Trump’s way. Bannon fancies himself a teacher of history, policy, and strategy. But what he really teaches, by example, is the psychology of the fascist intellectual.
The term “fascism” is thrown around too casually by the left, as “socialism” is by the right. But fascism has a genuine meaning based on past cases, and you can see its themes in Bannon’s interview. Fascism’s core idea is allegiance to a leader in the name of national greatness. What distinguishes fascism from republicanism is how he responds to conflicts between the leader and countervailing principles or institutions. A republican welcomes such conflicts as ways to challenge and check the power of the executive. A fascist, perceiving these conflicts as obstacles to national unity, seeks to obliterate them and to consolidate power.
Bannon takes the latter approach. In the 60 Minutes interview, Charlie Rose asks him about the infamous video in which Trump boasted to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush about groping women. Bannon only sees it as a loyalty issue:
Bannon: They [voters] don’t care.
Rose: They do care about respect for women.
Bannon: They do, but—
Rose: And it’s not just locker-room talk.
Bannon: That’s locker-room talk. The Billy Bush thing is locker-room talk. … Billy Bush Saturday to me is a litmus test. … When you side with a man, you side with him. OK? The good and the bad. You can criticize him behind [closed doors], but when you side with him, you have to side with him. And that’s what Billy Bush weekend showed me.
What’s striking here isn’t that Bannon tries to justify Trump’s remarks, but that he thinks justification doesn’t matter. Siding with the leader is more important than whether the leader’s behavior is “good” or “bad.” And if you don’t side with the leader, you must be purged, to illustrate the price of dissent. Bannon signals that he blocked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie from an administration job because Christie failed this litmus test. “Christie, because of Billy Bush weekend, was not looked at for a Cabinet position,” says Bannon.
When fascist movements trample countervailing principles or institutions, vulnerable populations often suffer the consequences. One day the target might be women; the next, it’s minorities. In the interview, Bannon rejects neo-Nazis and the Klan, but he says Trump was right to defend people who assembled with them to defend a Confederate statue in Charlottesville:
All Donald Trump was saying is, “Where does it end? Does it end in taking down the Washington Monument? Does it end in taking down Mount Rushmore? Does it end at taking Churchill’s bust out of the Oval Office?” My problem, and I told Gen. Kelly this, [is] when you side with a man, you side with him. I was proud to come out and try to defend President Trump in the media that day.
This invocation of national heritage, in defiance of frightened minorities, echoes fascist movements of the past. But obsession with heritage, coupled with loyalty to the leader, is only part of the equation. Another part is ruthlessly attacking anyone who gets in the leader’s way. Historically, religious organizations have created headaches for fascist movements and have been dealt with accordingly. In the case of the Catholic church, Bannon seems prepared to do the same.
In the interview, Bannon, who identifies as Catholic, says illegal immigrants should be forced to self-deport. Rose reminds him that Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has denounced Trump’s decision to rescind the DACA program, which protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. “The bishops have been terrible about this,” Bannon scoffs. “You know why? Because, unable to really come to grips with the problems in the church, they need illegal aliens … to fill the churches.” He goes on: “They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.”
To Dolan, immigration reform is a matter of transcendent values. “We are all children of God,” he writes in his statement on DACA—and this gives all of us, “immigrant or native born,” an “inalienable dignity that no person or government can ever take away.” But in Bannon’s ideology, any institution that makes such claims against the leader must be discredited as treacherous and self-serving.
At one point in the interview, Bannon shows a flash of what looks like respect for checks and balances. He confirms that while he was in the White House, he opposed the firing of then–FBI Director James Comey. At first glance, Bannon seems to be acknowledging that the president should respect the independence of law enforcement. But he goes on to explain that he counseled against the firing only because it wouldn’t stop the FBI’s Russia investigation. Other institutions, such as the House and Senate, “can be changed if the leadership is changed,” Bannon argues. “I don’t believe that the institutional logic of the FBI, and particularly in regards to an investigation, could possibly be changed by changing out the head of it.”
Sure enough, it didn’t work. In fact, it backfired. “If James Comey had not been fired, we would not have a special counsel,” Bannon observes. “We would not have the Mueller investigation [with] the breadth” that it now covers. Bannon opposed Comey’s ouster not to protect the FBI, but to protect Trump. Bannon wants less presidential accountability, not more.
Throughout the interview, Bannon presents himself as the scourge of corrupt institutions. He lambastes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Republican “establishment,” the federal bureaucracy, and the media (which he again calls “the opposition party”) for standing in Trump’s way. Returning to his post as executive chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon pledges to aid the president by leading a “war” on these villains. But one thing we’ve learned from the history of fascism—or at least we should have—is that the strongman who pledges to take down every villain in sight is the most dangerous villain of all.