Devil's Bargain

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency

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Joshua Green
  • New York, NY: 
    Penguin Random House
    , July
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $27.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780735225022.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Why does a chronicle of Trump’s presidential campaign merit being reviewed in Reading Religion? Is the book even about religion? Frankly, if by being “about religion” means being an explicit description, interpretation, or explanation of something religious, the answer for Josh Green’s book, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency), must be “no.” Instead, Josh Green gives us a mildly wonky, well-researched, documented, and ethnographically informed account of the ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency, drawing on many strands of causation, but above all on the influence of Steve Bannon.

However, Green may have been the first to break the silence about the class foundations of Bannon’s populist moral outrage—as well as his religious nurture, evolution and commitments—and how they may have shaped the president’s views. Kudos to Green for turning over some of the mossier rocks paving Bannon’s theological and ethical path. But, in this book, what Green leaves unsaid about religion may matter more than what is said. Here there are dots aplenty, but how are they connected, what contradictions are left unexposed, what implications are not drawn, are questions that beg for answers. Students of religion are uniquely qualified to link those dots, giving voice to these otherwise unspoken ethical and theological dimensions of our public discourse.

There are no louder religious unspokens than the theological and ethical conundrums attending the life story of Steve Bannon. Of theology, Green tells us of Bannon’s religious formation in his father’s “Traditionalist”—anti-Vatican II, pro-Latin Mass, etc.—Catholicism in Richmond, Virginia. Green says just enough for the religion scholar’s imagination to conjure up scenarios of how Catholic Traditionalism’s theology of apocalyptic, sin-guilt expiation via bloody sacrifice took hold of young Bannon’s brain. It is this theology that informs Bannon’s prophetic warnings of the coming bloody Ragnarök with radical Islam (an expiating immolation for the sins of liberalism?) should we fail to make America great again, and build that wall to keep out the barbarians. We, in the study of religion, should break this silence, and say a great deal more, given that something of this politico-religious imaginary is daily whispered into the ear of the president.

Of ethics, Green spells out the details of what must have been grave moral dilemmas for Bannon as a Benedictine schoolboy. While these may remain muffled to the ears of most readers—even though they turn up on nearly every page of Devil’s Bargain—our social ethicists should have plenty to say about them. The predicaments to which I refer are generated for Christians (and others) by the contradictions involved in being simultaneously devoted to cultivating reverence for the sacred and trying to succeed in a profane world where winning is the only thing (indeed, where only winning is sacred). Bannon’s street credibility has needed to rest on a great deal more than a genius for adapting Catholic Traditionalism to visionary politics. How, expressly, did Bannon’s Catholic Traditionalist religious culture, and his later forays into Asian religions and Orientalist mysticism, square with his mature life’s wholesale embrace of a career as a swashbuckling, creative-destructive, Michael-Milken-smitten financial whiz at Goldman Sachs and his later, sexier life as a Hollywood studio executive?

And what of the unspoken matters of social justice, best expressed in Bannon’s populist class resentments? We know of the Bannon family’s modest means; we also know, thanks to Thomas Keneally’s Great Shame (Anchor, 2010), of the class sensitivities of the Irish diaspora. Bannon cannot hide how much he seethes with class resentment, which is the very source of Trump supporters’ populist rage against Wall Street. Bannon dresses in a calculated way to give maximum offense: layered tee shirts, cargo shorts, flip flops, stubbly beard and all. Unspoken, Bannon’s contempt for the conventions of the elite bespeaks, as well, that shame keenly felt by the poor. It is no wonder that Bannon has never tired of stoking the feelings of victimization of “the forgotten Americans.” Green’s account of Bannon‘s status anxieties shows us how the wounds of class resentment, hidden in the heart of a déclassé Irish Catholic, play in his ascent through corporate America. Unspoken, but clearly there, is the outline of a discourse on equality and social justice focused on the “forgotten American,” the “outsiders” of the 2016 election, drawn from Bannon’s own life.

But beyond Bannon himself, one should imagine generations upon generations of religiously inspired upstarts, some perhaps similarly wounded and resentful, who struggle with the realities of achieving justice within the American class system. Green’s book offers Bannon as a test case for understanding and explaining their moral dilemmas. Green’s book demonstrates how easily go-go, Beemer-driving capitalism can tear though a religious life carefully cultured over the years, and even wreck the foundations upon which it rests. Bannon, as Green nicely documents via Bannon’s business career, is just the tip of a largely submerged iceberg of similarly religiously formed young people who seem to leave all of it in a pathetic little bundle at the door of high finance and business.

Critics might well reject these assertions and insinuations by simply noting that people grow out of their youthful nurture. Maybe so. But if anything, Bannon doubles down on his youthful nurture, after what arguably are years in the moral wilderness of high finance and Hollywood. An inner compass seems to have pointed him back to the true north of his youthful Traditionalist Catholicism, albeit tarted up with a soupçon of exotic religious philosophies. What had seemed swept out to sea by a tsunami of Bannon’s years as a Goldman Sachs Master of the Universe, or by his not inconsiderable Hollywood career, bobbed up to the surface again in his Brietbart years, and as he stepped onto the American political stage as Trump whisperer. As recently as his 2014 speech to a Vatican conference, Bannon ranges over a number of unconnected trademark subjects, from the “global” nature of both the populist “center-right revolt” as well as Islam’s preemptive strike in a war of civilizations, to the “Judeo-Christian values” undergirding an “entrepreneurial capitalism.” In response to these realities, Bannon says, the West needs first to “take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam.” Like Vladimir Putin’s assertion of “traditionalism,” America, Bannon says, should decide to be one of the “strong countries and strong nationalist movements.” As for his “Judeo-Christian… entrepreneurial capitalism,” Bannon comes off more Bernie Sanders than Paul Ryan (or even Donald Trump!) in specifically distinguishing it from the “crony capitalism” of global corporatism, Putin’s Russia and China, or Ayn Rand’s raw “objectivist” capitalism.

Author Josh Green, son of a real historical theologian, Garrett Green, can surely tell Bannonesque intellectual fad and flash from the real thing. But students of religion should feel frustrated, if not outraged, that blue-collar Steve Bannon can trade in the trendy lingo of semi-skilled intellectuals, like “medieval,” “traditional,” or “Judeo-Christian” without paying any price. “Medieval”? Which is more “medieval,” the 1417 Council of Constance’s declaration of its authority over the pope, or Pope Gregory VII’s assertion of a papal authority over the Emperor beginning in 1075? “Traditional”? Which is more traditional, the strict all-male, celibate priesthood, or the older, more flexible priesthood that existed in the early Church and still does today for most of Eastern Christianity? “Judeo-Christian”? Why is this Christian usage absent from the way Jews talk about cultural values, most of whom do not even recognize the existence of something called “Judeo-Christian values,” with its dull ring of Christian supercessionism? How can Bannon get away with this?

To make matters worse, Bannon’s pop Catholic Traditionalism, cum populism, Islamophobia, and nationalism, own our President’s way of seeing the world. True, they are easily digestible tweet-sized intellectual cheetos ready to be popped into the brain. But we know they are not nutritious. What those of us who try to interpret and explain religion to our students and the public must grasp is that Bannon and those of his ilk have clearly triumphed in the information wars about religion, the nature of Christianity and Islam, and the relation of politics and economic life to each respectively. Shallow, confused, and half-baked though it may be, Green shows how Bannon’s interpretation of religion holds court in the White House. The question is what, if anything, will students of religion do in response?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ivan Strenski is Holstein Family and Community professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joshua Green is a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, focusing on political coverage for the magazine and Bloomberg News. Previously, Green was a senior editor of the Atlantic, a weekly political columnist for the Boston Globe, and an editor at theWashington Monthly. He has also written for the New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and other publications. Green regularly appears on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, NBC’s Meet the Press, HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, and PBS’s Washington Week.

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