A few years ago, I attended a small conference in Vatican City on “Poverty and the Common Good”. Organized by the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), the conference was held in the Casina Pio IV, a 16th-century villa built in the middle of the Vatican Gardens, now housing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. It was memorable for many reasons — but most of all because Steve Bannon joined participants via Skype.
The two-day conference brought together a small group of business executives and political officials, Vatican dignitaries (like Giovanni Battista Cardinal Re, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Bishops, and Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, then-patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta), as well as civil society leaders from Europe and abroad. Discussions ranged from the role of markets to the role of morality in economic exchange. Guests participated in a wide range of presentations ranging from how to best reduce poverty, mechanisms for creating wealth, and the role of the state in the economy.
Bannon led the last session of the conference, which focused on forms of capitalism. Speaking from California and answering questions from the audience, his comments and responses were challenging and thought-provoking, inspiring much discussion afterwards.
At the time, Bannon already enjoyed some notoriety. He was still executive chairman of Breitbart News and had not yet been tapped by Donald Trump to lead his campaign effort. But mention of his very name already made many American liberals shudder. Thus, when the President asked him to serve as chief strategist and senior counselor, the mainstream media and liberal elites were apoplectic.
Many made no secret of their opposition to the man. During his time in the White House, it seemed as if everything Bannon did (and said) was grotesquely magnified by the media, with critics saying his beliefs — which have been and continue to be widely mis-represented — were beyond the pale. He was considered an inappropriate pick for a White House role.
The reasons given — then and now — for Bannon’s “unsuitability” ranged from the slanderous to the libelous: He has been called a fascist, racist, misogynist — and an anti-Semite. But truth be told, despite my own research — and my many interactions since that conference with people who know him well — I have been unable to reconcile what his critics (and the media) say about him with anything I heard that afternoon in Vatican City.
In fact, the more I re-read the transcript of the entire Bannon session that day (generously made available by Buzzfeed, which covered the conference), the more he sounded thoughtful and reasonable. I remember thinking at the time, that he clearly had a firm understanding of the economic and geopolitical challenges facing the West — and, what’s more, that he clearly understood that we are all called to be guardians of civilization and preservers of the Western Tradition.
In his comments that warm Italian afternoon, Bannon had continually praised a decentralized, common-sense approach to politics, both in the United States and abroad. He spoke of the importance of empowering people, and resisting the continuous growth of the administrative and bureaucratic state.
Of course, it is the growing realization of this reality, among voters and citizens, that has been fueling the rise of many of the Eurosceptic, populist, and pro-sovereignty movements around the world — in Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.K. In fact, at the Vatican, Bannon spoke sympathetically of the “global reaction against centralized government”.
He also expressed his disdain for the world’s bean-counters, corrupt elites, and overzealous regulators, displaying the same concerns that my friends on the libertarian left and right also have. He did not come across as a narrow, ideological thinker, nor did he sound overly predictable about any of it — for at the same time that he spoke of the challenges at the top levels of society, he also spoke of the challenges at the middle and lower levels of society. In fact, he seemed to share an abiding faith in the accumulated wisdom of working people and small towns, and the natural instincts of hard-working communities, and the dignity of traditional families. He also spoke of the need to promote these smaller groups and structures — while, at the same time, preserving, protecting, and strengthening the sovereign states in which they may all flourish.
During the conference, Bannon — prompted first by DHI founder and president Benjamin Harnwell, and then later responding to audience questions — spoke eloquently about some of the other major challenges currently facing the West. He spoke of the dramatic problems that radical secularization has wrought across societies and in economic relationships; and he pointed to the need to defend our civilizational ideals.
Speaking to the conference’s main theme of poverty, Bannon highlighted the critical link between freedom and the “entrepreneurial spirit”, and spoke of the importance of encouraging poverty alleviation through the promotion of wealth creation. He was especially insightful here, as he proceeded to distinguish between two “disturbing strands” of capitalism: the “state-sponsored capitalism” of China and Russia, which limits man’s economic freedom and individual liberty, and the “objectivist school of libertarian capitalism”, which denies basic human dignity by reducing man to an object or a commodity. On this, Bannon was impressive. No ideologue here, I thought.
In his subsequent responses to questions from conference participants, Bannon made other important points. He mentioned the broad denial of our Judeo-Christian heritage, both in our culture and in our institutions of government (in America and throughout the West), and he spoke with gravity of the growing threat of “jihadist Islamic fascism”. He also noted the growing frustrations of middle- and working-class people worldwide who, through political movements like the Tea Party in America and the UK Independence Party (or today’s Brexit Party), are finally beginning to challenge the power of the world’s political and economic elites in places such as Washington, Brussels, and Beijing.
That afternoon, I also had a very brief opportunity to ask Bannon a question. Taking a cue from his comments about populist movements in Europe, I asked about some of the less palatable far-right movements in Europe that have continued to spread on the fringes of European. Animated by a return to a kind of corporatism and “ethno-nationalism”, such movements, I noted, not only rejected market capitalism and free trade but also, far more troubling, seemed to espouse a return to discredited statist economic policies. I asked what we could do to counter the appeal of such movements to young people in Europe.
Bannon pointed out that because of crony capitalism, and the use of “different set of rules for the people who make the rules”, many of the people expressing support for such extremist movements were simply not seeing the benefits of market-based capitalism. Solve this, and you will see benefits flow back to people, he said. He also noted — in response to a question from a Slovakian journalist — that anti-Semitic and racial elements are always found on the “fringe” of populist movements, but that they will “burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement”.
The reason for my question was the work that many of us have been doing in Europe over the past decade and a half. European conservatives — in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Croatia — have been contributing to various efforts to educate others about important conservative ideas (so that someday a critical mass may be reached but also to influence public policy at the national and European levels). Those working so laboriously across Europe are seeking ways to preserve and promote the good that still remains in small pockets across Europe.
Part of this ongoing effort has involved the task of definition — that is, the job of distinguishing what is soundly derived from established principles from what is merely an innovation — in order to forge a truly ‘respectable’ conservatism. In other words, the conservatism that many Europeans seek is one that is clear and consistent about distinguishing itself from neo-pagan and fascist ‘modes’ of distorted right-wing thought.
Too many young people seem enchanted with these extreme modes of thought. But this is not the sort of conservatism that the world needs today. Rather, the challenges of today, as Bannon suggested, require a response that is firmly based on the classical principles that we have inherited from Western civilization. These principles are not tied up with the clan or the Volk. They are the product of that Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian synthesis from which Western civilization flows.
It is clear that Bannon understands all of this. His comments during that perhaps now-forgotten conference demonstrated an impressive understanding of history, as well as a deep knowledge of philosophy and economics, and an even firmer grasp of the complex global problems that we are now all facing. In stark contrast to the way the media and his left-wing critics have continued to portray him, Bannon was charming, whip-smart, and moved easily in and out of different modes of thought, juggling complex ideas, and bringing to bear insights from across disciplines and his own professional experiences. In short, he was generous, and demonstrated a willingness that afternoon to engage in a serious conversation about matters of grave importance.
It’s worth noting that Bannon’s appearance that afternoon also spoke to the astute, even prescient, thinking of DHI’s president and founder, Benjamin Harnwell. He had not only successfully brought together a range of committed and morally courageous people who shared similar concerns about the direction of the world but had managed to engage them all in an important extended conversation with each other — and with one of the world’s most important geopolitical thinkers.
It is perhaps no wonder that Harnwell is heading up efforts, with Bannon’s collaboration, to launch an ‘Academy for the Judeo-Christian West’ in Europe. Once its programs start, it will bring together theologians, philosophers, historians, and economists to teach young students and activists about European identity and the foundations of Western civilization.
It is men such as Bannon and Harnwell who are doing the most for the ‘common good’ today — working toward a concrete renewal of the Western tradition and seeking a truly Christian vision for Europe. They seem to be inspired, in part, by St. Benedict and perhaps even St. Thomas More (truly “speaking truth to power”, as the leftists so often say). And in some ways, the launching of the Academy (and the building of its campus) may even serve as an apt metaphor for the rebuilding and restoration of European Christendom. It’s certainly an encouraging enough project to give us all hope about the future of Europe.