Steve Bannon and the Making of an Economic Nationalist

Michael C. Bender, WST

On Oct. 7, 2008, in the cramped TV room of his modest home here, Marty Bannon watched with alarm as plunging stock markets dragged down his shares of AT&T, the nest egg he built during a 50-year career at the company.

His five children, including current White House counselor and chief strategist Steve Bannon, had often joked growing up that their devout father, a product of the Great Depression, would sooner leave the Catholic Church than sell those shares. The stock symbolized his deep trust in the company and had doubled as life insurance for his children.

As he toggled between TV stations, financial analysts warned of economic collapse and politicians in Washington seemed to mirror his own confusion. So he did the unthinkable. He sold.

Marty Bannon, now 95 years old, still regrets the decision and seethes over Washington’s response to the economic crisis. His son Steve says the moment crystallized his own antiestablishment outlook and helped trigger a decadelong political hardening that has landed him inside the West Wing, just steps away from President Donald Trump.

“The only net worth my father had beside his tiny little house was that AT&T stock. And nobody is held accountable?” Steve Bannon, 63, said in a recent interview. “All these firms get bailed out. There’s no equity taken from anybody. There’s no one in jail. These companies are all overleveraged, and everyone looked the other way.”

No White House official has more influence on a wider portfolio of issues than Steve Bannon, who has become a litmus test for how people view the Trump administration. For supporters, he is helping to deliver on Mr. Trump’s fiery populist promises, with their emphasis on punishing illegal immigrants and U.S. companies aiming to move jobs out of the country. The left has painted him as isolationist, sexist and anti-immigrant.

There were many factors that turned Steve Bannon into a divisive political firebrand. But his decision to embrace “economic nationalism” and vehemently oppose the forces and institutions of globalization, he says, stems from his upbringing, his relationship with his father and the meaning those AT&T shares held for the family.

“Everything since then has come from there,” he says. “All of it.”

Since teaming up with Mr. Trump in August, Mr. Bannon has played a lead role in honing the Republican message sharply criticizing open borders, the mainstream news media, Wall Street and Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. He has helped write Mr. Trump’s major speeches, played a key role in shaping the president’s order to halt immigration from a handful of Muslim-majority countries and helped shape the cabinet.

He has long admired nationalist movements around the globe and has expressed antipathy toward the European Union. “Strong nations make great neighbors,” he told The Wall Street Journal in November.

Steve Bannon idealizes the bygone corporate era that gave his father the kind of stability that he himself never pursued. Marty Bannon, who voted for Mr. Trump, sought a life of security, while the thrice-divorced Steve Bannon craves chaos and drama. He has served in the Navy, dabbled in penny stocks and was briefly in charge of Biosphere 2, a domed terrarium in Arizona.

After he found success in investment banking, he would fly his father for short vacations to New Orleans and California. In recent years, he has traveled monthly from Washington to Richmond for visits, and he talks to his father daily.

bannon_small Steve Bannon and the Making of an Economic Nationalist Politics

“He’s the backbone of the country, the everyman who plays by the rules, the hardworking dad that delays his own gratification for the family,” Steve Bannon says. “The world is probably 95% Marty Bannons, and 5% Steve Bannons. And that’s probably the right metric for a stable society.”

After working at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Steve Bannon became an Oscar-nominated producer in Hollywood and a libertarian-leaning conservative in a liberal bastion.

His film work grew more partisan after the 2008 financial crisis—and after his father’s fateful decision. He began creating documentaries, including a positive chronicle in 2010 of Sarah Palin’s time as Alaska governor and as the party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee. That work led to his introduction to Andrew Breitbart, a conservative provocateur who had launched his own news website.

Steve Bannon viewed Breitbart.com as a financial opportunity as much as a political move, his former colleagues say. The website he helped redesign in 2012 became a must-read for conservative political junkies and the alt-right, a loose agglomeration of groups with far-right ideologies.

Under his leadership, the site ran increasingly controversial headlines such as “The Solution to Online ‘Harassment’ Is Simple: Women Should Log Off,” “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women In Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews,” and “Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.”

Mr. Bannon wanted the site to be “the first and the loudest” when it came illegal immigration and the U.S. trade deficit, says Alex Marlow, Breitbart editor in chief. “He saw a media land-grab going on, and he wanted to lay claim to as much territory as possible.”

The website’s coverage was loathed by the targets of its stories and their allies. “A stone cold racist, and a white supremacist sympathizer,” New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the House Democratic leadership team, said recently about Mr. Bannon, who denies both changes.

Steve Bannon says his ideology is less about Republicans and Democrats than about middle class versus elites—nationalists versus globalists. He says that explains his opposition to open borders, political corruption and what he views as political correctness.

On a trip home to Richmond after the election, Steve Bannon juggled four cellphones as his older brother, Mike, tried to get him to take a break for lunch.

“Three of them were ‘Hey dude’ phones, and the other was a ‘Yes, sir’ phone,” recalled Mike. “I know who was calling on the ‘Yes, sir’ phone.”

Steve’s often-disheveled appearance has been a constant sore spot with his father, dating back to his student days at Virginia Tech. “He had long hair like the hippies,” Marty Bannon recently recalled in his Southern drawl. “I thought he was a girl for two years.”

Still, Marty Bannon compares his son to his own father, who dropped out of school after third grade. “My dad was very smart—street smart,” he says. “He could pick up things by reading. Politics, he was very into it.”

Marty Bannon grew up in Norfolk, Va., a military town, where he was schooled by nuns. He weighed vegetables and delivered groceries for extra money at a time when “Catholics were still coming over on the pickle boats,” he says.

He saw steady work as a virtue. By age 9, he was caddying at a nearby golf course and dreaming of playing baseball for the New York Yankees.

He expected to become a priest as an adult, he says, but met his future wife and soon started his family. He declined an offer to play for the Washington Senators and eventually landed a job as a splicer’s helper at AT&T, the same phone company his father worked for 48 years. Marty Bannon would work there for 50 years.

Marty Bannon says he started “on the poles, or in the sewers,” eventually climbing into middle management. Shortly after Steve was born, he moved the family to suburban Washington before settling in Richmond in 1955, when his middle son was 2 years old.

“I had great faith in AT&T,” Marty Bannon says. “At their peak they were the best company for service. That was inbred. Fire, flood, storm or whatever, they called you and you went. Whatever time of night. And you stayed out there until the job was finished.”

In Richmond, he bought a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, Colonial-style home with white siding, black shutters and a covered front porch, where he has lived the past 58 years. It is the only house he has ever owned.

The 2016 presidential election in that neighborhood was known as the “battle for Ginter Park” because it includes Mr. Bannon’s boyhood home and, just one mile away, the residence of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Mrs. Clinton’s running mate. The Clinton-Kaine ticket won the precinct by a landslide.

Steve Bannon and his friends grew up with chips on their shoulders in the former capital of the Confederacy, says Pat McSweeney, a boyhood friend of the Bannon family and former Virginia Republican Party chairman. Their race conferred a certain amount of privilege, but their Irish-Catholic backgrounds were out of place in the Southern Baptist town. The Benedictine school they attended was integrated.

“We had a hurdle that most didn’t,” says Mr. McSweeney. “I was the first Mick to get a job in a big [law] firm here in Richmond, and that was only 40-some years ago,” he says, using a pejorative for Irish-Americans.

As a youngster, Steve Bannon had a penchant for pulling his brothers into fights, but he also was a voracious reader who lapped fellow students in the school book club. He ordered books by the dozen, says Chris Bannon, his younger brother.

Steve and Chris shared a room with bunk beds and loved baseball. Lacking an overpowering fastball, Steve Bannon made his younger brother squat in the backyard day after day until his curveball was good enough to get him on the high-school team. “He played his way onto the team,” Chris recalls. “He’s a grinder.”

His father also expected him to work. He cut grass, expanding his older brother’s business from about a half-dozen to two dozen lawns. He spent one summer in a junkyard, unloading scrap metal from trains that came through town.

“Every night his mother would get him in the backyard and put a hose on him,” his father says, referring to his late wife, Doris.

With his children’s security a priority, Marty Bannon began accumulating phone-company stock, which AT&T occasionally made available to employees. He bought all he could, even taking out loans against insurance policies for some purchases. In his mind, the stock was a safety net for his family if something happened to him.

“You had to watch every penny,” he says. “I was always worried that I would leave them without. I told myself I would never sell those stocks.”

His children nicknamed him “Safety Sam.”

“Steve and I would come to him with a great opportunity, tell him how we’re going to turn it into a home-run and make all this money,” Mike Bannon says. “We’d go through the whole pitch and he’d say, ‘What are the benefits?’ If the benefits weren’t great, he was against it. You could go from a $100,000 job to a $300,000, and still have to sell him on the benefits”—the nonfinancial aspects of the job.

As Marty Bannon’s five children completed college, got jobs and had children of their own—there now are 19 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren—he viewed the shares as an inheritance for his children, a lesson in the value of hard work and stability.

“I was going to give those to the kids, help them establish a new base,” he says.

Then came the 2008 market chaos. “That day, I found out how dumb the people were who I thought were smart,” he says. “They couldn’t control the situation, and it escalated during the day. I said, this thing is going so fast I’m going to be totally wiped out.”

Marty Bannon says he lost more than $100,000 because he sold the shares for less than he paid for them. It was a decision he made without consulting a broker or his family, including his two sons with investment backgrounds, who only learned about the sale days after it was finished. The shares subsequently regained much of their value.

“It wasn’t a winner, so…” he says, trailing off. “Shame on me that I made that decision.”

Steve Bannon was in daily contact with his father when Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. filed for bankruptcy and Washington politicians worked to put together a bailout package for Wall Street banks.

That Oct. 6, financial analyst Jim Cramer told “Today” show viewers to pull money from the stock market if they needed any cash for the next five years. Steve Bannon says the warning spooked this father.

“I could see his confidence in the system was shattered,” Steve Bannon recalls. “He was older, in his 80s. But all these guys from the Depression, it’s a risk-averse generation because of the horrible things they saw in their youth. He was rattled.”

Chris Bannon says the sale was doubly hard because his father was “a company man. He never belonged to a country club or played much golf. He just put his money into us.”

The way Steve Bannon sees it, the institutions his father put his faith in failed him. He says Wall Street greed created the bubble that put his father’s investments at risk, and he blames the inertia of the Washington establishment for failing to prevent it.

“The problem we’ve had is that in the ascendant economy—Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood—the Marty Bannons of the world were getting washed out to sea, and nobody was paying attention to them,” he says.

“His job was everything, but his paycheck was a way to be part of civic society. As a child he never talked at all about how high the AT&T stock was. It was the Little League season or the charity event at the church or the May queen.”

Steve Bannon thinks U.S. companies should once again feel more responsible to their communities. “Why can’t you revert back to a golden age?” he asks. “You can.”

His father points out that thousands of Americans were hurt worse by the crisis, but he is still upset that “fat cats” were taken care while there was little help for the middle class.

“The government created this problem,” Marty Bannon says. “The elites, they got bailed out. Everybody else in the country, whatever happened, happened, and they just had to move on.”