Steve Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist, has been called all sorts of names over the last eighteen months. Racist, white supremacist and “a KKK-level white power scumbag.” Bannon is none of these things, no matter how many times it is uttered or insinuated by members of the press.
There is another description that doesn’t fit Bannon: libertarian.
Speaking in an extended interview with Bloomberg on Monday, President Donald Trump called his polarizing principal tactician a libertarian:
Bannon’s more of a libertarian than anything else, if you want to know the truth.
This statement raises two important questions. Does the president know what libertarianism is? Does President Trump understand what Bannon believes?
Perusing through Bannon’s past remarks and policy proposals, it is easy to deduce that Bannon is not a libertarian.
Soon after the bizarre 2016 presidential election, Bannon spoke with The Hollywood Reporter. The interview revealed some interesting insights into his political stances and what he envisions for the country. Bannon highlighted in the interview how he wants a 21st-century version of the New Deal:
It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.
Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt isn’t the best icon for libertarians. Debt, budget deficits, spending, war, government intervention and the erosion of liberties are not libertarian stances.
In March, Bannon held the non-libertarian position of placing tariffs on imports. Bannon lent his support to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his proposal to slap a 20% import fee on all goods Americans purchase from other nations. This policy is meant to promote US jobs and tax relief.
The New York Times reported in March of Bannon’s criticism of Democrats and Republicans. He complained of Democrats obsessing over identity politics and Republicans being too fixated on the teachings of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek:
I think the Democrats are fundamentally afflicted with the inability to discuss and have an adult conversation about economics and jobs, because they’re too consumed by identity politics. And then the Republicans, it’s all this theoretical Cato Institute, Austrian economics, limited government — which just doesn’t have any depth to it. They’re not living in the real world.
Aside from his dismissal of Austrian economics and limited government, there are a couple of ideas to consider in these comments.
The first is that he doesn’t understand the mindset of most House and Senate Republicans. These are politicians who often advocate costly military budgets and support cronyist programs like the Export-Important (Ex-Im) Bank. It is rare to find mainstream GOP members calling for the end of Medicare.
The second is that he doesn’t believe that ardent followers of Austrian economics are residing in reality. Even with the tremendous advancements that markets have made, whether it is in science or technology, if libertarians look to the free market for solutions and not the state then they are often told they’re “not living in the real world.”
Bannon may have read Aristotle, an influential philosopher for the libertarian movement, but he does not comprehend the fundamental principles of libertarianism.
At the beginning of Trump’s campaign, the real estate billionaire mogul was asked by Reason what his thoughts were on libertarianism:
I like it. A lot of good things. I don’t want to talk to you now, but a lot of good things, a lot of good points.
He did not expand any further, and it makes sense why: Trump doesn’t know much about the philosophy.
Perhaps Trump does want to implement some libertarian policies that he may have come across. Unfortunately, if Trump lacks a basic understanding of libertarianism and thinks Bannon is a libertarian, he is soliciting the wrong advice.
What does Trump think a libertarian is? Who does he think Bannon is? No one can say for sure.
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