Charlie Rose’s interview of Steve Bannon on 60 Minutes was full of provocative statements, but every U.S. historian’s mind exploded upon encountering this exchange:
There are so many problems with this answer that it’s hard to know where to start. NPR’s Steve Inskeep, who recently wrote a book on Andrew Jackson, did a pretty good job tackling the basics of the American system and the place of immigrants in the growth of American manufacturing, so you can read that here.
I just want to add another angle to Inskeep’s analysis, and explore another group which Bannon didn’t include in his history of America’s economic past. His exclusions and erasures are important in understanding his worldview, one he wants us to buy without looking too closely at it beforehand. Caveat emptor.
America was also built on – and by – enslaved Africans and African-Americans. Enslaved people like the ones whose labor Hamilton, Polk, and Clay (one of these things is not like the other) exploited to build their personal fortunes. Enslaved people who were never immigrants, as Ben Carson implied.
Additionally, America was built on – and by – free African-Americans, who were stripped of their citizenship by Dred Scott v. Sandford, had it restored by the 14th Amendment, had to fight to exercise many of the rights of that citizenship, many of which are still denied.
And America was and is being built on – and by – later black immigrants from Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, whose entrance into the country and opportunities for naturalization were nevertheless restricted.
Just as his attempted erasure of immigrants should prompt us to recall who exactly worked in the factories and dug the canals he praises, his attempt to erase the labor of enslaved people from the economic history of America should remind us that without that labor, none of the textile factories of New England would have existed.
These erasures matter, because of Bannon’s well-documented ties to white nationalism. White nationalists claim that white people are a race who should should organize pan-nationally and who should seek to maintain dominance in “white” countries. Eschewing the “white supremacist” name, some claim they don’t think one race is better than others, per se, but that it would be better if races lived separately. As God/nature intended.
But it really matters because of how Bannon has tried to reframe his white nationalist views since he’s come under public scrutiny. Less than two weeks after the 2016 election, Bannon asserted in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he wasn’t a white nationalist at all. Instead, he said: “”I’m an economic nationalist. I am an America first guy…the black working and middle class and the Hispanic working and middle class, just like whites, have been severely hurt by the policies of globalism.”
Despite his words of solidarity to non-white Americans at the end there, Bannon’s exchange with Rose makes clear that his economic nationalism is inseparable from his white nationalism. The tell? His emphasis on “the American citizen” and his exclusion of both immigrants and non-citizens from his historical narrative.
The historical narrative he promotes denies that white Americans were ever the descendants of immigrants; they were always citizens, because they were always supposed to be citizens. Therefore, when he denies the contributions of immigrants and non-citizens, he’s not denying his own immigrant ancestors, because he’s reimagined them as once-and-future citizens.
Bannon’s economic nationalism is still white nationalism, and it always has been. In his exchange with Charlie Rose, he neatly excludes white people from the category of immigrants and non-citizens and excludes immigrants and non-citizens from the economic history of America. The glorious economic future of America, safe from the forces of “globalism,” must therefore be modeled on the glorious economic past, a past he claims was solely created by white Americans.
Sound confusing? It is, because he’s trying to flim-flam the unsuspecting viewers of Middle America who sat down for some Sunday night television with a trusted interviewer like Charlie Rose.
Bannon believed he could present his world view, tidied up a bit, and people would believe him: a middle-aged white man assertively talking about American historical figures, including some slightly-obscure ones like Polk and Clay, and presenting a narrative of American economic greatness that was mostly unmoored from historical fact.
If nothing else, he’s proof that American manufacturing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He manufactured this poorly-constructed narrative and is trying to sell it to Americans. Now mainstream American media is allowing him to stock his product on the shelves of programs like 60 Minutes. Don’t buy it. It’s junk.