Like a bowl of Lay’s potato chips, Steve Bannon’s 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose was so full of attacks, you can’t stop at just one. Bannon attacked the Catholic church. He attacked Hillary Clinton. He attacked “establishment” Republicans and Democrats and their donors and their “idiot” national-security apparatus. He attacked people who helped get Trump elected, such as Chris Christie, and people who are trying to help Trump govern, such as Gary Cohn.
So it is only in the spirit of starting on a relatively-unsung note that I begin with Bannon’s attack on American history.
It comes pretty early in the interview. Not surprisingly, it’s wrapped in an attack on immigration.
Charlie tees it up in that winding-road, thinking-cap way of his.
"America was, in the eyes of so many people -- and it’s what people respect America for – it’s that people have been able to come here, find a place, contribute to the economy,” he poses. “And you seem to want to turn it around and stop it.”
“You couldn’t be more dead wrong,” Bannon retorts.
For a split second right there, I actually think Bannon is going to go good immigrant/bad immigrant, and say that what Rose has wrong is the impression that Bannon wants to curtail the economic benefits of immigration, rather than address its costs. But no: he means to pretend that, even historically, there have been no economic benefits at all.
“America was built on her citizens,” he states, with dead, sky-is-blue certainty.
Unlike me, Charlie is able to keep from slumping over with his mouth hanging open.
“We are all immigrants,” he gently essays, “… except the native Americans – "
“Don't -- don't -- don't get...This is the thing of the left,” Bannon sputters, waving off the remark as if it is a fly getting too close to a sandwich. “Charlie, that’s beneath you.”
Wow: The massive, multi-century reality of immigration as a basic, foundational feature of American ascendancy in the world is a “thing of the left”? A thing that is “beneath” the dignity of a television interviewer to mention?
Only here comes the really scary part, though, because to the millions of people who undoubtedly slept through this unit in middle-school social studies, Bannon actually sounds kind of learned.
“Look at the 19th century,” Bannon urges. “What built America is called the ‘American System', from Hamilton to Polk to Henry Clay to Lincoln to the Roosevelts...a system of protection of our manufacturers, a financial system that lends to manufacturing, ok? And control of our borders. Economic nationalism. It’s what this country was built on!”
Now, if it so happens that you stayed awake through middle-school social studies, that little riff alone is full of fun little ironies, such as American System godfather Clay’s eminently un-Breitbart nickname (“the great compromiser”) and his mortal enmity with Bannon/Trump hero Andrew Jackson, whose virulent opposition thwarted key elements of the System. But that’s all beside the point, which is that if you look for five seconds at American economic development in the 19th century, you will see Bannon’s portrayal of it as the very picture of fantasy.
Let’s take just three quick, gigantic examples.
In 1804-06, was it an American citizen who crucially enabled – and more than once saved from fatal catastrophe -- the great, national-economy-forerunning expedition of Lewis and Clark? Or was it a Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, ably aided in the translation department by her French-Canadian husband-owner Toussaint Charbonneau?
During the glorious “Canal Age” that brought the American System to life with its commerce-linking waterways, was it primarily U.S. citizens who did all that digging, dumping and draining? Or was it badly paid German and Irish immigrants -- the Catholics among whom, in a foreshadowing of the drubbing later to be taken by Muslims, were widely denigrated as papist plotters?
Decades on and further west, was it U.S. citizens who built the transcontinental railroad? Or was it overwhelmingly Chinese laborers who blasted tunnels through mountains and had themselves lowered over cliffs in baskets so as to chisel the rock by hand? Not only were these people non-citizens at the time that they performed this death-defying, economy-establishing work. They were affirmatively barred from becoming citizens for many decades thereafter.
Bonus question: By 1900, some three-quarters of the exploding U.S. urban population was comprised of immigrants. Were they mostly lying around, snacking on schnitzel? Or were they putting their backs, shoulders, arms, legs, hands, feet and eyeballs into maximizing the newfound industrial potential of “our” manufacturing?
None of this is to suggest that all immigration has been good, wonderful immigration – far from it-- or that fine people can’t disagree on how to control immigration today. But that’s a hard problem, and it’s not going to be solved by folks who dispute the indisputable, starting with: if the building of America had been left to American citizens, America as we know it would not exist.
Of course, it’s not just the building of America that Bannon has got so wrong. It’s the being. From Squanto to Lafayette to Roebling to Schwarzenegger to the dreamers now having nightmares, the United States has never, ever been the tightly-sealed Ziploc storage bag of a country that the Breitbart set seem to idealize. No matter what inanities they speak or cruelties they clamor to inflict, it’s never, ever going to become that, either.
How pathetically sad to have to state such an obvious fact. How singularly repulsive to do so in response to such a highly-placed figure’s so boldly and breezily denying it. How gravely distressing to know that he dares to do so on behalf of the resident of a White House that was built by African slaves, the most egregiously exploited non-citizens of all.