For Martin Bannon, a former telephone company lineman and splicer who worked his way into management without a college degree, the AT&T stock was sacrosanct.
That all changed during the panicked days of the 2008 financial crisis. As the market plummeted, Bannon, who raised five children on Richmond’s North Side, cashed out the stock that held virtually his entire net worth.
When Steve Bannon saw Wall Street’s recklessness hit home and the impact on his father, it fueled his rage against a system he now describes as “socialism for the wealthy,” where benefits accrue to those at the top while the downside is spread among the masses.
As overleveraged financial institutions ran into trouble, Steve Bannon said, they wanted “the Marty Bannons of the world” to bail them out.
The events of 2008 pushed Steve Bannon, a former investment banker and filmmaker, further into the world of politics and conservative media, setting him on a path to become chairman of the provocative right-wing website Breitbart News.
From there, he gained the ear of Donald Trump, got hired by Trump’s presidential campaign, and followed Trump to the White House as one of the chief architects of Trump’s new brand of Republican populism.
“I do believe that this populist movement that you saw Donald Trump take to the next level in 2016 started with the financial crash in 2008,” Bannon said. “Quite frankly, nobody’s been held accountable for that.”
With pundits and polls predicting a Hillary Clinton victory, many Richmonders expected U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., with his friendly image built on dad jokes and harmonica riffs, to be the hometown guy moving up the rungs of power in Washington.
Instead, it’s Bannon, a graduate of Benedictine High School and Virginia Tech, who has become an enigmatic part of Trump’s inner circle and, fairly or not, the embodiment of Trump critics’ darkest fears of racism unleashed.
In an hourlong phone interview Wednesday from Trump Tower, Bannon said that as he worked his way into America’s elite institutions, he felt his Richmond roots set him apart from a “cosmopolitan” attitude that sees working-class people as “just idiots or morons.”
“Going to places like Harvard or Hollywood, I started to really appreciate the experience of being raised in a place like the North Side of Richmond,” said Bannon, 62, whose career took him from the U.S. Navy to Harvard Business School, Goldman Sachs and Los Angeles.
“It had a very strong imprint on me. ... Ginter Park is a lovely place. But it’s a very middle-class place.”
In his description, the Ginter Park of his youth had a Rockwellian feel, populated by patriotic, blue-collar Democrats. The Bannon children were expected to work, and Bannon started by delivering newspapers and mowing lawns before taking on tougher assignments at construction sites and a local junkyard.
Mary Beth Meredith, the youngest of the Bannon children who now lives in the Roanoke area, called her brother’s rise “an American dream.”
“We didn’t belong to country clubs. We didn’t have contacts,” Meredith said. “He’s really a self-made man.”
The close-knit Catholic family revered President John F. Kennedy, and Bannon remembers his mother being fascinated by the political rise of former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, another Ginter Park resident who became the first African-American to be elected governor of any state.
During the white flight of the 1960s and 1970s, Bannon said, his parents were “adamant” about staying in the city rather than moving to the suburbs as the neighborhood became racially integrated, a decision made easier by the availability of private Catholic schools.
As an adult, Bannon recently fought to keep Benedictine, an all-boys military school, at its longtime location in the city as officials considered moving the school to rural Goochland County for financial reasons.
Bannon said he wanted the school to keep a “city flavor” and diverse student body that he feared would be lost in a move away from the city.
“I just think it’s very important for institutions that are in these cities to thrive, and you don’t just pull up the roots and move out to the counties,” Bannon said. “I’m a huge advocate of the inner cities and the vibrancy of the city. I think Richmond’s an example of that.”
The decision to go to Virginia Tech, which he emphasized was a “land grant university,” was easy, Bannon said, because he was a fan of Hokie football and lots of his friends were going there.
“That was very much like Richmond. I don’t want to say it’s not a challenging environment. But when you’re up at Tech, it feels like almost home,” said Bannon, who served as president of the Student Government Association while studying environmental and urban systems, graduating in 1976. “People are from similar backgrounds.”
Though Bannon calls himself a “son of Richmond,” his heavily Democratic hometown voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, who received more than 78 percent of the city’s votes. Virginia looked “pretty close” on election night, Bannon said, but the numbers in Northern Virginia put the state out of Trump’s reach.
Though Bannon’s family members joined him in New York for Trump’s victory party, the moment has been bittersweet, as Bannon’s past has dominated post-election headlines.
An ominous signal?
A chorus of Democratic officeholders has called on Trump to rescind Bannon’s appointment, saying his elevation to a powerful White House role sends an ominous signal to many Americans — particularly minorities — already worried about Trump’s ascendancy.
Pointing mainly to inflammatory Breitbart headlines and Bannon’s own description of Breitbart as a “platform” for the alt-right, a loosely defined political faction with racist elements, critics have widely labeled Bannon as a white nationalist and anti-Semite.
Kaine, who has taken a largely conciliatory tone after his loss as Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, said he was “disturbed” by the Bannon pick. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, running to be the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, went as far as to call Bannon “a Nazi.”
Bannon rejects that characterization as untrue. Many on the left are “thunderstruck by what hit ’em,” Bannon said, and are trying to strike back with “name-calling” and accusations of racism.
“People are not going to buy this,” Bannon said. “The deplorables are not racist.”
Trump can win support among African-Americans and Hispanics, he said, if the new administration can deliver on a “unifying message” of strong schools, safe streets and jobs.
“And condemning any kind of form of racism or hatred that’s out there,” Bannon said.
The fears of those who think racist groups have been energized by Trump’s hard-line campaign stances against immigrants and Muslim refugees were heightened last weekend when the National Policy Institute, led by alt-right figure Richard Spencer, held a gathering in Washington that included Nazi salutes and shouts of “Hail Trump!”
In a Breitbart post titled “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” written by openly gay right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, Spencer was included in a rundown of “dangerously bright” alt-right intellectuals.
When asked about the scenes from the alt-right conference, Bannon said he does not follow Spencer’s group and does not know much about it.
Breitbart’s mission, he said, calls for “more voices, not less,” with no single line of thought dominating the site. Race-based nationalism, he said, is a “non-starter.”
“I don’t think it stands the test of logic, and there is no future for that, really, in America,” Bannon said.
Though Bannon denied that Breitbart has published anything “racially charged,” those who see the site as dangerous and divisive have pointed to numerous headlines, including the site’s treatment of the August 2015 on-air slayings of two Roanoke-area TV journalists.
Breitbart’s initial headline read: “RACE MURDER IN VIRGINIA: BLACK REPORTER SUSPECTED OF EXECUTING WHITE COLLEAGUES — ON LIVE TELEVISION!”
Though some see little distinction between Bannon’s personal views and the tone of the website under his control, Trump and others have come to his defense, saying the anti-Bannon attacks are unfounded.
Maureen Bannon, a West Point graduate and Bannon’s oldest daughter from the first of his three marriages, said she’s “nothing but proud” of her father.
“It disappoints me to see him being tainted as something that he’s not,” Maureen Bannon said. “And it’s a disservice to everyone reading or watching what’s being said.”
Beyond the backlash
Steve Bannon suggested the backlash shows that Democrats “haven’t really addressed the issues of why they got beaten.”
When he was hired by the campaign in August, Bannon said he told Trump he had a “100 percent chance to win” if he could execute, because Trump had “completely articulated what the country’s problems were.”
“People wanted change. And they wanted real change this time,” Bannon said. “All we needed to do was to focus on that message. And as I said, just give people permission to vote for you.’”
Clinton, he said, was seen as the “guardian of an incompetent and corrupt status quo and elite.”
As observers portrayed the Trump campaign as disorganized and unprofessional, he said, the campaign focused on “highly targeted” rallies in critical areas.
Asked if he had any advice for Republicans running for governor next year in Virginia, which will be closely watched as one of the first major electoral contests during Trump’s presidency, Bannon’s recommendation was simple: Run like Trump.
“I think you run on the principles of Donald Trump, and you’ve got something that galvanized people,” Bannon said. “It’s pretty basic.”