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From Catholic Schoolboy to Counselor-in-Chief: Steve Bannon’s Rise to Power

  • Cecily Hilleary

Senior Counselor to the President Steve Bannon arrives before the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2017.

Senior Counselor to the President Steve Bannon arrives before the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2017.

Donald Trump's chief strategist has pledged to "hammer" mainstream Republicans and liberals, has taken on the capitalist elite who sparked the 2008 global economic crisis, and has called the news media the "opponent" of the Trump administration.

This week, the administration announced that Steve Bannon will also be a key member of the National Security Council — the White House team that oversees U.S. national security and foreign policy. The move sparked both praise and outrage — and, above all, renewed interest in who, exactly, this former banker is who wields so much influence in Washington.

Meteoric rise

He was born in November 1953 to working-class parents in Norfolk, Virginia — "a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats," is how he once described his family.

His father, Martin, a telephone lineman, was hit hard by the 2008 economic crisis. Bannon has been a vocal critic of so-called "crony capitalists," the wealthy bankers and traders who were not criminally prosecuted for their role in sparking the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

FILE - Steve Bannon, appointed chief strategist and senior counselor to President-elect Donald Trump, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 20, 2017, for the presidential Inauguration of Trump.

FILE - Steve Bannon, appointed chief strategist and senior counselor to President-elect Donald Trump, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 20, 2017, for the presidential Inauguration of Trump.

Bannon, who was not immediately available for an interview with VOA, studied urban affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. During the summer, according to the Boston Globe, he returned home to Richmond, where he worked in a local junkyard. Bannon went on to earn a graduate degree from Georgetown University and, finally, a master’s in Business Administration from Harvard University.

Bannon served seven years in the Navy as a surface warfare officer, then aboard a guided missile destroyer in the Persian Gulf and later as a special assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations in the Pentagon.

As a civilian, he has worked as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs and invested heavily in media, producing more than a dozen films in the 1990s. During that time, he struck a deal that gave him a small stake in the royalties of several television shows, including the popular sitcom Seinfeld which ended up making him millions of dollars.

Since 2000, he has written and directed nine documentaries, among them, the 2010 Battle for America, billed as "a searing look at the ongoing conflict between Constitutional Conservatives and an out-of-touch, arrogant, and ever-expanding central government."

Another film, In the Face of Evil, is a 2004 documentary which claims to be relevant "as the 21st century's great conflict between freedom and Islamic Fascism takes shape."

WATCH: See the trailer for 'In the Face of Evil'

In his own words

Bannon is perhaps best known for having served as the executive chairman of Breitbart News, a controversial conservative news site founded in 2008, which he took over after founder Andrew Breitbart died in 2012.

Bannon has described the news site as "the platform for the alt-right," the alternative right wing, which rejects mainstream conservative politics.

Breitbart's critics say the site promotes populists, nationalists, racists and xenophobes. U.S. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called Bannon "a white nationalist." Retired Senator Harry Reid called him a "champion of white supremacists."

Bannon has rejected such talk. However, he himself, suggested in an interview in 2015 that there were too many executives of South Asian descent running Silicon Valley businesses.

Bannon has admitted Breitbart promotes a nationalist message but denies being racist and xenophobic, and admits that Breitbart may appeal to those segments of the population.

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon (far right) is among the top policy advisers present as President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office, Jan. 23, 2017.

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon (far right) is among the top policy advisers present as President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office, Jan. 23, 2017.

"Look, are there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right? Maybe," he told Mother Jones in 2016. "Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe ... some people are attracted to the alt-right that are homophobes, right? But that's just like, there are certain elements of the progressive left and the hard left that attract certain elements."

A 'different calculus'

VOA spoke with Patrick M. McSweeney, an attorney and former chair of the Republican Party of Virginia, who is a longtime friend of the Bannon family. He says the accusations are completely unfounded.

"Steve and I went to the same high school, which was the only high school that was integrated in the 1950s and ‘60s in Richmond," McSweeney said. "And if you ever had a chance to meet his mother and father, you'd know exactly what I am saying. His mother, Doris, in particular, is among the least racially-biased people I know. And if anybody has a stamp on Steve, it's Doris Bannon."

McSweeney describes Bannon as bright, hard-headed and goal-oriented.

"Obviously," he said, one who operates on a "different calculus."

"Steve sees the immediate obstacle to reaching his objectives — and the president's objectives — as being the media. And you'll lose the force of the argument when you begin discriminating between outlets, so it tends to be a blanket condemnation of the media," McSweeney said.

Bannon has criticized mainstream U.S. media outlets as being biased against Trump, referring to them as "the opposition." In an interview with the New York Times last week, Bannon advised journalists to "keep their mouths shut" and just "listen for a while."

"The paper of record for our beloved republic, the New York Times, should be absolutely ashamed and humiliated," he told that paper, arguing that the Times reporters are out of touch with the millions of Americans who voted Trump into office.

FILE - Jared Kushner, husband of Ivanka Trump, and Stephen Bannon stand by as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Canton, Ohio, Sept. 14, 2016.

FILE - Jared Kushner, husband of Ivanka Trump, and Stephen Bannon stand by as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Canton, Ohio, Sept. 14, 2016.

Bannon and Trump have also been highly critical of the Washington Post, which in an editorial Sunday vowed not to fight with the new administration, but to wield "our pens and our laptops, our facts and our fairness."

Role of religion

Bannon has been critical of the Catholic Church for its stance on immigration and last year berated Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for "social-justice Catholicism."

That said, he is a loyal Catholic.

In the summer of 2014, Bannon, participated via Skype in a Vatican conference on poverty hosted by a conservative religious think tank seeking to promote "active participation of the Christian faith in the public square" — that is, as explained by its founder Benjamin Harnwell, promoting "pro-life, pro-traditional family" values.

"We're at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that's starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we've been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years," he told the conference.

Bannon also spoke of being part of a "global tea party movement," a right-wing movement of middle-class, working people who say they are tired of being dictated to by a capitalist elite that treats them as mere economic commodities.

His message has been consistent for years: He has promised to "hammer" the left-wing and mainstream Republicans.

"The only way to take the country back from a left-wing establishment is to fight," he told conservatives a few years ago, and it's a battle that he warns won't necessarily be about "sunshine and patriots."

"It's going to be people who want to fight," he said.

In 2016, Bannon took a leave of absence from Breitbart in order to run Trump's presidential campaign, and said he has had nothing to do with Breitbart since then.

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