Once upon a time, Stephen K. Bannon was just a happy-go-lucky capitalist, bouncing between jobs as a Goldman Sachs banker, a penny-stock kingpin, and eventually a Hollywood producer. But there's something lurking in his origin story that set him on a starkly different course, an event jarring enough to steer the jet-setting investor into the hard-right nativism of Breitbart News and the Trump White House. That something was our dear friend Jim Cramer.
In a profile published Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal, we meet Marty Bannon, the 95-year-old father of Steve Bannon and his four siblings. Bannon the elder, we learn, was a humble middle-class striver, an AT&T company man who socked away his life savings in shares of his lifetime employer.
With his children’s security a priority, Marty Bannon began accumulating phone-company stock, which AT&T occasionally made available to employees. He bought all he could, even taking out loans against insurance policies for some purchases. In his mind, the stock was a safety net for his family if something happened to him.
“You had to watch every penny,” he says. “I was always worried that I would leave them without. I told myself I would never sell those stocks.”
Then came 2008. One day the eighty-something Marty Bannon flipped through cable business news channels in horror as he watched his precious life savings tumble with the rest of the market. Eventually he saw a familiar goatee:
That Oct. 6, financial analyst Jim Cramer told “Today” show viewers to pull money from the stock market if they needed any cash for the next five years. Steve Bannon says the warning spooked this father.
“I could see his confidence in the system was shattered,” Steve Bannon recalls. “He was older, in his 80s. But all these guys from the Depression, it’s a risk-averse generation because of the horrible things they saw in their youth. He was rattled.”
Of course, this wasn't Cramer's only bad call during the crisis (recall Bear Stearns). But it was a doozy. Investors who disregarded it would have seen a rise of 16 percent in the S&P 500 over the next year. It was especially bad advice if your portfolio consisted entirely of AT&T, which had its lowest day Oct. 10. (It has nearly doubled since then.)
A panicked Marty Bannon sold his AT&T shares at a loss of $100,000 from when he bought them, while his investment-banker son – who was for some reason left out of the loop during the whole ordeal – lost all faith in Wall Street, globalized capitalism and the entire economic order that had made him a millionaire:
The way Steve Bannon sees it, the institutions his father put his faith in failed him. He says Wall Street greed created the bubble that put his father’s investments at risk, and he blames the inertia of the Washington establishment for failing to prevent it.
“The problem we’ve had is that in the ascendant economy—Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood—the Marty Bannons of the world were getting washed out to sea, and nobody was paying attention to them,” he says.
It was that moment when Bannon began his steady transition to alt-right agit-prop king and eventual Svengali of the Trump Oval Office, where he cites Darth Vader as an inspiration and says things like “darkness is good.” And it's all because of Jim Cramer.