Mind the Gap

The ultimate entrepreneurial achievement can be seen in Steve Bannon’s rise to the White House

The unique tale of a true American entrepreneur – someone who turned subversive observations into profound actions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 9:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 February, 2017, 9:03am

Those bankers who knew Steve Bannon when he was a banker, long before he ascended the path to Chief White House Strategist to President Trump, will see the unique tale of a true American entrepreneur – someone who turns subversive observations into profound actions.

In the 1990s, he left Goldman Sachs and formed his own boutique media investment bank called Bannon & Co, which evolved in 1998 into a joint venture with Societe Generale called SG Bannon. Then, suddenly he departed with little explanation.

Bankers described Bannon as a relentless deal maker, driven to rise early in the morning for a 5am workout ahead of a breakfast meeting at 7am. Sheathed in an Armani suit, lean and businesslike with slicked back hair, he epitomized the unctuous 90s media banker.

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Leaving banking to become a political entrepreneur or social movement leader could make you the subject of ridicule. But years later he was running Breitbart, propelling what is now labelled as the ‘alt-right’ platform and hosting a radio show among the fringe voices lurking in the far right wilderness.

In 2011, he gave a sensational presentation of his political manifesto (business plan) to a sparsely attended meeting in a Sheraton ballroom in Orlando, Florida, which you can find on Youtube. “I talk to the same 100 people everywhere I go three nights a week,” he said.

He starkly laid out the opportunity lying beneath the socio-political crisis that continues to shake America and change its future as told in his 2009 documentary Generation Zero. At the heart of the crisis was “a compromised political class, crony capitalism in a permanent political class. If the elites are so good, how did we get in this jam?”

In a globalised era where aspiring to be an entrepreneur is mainstream culture, it is all too easy to confuse what real entrepreneurship means. In China, it is more about getting rich quick than cultivating truly revolutionary ideas – the heart of generational change and risk taking.

And what Bannon achieved, after a journey in the intellectual and political desert, is the ultimate entrepreneurial achievement – to overturn the establishment, attack government, evict two major political parties, extinguish three dynasties (Bush, Clinton, Obama) and seize power with a candidate coming from nowhere. What we witnessed last year was not an election, but a peaceful revolution. The losers are still crying.

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The level of subversion and nihilism that powers American thinking and entrepreneurship is completely alien to anyone from China or Asia. The challenge is: are mainland Chinese intellectually and politically constrained by their upbringing so that they can only commercialise existing models?

While personal computers and mobile devices are part of mainstream life today, it wasn’t that long ago (back in the 80s) that entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs portrayed them as the beginning of a revolution, a way to free your mind from government control (see Apple’s 1984, “Big Brother” TV commercial). Today, the only survivor of the computing establishment is IBM.

As powerful as they are, Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent were preceded years ago by Ebay, Amazon and Paypal who proved the ideas of internet commerce. Successfully rolling out all the internet opportunities in China is no mean feat, but by then they were no longer unique inventions.

Subversion and perversion without moral constraint, a disruptive, anti-establishment way of thinking and scheming – a cornerstone of American entrepreneurial philosophy – is simply not countenanced and comprehensible in Asian societies.

Peter Guy is a financial writer and former international banker