Professor Luigi Zingales defended his decision to plan a debate with Steve Bannon at the University of Chicago, telling about 50 students at a town hall Monday evening that he has valuable perspective on understanding Donald Trump’s rise.
“In spite of the character of the guy, I think he was able to interpret and understand a feature of the American people that we, academics, missed,” he said. “Everybody at the University of Chicago was shocked on November 7 when the results came in.”
Zingales says Bannon has succeeded at selling a “pretty explosive combination of nationalism and a lack of democracy against globalization.” As a researcher whose interests include populism and as the director of an academic center — the Stigler Center, which hosts a variety of speakers — he said he decided it would be productive to hear what Bannon has to say.
Zingales, a professor at the University’s Booth School of Business, made clear that he is a hardline believer in trying to understand even the most outrageous ideologies when he was asked if he would have supported giving a platform to Hitler.
“I think I would distinguish early Hitler from later Hitler. I think it would have been very useful to know ahead of time what he was about,” he said. “If the world had known earlier what Hitler was standing for, I think there would have been a better fate, no?”
Bannon, the former chief strategist to President Donald Trump and former Breitbart executive chairman, is an economic nationalist who has long advocated for greater restrictions on immigration.
Zingales said he understands that Bannon played with racist feelings to advance his “propaganda” at Breitbart. Still, he sees Bannon as different than someone like Milo Yiannopoulos, who he sees as little more than a provocateur.
“The question is: Is this [racism] all that he is, or is there something else?”
Bannon’s appearance at the U. of C. — his first in public since his ouster from Breitbart — has been met with intense scrutiny since it was announced last month.
Last week, several University of Chicago graduates tried to deliver a letter, signed by more than 1,000 alumni, to University President Robert Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier calling for the school to rescind its invitation.
The alumni action comes after several dozen students protested. Bannon’s invitation was first reported in the school’s newspaper, The Chicago Maroon.
Separately, more than 20 faculty members have also signed an open letter protesting the invitation.
Trump lashed out at Bannon for comments made in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which portrays the president as an undisciplined man-child who didn’t actually want to win the White House, and quotes Bannon as calling his son’s contact with a Russian lawyer “treasonous.”
At the town hall, Zingales, as well as Student Government President Calvin Cottrell and Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen said that they are committed to making the event safe for the campus community.
“I think it would be very sad if somehow I were to be forced to disinvite him, and certainly that will play on the narrative that there is no space for other ideas on campus,” Zingales said.
Rasmussen told the Sun-Times after the event that she believes the University has the security capacity to safely host this event, and she said she felt Monday’s discussion went well.
“I think this is what exactly we hope to see at the University of Chicago: People come together when they have different points of view, listen to each other, push back, learn and continue the conversation,” she said.
Cottrell, who co-organized the town hall and has condemned the invitation, said he thought the conversation went as well as it could have gone. Zingales mentioned at the end of the discussion that he was interested in having a student co-moderate the debate. Cottrell, who may be a likely candidate as student president, said he would be interested in “being a student voice to push back against him.”