Bannon is the brains behind Trump and Trump is the mouthpiece for Bannon. This is becoming increasingly apparent. He is powerful within the administration for a few reasons. First, he is good at influencing Trump through flattery and suggestion. Second, unlike Priebus and other politicians, he has never felt the need to distance himself from Trump, which has made him a psychological asset for the beleaguered president. Trump feels Bannon is loyal, and that goes a long way. Third, Bannon has a relatively coherent worldview. It is a misled and despicable worldview, but he has one. Trump himself, like most of us, has a bundle of feelings where his ideology would be. Bannon weaves a logic within which those particular feelings can be enfolded. This is another way in which he psychologically valuable to Trump. And it makes him a convincing voice in Trump’s ear.
So, what is Bannon’s ideology? Jedediah Purdy has said the closest comparison is Teddy Roosevelt’s expansionist Anglo-American nationalism. Some have simply called Bannon a fascist. Both are right, more or less. The main ingredients for fascism were on the rise in Roosevelt’s America. Roosevelt’s administration promoted eugenics, racist immigration policies, and an expansionist foreign policy. He was not a great innovator here–these things were in the air in the early 20th century in the U.S. and elsewhere. If our alliances hadn’t led us to war against Germany, we may have never come to define our democracy against fascism the way we have done.
There is at least one crucial difference, though, between Bannon and Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s nationalism was exuberant and optimistic. Bannon’s is brooding and doomy, more like Hitler’s. Where Roosevelt embodied the familiar American belief in Progress, Bannon sees history as dismally cyclical. The mood of an ideology is as important as the content. Bannon, unlike Trump, is a reader, but his worldview is not the result of a far-reaching, critical intellectual journey. Rather it is disproportionally shaped by a few contemporary works of pop-sociology and neo-Nazi dime novels. One of his main points of reference is The Fourth Turning. The authors of this book probably never intended it to be anything more than airport reading. They use generational archetypes the way an amateur psychologist uses birth order to explain your entire biography. They depict history as following long cycles of 80-100 years (four generations), which always end in war.
On Bannon’s simplistic reading, this explains why war with “Islam” (and China) is imminent and inevitable. His worldview has been described as apocalyptic, and it is. What is troubling is that he is now in a position to make his darkest visions into self-fulfilled prophecies. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, there is a more predictable danger. If you believe World War III is coming, and especially if you see the coming war as one in which Western Civilization itself is at stake, then any oppressive measures can be justified. So what if mothers are torn away from their families and deported? What does it matter if the EPA is destroyed, the Great Lakes defiled? Who cares about hate crimes? We’re talking about the fate of Western Civilization here. It’s bigger than all that. It’s bigger than than the Constitution even, bigger than the United States.
Bannon’s “clash of civilizations” outlook is driven by the notion that the liberalism of the West–in the classical sense of our ideological commitments to free speech, free press, freedom of religion, tolerance of difference, human rights, etc.–cannot defend itself culturally in the era of globalization. During his time at Breitbart News, Bannon began to frequently cite The Camp of the Saints, a vile, distopian novel (loved by neo-Nazis) which tells a story of hordes of unassimilable “third world” refugees descending on Europe to destroy the civilizational birthright of whites. Like the author of this book, Bannon is ultimately driven not by a desire to rescue Western Enlightenment ideals, but by his contempt for what he sees as the cultural “weakness” of these ideals. Bannon can read statistical studies, so he knows that Muslim immigrants and undocumented workers do not pose more of a security threat than native-born American citizens. The fear-mongering is a tool to serve the true goal of reshaping the ethnic character of the Untied State. Trump’s new Victims of Immigration Crime Enforcement Office is the latest of the Administrations cynical projects intended to create fear and hatred for this purpose.
A friend pointed out to me that if you read Bannon’s speeches, interview transcripts, etc., you will find that he actually doesn’t talk very much about America. He doesn’t talk very much about our country’s history, and our political tradition. He doesn’t use the language of patriotism, really, nor does he say much about democracy. What Bannon is really committed to is a kind of pan-European “traditionalism,” as he sometimes calls it. This Euro-traditionalist ideology certainly aligns itself with the Church, and has a special affinity to the hierarchical structures of Catholicism and the Russian Orthodox Church, but really its Christian commitments are very shallow. It also dabbles in the libertarian ideology of capitalism, but it certainly isn’t centered on capitalism either. Capitalism and Christianity, like democracy and Enlightenment ideals are embraced mainly as the markers of European identity, which is to say whiteness.
A personal acquaintance of Bannon’s from his Wall Street days, who is black, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that he didn’t think Bannon was a white supremacist. This prompted me to take a closer look at Bannon’s past, his views, his speeches, political activities, etc. What I found just did not square with this co-worker’s assessment. I was reminded of the fact that Dylan Roof also had a close black friend who could not imagine that Roof was “really” a white supremacist. I think knowing someone personally isn’t everything. What I suspect does set Bannon apart from the real bottom-dwelling white supremacists is that, at least at this point, he doesn’t seem to be a purist. Bannon’s white-nationalism, at least based on his recent rhetoric, seems to make room for minorities–but only as minorities. That’s why it starts with a purge to bring the numbers down, which is what we are seeing now with the unjust and inhumane deportations. Reducing the number of immigrants is important because only in that way can those who are left be reduced to the traditional role of “tolerated” minorities who can be oppressed in all of the usual ways.
But make no mistake, this is a racist ideology. And this ideology, which is bound up with a certain brand of “realist” foreign policy, is all we need to explain the Russia connection–however deep it turns out to be. Putin’s Russia has embraced essentially the same ideals–as Bannon himself has pointed out. This ideological connection to Russia is scarier than any Kompromat leverage or electioneering conspiracy, and it is sufficient in itself to account for all of the Trump team’s meetings and chummy talk with the Russians.
We know that Breitbart News under Bannon’s leadership served a growing white supremacist audience. When he is not speaking to his in-crowd, Bannon plays this off by saying that is just the nature of political movements; they attract “fringe elements.” Bannon envisions a radically culturally conservative “nationalist” movement sweeping not just the US but Europe as well. And as that movement goes mainstream, he says, these “fringe elements” will be “washed out.” Bannon is surely not simple enough to actually believe this. Why would white supremacists fade away as society moves closer to them? The fact is, in Bannon’s future white supremacists will not be washed out but will fade into a background that looks increasingly like them. It is already beginning, and Bannon is glad to see the culture going in that direction.
How far should it go? How racist should we become? He isn’t spending much thought on that question. But he probably feels like he’s in control of it. He probably thinks to himself that it won’t get out of hand, that it won’t become full blown Nazism. He probably thinks to himself that a real neo-Nazi States of America isn’t what he wants. But, ultimately, he also thinks to himself that if it does get out of hand, well, maybe maybe we could live with that. And when the fascism he is unleashing does surprise him with its power, he will be the first to shed whatever commitments may linger in his heart for the Enlightenment ideals of American democracy.