(Part 3 of a Series on the Ideas and Influences of Steve Bannon and Cultural Nationalism)
The unifying message of Steve Bannon’s 2014 Vatican address is omnidimensional global threat and looming apocalpyse. “We are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism,” Bannon tells his audience, “and on top of that we’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.”
Here’s how it all breaks down, according to Bannon. Ordinary, working-class, middle-class families who form the bedrock of the Tea Party movement and (conveniently) of Judeo-Christian, Western civilization are being crushed economically between a wealthy, arrogant, crony-capitalist overclass and an impoverished, dependent, dissolute underclass – both in their own ways sucklings of the state. At the same time, the virtuous way of life this middle-class materializes is threatened existentially by sub-human radical Islamists and deluded, amoral secularists – both in their own way enabled by the moral relativism and spiritual weakness of global elites, the dissolute underclass, and the theologically neutered state.
The Irony of Being Steve Bannon
There are many ironies here. Bannon associates the Judeo-Christian West with the best kind of capitalism – enlightened and middle class – which stands in opposition to crony capitalism associated with the global Davos/Wall Street set who have ransacked national borders and cultural boundaries. But the immigrant families he wants to deport – from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa – tend to be precisely those most associated with the family-based, entrepreneurial capitalism he wants to protect and support.
Bannon also wants to deconstruct the administrative state (his biggest applause line at the CPAC conference in February). But in his Vatican address he advocates for the legislative restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act, which would presumably require significant regulatory and administrative oversight. “I think you really need to go back and make banks do what they do,” Bannon says. “Commercial banks lend money, and investment banks invest in entrepreneurs and to get away from … the hedge fund securitization, which they’ve all become basically trading operations and securitizations and not put capital back and really grow businesses and to grow the economy.” And of course, Bannon himself has willingly nuzzled at the teat of the Mercer family, whose immense fortunes derive from the Renaissance Technologies hedge fund.
Finally, the civilizational and economic critique that Bannon employs to explain the rise of “Tea Party”-like nationalist movements across the globe possibly applies more fully to other nations, and perhaps by a wide margin, than it does to the United States, which remains more economically resilient and robust, and safer from the impact of joblessness, poverty, migration, and terror attacks than Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Perhaps one of the explanations for these ironies has to do with what we previously referred to as the things Bannon and the Tea Party “almost” get right – with their criticisms of globalization, arguments for economic and financial reform, skepticism about neoconservative/neoliberal (let’s just call it “Neo”) foreign interventions and nation-building, anxiety about what immigration trends, religious belief, and racial differences imply for national culture and identity. These are all important and challenging and appropriate concerns. That Steve Bannon is apparently more interested in a recursive Populist politics – stoking anxiety and fear and anger, rather than fully thinking through and actually solving these problems – tells us a lot about how and why he might lose his way politically once he (and Trump) had to create a positive policy program on top of this fear and anxiety and anger.
Emotional Seductions of the Meanstream Media
Steve Bannon’s loyalty to the Republican “base,” and to the promises Trump made to this base – regarding economic policy, trade nationalism, infrastructure, immigration, foreign policy, and traditional values – has, for now, marginalized him within the White House. In these confusing, Alice-in-Wonderland times, when up is down and down is up, we can’t know what this new status means for Bannon, or for the Trump presidency, or for American politics. This “not knowing” may or may not be the point for an administration and a political environment in which chaos is the norm, and perhaps/probably the goal.
There are a few things we do know, though. It certainly remains true that for Donald Trump the mechanisms and power of the presidency are only about addressing and restoring to precarious balance the interior feeling states of Donald Trump. We may presume Steve Bannon, useful to Donald Trump’s political ambitions as presidential candidate, and expert at adjusting Donald Trump’s feeling states as presidential candidate, entered the White House with enormous political and policy capital, which he has now squandered, not for any politically good reason except that he has been unable to translate his necromancer feeling state skills from the campaign trail to the institutions and mechanisms of government.
In the end, Bannon truly does hate the mainstream media, his foil throughout the campaign, and truly does love his base of disaffected Tea Party rabble. But we are learning that his White House boss only hates the mainstream media when they are the meanstream media – mean to him, at least – and only loves the Tea Party rabble – with its memestream media – so long as he needs them politically.
The Tea Party now having morphed into the Freedom Caucus on Capitol Hill – who turn out perhaps to be meaner than the mainstream media – Bannon’s capacity to serve Trump’s emotional needs is at odds with his own policy and loyalty commitments. Bannon may love a “gunfight,” but is almost certainly unprepared for the Jared-Ivanka pillow fight.
Illiberal Democracy and Radical Traditionalism
A Trump-Bannon parting of the ways may cast Bannon back into the wilderness, but perhaps he (and we) are learning the wilderness is where he thrives and belongs. With the full and unconditional support of Robert and Rebekah Mercer we may be sure he and his ideas are not going away any time soon, not in the United States and not in Europe and other parts of the world where “illiberal democracy” is now spuming the zeitgeist.
To the degree illiberal democracy remains in play, globally and in the United States, Bannon will remain nefariously relevant. And what this relevance means, we do clearly learn from his Vatican address, is ongoing promotion of the Radical Traditionalist ideology and worldview.
Radical Traditionalism confuses and disorients the mainstream media and mainstream voters, and is cognitively disruptive, because it challenges global liberal democracy via radically “illiberal” post-democratic, post-modern populist means – epitomized by the rise of the Internet troll; “fake news”; a “dear leader” despotism; a rife species of unhinged, paranoid and conspiracy-oriented thinking; and the descent upon our daily lives of an omnipresent fog of war.
At the same time, the “traditional” goals of the Rad Trad program – its ends – profoundly challenge the liberal democratic order via a decidedly pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment, neo-Thomist, natural law philosophy of community and conflict that takes, as its “self-evident” starting point, the idea of the human individual as the imago dei – a fraught, freighted Catholic concept that has become the pillar of the cultural revanchism and irredentism characteristic of illiberal democracy.
In the Vatican address, Bannon repeatedly describes the war against jihadist Islamic fascism as a “metastasizing” cancer spreading to all corners of the globe. No region, no nation can afford to ignore this civilizational threat. What accounts for this metastasizing, cancerous growth of the Islamic State? According to Bannon (in perhaps an intended neo-Marxist irony) “the tools of capitalism” themelves have facilitated the metastasis of the Islamic State, by which he seems to mean the ways in which ISIS has made use of social media and online fundraising to recruit, cajole, intimidate, and terrorize.
In an extended riff on Vladimir Putin (whom Bannon regards as “quite an interesting character” and “very, very, very intelligent” and someone from whom we in the West can learn a lot concerning traditionalism and nationalism), Bannon also used the term “metastasize” to describe the significance of the ideas of Julius Evola and other radical traditionalists in the intellectual genealogy of fascism and, more recently of the pro-Russian “Eurasian” movement. Bannon sees these metastasizing ideas of radical traditionalism as elements of nationalist opposition to the pan-Europeanism of the EU or the centralized governance of the United States. He identifies radical traditionalism with “a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.”
Bannon opens quite a can of worms with these statements, particularly with his ahistorical rendering of the US founding as a proto-fascist event. But I think we can reasonably assume he is not making an argument for a return to the Articles of Confederation. Indeed, given the Vatican venue for this talk, as well as the references to the “metastasizing” war between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic East and the “metastasizing” (and basically batshit-crazy) authoritarian and traditionalist ideas of Julius Evolo, it might be more fair and more accurate to suggest Bannon is advocating himself for a kind of hierarchical meta-state based on spiritual values and traditions to fill the vacuum left by any diminution of the centralized political state. A hierarchical meta-state not unlike the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps.
At this moment in time, Steve Bannon is the most politically and intellectually significant vessel for the ideas powering the radical traditionalist / cultural nationalist / Tea Party insurgency in the United States. But he is merely prelude. The unraveling of his mind discloses a set of threads connecting us to the important historical, institutional, and individual sources of our present discontent. These threads include the “clash of civilizations” argument of Samuel Huntington, the Thomist natural law philosophy that has captured our politics and our courts, and the Catholic concept of the imago dei that may connect us to the Creator but at the cost of separating us from the Creation. More to come.