The Most Important Question For Alabama Voters: How Low Will You Go?

Republished from Breaking / Bannon.

The most important question the Alabama Senate election on December 12 will answer is not: Do Alabama voters care more about abortion or pedophilia?

The most important question the Alabama Senate election on December 12 will answer is: Do Alabama voters care that Roy Moore is an embarrasment to the state?

In other words, Alabama voters must decide: How low will you go?

Abortion and pedophilia themes in this election are emotionally volatile symbols (mostly as vectors of our inner lives, not directly connected to social reality in any meaningful sense) that crowd out debate about the issues that truly do matter in the lives of most Alabama residents. These culture war themes are not irrelevant or unimportant. But they are a small part of a larger conversation, and absolutely should not be tent-pole factors in the outcome of the election.

On issues that matter in this larger conversation – laws and policies governing: taxes, spending priorities, health-care access, reproductive rights, gender and racial equity, immigration policy, environmental protection, foreign policy and diplomacy, national infrastructure, and science and technology investment – Doug Jones and Roy Moore will shape debate and cast votes that are pivotal to the fortunes and the future of Alabama residents and of the United States.

On all of these issues, Doug Jones will be informed and thoughtful. He will not be exciting. Flames will not burst from his ass. But his track record, his “body of work” (as sports analysts like to say), gives us confidence he will reclaim for the Senate some dignity and some policy relevance. By contrast, Roy Moore is an empty suit, an ignoramus who takes pride in his lack of interest in and knowledge of policy matters, and in his lack of concern for the history and significance of the U.S. Senate as an institution.

As a U.S. senator, Roy Moore would not debate or deliberate. He would not inform himself, for in his mind, he has long known everything he or anyone else needs to know – that the Bible contains all truth and is a sufficient basis for making all decisions concerning policy and principle. As a U.S. senator, Roy Moore will stand and fulminate. He will raise high his Bible. He will cite the 10 Commandments. And in his pride and arrogance, he will bring the Senate, as an institution, to its knees.

With respect, then, to this conversation about laws and policies that directly affect the lives of all Americans, the election of Roy Moore would indicate that Alabama voters are prepared to go very low, indeed. But there is more to consider – or perhaps (in the spirit of going low) less to consider.

In his bravura performance as president, Donald Trump has already transformed the United States into a global punch line. Alabama voters know this. They elected him by a margin of 28 percent over Hillary Clinton. A vast (although declining) majority of the state still supports Trump personally and approve of his sub-fuhrer style as president.

With their support for Trump alone, one might conclude a large number of Alabama voters have no shame. But the election of Roy Moore would carry Alabama to depths previously unexplored in the capacity of a state to revel in its own pathos. And personally, I do not believe Alabama is capable of this descent, an existential slipping of the gears that leaves us that much closer to free-fall as a nation.

One theory to support this view is that Alabama voters, like many elsewhere, mostly voted against Hillary Clinton rather than for Donald Trump. A vote against Hillary of coure offers no evidence that matters of policy and principle much concern these voters, of course, but such a vote nonetheless indicates that Trump’s appeal may largely derive from his novelty, that he is a new and shiny object to gaze upon and admire.

Alabama voters already know Roy Moore. He is not new and shiny. He is already a pustulating pimple on the rear end of the state, with support from its hinterlands, but a style and a “body of work” that has long been a source of distress and consternation to many in the state. The most recent sexual predator allegations only surface and reinforce an awareness of Roy Moore’s creepiness that has already been long-acknowledged and understood by people in Alabama.

For these reasons, my hunch is that Alabama voters will choose not to take that next step toward perdition and inflict Roy Moore upon the entire nation.

 

Roy Moore and the Horse He Rode in On: Revealed Religion and Natural Law in the Alabama Senate Race

The crudest presumptions of natural law theory still inform our political and cultural conflicts. In recent posts, I’ve focused on the logical and moral contortions a focus on creator worship as the ground of our being requires of revealed religions. Alabama’s Republican Party offers the most recent permutations of this bizarre fever dream.

On Tuesday, former (twice!) Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (with a rich symbolism perhaps not fully appreciated) rode his horse Sassy into the unincorporated town of Gallant (population 850, also known as Greasy Cove) to cast a ballot for himself as the Republican nominee for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.

In the wake of a backlash against “DC swamp” candidate Luther Strange, Moore coasted to a win over nine other candidates, and will once again face (the geographically vast, awesomely named) Strange in a late-September run-off primary. As Senator, Moore promises to restore Christianity to the Capitol and fight the rise of Islamic “Sharia law” in the United States, commitments presumably of little significance to Strange, a former oil industry lobbyist.

While it’s tempting to linger on the incredible Gothic theatricality of this event (for example, the mixed metaphors of “the swamp” as the habitation of the “silk-stockinged elite“), for our purposes, we need initially only pay attention to Moore’s deranged, megalomaniacal Constitutional rants, which begin with the Bible, linger around themes such as God’s desire for families to keep loaded guns at home to protect their children, and end with the natural law gymnastics of early 19th-century Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story.

Moore’s jurisprudence and politics fully conform to the conservative commitment to natural law as a gift and instrument of God via revelation. “I’m not a politician. I don’t like politics,” Moore told a gathering of elderly white folks at Mr. Fang’s Chinese Restaurant on the night before the primary vote. “It’s what God has done through me.”

In a conversation that evening with Jeff Stein of Vox, Moore emphasized, repeatedly, “You have to understand what religion is — the duties you owe to the creator.” According to Moore, Justice Story, one of the most highly regarded jurists of the early Republic who in recent years has become, somewhat surprisingly, a fan favorite of legal conservatives and natural law enthusiasts, supported and refined the view that the duty of the Constitution and the First Amendment was to “foster religion and foster Christianity.”

Here, Roy Moore parses a view of religious liberty consistent with the precepts of Robby George, the Acton Institute, and other conservative Christians for whom conscience becomes the principled basis for ignoring legislation, regulation, and court decisions of the federal government with which they disagree on the basis of the “self-evident” precepts of natural law. Of course, this parsing has long formed the hallmark of Roy Moore as a jurist, with his placement of the stone tablets of the Decalogue in the Alabama state courthouse and his refusal to enforce the marriage equality ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court (with helpful cover from Antonin Scalia’s high court dissent and full-throated support from Robby George).

Roy Moore, quoting from Joseph Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution, has for several decades been instructing us that “the rights of conscience are beyond the reach of any human power; they are given by God and cannot be encroached on by any human authority without a criminal disobedience of the precepts of natural or revealed religion.” On Senate primary election night, with a flourish characteristic of the natural law synthesis initially formulated by Aquinas, Moore concluded, “We need to go back to the recognition that God’s hand is still on this country and on this campaign. We must be good again before we can be great. And we will never be good without God.”

Christian-conservative jurists and philosophers will often invoke Abraham Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scott decision as the ultimate defense of conscience in response to judicial overreach. In reality, these appeals to conscience and religious liberty are, like patriotism, a last refuge of scoundrels. Arguments on behalf of conscience, natural law, and higher law – whether voiced by Antonin Scalia, Robby George, or Roy Moore – mask a theocratically minded support for states’ rights that both dissolves the foundations of nationhood and obliterates the rights of conscience when they fail the arbitrary test of Biblical authenticity.


Freedom From "Fear Porn": In Defense of Cosmopolitan Elites, Polyglot Cultures, and Global Integration

Much has already been written about Donald Trump’s speech to the Polish people earlier today. This speech, written (presumably) by White House fear-mongers Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, adopts a dark and legitimately creepy Saruman-like vibe similar to Trump’s inaugural address. James Fallows commented on the shift in tone of this speech from famous (and infamous) addresses of previous presidents to foreign nations that optimistically emphasized shared ideals about the rule of law and the importance of inclusive legal concepts of fairness and justice, freedom of expression and religious toleration, as our final bulwark against the depredations of war and intolerance. By contrast, both Fallows and Bloomberg journalist Marc Champion noticed the insistent focus in the Trump speech on dark, exclusive and ominously tribal themes (and memes) of threat and danger, of European ethnic and Catholic-Christian religious identity imperiled by Islamic fanatics and cosmopolitan elites,  of the mystical communion of faith, family, tradition, and nation – the precepts of Judeo-Christian western civilization – renewed upon the mantle of a crusade against its foes.

Even the wacky libertarians at Mises Wire have today indirectly voiced their concerns about this blunt-force and mythologized vision of national unity. As Mises Wire editor Ryan McMaken emphasizes, however we may bemoan the painful divisions within our nation, the United States has never in any true sense been “one nation” united by a common religion, language, and culture. McMaken points to obvious fault-lines in national life that have organized and given shape to cultural conflict – between pre-Columbian inhabitants of north America and European settlers; between annexed Hispanic populations and European ranchers, farmers, and miners; between free-labor states and slave states; between industrial and agrarian populations; between polyglot immigrants and English-speaking natives; between established Protestant sects and insurgent religions (before Islam, there were rising populations of Catholics, Jews, and Mormons); between migrant African-Americans and settled European urban working-class enclaves.

Of course, the nation’s ability to absorb these cultural conflicts – which is the renewable source of our energy, strength, and resilience – could not be more opposed to the small-minded, tendentious, and self-enraptured vision of the Trump speech today in Warsaw. The Trump vision (which is of course really the vision of his “Steves”) owes far more to an infatuation with an idea of “Western Civilization” – based on primitive, medieval concepts of control, fidelity, allegiance and honor, and made relevant through transposition into the familiar (but empty) tropes of  “family, faith, and freedom,” and of  “small-town, traditional values.” Of course, anyone who has traveled through small-town and rural America will quickly disabuse themselves of the idea that escaping from decadent metropolitan fleshpots deposits us in a bucolic scene of chastity and virtue. Rural America sits on a decrepit tax base with fragile prospects for economic growth and greatly enfeebled institutions insufficient to support its aging, immobile populations and unable to provide the basis for the sort of flourishing of generations any culture requires.

Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon have latched on to the “clash of civilizations” meme as if the Christian West has in the most recent millennium never stopped being at war with neutered cosmopolitan elites and ululating Islamic hordes, In his fantastic book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a controversial (in a good way) history of the exponential decline of violence over time, another Steve – Harvard polymath Steven Pinker – gives us a framework for thinking about the unhinged ignorance of Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon – and puts the lie to this idea that there is some kind of organic continuity between Catholic Europe in the the Middle Ages and Western Civilization in the 21st century.

Pinker’s book actually offers any number of angles for thinking about our current cultural conflicts, including a concise (although now somewhat dated) assessment of the more authentically and persistently “medieval” aspects of Islamic culture that allow unabashedly cruel and violent habits to persist, without reducing these practices to some essential “evil” within Islam itself. Pinker also invokes and dismisses the Samuel Huntington “clash of civilizations” argument that fuels the crusading militancy of the White House Steves.

But I would like to close by simply allowing Steven Pinker to pose some questions about the comparative iniquities and evils of city life and rural life captured by the demographic and political arc of “western civilization” in the past thousand years. For our purposes, the value of these questions is the extent to which they free our minds from what we might loosely call the “fear porn” so liberally peddled by the paleo wing of the Republican Party.

Do you think that city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immigrants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence? What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.

 

From Steve Bannon to Robby George: The Catholic Foundations of American Conservative Thought

This essay traces the arc within movement conservatism in the United States from Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist to President Donald Trump (and arguably the most reviled and feared conservative political actor in American public life) to Robby George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University (and arguably the most respected and influential conservative political thinker in American public life).

Stylistic and intellectual differences between Bannon and George, real though they may be, cannot obscure the common ground they share regarding both the sources and the implications of their ideas, specifically those ideas pertaining to Catholic (or Thomist) natural law. While neither might relish the comparison, the relationship between Steve Bannon and Robby George is the relationship between messenger and message, between musical prelude and orchestral suite.

The Messenger and the Message

Irish-Catholic Steve Bannon embeds in the White House an emotionally manipulative, threat-driven sensibility, with methods and antics that echo the methods and antics of Irish-Catholic Senator Joseph McCarthy (and, more recently, two fellow Nixonians, Irish Catholic nationalist Pat Buchanan and Catholic agitprop maestro Roger Stone). A sensibility, and a set of methods that are politically effective and destructive, but inherently unstable and unsustainable. For this reason, Bannon’s intellectually suspect flirtations – with Catholic mystics, fringe historians, and prophets of apocalypse – probably also entomb him politically, alongside fellow Irish-Catholic street brawlers, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, for whom success is ultimately about insurgency, about blowing up things, which means, ultimately, that one blows up oneself.

Put another way, Steve Bannon is all about tactics. An architecture of assumptions scaled to the existential stakes of our current moment in time might therefore tell us that Bannon is epiphenomenal. He is only the messenger. He is not the message. Bannon’s talents for political mayhem have surfaced and brought into more clear relief the remarkable influence of idea-driven institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society around and through which American political conservatism has built itself into the dominant force in contemporary American politics. Catholic-powered ideas about natural law provide the most enduring and consistent thread of thought at the most high-profile and well-funded conservative think tanks and foundations. As the leading philosopher of Thomist natural law on the American political scene, Robby George most clearly articulates and contains within himself the distilled message and the intellectual contradictions of these institutions.

The Catholic Moment

Roman Catholic influence in American politics has mushroomed in the past 40 years, specifically in response to the crisis engendered by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but more generally as an organizational and intellectual presence best evolved to exploit and respond the cultural uncertainty and flux of our times. The precepts of Roman Catholic theology – specifically (although not exclusively) with regard to the human life / human dignity issues associated with reproductive politics – now interpenetrate conservative American political thought and nearly every political institution of consequence, including the Republican PartyCongress, the White House, the military, and the media.

Five Catholics serve as justices on the Supreme Court. A sixth, Neil Gorsuch, is a formerly devout Catholic who now worships as an Episcopalian. Antonin Scalia, the justice Gorsuch replaced, was of course also Catholic. Which means seven of the most recent ten justices have a Catholic background (with Episcopalian identification one shade of gray removed from Catholicism). Prior to the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986, only six of the previous 103 justices serving the previous 197 years of the Court’s history had been Catholic (the first being Roger Taney, appointed by Andrew Jackson in 1836).

None of this happened by accident. The hegemony of Puritan/Protestant ideas/ideals in American history always masked a specific organizational weakness. We can presume this organizational deficit is dispositionally endemic to fractional/fractious religious movements. In the case of American cultural formations associated with Protestantism, we can also speculate this institutional insufficiency was reinforced by the omnipresent option – dating back to the settlement patterns of 16th-century Protestant sects – to separate, to drift, to disperse, to migrate. Or as Albert Hirschman’s paradigm might suggest, to exit. This weakness the Articles of Confederation expressed politically and the Constitution and doctrines of federalism barely masked.

American Catholics lacked both the recursive instincts to fractionalize of post-Reformation Protestantism and many of the first mover settlement options of Protestant sects and communities that preceded the arrival to the United States of Catholic immigrants. But American Catholicism possessed a latent advantage that proved to be enormously functional in the decades following World War II, when economic growth and global reach allowed American Catholics to attain business and financial prominence and political influence that had previously eluded them. That latent advantage was organizational, a capacity integral to an enormously sophisticated, globally minded religious enterprise with centuries of experience building institutions and making theory practical via the law. And when theory – the systematic elaboration of ideas about cause and consequence – becomes practical and programmatic, it suddenly also becomes powerful.

Prairie Fire: Steve Bannon's Dark Enlightenment

(I) The Deconstruction of Steve Bannon

We can now assess the content and quality of the White House seep, the not-quite-movement conservatism upon which Donald Trump has risen to power, like a toad upon a geyser. This capacity to assess is a good thing, perhaps the only way we have, at least in the short term, to steer clear of emotional chaos activated by extrusions of Donald Trump’s fevered mind – incessant social media chatter, tabloid focus on personalities, shattered boundaries between personal and professional, a looming collective, paranoid psychosis.

I don’t personally know Steve Bannon or any of the other various satraps and factotums and acolytes who accompany this political movement and whose ideas now drive policy at many levels of government. But I do know that if we fear Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate and in most state governments, we need to focus less on who these people are as individuals (a major preoccupation for the click-driven media and an incredible waste of time for the rest of us) and more on what they want to do.

The Republican Party did not magically seize power. Trump’s election is only the latest – if most surreal – chapter of a slow-motion political creep on to land of a hyper-conservative Republican sea monster. Those scared shitless by Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Charles Koch, Robert Mercer, Peter Thiel, et. al. would do well to avert their gazes from the daily media squalls – in other words to stop reacting – and instead reclaim the initiative (and the future), with plans, roadmaps, and strategies that attend to the larger ideas, themes, and forces that shape our reality and determine our destiny.  As citizens, we simply have to be more clear about our jobs, and our goals.

For me, the starting point is actually that, on many topics, these strange Tea Party people are almost right. They get just close enough. This is their genius. And their pathology. So it’s really important that we appreciate the meaning of their words, many of which are coded (or at least shibboleths for the initiated), and separate from those words that which is worth harvesting from that which is over-wrought, over-ripe, and toxic. Let’s break it down.

What follows is, by design and by necessity, an impressionistic rendering of the ideological landscape of American movement conservatism. There is nothing tidy or organized or logical or structured about this political movement. Journalists speak of the movement’s “intellectual source code,” and that is an apt and clever phrase, but as source code goes, it is bug-ridden and messy, potted with security holes, loaded with traps and loops. Given the mess, there is no real way to traverse or map this landscape of ideas without approaching it, and imagining it, as a whole that is far less than the sum of its parts. But the parts themselves – fragments and shards of ideas and impulses – are each in their own way fascinating and revealing and deserving of scrutiny on their own terms. We begin with Steve Bannon, Dark Enlightenment Sith Lord whose ideas and influence provide the single most coherent philosophical basis for considering the benighted path on which we now travel.

Gothic Moment

In “normal” times, politically, or at least in our schoolbook “consensus,” “pluralist,” or “interest group” images of politics, the center holds because ultimately it is in the interest of politicians, and political parties, and the organizations and groups and populations they represent, to compromise, take half a loaf, that they may live to fight another day. The premise of pluralism is that people are pragmatic, not idealistic, and that bargaining and deal-making can hold together the nation because most people are fundamentally alike, at least in the sense that they speak the same language and can build trust around their understanding of what words mean and how they represent the world, at least that part of it which is up for grabs. These notions are the mother’s milk of our citizen identity, reinforced historically and culturally through our political and civic associations (including media), common law traditions, and Enlightenment values (see Alexis de Tocqueville, Louis Hartz, etc.).

The strength (and weakness) of these political habits and beliefs is that they are process-driven, not outcome-driven. We associate Enlightenment ideals of representative democracy, individual freedom, legal equality, and political justice with rule-driven attributes and standards of process fairness, consistency, and coherence. The container matters more than the content. Whether naïve or not – (Hello, Indian Removal? Slavery? Incarceration Nation?) (on this 250th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s birth?) –  this liberal political culture owes an enormous amount to the historically specific claims of the Enlightenment, in combination with English common law traditions, on the American founders. When you read The Federalist, despite the significant and meaningful differences in the political visions of Madison and Hamilton, and between the Federalists and the Antifederalists, all parties communicate a deeply rooted commitment to the shared identity of humans bound together and lifted up by a capacity to reason, employ logic, deduce consequences, gather evidence, and share knowledge.  Baseline commitments to process (and progress) within our political culture depend on the Enlightenment assumption of epistemic coherence, that knowledge about the world objectively exists, and that we can discover and share this knowledge with each other.

The problem is that when we experience abnormal or disjunctive political moments – such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or Wall Street run amok – we discover the process coefficient breaks down and epistemic incoherence ensues. We become strangers to each other. Irruptions from below disclose a chaotic, Bosch-like underworld that disputes almost every dimension of the reality our political institutions take for granted and require – that our votes matter, that our efforts matter, that science matters, that government helps us more than it harms us, that media seeks and tells the truth. In those moments, unfairly disproportionate or unexpectedly unequal social outcomes shred the process container, and in the chaos that ensues we experience not simply the frailty of our political institutions, but the extent to which the rational Enlightenment vision on which they depend remains inaccessible and alien and threatening and illegitimate to vast layers and segments of the American population. At that moment, we no longer recognize ourselves.

Prairie Fire

National political campaigns are inherently toxic. We do elevate the image of Lincoln and Douglas speaking to thousands of white Illinois farmers and merchants, ex tempore, for hours at a time, debating legal and philosophical intricacies of sovereignty and citizenship. That is our template for civic engagement and political discourse. But in that time, as in our own, hidden below the patriotic bunting, the wooden decks of the speakers platforms, the muddied fields, muffled by the raucous cheers and jovial banter of these tent meeting huskings, beneath those honest images of rough democracy, the prairie fires burn hot through the soil. Truly, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were the exception that proves the rule regarding the savage intent and bitter leavings of the political contest. Politics is a bare-knuckled brawl.

On April 15, 2010, as (now old) New Left historian Ronald Radosh has reported in The Daily Beast, Steve Bannon delivered a rambunctious speech to a Tea Party rally in New York. On Tax Day (in the year the Republicans swept aside the Obama majority in the House, threatened its majority in the Senate, and rolled through the state legislatures like so many haystack twisters) Bannon unleashed a torrent of disdain for financial architects and political enablers of the Great Recession that had spun 15 percent of the nation into poverty and unraveled the lives of countless other millions caught on the pitchfork of mortgage arbitrage. While Occupy Wall Street would one year later voice similar contempt and outrage for the One Percent, Bannon’s assault on liberal elites assumes existential dimensions – the Goldman Sachs vampire squid as a cosmopolitan, many-tentacled agent of globalization that had sucked away, not simply the wealth of the middle class, but its sovereignty over the American Dream. The Tea Party, heirs to pre-revolutionary Boston Harbor anti-tax incendiaries, are those stolid, virtuous Americans – Bannon would call them his “hobbits” – who make the country work, “the beating heart of the greatest nation on earth.”

The politics and messaging here are slippery, but to properly position them Radosh isolates Bannon’s concluding remarks: “It doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, and the winds blow off the high plains of this country, through the prairie and lights a fire that will burn all the way to Washington in November.” As Radosh reminds us, Bannon (a committed Deadhead and Springsteen fan back in the day) is invoking phrasing from Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, simultaneously invoking the revolutionary, system-shattering instincts of the Weather Underground, late-1960s insurgent and militant and violent spinoff of Students for a Democratic Society. Weather Underground members – Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, specifically – in 1974 published a book titled Prairie Fire that presented themselves as a guerrilla organization (“communist men and women underground in the United States”) committed to destroying American capitalism and the liberal state. Bannon’s language indicates the extent to which he associates the Tea Party with a similarly revolutionary, elite-stomping, state-smashing mission on behalf of America’s forgotten heartland hobbits.

Deep State

Steve Bannon’s radical instincts and Ayers allusions poignantly illustrate the disintegration of language as the common currency of our civic identity. Because of course, (the very non-radical and measured) Barack Obama’s very casual Chicago connection to Bill Ayers in the context of education policy discussions (Ayers became a beloved education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education) have become staples of right-wing flame-throwing (see this sampling from Breitbart), a turd-like reality which (the far more radical and subversive) Steve Bannon was obviously poking with his Prairie Fire reference. Beyond the Daily Beast article, this allusion has obtained no obvious traction with anyone on the right (or elsewhere, for that matter), an indication of the extent to which emotions have overwhelmed language and basically destroyed the capacity of words to in any meaningful way frame any public and shared concept of reality.

There are many ways to think about the impact of this bizarre surge of emotion into the public sphere (see a great historical instance of this phenomenon in Lessons From the Fake News Pandemic of 1942). But in our current historical moment, its significance is revelatory. Brooding, profane Irish Steve Bannon is radical because he does not believe in the Enlightenment project. His ideas and instincts are pre-Enlightenment, and so quite alien to the lenses we are accustomed to using for our imaginings about the American experience. I’m going to dive more deeply into Bannon’s intellectual influences. For now, suffice to say that these influences do not include Locke, Madison, Jefferson, or Lincoln. Politically speaking, Bannon is a traditional Catholic conservative (of the Mel Gibson variety) who is profoundly in tune with the darker demons of the human soul, a media Svengali skilled at orchestrating chaos and mayhem.

Our current titillation with the Deep State, working its dark arts from within US intelligence agencies, sheds light on Bannon’s quite remarkable political achievement, which has been (via Trump, Breitbart, and his documentaries) to rip away the rather bland and mechanical surface of American politics and expose its exotic underbelly, a quasi-medieval jurisprudential apparatus funded and supported by a varied group of wealthy and powerful free-market and socially conservative individuals and institutions, ranging from Charles Koch to Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, but also encompassing canonically minded American judges, including Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas (and, formerly, Antonin Scalia). This version of the Deep State is not primarily a Protestant evangelical movement, which remains far more in the American grain than these elements in tune with Steve Bannon, for whom the currency of the land is not grace or justification, but power, the terrestrial control of both bodies and minds. To fully understand the intellectual foundations of this legal apparatus, we need to leave the Enlightenment and return to the world-historical vision of the medieval Christian church in its encounter with Islam.


(II) Bannon at the Vatican

In the summer of 2014, Steve Bannon delivered closing remarks to a conference on alleviating global poverty hosted by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) in a small marble palace tucked deep within the Vatican. Bannon spoke via Skype from Los Angeles. This address came to the attention of the world in the days following the election in a Buzzfeed article entitled This is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World (you can listen to the unedited audio of the talk here).

There is both less and more than meets the eye in this Bannon speech. He is addressing DHI in his professional capacity as the Executive Chairman of Breitbart, and probably the most interesting insights emerge from Bannon’s assumption that Breitbart’s rising moment of nationalist, populist savagery conforms to the goals and worldview of an allegedly principled and philosophically pure Catholic lay organization with transnational aspirations. Let’s see how comfortably Bannon disports himself on this Bed of Procrustes (to invoke Nassim Nicholas Taleb, he of the Black Swan).

What is the Dignitatis Humanae Institute?

Dignitatis Humanae Institute (you can call it the Human Dignity Institute if you want) is a quirky lay Catholic NGO with ties to the European Parliament and the Vatican, based in Rome, and headed by Benjamin Harnwell, a converted Catholic and formerly active member of the British Conservative Party who identifies with the Austrian-Libertarian school of economics associated with Mises and Hayek. The DHI website profligately features a photo of Bannon informing us that “Harnwell’s the smartest guy in Rome. He’s always a tough guy – he comes across as a monk, but he’s actually a very tough guy.” Indeed (and weirdly), we can see some of that toughness, and a sense of the deeper political currents driving the DHI agenda, in a recent post from the Institute about “subversive external influences” in Macedonian civil society of “stateless meddler” and “cultural imperialist” George Soros (also republished in pro-Russian news agency, Eurasia Review – the doubling down on Soros conspiracy theories is much in the news these days).

Canon law fiduciary and flame-throwing Cardinal (and Pope Francis nemesis) Raymond Leo Burke serves as President of the DHI’s Advisory Board, and by way of promoting this relationship the DHI website shares with us Cardinal Burke’s long keynote before the First Annual Rome-Life Forum in May 2013. Salient themes of this speech for exposing the deeper structure of the Steve Bannon worldview include: 1) reverence for the divine essence within each human life (and human life only), as mediated by Jesus Christ (and Jesus Christ only); 2) disdain for rampant secularization (and dechristianization) in the world, characterized by spiritual emptiness, moral relativism, material hedonism (rule of the flesh), and a culture of death; and 3) evangelization of the “gospel of life” based on the “natural moral law.”

The bulk of Cardinal Burke’s speech/sermon concerns Natural Law, as the expression through which reason can comprehend, accept, and fulfill the responsibility to love, serve, defend, and promote human life, in Christ. To this pre-Enlightenment pillar of Catholic legal traditionalism we will later return. For now, it may suffice to note this distillation of Catholic traditional beliefs contains many profound and beautiful insights regarding our flawed, fallen, imperfect existence as human creatures, most specifically the oft-stated command and commitment to serve the least among us. But as we might expect, much of this language is also coded to capture a deeper, more hidden, and darker agenda which exploits the fraught intersection between human sexuality and human conception.

Bannon’s Brain

Let’s first dismiss an important misconception. Bannon is obviously smart (as those who know him report, “perhaps the smartest” in his Harvard Business School class, “the most well-read person in Washington,” the “Rain Man of nationalism,” devouring works of history and political theory “in like an hour”), but not evidently smarter than lots of people, and the media he savages and mocks has perhaps given him too much credit for reading real books and for having real ideas, presumably as a way to account for the visionary and prophetic alignment between the storyline in Bannon’s head prior to the election and the surprising and unexpected outcome that folded, in virtually every one of its details, into the narrative Bannon had foretold.

Now clearly there is a fair amount of post hoc ergo propter hoc going on in our retrospective accounts of what actually transpired (this Hollywood Reporter puff piece illustrates the point), and the reality of the cause and the effect will probably take decades to properly establish itself. At the moment, Bannon properly believes he has earned the right to own the narrative, and he and his compadres have been happy to bludgeon everyone else with his version of events, which conveniently anoints him, in a moment of establishment uncertainty, as a counter-culture sorcerer or soothsayer.

And perhaps he truly is. But as his fellow Wall Street Jeremiah, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, might remind Bannon, the world includes many more data points than any one person can account for, hence the rule of randomness in our lives. The face one sees in a cloud may quickly turn into something else entirely. Indeed, Bannon post-election reminds me of a horse race handicapper who scans a 12-horse field and then successfully places a single wager on the precise order of the first four finishers of a race. This person might well be a gifted handicapper, even the most gifted, but the odds that he could successfully impose his mental map of a race outcome on any given race between actual flesh-and-blood horses remains vanishingly small.

Bannon may indeed be a savant. But one would certainly not reach that conclusion from reading the transcript of his remarks to the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. These remarks, as it turns out, represent a hodgepodge of logically disconnected statements that, while in some cases individually plausible and compelling, are, taken together, neither historically accurate nor coherent at the level of narrative (or even myth), and are, moreover, morally challenged almost to the degree of being depraved.

The shards of truth that Bannon offers, sometimes spastically in this address, are absolutely not the basis for governing a vast and powerful nation at an historically and existentially pivotal moment. But these statements are – regarding the Church Militant, the New Barbarity, and History as a Reaping and a Sorting, as an apocalyptic succession of judgments – absolutely consistent with the backwards-looking, cruel and frozen perspective on human life, and on created life, consistent with natural law and with an authoritarian and top-down Catholic edifice that uses a concept of the Law Revealed to punish and sacrifice the small, marvelous creatures and creations of the world at the altar of an abstract and capricious all-mighty Creator whose “love”, whose “goodness”, more often than not feels like a savage indifference, premised perhaps on irony, but more likely on a cavernous emptiness that we fill with our own fevered dreams.

Capitalisms Good and Bad

At the Vatican, speaking before an audience focused on the material and spiritual nexus of poverty, Bannon threads the needle nicely with a trenchant overview of three kinds of capitalism and wealth creation, one of which is good and two of which are bad. The good kind of capitalism he refers to as “enlightened” capitalism, and while Bannon never clearly states precisely what he means by enlightened capitalism, one can easily deduce its outlines from its effects. Enlightened capitalism, when constructed properly, is a vehicle for the working class and the middle class of a society to receive fair rewards for their labor. In other words, the existence of a stable, prosperous, and growing middle class, bounded on one side by a constrained and docile (because yoked to the promise of entry themselves into the middle class) impoverished social layer, and on the other side by an animated and spirited (but not too animated or spirited) leadership class whose own success is somehow tied to the solvency of the middle-class dream. “That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana. It was many, many years and decades of peace.”

The “bad” capitalisms – “crony” capitalism and “libertarian” capitalism – represent metastatic deviations from or corruptions of the Platonic ideal of enlightened middle-class capitalism. State-sponsored capitalism in China and Russia and crony capitalism in Argentina are “brutal” forms of capitalism where the many produce wealth for the few, where the system only benefits intersecting groups of political, business, and military elites and their families, and “doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century.” Ayn Rand style libertarian capitalism, toward which populist conservatives and younger people in the United States and Europe who favor “personal freedom” have gravitated, objectifies people as commodities who possess no intrinsic worth (here Bannon invokes Marx’s ideas about worker exploitation as mere production factors).

There is some epic confusion in this Bannon narrative about the species of capitalism. At one point in the speech, noting the centenary of the murder of Archduke Ferdinand that precipitated World War I, he characterizes the 20th century as an unprecedented catalog of carnage. Shortly thereafter, he invokes enlightened capitalism as the source of a global Pax Americana that “was many, many years and decades of peace.” Bannon also sometimes conflates his two species of bad capitalism, reducing them to a collective “unmooring” in which all transactions become financially engineered securitization opportunities, individuals are stripped of their inherent, spiritual value and objectified as commodities, and the “party of Davos” dictates its transcendent globalized will via centralized instruments of government that deprive ordinary men and women in the “heartlands” of nations around of the world of the opportunity to “comport their lives” as they see fit.

But, generally, so far, so good. There really is not much in this analysis to dispute. Indeed, if Bannon had been content to sit with this perspective on capitalism, which is almost anodyne, there might not be much to discuss. Even (or perhaps especially) with the infusion of a populist, class-war, pitchfork pungency, few Americans on the right or left would challenge the assumptions of this analysis. And clearly there are many sensible policies to restore foundations of an “enlightened” middle class capitalism that many politicians across the political spectrum would accept, under the right circumstances. But Steve Bannon is addressing a fringe Catholic organization at the Vatican, and we quickly learn that capitalism and poverty are not really his concerns, and that to the extent he argues for class warfare, the war he envisions is the middle class against the poor.

Judeo-Christian Apocalypse and Mayhem

We inhabit stratified physical and mental worlds, and what we quickly realize from his Vatican address is that Bannon’s economic ideas are superstructural to his ideas about cultural and spiritual decay. For Bannon, the foundations of enlightened capitalism and political freedom and stability are Judeo-Christian and Northern European. During this address, Bannon’s conversations about capitalism insistently veer off the rails to engage far more cataclysmic themes more in tune with Cardinal Burke’s conceptualizations of the culture of death associated with the secularization of the West, and with the vulnerability to unspeakable evils that Islam and the Caliphate can now access via this culture of death.

“Tough monk” Benjamin Harnwell politely rephrases Bannon’s downer screed regarding the existing crisis of church, faith, the West, and capitalism. “I am particularly struck by your argument, then, that in fact, capitalism would spread around the world based on the Judeo-Christian foundation is, in fact, something that can create peace through peoples rather than antagonism, which is often a point not sufficiently appreciated.” This perspective on the historically unique capacity of Judeo-Christianity to essentially spiritualize, via its commitment to the Imago Dei within each human, otherwise corrupt and insufficient political and economic institutions, is an important trope within the Catholic human dignity community (see items 5 and 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Dignity).

But even when served this tennis lob, Bannon cannot bring himself to return serve without applying nasty and negative spin, the unmooring of capitalism from its Judeo-Christian foundations far more significant than his (vaguely Weberian) historical claim that when capitalism was “at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West.” Bannon cannot wait to get to the main event, which features the claim (repeated over and over in his address) that “we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”


(III) The Metastasis of Steve Bannon

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.

The Meta-State

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.

Prelude

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.