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.

 

The Banality of Campus Speech Controversies

We may be reaching peak meltdown in the current campus “free speech” conflagration. The political correctness / free speech crisis has been a manufactured trope of the conservative right for decades, certainly dating back to the swirl surrounding Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education nearly three decades ago. But the crescendo of conservative consternation in the age of Trump and Twitter is laughably hyper-inflated and transparently staged.

For sure, the current political environment has surfaced campus hot spots that deserve scrutiny and introspection. In particular, the odd behavioral dynamics that can characterize (barely) post-adolescent populations sequestered within (essentially) closed communities have made problematic the vagaries of institutional control, due process, and proportional response when it comes to student (and faculty) misconduct cases – sexual and otherwise.

But the attention given recent challenges at Berkeley and Middlebury to the free speech “rights” of provocative speakers – Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray – is beyond ludicrous. Let’s consider the facts of these cases; the definitional haze extending beyond these facts; the identities of those manipulating and distorting and generally mangling these facts to trigger maximal emotional fallout; and the reality obscured by this fallout.

Facts

Speaker smackdowns on college campuses are exceedingly rare. While the Berkeley and Middlebury incidents were unfortunate, they were also each sui generis moments that bore little resemblance to each other and that provide no serious basis for generalization except for those who already know how they will fit the data into their political map of the world. Generally speaking (so to speak), invited speakers can say whatever it is they have to say without disruption or controversy.

Milo Yiannapoulos is a professional agitator and attention whore with nothing of substance or interest to say to anyone who cares about ideas, truth, problem-solving or other lofty goals associated with a liberal education. Milo arrived at Berkeley hoping and assuming that mayhem would ensue. The shit show he ignited perfectly fits the definition of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Those organizing his appearance always intended for it to end before it started – with a stampede.

As for the Middlebury incident, the Charles Murray debacle (and it was definitely an unfortunate and unnecessary debacle) involved an aging and prolix policy wonk who surely does occupy the world of ideas, no matter how deranged and twisted they might seem to most people. Murray presumably wanted to be heard and deserved to be heard. But given the manifold differences that separate them, there is no possible universe in which Milo Yiannapoulos and Charles Murray would appear together on the same stage.

Haze

Yes, protesting students (and non-students) at Berkeley and Middlebury could not have more stupidly (and perfectly) conformed to the narrative envisioned by campus conservatives (and their sponsors). The students were not wrong to protest; they simply would have been far more successful in achieving their goals (to the degree they could identify their goals) with a less is more strategy.

At Middlebury, for example, the image of student protesters simply standing (or sitting) silently with their backs to Charles Murray would have been incredibly effective theater. Unfortunately, when students turned their backs and shouted down Murray, they didn’t undermine Murray and his ideas. The students merely undermined themselves.

But given the inflected spatial and emotional boundaries of college and university campuses, important questions arise that stand in the way of immediate judgment or generalization.

  • Many of the protesters at both venues were not enrolled students. Are the campuses public spaces or private spaces?
  • College students, generally, are young and boisterous. In these liminally uncertain protest environments, do we consider these students impulsive and emotionally challenged adolescents or fully realized and responsible adults?
  • Education can be (and should be) a many-splendored thing that activates and places at risk the entire person, not just an abstracted concept of mind. Are student actions and reactions in these liminal settings and situations part of an ongoing learning experience that requires some (hopefully controlled or limited) acts of stupidity that produce more sublime moments of self-awareness and self-correction? Or are these students notionally fixed and predetermined agents entirely in command of their actions and so entirely responsible for the consequences of those actions?

The haze of hysteria surrounding these specific events conceals from us a simple truth. The issues at stake in these manufactured narratives have little to do with free speech, political correctness, marginalized and enfeebled conservative viewpoints, and the collapse of western civilization, and everything to do with how campuses encourage students to think about and explore the interplay between freedom and license, judgment and tolerance, and words and deeds. A hugely important matter left hanging concerns the proper role of college and university administrations in managing and framing and adjudicating these fraught situations – how schools can imagine such moments as opportunities, not threats.

Identities

The conservative victim narrative is also laughable. As Jane Mayer and others have fully disclosed, massive amounts of private money exist to support conservative causes, spotlight their ideas, and hail their champions. Most college administrations will take money from anyone with deep pockets, and the most prestigious and wealthiest (and most “liberal”) institutions have been hollowed out and privatized from within through the infusion of conservative cash to support largely unaccountable intellectual “beachheads” on behalf of free market and culture warrior agendas.

Are relatively few students politically or culturally conservative? Perhaps. But that does not mean that an unbridled “liberal” or “progressive” or “communist” radicalism sweeps the halls of higher education. Of course, more indifference or opposition to economic or cultural conservatism will exist at elite universities and liberal arts colleges (e.g., Harvard, Oberlin) than at schools with a strong regional or religious or vocational identity (e.g., University of Alabama, Brigham Young, Drexel University). But most students do not deeply understand or care about abstract debates concerning and contesting lofty ideals. Most students are not, and do not want to be, social justice warriors.

Reality

The daily rhythm and reality on nearly every college and university campus is incredibly prosaic and pedestrian. Millions of students go to class, study in libraries, write papers, take tests. They are not at college to change the world. They are at college to detect or divine or deduce – partially and haltingly – their own identity and their own future, which they ponder and conjure with anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and doubt.

The controversies surrounding matters of intellectual freedom on college campuses can take on a life of their own because these semi-closed environments are generally so institutionally self-referential and disconnected from their surrounding communities. Because education is largely about words and language, colleges and universities tend to be discourse communities, not actual communities. So of course words and language matter, and deserve to be taken seriously.

But “taken seriously” does not mean everything must be politicized and adjudicated and litigated. Is language and diction unnecessarily fraught in the classroom? Do professors or students spend too much time worrying about topical minefields or hazards of word choice? I’m not sure anyone knows. But we might do well to de-escalate and de-politicize the conversation about these important (and interesting!) matters.

The reality is that campuses are contingent and liminal places because their populations are unformed, peripatetic, and transient. Students come and go. The (tenured) faculty and administration abide. The institutions themselves must do a much better job of conceptualizing how the education mission can accommodate and make productive use of the developmental and identity dramas that inform student life and student consciousness. The best way to accomplish these goals might be to consider students not as discrete, self-contained, fixed moral entities, but as works in progress.

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.