The philosopher of Trumpism? (Part One) 4

The defeated Democrats and their furious supporters of the fourth estate have not tried to find out what Donald Trump and his like-thinkers actually think. They accuse him and his supporters of being everything they consider vile. So it’s a welcome development if some journalists try to find out what he believes, what he stands for, what he aims at.

Two researchers, apparently already convinced that President Trump’s own ideas are not discoverable at present (a conviction stated with a hint that he doesn’t have any), studied instead his closest adviser, a man with a philosophical turn of mind, and investigated him through what he had said and done in the past. If there is to be such a thing as Trumpism, it would be formed by this thinker, they deduce.

The adviser is Stephen Bannon. His official position in the White House is Chief Strategist. Democrats use their whole vocabulary of five or six political insults to denigrate him: “bigot”, “racist”, “xenophobe”, “Islamophobe”, “Nazi” (a favorite screech by mobs who are increasingly Nazi-like), and even one label not always used as an insult by the Left – “anti-Semite”.

But the two researchers, Gwynn Guilford and Nikhil Sonnad, tried to find out what Bannon’s ideas really were. And they wrote an article about him, to be found at Quartz:

What does Donald Trump want for America? His supporters don’t know. His party doesn’t know. Even he doesn’t know.

If there is a political vision underlying Trumpism, however, the person to ask is not Trump. It’s his éminence grise, Stephen K. Bannon, the chief strategist of the Trump administration.

…  Through a combination of luck (a fallen-through deal left him with a stake in a hit show called Seinfeld) and a knack for voicing outrage, Bannon remade himself as a minor luminary within the far edge of right-wing politics, writing and directing a slew of increasingly conservative documentaries.

“The far edge of right-wing politics” they say. So Bannon is on the “far right”? We conservatives only say that someone is on the “far right” if we mean someone like Mussolini, or the Black Hundreds, or Vlad the Impaler, or Genghis Khan. To us conservatives, Mr. Bannon does not sound or behave like any of them.

So now we expect that this article might not be a friendly portrait of its subject.

Bannon’s influence reached a new high in 2012 when he took over Breitbart News, an online news site, following the death of creator Andrew Breitbart. While at Breitbart, Bannon ran a popular talk radio call-in show and launched a flame-throwing assault on mainstream Republicans, embracing instead a fringe cast of ultra-conservative figures. Among them was Trump, a frequent guest of the show.

Trump “an ultra-conservative figure”? A lot of conservatives complained that he wasn’t conservative enough. Many insisted he wasn’t conservative at all.

And the question arises – why not examine what Trump said as a guest on that show? Is it not possible that something Trump said now and then influenced what Bannon thought?

They established a relationship that eventually led Bannon to mastermind Trump’s populist romp to the White House, culminating in his taking the administration’s most senior position (alongside the chief of staff, Reince Priebus).

“Populist”, we suspect, is a pejorative to the authors. And what of “romp”? What is a romp? A caper, a frolic, a bout of jolly play – nothing serious like standing for election as the president of the United States with a smart strategy for winning.

It’s impossible to know for sure what Bannon will do with his newfound power; he honors few interview requests lately, ours included. (The White House did not respond to our request to speak with Bannon.) But his time as a conservative filmmaker and head of Breitbart News reveals a grand theory of what America should be. Using the vast amount of Bannon’s own publicly available words — from his lectures, interviews, films and more — we can construct elements of the vision for America he hopes to realize in the era of Trump.

Bannon’s political philosophy boils down to three things that a Western country, and America in particular, needs to be successful: Capitalism, nationalism, and “Judeo-Christian values”. These are all deeply related, and essential.

We will be commenting on that below.

America, says Bannon, is suffering a “crisis of capitalism”.  … Capitalism used to be all about moderation, an entrepreneurial American spirit, and respect for one’s fellow Christian man. In fact, in remarks delivered to the Vatican in 2014, Bannon says that this “enlightened capitalism” was the “underlying principle” that allowed the US to escape the “barbarism” of the 20th century.

Since this enlightened era, things have gradually gotten worse. (Hence the “crisis”.) The downward trend began with the 1960s and ’70s counterculture. “The baby boomers are the most spoiled, most self-centered, most narcissistic generation the country’s ever produced,” says Bannon in a 2011 interview.

Is there a good argument that he is wrong about this? If so, we would like to hear it.

He takes on this issue in more detail in Generation Zero, a 2010 documentary he wrote and directed. The film shows one interviewee after another laying out how the “capitalist system” was slowly undermined and destroyed by a generation of wealthy young kids who had their material needs taken care of by hardworking parents — whose values were shaped by the hardship of the Great Depression and World War II — only to cast off the American values that had created that wealth in the first place. This shift gave rise to socialist policies that encouraged dependency on the government, weakening capitalism.

Again, we would like to hear a refutation of that judgment.

Eventually, this socialist vision succeeded in infiltrating the very highest levels of institutional power in America.

It did indeed. It was in pursuit of a long-term plan of the New Left which its adherents called “the long march through the institutions“. Nothing fictitious about it. Not an invention of paranoid “far-right” conservatives but of the Italian Communist leader, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), eagerly taken up by the New Left in the late 1960s everywhere in the Western world.

“By the late 1990s, the left had taken over many of the institutions of power, meaning government, media, and academe,” says Peter Schweizer, a writer affiliated with Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute, a conservative think tank, in Generation Zero. “And it was from these places and positions of power that they were able to disrupt the system and implement a strategy that was designed to ultimately undermine the capitalist system.” …

Anything untrue there? Anything misleading? Not that we can see.

Underlying all of this is the philosophy of Edmund Burke, an influential 18th-century Irish political thinker whom Bannon occasionally references.

It figures that he would. Edmund Burke is generally considered one of the foremost philosophers of conservatism.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke presents his view that the basis of a successful society should not be abstract notions like human rights, social justice, or equality.

Indeed not. Those are the political obsessions of the contemporary Left: “human rights” for some by imposing obligations on others; “social justice” at the cost of justice itself which can only be applied to individuals; “equality” at the price of liberty, through tyrannical state enforcement. 

Rather, societies work best when traditions that have been shown to work are passed from generation to generation. The baby boomers, Bannon says in a lecture given to the Liberty Restoration Foundation (LRF), failed to live up to that Burkean responsibility by abandoning the tried-and-true values of their parents (nationalism, modesty, patriarchy, religion) in favor of new abstractions (pluralism, sexuality, egalitarianism, secularism).

Now obviously we have a difference of opinion with both Burke and Bannon on one of their preferred values: religion. But it certainly was valued by Burke, and is valued by most American conservatives. (Burke had a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. He believed strongly in the importance of Christianity as the foundation of conservative politics. And Bannon is a Catholic.)

By  “modesty” the authors mean chasteness. We gather that, because the authors name its opposite as “sexuality”. As sexuality is not a value, we have to understand it to imply “immodesty” or promiscuousness as one of the “new abstractions” opposed to Burkean conservatism.

By “pluralism”they can only mean multiculturalism and globalism.

By “egalitarianism” they mean socialism.

For both Burke and Bannon, failure to pass the torch results in social chaos.

Once in power, the liberal, secular, global-minded elite overhauled the institutions of democracy and capitalism to tighten its grip on power and the ability to enrich itself. The “party of Davos“, as Bannon long ago dubbed this clique, has warped capitalism’s institutions, depriving middle classes everywhere of the wealth they deserve.

Leaving aside that secularism does not interfere with democracy or distort capitalism, did that not happen? It did.

This pattern of exploitation came to a head in the 2008 global financial and economic crisis. Wall Street — enabled by fellow global elites in government — spun profits out of speculation instead of investing their wealth in domestic jobs and businesses. When the resulting bubble finally burst, the immoral government stuck hardworking American taxpayers with the bailout bill.

An incomplete description of what happened. The house-owning bubble was not caused by Wall Street; it was caused by Democratic governments insisting that financial institutions give mortgage loans to people who could not afford them. So yes, Wall Street was “enabled by global elites in government”.

This is the kind of thing that led Bannon to say in that 2011 LRF lecture that there is “socialism for the very wealthy”. The rest of the country, he says, is [sic] “common sense, practical, middle-class people”.

There is also “socialism for the very poor,” he adds. “We’ve built a welfare state that is completely and totally unsupportable, and now this is a crisis.”

Bannon wants all of this liberal-sponsored “socialism” to end. He celebrates CNBC host Rick Santelli’s famous 2009 tirade about “those who carry the water and those who drink the water”, which sparked what became the Tea Party, a populist movement focused on tax cuts, fiscal scrimping, and a narrow interpretation of constitutional rights. Channeling the spirit of the Tea Party, Bannon blames Republicans as much as Democrats for taking part in cronyism and corruption at the expense of middle class families.

What Guilford and Sonnad call “fiscal scrimping” we, like the Tea Party, call “fiscal responsibility”.

What they call “a narrow interpretation of constitutional rights”, we call “rights according to the Constitution”.

But, yes, there were Republicans as well as Democrats who took part in cronyism and corruption at the expense of the middle class.

So far, the authors’ attempt subtly to convey a portrait of a stuff-shirt bigot would convince only those who already think of conservatives as stuff-shirt bigots. But nothing that has been said (except to us the mention of religion as a good thing), actually puts a single black mark against Mr Bannon in conservative eyes.

“We don’t really believe there is a functional conservative party in this country and we certainly don’t think the Republican Party is that,” says Bannon in a 2013 panel in which he discusses Breitbart’s vision. “We tend to look at this imperial city of Washington, this boomtown, as they have two groups, or two parties, that represent the insiders’ commercial party, and that is a collection of insider deals, insider transactions and a budding aristocracy that has made this the wealthiest city in the country.”

In short, in Bannonism, the crisis of capitalism has led to socialism and the suffering of the middle class. And it has made it impossible for the current generation to bequeath a better future to its successors, to fulfill its Burkean duty.

So what exactly are these traditions that Americans are meant to pass along to future generations? In addition to “crisis of capitalism,” one of Bannon’s favorite terms is “Judeo-Christian values*.” This is the second element of his theory of America.

Generation Zero, Bannon’s 2010 documentary, has a lot to say about “American values”, and a lot of this matches closely the ideals of the Tea Party. But since 2013 or 2014, Bannon’s casual emphasis on American values has swelled to include a strong religious component. The successful functioning of America — and Western civilization in general — depends on capitalism, and capitalism depends on the presence of “Judeo-Christian values.” …

The article continues to discuss Bannon’s views on the connection between capitalism and “Judeo-Christian values” at some length. We’ll cut most of it out, but will also stress that our disagreement with Stepehen Bannon on this point in no way weakens our agreement with his historical analysis, his advocacy for capitalism, or his strong preference for nationalism over globalism.

 

Footnote:

In obstinate opposition to a universal assumption, we deny that there is any such thing as “Judeo-Christian values”. The values of Judaism and the values of Christianity are not only different, they are contradictory. (See our post, Against “Judeo-Christian values”, August 26, 2014.)  The very fact that we agree with the rest of the Burke/Bannon political philosophy without being religious, disproves their contention thatCapitalism, nationalism, and Judeo-Christian values … are all deeply related, and essential”.

 

 

(To be continued)