I ended my February 16 blog asking what Steve Bannon sees as the big issues before us and what he thinks should be done about them.
Bannon gave us a clue in the summer of 2014 in a speech via skype he delivered to the Human Dignity Institute, a conservative Catholic-inspired group that was holding a conference at the Vatican. (His speech can be seen online at the American Catholic.) He said:
...I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis.
He spoke of World War I as the beginning of a "new Dark Age" that he linked with World War II. (Fair enough. Historians also link the two wars.) He described that Dark Age as – really the Judeo-Christian West versus atheists, right?"
Actually, World War I began as a conflict between (1) a very religious Catholic emperor, Franz Joseph, who believed in his God-given right to empire and (2) a nationalism opposed to his empire. The tsar's Russia and the German Kaiser's governance were in the usual God's on our side mode, and Japan's imperialism was religiously connected. But let's continue with Bannon's analysis.
Bannon spoke of the struggle as contemporary:
...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.
He tacked on to this what he called a "tendency" toward "an immense secularization of the West," adding:
And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration.
At the conference, Bannon expanded on his view of the crisis by mentioning two strands of capitalism that he found "very disturbing." One was state-sponsored capitalism (as in China and Russia) and the other was Ayn Rand's Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism (extreme individualism). He suggested combating these by simple choice. He said:
It’s something that should be at the heart of every Christian that is a capitalist — “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us, that divine providence has given us to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”
It was a part of Bannon's thinking that put him as odds back in 2014 with Paul Ryan (an Ayn Rand fan) and the Republican establishment. According to Buzzfeed it was thinking that inspired him to tell "his fellow religious conservatives that,"
the tea party’s biggest fight is not with the left, but rather with the Republican establishment, which is really a collection of crony capitalists.
In other words, Bannon is a religious conservative with a scattered view of what he sees as the great danger that we face. Bannon is viewed as a complex thinker, as President Trump's ideological guru, as a man who has read a lot and a man of ideas. He also sees "jihadist fascism" as a danger (who doesn't?). But he has supported Sebastian Gorka, a former Breitbart News editor, who claims that Islam itself is an inherent danger to civilization – as opposed to those who believe in moderation and reform among Muslims. Bannon has made Gorka his deputy assisant to the president.
The question remains: What does Bannon think should be done to save us from the great threat? Bannon poses as a believer in action and strength, as combative more than a dreamer. Bannon has said,
I think anger is a good thing. This country is in a crisis. And if you’re fighting to save this country, if you’re fighting to take this country back, it’s not going to be sunshine and patriots. It’s going to be people who want to fight.(NYT, 14 Nov '16)
Back in 2013 he told a meeting of conservatives,
There is a permanent political class in this city that dominates it, and by that dominates the country. And there is a dedicated group of libertarians and grassroots conservatives and Tea Party conservatives and limited government conservatives that are here to destroy that. And that is going to be ugly tough work. That’s just reality. People are not going to give up an aristocracy easily.
Bannon is from a blue collar family and worked in a junk yard to make it through college. He is not an upper class softy. He has impressed a lot of people, and this has helped him move up socially and politically after he left the Navy in 1983. But like Bannon himself, I think we can question the competence of any so-called intellectual – liberal or conservative. (It's an anti-authoritarianism central to our democracy.)
In measuring Bannon's claims concerning the crisis that our civilization is facing, I agree with the writer Adam Garrie, who has written of a danger in "over-intellectualizing" Bannon. His claim that Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Ann Coulter "pose an existential threat to the left" is one piece of evidence that points to hid capacity for erroneous thought. Another screwy Bannon idea arises from his having read the book The Fourth Turning. Bannon has described the world as operating in a series of cycles – as if history itself, aside from human choices, has a plan. Some Germans bought Oswald Spengler's cycle nonsense. (Spengler turned into a Hitler supporter, but this is irrelevant). Let us not waste time trying to associate Bannon's cycles in a context of his strategy for saving civilization.
There are reports of Bannon having read Italy's Julius Evola (1898-1974). Some describe Evola as having affiliated with Nazis and fascists. Evola denied he was a fascist or a Hitlerite. A scholar of traditionalists, Mark Sedgwick, says that “The fact that Bannon even knows Evola is significant.” But let's also dismiss the vague Evola connection in trying to understand what might be Bannon's strategy in meeting the civilization crisis.
I have not been good at predictions lately, and I'm not eager to guess the future. What I do see is absurdity in Bannon's idea of saving civilization We might not hear much about it in the months ahead. And I don't think the Trump administration is going to have much demonstrable success in reversing a longstanding historical trend toward abandoning religiosity. (The actual crisis will continue to be the war between micro-organisms and science, between chaotic matter and community planning.) The country has seen widespread religious enthusiasms and hopes rise and fall many times. The coming of radio didn't reverse the trend to secularism. Neither has cable television or people going to mega-churches rather that small community churches. Trump's support for charter schools I don't think will reverse this.
Bannon's biggest challenge might be advising Trump on economic policy. We can see how well he does with that. On this I'm with Paul Krugman's skepticism in his column today (20 Feb '17) in the New York Times.
Otherwise I'm an optimist. President Trump will need court approvals, and he will need all the support he can get from conservatives in Congress. I don't expect to see our free press people and a percentage of the Trump opposition packing the prisons.
Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.