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Bannon in the High Castle
The great normalisation has commenced. The universal belief amongst the establishment that Trump would be catastrophic for the Republic has given way to sycophantic supplications that the grandiosity of the highest office in the land will eventually mollify much of his incendiary proposals. Whether it is Hillary Clinton declaring that Americans “owe Trump a chance” in her post-mortem concession speech, or Nancy Pelosi promising to engage with him on policy issues related to infrastructure, childcare, and early childhood education.
Trump’s poujadist campaign, rife as it was with a cornucopia of racist dog whistles, braggadocious masculinity, flagrant misogyny and copious sexcapades, effectively mainstreamed bigotry and rode it all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue. Libidinal fantasies that both shocked and satisfied were eagerly channelled into trollish posturing against the alt-right’s bugbears of political correctness, social justice, reptilian globalists and their cuckservative bedfellows. The transgressive enjoyment of publicly stating what is not usually said openly, taps into what Lacan terms jouissance – a form of enjoyment that goes beyond the pleasure principle, even to the point of self-destruction. This has become the alt-right’s calling card, and characterizes the imperviousness to fact-checking Trump amongst his base in the hopes of the payoff to sticking it to the liberal media establishment.
The frenzied transition to the Trump era has displayed not only administrative incompetence, but also a deliberate calculus aimed at rupture and generating institutional fissures (see the purging of the State Department). Chaos can allow for an initial disorientation period, whereby discord within the state apparatuses might solicit a swing in the balance of forces to foster a more favourable assemblage, which can then be disciplined by the executive. Whether this comes to fruition is another matter. What we do know is that mass civil opposition and judicial intervention have begun to play early spoilers to a dizzying spurt of executive orders.
In the short term, the system is likely to adapt and absorb. Adjusting towards the current rupture, it will attempt to warp Trump into its orbit, demonstrating capitalism’s intrinsic malleability. Already, in the aftermath of his election, we witnessed a bullish Wall Street and a rising greenback. Nevertheless, the systemic shock that reverberated across the state apparatuses of the Republic reflects an acute crisis inherited from an entrenched, hard centre ruling-class consensus, and its failure to manage protracted decline through a punishing diet of austerity.
The crisis of ruling legitimacy is coupled with the pressures that remain for a healthy level and direction of the profitability of capital: when profitability falls and corporate profits decline, business investment eventually contracts and another recession looms ever larger. Trump’s economic panaceas necessarily amount to cutting taxes, reducing government spending and, potentially, raising tariffs on imports, rather than stimulating anemic global trade. Policy tools such as quantitative easing and slashing interest rates have exhausted their efficacy, and with public sector debt ballooning to effectively 100% of GDP, little room for fiscal maneuvering exists.
It is worth noting that corporate America remains divided on its attitude to Trump, which is not surprising considering the capitalist class is always split between various factions, all with their own competing interests. Any alliance at the moment will primarily be forged from sectoral interests coalescing around fossil fuels, real estate to portions of financial capital, and those cynical and opportunistic enough to get to the front of the line at Trump Tower. This much is clear: neoliberalism’s hegemony is being contested, as it has to compete with the provincialism of the reactionary right and the class politics of the millennial left.
Given the GOP’s ironclad grip on all levels of government for at least the next two years, of significance will be the coalitions surrounding Trump, many of whom have macabre policies to promulgate and potentially legislate. The establishment, while denied their candidate of choice, will be preparing to instrumentalise his office from the start. Trump – seemingly an empty vessel owning no real substantive politics apart from naked self-interest and brand promotion – has already been shown to be a threat to stability-seeking institutional structures, with the fourth estate coming down full force in kind.
Trump’s cabinet, worth $9.5 billion, just so happens to be the richest in modern history, replete with big business executives and climate change deniers. What now remains to be seen is how the contemporaneous cultural shift and sadism unleashed upon America’s embattled social terrain might be legislated over the next term. With controversial choices such as political outsider Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist (now piloted straight into the National Security Council), far-right gadfly Stephen Miller as Senior Adviser, and ultraconservative Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, what we do know is that the tenor of his administration shall be susceptible to an ascendant ethnocentrism and a regressive Christian reconstructionism.
The pick of Bannon, former chair of Breitbart and Goldman Sachs financier, and mastermind behind Trump’s populist romp to the White House has solicited particular concern and rightfully so: a dark knight of an odious reactionary fringe has just been fast-tracked within earshot of the presidency. However, liberals and leftists must look further beyond the virulent racism he symbolizes to comprehend the potential reverberations of his impending counsel. For once you peel back the contentious exterior, revealed is a calculated political vision with an attentiveness to the longue durée.
If there is a political vision that motivates Trump, it is incubated in his éminence grise. Bannon’s ideological scaffolding is discernible in many of Trump’s proposals surrounding immigration, infrastructure, trade, and national security. More worryingly, in politicising the process for national security decision-making through the (now bungled and Supreme Court-bound) ‘Muslim ban’, #PresidentBannon has given the appearance that he might be more than just a Svengali, in his overt commandeering of the executive.
Initially, there were doubts as to whether Bannon believed Trump would make a competent commander-in-chief. Consider that he once referred to Trump as “a blunt instrument for us,” adding “I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.” It is evident that he is playing a much longer game than the rancid headlines he cultivated on Breitbart might imply – much of which is the histrionic-seducing bombast meted out by Troll-in-Chief and libertarian provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. That he does not have the chronic baggage that progenitor of the alt-right Richard Spencer has is largely because Bannon shrewdly circumvents broadcasts of private repugnancies, perhaps to convey mystique to accumulate the dark power that he so craves.
Apart from the meticulous courtship of white supremacy, misogyny, and the laundry list of –phobias that he gave a platform to at Breitbart, Bannon, a self-proclaimed “Leninist” and economic nationalist yearning to upend the existing power structure, gestures toward an optics of revolutionary conservatism in the vein of Edmund Burke, who believed that purging the ruling class was justified in order to restore the old value system. This philosophical symptom is apparent in a lecture Bannon gave to the Liberty Restoration Foundation (LRF), where he condemns the baby boomer generation for failing to live up to their Burkean responsibility of passing down those tried-and-true values of their parents, such as nationalism, patriarchy, and religion, as opposed to abstract ideas like human rights, social justice, and secularism. The seeds of social disorder can then be traced to the failure to pass on this generational torch.
Bannon rails against the toxic strands of crony state capitalism and Ayn Randian libertarianism, both of which have perverted what he believes to be an “enlightened capitalism.” He identifies a hyper-individualist secularism and globalized milquetoast liberalism as pernicious creeds that have unmoored capitalism from its Judeo-Christian moral framework, undermined the hegemony of Western civilisation, and exploited its white working class. Under the suzerainty of a pugnacious neoliberal elite, the assault on Judeo-Christian values subsequently empowered jihadism abroad while promoting cultural dislocation and degeneration at home. The on-going crisis of capitalism eschewed democratic norms and warped capitalism’s institutions towards socialism, allowing for the evisceration of the middle class by the “party of Davos,” whose exploitative power was most starkly on display during the credit crunch and the subsequent bailout of finance capital. All of which left behind a battered, oxidized Pax Americana in its wake.
More a ghoulish would-be parallel to Bismarck than a caricatured Klansman, Bannon successfully repurposed the left’s critiques of neoliberalism, pivoted upon both class war and mass culture, laced it with a Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilisations’ discourse, and repackaged it for a populist right-wing audience. He absorbs the register of civilisational antagonism and operationalises it into an impending global existential war between the “Judeo-Christian West” and “Islamic fascism.” The rhetoric of preparing a revanchist Christendom against the Saracen hordes would find him in the company of Putin and other burgeoning demagogic reactionaries presently strewn across the European continent.
Nationalism, in Bannon’s estimation, is the mechanism through which Judeo-Christian values can rehabilitate and re-anchor society. He reads nationalism as an engineering of inclusivity, in the sense that it dissolves minority identities – thus preventing oppressed groups from claiming special rights – so as to merge under a collective ‘American’ sense of self. Following this logic, Bannon’s opposition to refugees and immigrants can then be cast as discarding those who do not share the same value system, going as far to even indicate a deeper level of unrequited genetic deficiency (given most are unlikely to be “Jeffersonian Democrats”), which would ultimately undermine his tenuous moral-civic framework of American regeneration and fortification.
That Bannon wishes to imbue the re-established Republic with a Judeo-Christian traditionalism to advance an economic program of neo-mercantilism should give us pause. ‘Traditionalism’, in the sense Bannon invokes it, is problematic seeing as he references one of the intellectual progenitors of European fascism, Julius Evola – who promoted a racist, hierarchical spiritualism as a tonic to combat the illusions of progress and egalitarianism, and whose influence continues to resonate upon parties like Golden Dawn and Jobbik. Moreover, Bannon shares an ideological overlap with the Russian ultranationalist philosopher Alexandr Dugin’s ‘fourth position Eurasianism’ critique of liberalism and globalization. Himself an intellectual descendant of Evola, Dugin’s repackaged fascism can be detected in the geopolitical outlook of the radical right, who are inspired by his endorsement of a multipolar system apartheid-style ethnostates, and see Russia as a vanguard shielding European Traditionalism from the Evolian bêtes noires of liberal democracy, individualism, and materialism.
Concomitantly, an old geopolitical obsession of the US far right is resurfacing. Bannon appears keen to redeploy the next iteration of the ‘Asia First’ platform – one that shaped conservative internationalism’s entire defence platform during the Cold War – by insouciantly ratifying that the US would be going to war in the South China Sea in “five to ten years.” It is here that Bannon’s peculiar interpretation of American history comes into focus. It has been well documented that he is a devotee of Strauss-Howe’s “generational theory”, which posits that a repeated 80-year cycle of crises occur periodically over four “turnings” – intervals of 20 years that are each characterised by a particular mood (“high,” “awakening,” “unravelling,” and “crisis”), before inevitably culminating in apocalyptic resolution. Ambiguous, but superficially compelling, the suggestion of preordained upheaval leading to cataclysmic transformation speaks directly to the experience of a traumatized, hypervigilant subject. Bannon, in taking generational theory seriously, believes that inevitable conflict is in the offing as the present crisis – signalled by 2008 – represents the “Fourth Turning,” and the termination of a cycle that roughly began with the New Deal. This is the macro context that animates Bannon’s urgency to reconstruct the social order by grounding his program of restoration on the conviction that rapture is around the corner.
One of the reasons why Bannon gestures towards defending Judeo-Christian civilisation, and is in favour of developing twenty-first century Christendom in the Western hemisphere, is because this sort of politics is ostensibly oriented towards identifying with a ‘civilisation’ rather than a ‘race’. In doing so, a racial identitarianism is resuscitated in the contemporary political context: seeing as the ‘clash of civilisation’ narrative is much less tainted and fundamentally more compelling for the far right to utilize than appeals to explicit racial supremacy, especially in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and the refugee crisis.
However, this neat political division between civilisation and race is to be historically found wanting. In fact, many theorists of white civilisation from Oswald Spengler to Lothrop Stoddard postulated ‘whiteness’ and ‘Western civilisation’ as one and the same. The period of the Belle Époque (1871-1914) saw the prominence of transnational political affinities in movements that sought to connect peoples across national or imperial boundaries, which were being articulated in explicit racial terms. Such affinities were not mutually exclusive: they could and did coexist with others, from the most hermetic nationalisms to the most internationalist anarchisms. Combined with the extension of formal imperialism and its associated global hierarchies came what Jürgen Osterhammel called “a general strengthening of the ‘white’ position in the world.” The onset of World War I then shattered this white solidarity, and its visibility in conceptions of nationalism remain crucial if we are to situate the importance of race within the emerging world order of our present political conjuncture.
Likening his economic populism to that of Andrew Jackson, Bannon favours recalibrating the state through massive infrastructure spending (a policy that contradicts the administration’s plans to brutally cut spending), suggesting that he favours a broadly Keynesian economic policy – not to mention signalling a pre-emptive boost to the war economy, seeing as a chunk of Trump’s appointees are drawn from the military-industrial complex. After all, the election demonstrated that the liberal wonkery, whose bread and butter is everything policy, failed – but not policy in and of itself.
In pursuing an anti-modern (counter) revolution, Bannon’s traditionalism demands a return to a cultural and divinely ordained supremacy by overthrowing the hegemonic yet decaying liberal order of the post-war period. Bannon’s blueprint for American redemption through the prism of an enlightened capitalism steeped in Judeo-Christian spirituality, if ever realized, will create the foundations for neo-fascism of the twenty-first century. Through what specific class coalitions, mass mobilisations, and state coercions (and combinations) it emerges from, will remain to be seen.
That there is division in the capitalist class over how much room to allow Trump and his administration to manoeuvre – and fissures are already starting to surface within the US state – should inform us that oppositional cleavages will emerge early and often. We must guard against succumbing to conspiracism when confronted with exceptional standards of blundering statecraft. From lurid fantasies of trial coups to false flag operations, Trump (and Bannon) will only stand to benefit from a steady dose of paranoia, fear, and fatalism in an age of fragmentation, rupture, and insurgency.
Amar Diwakar is a writer and research consultant. He has an MSc in International Politics from SOAS, University of London. He blogs at Splintered Eye and tweets @indignant_sepoy.