According to recent reports in the mainstream media, Steve Bannon is a supporter of “ethno-nationalism,” and that is scary. It is also, since everything the left doesn’t like is slapped with this label, “racist.” Sometimes, the word “white” is thrown in the mix of charges to make them extra scary, as in this tweet from the Southern Poverty Law Center. (If Bannon is a “white nationalist,” what work is “ethno” doing in that tweet? Or if he is really an “ethno-nationalist,” why is “white” thrown in except as a propaganda technique?)
To make their point, people are citing quotes from Bannon like this one: “‘When two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think …’ he said, trailing off midsentence before continuing a moment later, ‘a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.’”
The website Quartz claims that “the distinction between nationalism and white nationalism may seem like splitting hairs from a liberal perspective”—an odd claim, since a nationalist would claim that our government should put the interest of all Americans (many of whom are not white) first, something we have heard repeatedly from Trump, while a white nationalist would say that only about white Americans. The site then goes on to say that Bannon believes all Americans kind of have their place, “so long as white Protestants remain, as it were, first among equals.” Which would be a pretty weird thing for Bannon to think, given he is Irish-Catholic: it would amount to him advocating that his own people never be other than second place.
I don’t know if Bannon would call himself an ethno-nationalist or not. But if he did, would it be a bad thing? I suggest not: ethno-nationalism is the core idea underlying the existence of nation-states, and has nothing whatsoever to do with racist nationalism.
First of all, “ethno-nationalism” is deeply woven into the very notion of the nation-state. The Greek word ethnos, used frequently in the New Testament, is often translated as “nation”: the idea of “a people” and that of a nation were seen as tightly linked. Millennia later, when progressives sought to redraw the map of Europe after WWI, they did so under the principle that each “ethnos” should have its own nation-state. Wilson’s Fourteen Points stresses the principle that each ethnos should be free to develop “autonomously.”
To darkly hint that “ethno-nationalism” really means “white nationalism,” as some critics of Bannon seem to be doing, is hinting nonsense. A vast majority of African-Americans are, in the ethno-nationalist sense, “more American” than anyone in my family: the ancestors of most African-Americans arrived here in the 1700s, while my ancestors did so only in the late 1800s. Native Americans are also obviously “more American” than anyone of European descent, and many Hispanic families have been in this country for a century and a half or more.
But it is not merely those with extended ancestries in America who are part of our ethnos: anyone who is here legally, even if they arrived yesterday, has joined our nation. Perhaps you believe that the level of legal immigration has been too high over the past decades. Whether that is correct or not, past is past: it is certainly not the fault of legal immigrants if our laws were too permissive in allowing immigration. Now that they have been legally allowed to join our nation, they are a part of it, and deserve the same protection and consideration as every other member.
“Ethno-nationalism,” as I understand the term, asserts only that we, who are living here as citizens, are Americans, and that the foremost end of our government is to protect us and our rights. This idea (properly understood) does not imply any hostility toward people from other countries. It simply means that it is their governments that are tasked with protecting them and promoting their well-being, while our government is tasked with protecting us and promoting our well-being. Nations are certainly not families and their citizens are not children, but in some respects there are useful analogies between the two: that I recognize that I am firstly responsible for caring for my own children does not mean I am hostile to other people’s children, or that I am “pedophobic.”
And so, as I believe both Bannon and Trump would assert, if the globalists seek to flood our country with low-wage laborers from the third world, they are first and foremost betraying their duty to our African-American fellow citizens, who, due to the terrible history of people of African descent in this country, tend to be lower-wage workers. When unemployment is running, depending upon how one counts, at 30-60 percent for young black men (Trump may have overstated this figure, but his point stands nevertheless), what are we doing bringing millions of low-wage workers into the country, a policy that can only ensure that the African-American unemployment rate will continue to remain unacceptably high?
And many of the Hispanics who are in the country legally also suffer from competition from those immigrating illegally: the latter can be compelled to work for low wages under poor conditions because of their precarious legal status. Every legal Hispanic immigrant working in the service industries would benefit tremendously from not having to compete with illegal immigrants willing to do the same jobs for much lower wages.
And what of Bannon’s worry about the number of foreign-born CEOs in Silicon Valley? Well, culture is a deep, complex thing, and it takes time to “become” an American culturally, or a Mongolian, or a Honduran. If I moved with my family to Honduras tomorrow, it probably would not be until the generation of my grandchildren that our family would be “fully Honduran,” culturally speaking, although we might be full citizens well before that. I don’t believe that Bannon was disparaging the great accomplishments of these immigrants, or suggesting that anyone should strip them of their positions because they are from Asia. I think he was only suggesting that it is difficult to form a workable, coherent culture when the number of newcomers is so high.
I don’t know Steve Bannon, and I have only read a small amount of his written output, and that only in the process of writing this piece. (In fact, I don’t recall ever visiting Breitbart.com before undertaking this assignment.) Perhaps, given my limited knowledge of him, Bannon really is, secretly, a “white nationalist,” despite his repeated public rejection of white nationalism. Perhaps he really is, secretly, a supporter of the racist elements of the alt-right, despite the fact that he has said he has “zero tolerance” for those elements. Perhaps he really is, secretly, anti-Semitic, despite his strong support for Israel (a support too strong, by my standards), and despite the character testimony provided for him by many Jews. But the evidence that Bannon holds these hidden views, as far as I have been able to examine it, is pathetic, and entirely inadequate to support such serious charges. No competent prosecutor would ever bring a case against a suspect based on such flimsy evidence.
So is there an alternative hypothesis as to why Bannon has been attacked in this fashion? Well, let us imagine that there is a globalist elite that doesn’t really care at all about the American people. When the housing crisis hit in 2007, instead of bailing out low-income homeowners (many of whom were African-American and Hispanic) who had been duped into taking on adjustable-rate mortgages that only someone with a degree in finance could understand, they instead bailed out the bankers who had made such loans. Instead of worrying about the impact of massive immigration on the lives our our own most vulnerable citizens (many of whom are African-American and Hispanic), they celebrated such immigration, since, after all, it provided them with cheap gardeners and nannies and maids, and their factories with cheap assembly-line workers. Now imagine that they are threatened by the possible ascendancy into power of people who do actually believe that the American government should put the interest of American citizens, be they black or Hispanic or white or Asian, first in our government’s policies? I would imagine that this (entirely imagined on my part!) elite would embark on a relentless smear campaign against anyone expressing such “ethno-nationalist” concern for our own citizens on the part of our own government, so that they could continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.
Dear reader, please decide for yourself which hypothesis is most probable.
Gene Callahan teaches economics and computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.