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Bannonism Will Live On

To what can we compare Stephen Bannon? I’m always tempted to see him as the picture to Donald Trump’s Dorian Gray, his face bursting another capillary every time Trump provokes North Korea on Twitter. A more serious analogy is to a sort of non-violent Jean-Paul Marat, the French Revolution-era scientist-turned-radical journalist. Like Bannon, Marat was a fervid nationalist. Like Bannon, he had his own populist newspaper, L’Ami du peuple (“The people’s friend”), which, as with Breitbart, became a case study in how a media outlet can undermine establishment politics. Like Bannon, Marat was obsessed with rooting out moderates wilting before his revolution, for him the Girondin members of France’s new assembly. And like Bannon, he was ultimately felled by the same supposed accommodators he’d tried to purge, in the former’s case the increasingly pliable Trump, in the latter’s a young Girondin named Charlotte Corday who stabbed Marat to death in his bathtub.

The most persuasive similarity between the two, however, is simply that Bannon is also a radical whose tactics, if not principles, have been lifted from the left rather than the right. Bannon himself has admitted as much, telling historian Ronald Radosh [1] that he’s a “Leninist” who wants “to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Barbara Boland was absolutely right in her recent essay at TAC [2] to note that Bannon measures up poorly against the powerful advisors of history: he doesn’t have the flexibility of a Machiavelli or the cognitive dissonance of a Seneca the Younger; his interest is in broadly enforcing his ideological blueprint, not dabbling in the minutiae of White House administration. Trump was only ever a vessel for his agenda. Though our ham-handed politics labels Bannon a “conservative,” he has about as much in common with Edmund Burke as your average sans-culotte, something I wager he’d readily admit to.

Bannon is an imperfect ideologue. He has a gargantuan ego that often leads him astray, perhaps lately towards the delusion that he himself would be a better populist messenger than the man he helped elect. But he’s also hit on a paradox at the core of today’s American conservatism. Conservatives, in theory at least, look with skepticism upon grand projects and giant leaps, which too often end up rupturing with the societal traditions they hold dear. Yet much of what conservatives support today is actually quite radical: banning all or most abortions, rolling back the regulatory state, rejecting decades of orthodoxy on the issue of climate change, a massive downshift of power from the federal government to states and localities, a moral ethic rooted in Christianity rather than identity politics—and lately questioning the “liberal international order” in favor of something more nationalist and protectionist. The enactment of such an agenda would cause a good deal of upheaval and uncertainty, exactly the sort of void conservatives’ forebears feared most.

Some have wrangled with this contradiction by scaling back their proposals, claiming great problems can be addressed with light-touch solutions, like child tax credits to arrest sagging birth rates. Others, much of Conservative Inc. it seems, are fine pretending this tension doesn’t exist at all. Bannon’s approach has been to gleefully embrace conservatism’s radical side. Disagree with him all you like (and I do), but his is a perfectly logical position. His ascent—some would say his transformation—is a predictable consequence of conservatives yearning for something increasingly distant from the modern world, just as did young people in the quietly simmering 1950s. Indeed, there are many stylistic similarities between the radicals of today and those half a century ago: the “for the lulz” performance art of a Milo Yiannopoulos contains an echo of the prankster Yippies, for example. Those who lack cultural power can sell out, they can evolve, they can retreat to the catacombs—or they can take Bannon’s approach, they can transgress and pump their fists and try to burn it all down.

Bannon’s digestible binaries—establishment versus the people, globalists versus Americans—are easily superimposed on an electorate that’s itself divided both economically and culturally. Red states and the Rust Belt have for decades been the victims of bad federal policy; Bannonism gives them an abstract enemy to blame, a valve for their fury. The algorithmic and library-voiced Mitt Romney and the earnest Paul Ryan seem woefully inadequate by comparison: have those praying they run for higher office again learned nothing? In The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek critiques conservatism by defining it as “a brake on the vehicle of progress” and observing that a mere decrease in speed “cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving.” Likewise, while conventional taxes-and-terrorism Republican rhetoric doesn’t feel like much of a heave on the ship’s wheel, Bannonism furnishes a clear vision, a real change, swords to wield, dragons to slay. Guess which one has greater appeal right now?

The modern right has always had a whiff of radicalism about it, with origins in pushback against the 60s counterculture, a second wind in Newt Gingrich’s legislative reformation, and late-life vitality in the Saul Alinsky-invoking tea party. But it’s with Bannon that the odor has become most pungent. He is an unlikely revolutionary. An early profile [3] from Bloomberg Businessweek in 2015 portrays him as more of an operative than anything, determined to professionalize a conservative movement that had made too many unforced errors. Other pre-Trump appearances found Bannon worrying about the national debt and extolling his Catholic faith. It’s a windy road from there to storming the barricades under Donald Trump’s sigil, but it’s one many conservatives have traveled in recent years. The challenge for more traditional Republicans will be fashioning a new politics that quenches voters’ burning thirst for change—a position they’ve arrived at themselves, not been brainwashed into by Fox News—while circumventing Bannonism’s conflagrations and The Camp of the Saints ugliness.

As for Bannon himself, his downfall has been fast and unceremonious: trashed by the president after he gossiped to Michael Wolff, abandoned by his deep-pocketed Mercer family funders, sacked by Breitbart, and then forced to watch as Trump indicated in a meeting [4] earlier this week that he could sign a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Marat’s downfall saw him elevated into a revolutionary martyr; Bannon has been banished into exile. But revolutions don’t die with their figureheads. Bannonism won’t either because, unlike the ethereal ideas behind liberalism and conservatism, it’s found visceral real-world resonance—among blue collars who see economic nationalism as a glimmer of hope among boarded-up plants, service-members frustrated with fruitless wars, young men flummoxed by modern feminism, right-wing activists frustrated with their political party’s perceived impotence. Taunt Bannon all you like, but the imprint he leaves behind will be far larger than one spurious tell-all.

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Bannonism Will Live On"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 11, 2018 @ 2:17 am

Bannon made Trump palatable to many, for just the reasons given here.

#2 Comment By collin On January 11, 2018 @ 8:50 am

There is always a level of Bannonism /Paleoconservatism in the US politics but who knows how impactful it will be.

1) Probably the biggest issue for Bannon was Trump was elected in 2016 and our nation did not want or need a Leninist. (It wasn’t 2008 anymore)
Frankly most conservatives were satisfied that HRC and Obama were not President and did not want massive changes.

2) The whole the people and globalist division is too simplistic and there are a lot ‘People’ that support free trade or relatively open borders. (For instance I dont see the economic benefit of steel tariffs at all.)

3) The last blast of paleconservatism was Perot and the strong late 1990s economy halted that movement.

4) We still don’t know how much a pushback on Trump/Bannonism will be. Trump is not popular and the House is endangered.

5) The biggest thing lacking of the Bannon/Trump movement is how push back against the economic elite. Trump is governing exactly like an establishment Republican. Look at Trump/Perry ideas on saving coal which was properly turned down. This plan was unbelievably awful and not the right way for a better electric system and was simply handing Murray and First Energy a bunch money.

#3 Comment By David Nash On January 11, 2018 @ 9:12 am

It is a cardinal error to confuse conservatism with The Right, as much as it is to conflate liberalism with The Left.

Conservatism stands for stability and community. The accretions of “limited government” and “lower taxes”, charming they may be as mantras, are more libertarian (Classic Liberal) than they are conservative. (Thanks loads, Frank Meyer.)

A bomb-throwing Bolshevik like Bannon truly belongs on The Left, but in these days of abysmal ignorance of civics, it doesn’t matter.

“Bannonism” may live on, but thanks to the crackpot nature of its cobbled-together ideology, will remain a niche religion much like hard-core anarcho-libertarianism.

Given the current atmosphere of outrage porn, willful ignorance and gleeful brutality, I do not have much hope for a Burkean conservatism to thrive, at least until after the pending social collapse.

#4 Comment By Winston On January 11, 2018 @ 10:32 am

In your “Yet much of what conservatives support today is actually quite radical” list you missed one of the most important demands – the prevention of a permanent shift to the left of the majority political demographics of this country via illegal immigration and citizenship by high birth rates leading to chain migration of people who vote 70% left. If they voted 70% right, the Dems “love” for them would evaporate and they would have erected a border wall visible from space decades ago.

#5 Comment By Navy Jack On January 11, 2018 @ 12:14 pm

Bannon will likely fade into oblivion via the Bourbon barrel, and the name Trump may become synonymous with “traitor” (but not like the media elite would hope). These men did not create a movement nor inspire anything. They were both savvy enough to see the political reality in this country and to give it voice. They will go, but the reality will remain. Ironically, but predictably, both men will likely be laid low by their own egos. But, so it goes.

The reality that supersedes these egotistical, narcissistic men is the fact that the traditional core of the American people have “woke” to the fact of their betrayal by the elite class to whom they have entrusted the leadership of this country for decades. They have awakened to find decay and rot throughout every American institution and to discover that these elites have enriched themselves beyond measure with the wealth of the nation at the cost of the workers and taxpayers who make that wealth possible. They have awakened to their own replacement and now realize the disdain with which they are viewed by those who would be their “masters.”

These Deplorables, white, working, taxpaying, Bible-believing, gun-owning MEN(!), are not going back into the opioid sleep of blissed out suburbia. They are now aware of the ill-hidden hatred which the elite class has for them and the future of serfdom to which these elites have fated them and their children. Gentlemen, a beast is being born out here in the hinterlands. It will not be put back in the cage.

The writer’s allusion to the French Revolution is somewhat telling. The history of the West is replete with moments of savagery and destruction directed inwardly. It will be so again. When these Deplorables turn on their keepers, it will not be pretty. The Progressive elites who believe that they can control and shape “narratives” to harness that power are fools. The cloistered intellectuals who believe that they can “opt” out of the coming clash are dreaming.

The traditional core of the American people are no different than their ancestors. They just don’t live as close to the edge as those folks did. But when they are backed up to that edge, when betrayal has been made clear and the institutions are revealed for the Oz that they have become, they will recall that old hatred that still courses in the Western man’s veins and will react in ways that will chill the blood. The imaginary “crimes” with which “privileged whites” are damned by the rioting Cultural Marxists will escape imagination and leap into reality. God help us.

#6 Comment By JonF On January 11, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

Re: The last blast of paleconservatism was Perot and the strong late 1990s economy halted that movement.

Perot, for whom I voted in 1992 but not 1996, was not a paleoconservative, but rather a pragmatic centrist. Compare his position on social issues with Pat Buchanan’s (Buchanan being Mr. Paleoconservative– and who ran in 19902 too)

#7 Comment By Whine Merchant On January 11, 2018 @ 3:29 pm

I see the usual error of presuming that immigration [the bogey man of Bannon and the alt-Right] will shift the nation to “the left”.
Hah! Immigrant communities are much more traditionally conservative, especially socially conservative and religious, than the American host population. That the Democrats support them does not mean that they are so “left” themselves.

Besides the incredible dislike and distrust many of these communities have for one another, there is a strong streak of:
“I made it here – now pull-up the ladder and close the door”.

Thank you –

#8 Comment By Kevin O’Keeffe On January 11, 2018 @ 5:25 pm

“I see the usual error of presuming that immigration [the bogey man of Bannon and the alt-Right] will shift the nation to “the left”.
Hah! Immigrant communities are much more traditionally conservative, especially socially conservative and religious, than the American host population. That the Democrats support them does not mean that they are so “left” themselves.”

I didn’t realize Senator Lindsey Graham comments on TAC article. Um…neat?

#9 Comment By William M. On January 11, 2018 @ 6:22 pm

I wouldn’t count Bannon out. There have been a number of times in history where political figures were exiled/cast-into-outer-darkness only to have a triumphant return where they became more powerful than ever (Churchill probably being the most famous in the past century).

If you look at a list of entities that have severed ties with him, it becomes reasonable to suspect that he arranged for the exile himself, in order to protect the revolution. Trump, Breitbart, a monied interest, these are liabilities, not assets.

I am not saying that he in fact does so, but Bannon is more likely than anyone else in American politics to “take the long view”. If your timescale is months, then sure, things look bad for him and his movement. But if you think in terms of years, then opportunities open up.

The traditional conservatives will disappear, Trump’s tweets will be forgotten as soon as he leaves office and, demographic change will prove meaningless because fear of the white majority is the only thing holding the emergent coalition together.

Once the white majority is gone, the fear will dissipate and, the coalition will break apart as the disparate groups will have nothing else in common. And, no, Bannon is not a White Nationalist. That is Left-wing propaganda. Being brown does not automatically make you a globalist-cosmopolitan.

Remember folks, jackboots can fit feet of any color. If anything, the lack of cultural/historical baggage would make People of Color more willing to put them on.

#10 Comment By EarlyBird On January 11, 2018 @ 7:58 pm

The last thing that Bannon has is a coherent ideology. And of course, he’s filled with rage. But it’s an honest rage, and perhaps the reason it is so incoherent is that there is such apparent diversity among its targets.

I’ve only heard him speak at length in his hour long interview with Charlie Rose (RIP). In essence, he’s just tired of the lies good decent folk, right and left, are supposed to say. He ranted, for instance, about how the US, like every other country, had always had an economic system of tariffs and immigration quotas that were openly intended to be “selfish,” and “America First,” yet that around the mid-80’s we just decided this kind of stuff was anachronistic, neanderthal and even racist, to boot. I got a real sense that he genuinely cares about national cohesion and the middle class, and I didn’t get any whiff of jingoism or other ugliness. Not that any of this makes his ideas correct ones.

Nor would I expect that he’d consider himself a big policy guy. He considers himself one of the shock troops that can make way for capable, new policy makers (alas, he rode Trump’s coattails).

David Brooks said this recently about Donald Trump, but it could be said about Bannon just as well: “He’s the wrong answer to the right questions.”

The economic, personal, societal and psychic pain being expressed Bannonism, Brexit, and other anti-globalist movements around the West is not only not going away, it is only just getting started.

#11 Comment By One Guy On January 12, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

“But revolutions don’t die with their figureheads.”

In the first place, Bannon isn’t the figurehead. Trump is. Bannon tried to co-opt the revolution for his own aims. I don’t see anger on the part of Trumpists that he is banished.

In the second place, yes, sometimes revolutions do die with their figureheads:

Peoples’ Temple
Branch Davidians
Heaven’s Gate

Granted, these were much smaller minority revolutions than Trump’s minority revolution, but the still died with their figureheads.

#12 Comment By JonF On January 13, 2018 @ 9:42 am

Re: I see the usual error of presuming that immigration [the bogey man of Bannon and the alt-Right] will shift the nation to “the left”.

The people who fret about this are really worrying that immigrants will vote against the wishes of the Owning Class. They’ve bamboozled the white working class into (mostly) voting for their boss’s agenda, but they’ve had little luck at corralling non-whites.

#13 Comment By LouisM On January 13, 2018 @ 11:14 pm

The Alt-Right will not go away.
The white working class will not go away.

African Americans have the highest employment rates they have ever seen because Trump is preventing legal and illegal immigrants from taking their jobs and undercutting them on their wages. If African Americans ignore this and vote democrat then its true that they still have the mind of a slave voting with fear of victimization (democrat) instead of the reality of jobs and economic benefit (republican).

The same can be said for women who embrace motherhood and family rather than a marriageless and childless career.

The open question is not whether Trump republicans (aka the deplorables) will disperse after Bannon and Trump. They are empowered and they have a voice. They wont give that up. The question is whether the republican party will try to return to the deep state republicans (ie democrat light) and disregard their base.

#14 Comment By Bernard Rees On January 14, 2018 @ 1:29 pm

He is Iago, from OTHELLO…..
His War God ( TRUMP) did not reward or elevate him and he is , therefore,compelled to destroy him….nihilism, writ large.
Nothing new here…
(A brilliant fallen angel, nevertheless…).

#15 Comment By A Sorry State On January 14, 2018 @ 11:09 pm

“He [Bannon] is Iago, from OTHELLO…..”

Nonsense. Trump’s the one doing the betraying. I voted for him. He’s betrayed me on immigration, foreign policy, foreign aid, and trade already. Multiple times. My theory is that Bannon basically likes Trump but couldn’t take being part of the massive betrayal of the voters any more. In any case Trump’s outta here in 2020.