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Neo-Reactionaries in the West Wing

Why I worry

So, apparently, Steve Bannon appreciates Mencius Moldbug, leading neo-reactionary.

I said what I had to say about Moldbug and his ilk four years ago, here. I flatter myself to think that I took him more seriously — and responded to him more soberly — than he had any right to expect, particularly given the apparent unlikelihood of his ideas ever having any real political influence. And yet, here we are.

But I want to add something to my conclusion. I’ve long believed that radicals often offer a useful critique of power, which is a very good reason to read them. That goes for right-wing radicals as well as left-wing ones, and it’s a reason that I took Moldbug’s ideas seriously rather than just mocking them or ignoring them.

Radicals in power are another story. Because they see crisis where non-radicals see only problems, the first thing a radical in power needs to do is align the general perception with his or her own. And the best way to do that is to precipitate a crisis. In terms of normal perception, that means doing one’s job badly, even catastrophically badly.

TAC readers are generally pretty good about understanding that you don’t get any points for good intentions when your actions lead to disaster. Certainly they don’t give neoconservatives any credit for their desire to spread democracy and freedom when their wars have mostly brought chaos and destruction. But does that same standard apply across the board? Does it apply to people who are voicing the repressed truths that you always wished could find a hearing in the corridors of power?

I ask because much of the rhetoric of the intellectual defenses of Trump is aimed at avoiding precisely that kind of accountability, by cultivating an air of extraordinary crisis.

If the bi-partisan establishment is not merely foolish or incompetent pilots, but is deliberately seeking to crash the plane, then of course you don’t ask questions about whether the opposition to that establishment has any idea what they are doing. You rush the cockpit, then you try to fly. If Western Civilization is so rotten and diseased, and democracy such a hopeless form of government, that continuing to operate within existing institutions can at best draw out the agony of decline, then of course you don’t ask what institutions would replace the ones we have, or how they would work. You blow up the system, then you try to build a new one. If China is destined to go to war with America, and if the Islamic world is already engaged in a global battle with Christendom for earthly supremacy, then of course you don’t try to manage our international relationships to maintain order as best you can. You prepare for war, and then you fight to win.

In this manner, the atmosphere of crisis makes it impossible to hold a regime accountable, because disaster is assumed to be inevitable and therefore cannot be blamed on the regime. Instead, the regime may take credit for the fact that it was prescient enough to see the disaster coming, and for having thought through its implications in advance. Indeed, it may even wind up taking credit for the disaster itself, as being a necessary precursor to something better. Chaos becomes a prerequisite for order. Failure becomes a prerequisite for success. War becomes a prerequisite for peace.

This magazine has described its mantra in the past as “realism and reform.” The rhetoric of crisis is inherently antithetical to both.

Hitler analogies tend to be conversation stoppers — and they are especially likely to backfire when it comes to someone like Trump. If you’re afraid of America losing its fundamentally liberal character, and doing awful things, then you almost certainly never got on the Trump train in the first place. But if you are on the Trump train, it’s likely in part because you feel the establishment is still fighting obsolete wars — like the one against Hitler — and ignoring what’s really happening to the country. And if that’s the case, then these scare stories probably just push you further into Trump’s camp.

But those who find themselves thrilled by the cultivation of an atmosphere of crisis, and the “opportunities” such a crisis opens up, would do well to remember something else about Hitler. He didn’t just commit horrible crimes. He ruined his country the way no leader had ever ruined their country before. He came to power substantially because of fear of Soviet Communism, and after twelve years the Red Army was encamped in the ruins of Berlin.

I’m not saying I expect anything similar — among other things, I think the Chinese are clever enough to see they stand to benefit more by a strategy of jiu-jitsu than by a head-on collision, though I worry very much about the consequences of a rapid collapse in America’s international position. I’m just saying that if Nassim Taleb thinks Trump has only upside because people already don’t think much of him, then he really, really hasn’t thought the matter all the way through.



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