by Joseph S. O’Leary
This essay has been peer-reviewed by the b2o editorial collective.
Now that Stephen K. Bannon has been removed from the White House (August 18, 2017), it has become possible to consider his six months’ presence there as a unified, substantial whole. One stumbles already at the words “unified” and “substantial,” for though Bannon is more “all of a piece” than President Trump, the unity seems to reduce to vacuous slogans or vague ideologies such as “nationalism” and “populism,” supposedly pitted against the “globalism” of others in the White House. Trump, as Slavoj Žižek says, using a mathematical term sported by Alain Badiou, is an “inconsistent assemblage”; his very inconsistency is his strength, frustrating efforts to pin him down, as he instinctively changes tack in opportunistic response to audiences and situations—racist, or pretending to be, on the campaign trail, but stoutly declaring he hasn’t a racist bone in his body when challenged. In contrast, Bannon sticks to his ideological guns pertinaciously, but there is an emptiness to his consistency and a frustrating lack of substance to his presence. So he too, like Trump, is “as the air, invulnerable, / And our vain blows malicious mockery.”
Now Bannon is yesterday’s man, and however he may rage, unshackled, against his former boss from his Breitbart pulpit, his words will be “but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.” Even his recital of his palmy days—“I said, ‘Look, I’ll focus on going after the establishment.’ He [Trump] said, ‘Good, I need that.’ I said, ‘Look, I’ll always be here covering for you’”—is destined to become an old wives’ tale, perhaps to share over an ebbing fire with Sarah Palin, about whom he once made a hagiographical movie. It is hard to write of these people without falling into the key of ridicule. But Noam Chomsky might approve: “The performances are so utterly absurd regarding the ‘post-truth’ moment that the proper response might best be ridicule. For example, Stephen Colbert’s recent comment is apropos: When the Republican legislature of North Carolina responded to a scientific study predicting a threatening rise in sea level by barring state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents to address the problem, Colbert responded: ‘This is a brilliant solution. If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved’” (Yancy and Chomsky, 2017).
Looking back, one recognizes that Bannon’s brief career at the pinnacle of power must be deemed a triumph, since he achieved to an astonishing degree just what he aimed at. His boast in The Hollywood Reporter, “I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” the power behind the throne and the real agent of revolutionary change, was not a vain one (Wolff, 2016). Like Cromwell, he sometimes failed to steer his monarch, who axed him in the end, but he did succeed in changing beyond recognition the State he served. Bannon modeled himself on Lenin as well: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment” (Radosh, 2016). In pursuit of this goal he had encouraged Sarah Palin, Lou Dobbs, and Jeff Sessions to run for President, sighting in them likely instruments of his revolutionary aim. Under normal circumstances such a sophomoric scheme would get nowhere, but Bannon knew the man of destiny when he saw him and adroitly won his confidence. As the world contemplates the shambles of American government today, surely Bannon can justly take some credit?
A Slippery Customer
To measure the difficulty of finding an effective critical perspective on Bannon and Trump, one need look no farther than to an article in Civiltà Cattolica titled “Fondamentalismo evangelicale e integralismo cattolico” and penned by editor Antonio Spadaro, SJ, along with Marcelo Figueroa, editor of L’Osservatore Romano in Argentina. This authoritative piece takes the ideological stand-off between Pope Francis and President Trump beyond cartoonish slogans—“Care for the poor. Care for the earth, Embrace the immigrant. Strive for peace,” on one side, “Scrap benefits. Bring back coal. Build a wall. ‘I love war,’” on the other—and offers a more detailed hermeneutic of Francis’s allusions and frowns (such as the one that, quite deliberately, spoiled his photograph with the Trump family). But the article’s focus on a “mingling of politics, morals and religion” that “divides reality between absolute Good and absolute Evil,” seems rather beside the point. George W. Bush talked about an “axis of evil” and claimed that it was the USA’s duty to “free the world from evil,” but such language has little real purchase in the Trump world, any more than the language of truth and falsehood; such terms have become a thoroughly debased currency. However, it is true that Bannon seems to have an entrenched view of apocalyptic warfare between good and evil: journalist James Ulmer claimed that Bannon “hoped to destroy the Hollywood establishment” and would say: “We’re the peasants with the pitchforks storming the lord’s manor.” Bannon “was always making these grand, hyperbolic analogies between good and evil, the culture of life versus the scourge of death that, in his view, Hollywood had become. Hollywood was the great Satan” (Bruck, 2017).
When Spadaro and Figueroa decry the “dominionism” that sees ecologists as “people who are against the Christian faith” and sees “natural disasters, dramatic climate change and the global ecological crisis” as confirming “their non-allegorical understanding of the final figures of the Book of Revelation and their apocalyptic hope in a ‘new heaven and a new earth,’” their remarks are again off-key. Biblical references have a merely occasional and tactical function in the Trumpian regime of truth. The ideology behind Trump’s ecological recklessness may well be nothing more than dislike of liberal fads espoused by Obama and Hillary Clinton and belief that they are bad for American business.
When the Civiltà Cattolica authors recite elements of the alleged Trumpian creed—“Theirs is a prophetic formula: fight the threats to American Christian values and prepare for the imminent justice of an Armageddon”—and offer a theological diagnosis—“Such a unidirectional reading of the biblical texts can anesthetize consciences or actively support the most atrocious and dramatic portrayals of a world that is living beyond the frontiers of its own ‘promised land’”—they seem to be floundering. They identify the “dominionism” of Rousas John Rushdoony as “the doctrine that feeds political organizations and networks such as the Council for National Policy and the thoughts of their exponents such as Steve Bannon, currently chief strategist at the White House and supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics. … Rushdoony’s doctrine maintains a theocratic necessity: submit the state to the Bible with a logic that is no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism.” Most people have never heard of Rushdoony—perhaps Bannon and Trump haven’t either—and Bannon’s name does not figure on the leaked membership list of the secretive Council for National Policy. So the claim made here looks less like a brilliant piece of detection than a tilting at windmills.
“Appealing to the values of fundamentalism, a strange form of surprising ecumenism is developing between Evangelical fundamentalists and Catholic Integralists,” an “ecumenism of hate” marked by a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations.” Does this grasp the mind of Donald Trump? Probably not, since he does not work with a consistent ideology. Does it reflect the views of Stephen Bannon? Who can say, since Bannon remains quite discreet about his actual beliefs. The authors then turn on some noisy American bloggers, no doubt to their great delight: “There is a shocking rhetoric used, for example, by the writers of Church Militant, a successful US-based digital platform that is openly in favor of a political ultraconservatism and uses Christian symbols to impose itself. … It has created a close analogy between Donald Trump and Emperor Constantine, and between Hillary Clinton and Diocletian.” For some fundamentalist supporters, it’s true, Trump is the equivalent of King David, chosen by God as his anointed, and who can be forgiven anything, including adultery and murder, because of his status as the Lord’s instrument. But these are a fringe element. In general the article may comment correctly on troubling developments in the American religious landscape, but it does not close in on Bannon and Trump themselves. I would add it to the honorable list of failed attacks on Trumpism, on all of which Trump has thrived, from his rhetorical massacre of his fellow-contestants in the Republican primaries in 2016 down to the broad approval his reactions to the Nazi rally in Charlottesville secured despite condemnation from politicians and the media. For his supporters the New York Times and the Washington Post are every bit as biased and vicious as Fox News is in liberal eyes, and Trump knows he has nothing to lose by lashing out at “lying media.”
Bannon has a previous history with the Vatican, as contributor to a conference of the Human Dignity Institute held there in 2014. The chairman of this Institute, Cardinal Raymond Burke, is Pope Francis’s foremost critic and an icon for diehard Catholic traditionalists. He holds that “Islam wants to govern the world”; “Islam is a religion that, according to its own interpretation, must also become the State. The Koran, and the authentic interpretations of it given by various experts in Koranic law, is destined to govern the world” (Catholic Herald, 2016). Bannon’s speech referred to a coming “brutal and bloody conflict” with “this new barbarity that’s starting.” The barbarity has two faces: soulless capitalism, and “a global war against Islamic fascism.” “It’s very difficult to know what Bannon is saying, because he’s so fuzzy,” commented theologian Matthew Fox: “His definition of Christianity is very archaic”; “it’s peculiar that he never uses the word ‘justice’” (Fox, 2017). But here again the trail peters out, for I do not know of any indication of further substantial links between Burke and Bannon, though they are said to have exchanged emails. Catholicism does not appear to have had any marked presence in the White House during Bannon’s tenure.
The Silent Sage
Bannon is a simpler figure than Trump, yet a more elusive target, because of his silence and invisibility, based on his policy that “darkness is good” and “I am not doing media,” which, along with his reputation as an intellectual and a cogent thinker, lends him inscrutable dignity. The White House, a “dump” according to its present occupant, is said to be haunted, and Bannon loomed there rather spectrally. He did not provide the Trump presidency with a backbone or a secure framework, a task that has defeated even the “axis of adults” now surrounding the incumbent—Generals John Kelly, James Mattis, Joseph Dunford, and H. R. McMaster, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. An opportunistic ectoplasm, Bannon made his influence felt as occasion offered. One can imagine him overawing his presidential protégé by a pregnant silence, or dropping laconic counsels at well-chosen moments into the depths of the presidential mind. Flourishing amid the insubstantiality and surreal evanescence of a White House that had become a reality show, that is, an unreality show, Bannon could inject a series of reactionary prompts on such matters as ecology, immigration, the transgender ban, the Iran nuclear agreement, the war in Afghanistan. One wonders how he would guide the unsteady finger that hovers over the nuclear button.
This dignified eminence began to be punctured toward the end of his tenure, when Bannon flickered into eerie prominence in Anthony Scaramucci’s job-ending interview with a reporter he later compared with Linda Tripp. Scaramucci’s fantastical image of an auto-fellator exploiting the president’s strength to boost his own brand, and his gangster-style threats: “The president knows what he’s going to do” and “has a very good idea of the people that are undermining his agenda,” were good for a laugh, but the threats turned out not to be idle ones, though Scaramucci’s own head rolled before Bannon’s. Then came a second lurid flare: Bannon’s own astonishing interview with The American Prospect, seemingly a hasty effort to express his views forcefully while he still had the White House position he knew he was doomed to lose within days. He used the opportunity to focus not on Islam, but on Asia, now apparently a more real threat: “We’re at economic war with China. It’s in all their literature. They’re not shy about saying what they’re doing. One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path.” Contrary to Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” to North Korea, Bannon said: “There’s no military solution, forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” When Bannon actually speaks, he is emphatic and grandiose; but when his words are no longer backed by the title of Chief Strategist they will lose most of their weight.
Does Bannon write? Does he even tweet? One solid text by him would provide something to chew on, instead of having to speculate about the influences that feed his rhetoric. According to James Hohmann (2017) these include Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (a critique of J. F. Kennedy’s advisers), William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning (an absurd theory of historical cycles), Steven Emerson’s American Jihad, and Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile (polemic against big government). This somewhat nerdy list does not yield a satisfyingly sharp profile, and in the absence of such the entertainment industry and even leading politicians have resorted to crude caricature (on Saturday Night Live) and ineffectual name-calling (“Nazi,” “white supremacist,” “Rasputin”). Bannon has also expressed himself in agitprop movies that are far outclassed by those of Michael Moore. One of them, Generation Zero, orchestrates a tale of cultural decline dating from Woodstock in 1969 with over-wrought images of an apocalyptic abyss. Its sees the USA as gripped in a fore-doomed “fourth turning,” which must lead to a big war. As Micah L. Sifry (2017) writes: “Bannon doesn’t just believe that we are in an existential conflict with Islam or with China. It seems he wants to exacerbate those conflicts into a new world war. As a believer in Strauss and Howe’s theory of history, Bannon fantasizes that he can use that cataclysm to forge a completely new order.”
That a man in thrall to such a tawdry and dangerous ideology was allowed to attend the Principals Committee of the National Security Council from January to April 2017 troubled people greatly. Far from acting to restrain the president’s belligerent attitude towards the media, the judiciary, environmental protection, Obamacare, and the rights of immigrants and gender minorities, Bannon was suspected of acerbating it and feeding the president a fascist script. The contempt that Bannon expressed in his American Prospect interview for “ethno-nationalism” as a “fringe element”—“we gotta help crush it”—does not extend to his own economic nationalism; nor does it quite dispel the suspicion that he advised the president to spread the blame for Charlottesville equally between right and left (Kuttner, 2017). Yet it is clear that Trump needed no one’s advice for that, as shown in the pugnacious press conference of 15 August 2017. This press conference eerily echoed a CNN interview recorded, but not aired, two hours earlier with Jared Taylor, editor of the neonazi American Renaissance. “Same ideas, same ideology, same talking points,” noted Uygur (2017) on “The Young Turks;” but that does not necessarily make Trump anything as substantial as a white supremacist; he merely parrots the memes of the Charlottesville apologists who sprang up across the social media in the days preceding his press conference. In any case it remains possible that the chaos in the White House is entirely Trump’s doing, and that Bannon’s ministrations have had only atmospheric effect, so that even his claimed triumph in reshaping US politics may turn out to be yet another mere illusion.
The Inaugural Address
Bannon’s most glorious moment was Trump’s Inaugural Address of January 20, 2017, if it is true that he contributed to its composition, to the point that it offers an undiluted expression of Bannonism. Both in its picture of American decline and its promise of a glowing future, the speech had a hollow unreality that was far from the norm of US political discourse but that reflected the essence of Trumpism as Bannon would define it, namely the hollowing out of democratic values and their replacement by populist pap: “January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before” (Time, 2017). Trump embodies a revolt of the masses, and has a visceral bond of mutual loyalty with the people who have thrust him to supreme power. But he is likely to redeem them from the burden of too much government and regulation not by inaugurating any new deal that would end poverty and inequality, but by casting them loose to fend for themselves. He paints this disempowerment as empowerment: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. … This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” The willfully constructed scenario is mendacious on both sides: the negative picture bears no relation to actual achievements and efforts of previous administrations, and the promise of sudden, radical change is of a piece with Trump’s long history of false advertisement and unpaid wages. As a speech-act it is a salesman’s dazzling spiel, not a concrete commitment likely to be soberly enacted. It offers a blank check for unabashed plutocracy and kleptocracy, all covered by the assurance that this is what the people want.
But above all its apocalyptic scenario is fantastically unreal, bearing the stamp of Bannon’s fanaticism. Before Trump, America was a scene of utmost desolation; but now a golden age has suddenly dawned. Before Trump we saw “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” He does not mention the mass incarceration of Americans by the prison industry, on racist premises, with massive use of solitary confinement; nor the huge inequality between the plutocrats and the poor; nor the relative success of the USA in protecting the environment, reducing crime, providing health care, ensuring civil rights of minorities, all of which Trump seeks in practice to reverse.
The gap between glowing promise and mean practice is astronomical, yet the faith of Trump’s supporters is great enough to wing that abyss. The speech uses literary tropes to appeal to an apocalyptic imagination, and to dull the civic imagination traditional in America. Its use of the language of royal edicts underscores its tangentiality to sober reality: “So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again.” Or the language may sound like the diktat of a revolutionary elite: “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power.” The actual content of the grandiose decree turns out to be petty: Americans will no longer be pushed around, but will give priority to their own interests.
Understanding the Post-Truth Ideology
We are now seeing daily how an entire population can sleepwalk into the clutch of an authoritarian regime, and how fragile are the ideals and structures of modern liberal democracy. Even the famed checks and balances of the US system are proving ineffectual, and some suggest that the only effective action is a coup of some sort. Much of what is afoot is standard fare—attacks on freedom of the press, academic freedom, freedom of opinion, and independence of the judicial branch—but something eerily new is also emerging. We are beyond Neoconservativism, and beyond the “moderate right.” We are moving into the territory of the “reactionary right,” the “radical right,” the “extreme right” (see Eatwell and O’Sullivan, 1989).
Trump’s new form of populist rightism draws elements from all these categories, but it also introduces an original twist that is principally located in the realm of epistemology. The reckless and compulsive lying of the President is a pathology, but one that has enabled him to sail to victory again and again. His claims that the head of the Boy Scouts of America phoned him to praise his deplorable speech to them as the greatest ever, and that the President of Mexico had phoned to compliment him on the wall, were so blatant and so easily refuted that one must wonder if “pathological” is a strong enough word; such a disconnect invites the label “psychotic.” But in the world of showmanship, business wheeling and dealing, and confidence trickstership, reality is what works, and the confident liar will feel he is more tuned in to things than the scrupulous fussers about veracity whom he scorns as losers. Reviewing three books titled Post-Truth, Leith (2017) writes: “Whereas the liar has a direct relationship with the truth value of what he or she is saying, and implicitly honours the truth by denying it, the bullshitter simply doesn’t care about whether his or her statement is true, half-true or outright false: he or she cares only about what it achieves. Here we are in the territory not of logic but of rhetoric.” Trump dismisses discomforting truth-tellers as liars, since truth and falsehood in his mind are reducible to what boosts the ego and what does not; he is presented with flattering reports twice a day by his excruciatingly servile staff. Truth holds no weight in his thought and rhetoric, as the language of “alternative facts” and the use of lying as a rhetorical method indicate. In contrast, Bannon is something of a true believer, asserting his tawdry ideology with real conviction. That is why Trump is President and Bannon is not.
“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it” (Arendt, 1966, p. 350). For the Nazis, as the 1947 US War Department film Don’t Be a Sucker says, truth was “their oldest and most persistent enemy” so “they decided to abolish truth,” via book burnings, propaganda, censorship, discouraging education, etc. This background lends gravity to the core scandal of Trumpism—its disregard for truth. But with Trump, this is not the cold calculation of a budding totalitarian leader. Rather it is inherent in his cultural milieu. Its matrix is a corruption of conservative culture. Ironically, though conservative critics of modernity frequently rail against relativism and cynicism, as conservatism has increasingly taken a postmodern turn this battle line has become blurred; those who originally stepped forward as champions of unchanging Truth have strangely morphed into intellectual opportunists who wave the banner of Truth as a weapon in their changing ideological battles.
But there has been a treason of the clerks on the other side too, among clever postmodern intellectuals, who can find their own distorted image in Trump’s parody. Our endless delicate talk about the contextuality, historicity, culture-boundedness, conventionality, socio-political determination, and endless deferral of the “truth-effect,” has been orchestrated by Trump with a vengeance, while Bannon flaunts the fateful word “deconstruction.” If postmodern attitudes to truth secrete any poisons, they have materialized in the deadliest form in the Trump ideology. Not a subtle and refined relativism, but a blanket discrediting of experts, eggheads, science, journalism, facts, and truth itself, is the staple of Trump epistemics. Building on old resentments, this tactic has so far been astonishingly successful.
One of Trump’s favorite locutions is “It’s true!” and he postures as the scourge of mendacity, be it that of the “lying media,” “lying Ted,” or “crooked Hillary.” But this is truth as ammunition for the will to power. When Trump finds a truth that works, it is raised to the status of a meme or a dogma to be intoned on all occasions. Sometimes the truth actually is true, as in his excoriation of the USA’s interventions in the Middle East. But it is not the true truths that are most to his taste or that he most often repeats. In a world where conspiracy theories flourish in proportion to their unbelievable strangeness, Trump’s weapon of choice is the untrue truth, proclaimed as a revelation that can be immediately sloganized, and stamped with his trademark “Believe me!” that recalls the “Amen, Amen, I say unto you” of the Gospels. As if challenging his supporters to ever braver acts of faith and loyalty, he not only advances implausible claims without a shred of evidence (as in the claim that millions voted fraudulently in the presidential election) but proclaims as fact matters that the simplest inspection of the empirical data shows to be false. One example of this “gaslighting” (from Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight about a husband who undercuts his wife’s perceptions, driving her mad) is Trump’s claim to have had a huge crowd at his inauguration, despite photographic proof to the contrary.
The incredible power of someone who can thus disable truth and fact must be very exciting, and indeed many addicts of such media as Fox News and Breitbart have known this excitement for years. Bannon, in his Breitbart career, has both shaped and been shaped by the culture of round-the-clock slander, fear-mongering, and lurid speculation, but in some ways he is more reminiscent of the Bush era neo-cons such as Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. He builds up an image of the ideological enemy, first Islamic terrorism and more recently China’s bid for world hegemony, but he does not subscribe to the fashionably postmodern claim that there are no facts, only interpretations.
“The nature of reality is an open question in the age of Donald Trump. As the president regularly decries ‘the Fake News Media’ and journalists catalogue his many lies, the battles of our time seem not just political but philosophical, indeed epistemological” (Heer, 2017). But this “postmodern” twist to presidential politics goes back to Bill Clinton’s famous parsing of the meaning of “is” and Donald Rumsfeld’s sophistries. The denial of anthropogenic climate disruption by a host of specious arguments (whether advanced in good faith or as paid propaganda) was one of the earliest and most widespread manifestations of the turn to post-truth. Despite the clearest evidence of recent and sudden disruption, the post-truth apologists simply declared that climate change has always been happening (while ignoring the contrast between the this long-duration change and the suddenness of what has happened over the last century); some added a religious twist by denouncing the presumption and faithlessness of humans who usurped the Lord’s job of being the steward of creation and failed to trust him to make everything work out all right. Here the ludic attitude to truth has catastrophic impact in the real. Trump may turn out to be the most expensive joke of all time.
Jeet Heer’s quotations from Fredric Jameson do not quite capture what is new in the Trump phenomenon: “a society of the image or the simulacrum and a transformation of the ‘real’ into so many pseudoevents;” “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense” where “depth is replaced by surface.” Trump thrusts his all too solid or sullied flesh on the world’s attention daily—no subtle play of depth and surface here. When Trump is Trump, holding a crowd in the palm of his hand or fiercely confronting the press, he grabs attention; only when he is scripted is he an utter fake, as in his nauseous “let us love one another” rhetoric after Charlottesville.
“For Baudrillard, ‘the perfect crime’ was the murder of reality, which has been covered up with decoys (‘virtual reality’ and ‘reality shows’) that are mistaken for what has been destroyed. ‘Our culture of meaning is collapsing beneath our excess of meaning, the culture of reality collapsing beneath the excess of reality, the information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information—the sign and reality sharing a single shroud,’ Baudrillard wrote in The Perfect Crime (1995). The Trump era is rich in such unreality” (Heer, 2017). That’s not entirely true, for there is an anemic or skeletal form that shows up through the frenetic flimflam of the Trump show, a pathetic reality—sad!—that stares back at us whenever we fix our eyes on the abyss, as in one act of blinding showmanship Trump fixed his own eagle eyes on the eclipsed sun.
A boy sobs alone in the corner of an empty room, not for any “excess of meaning” but for its absence. Unlike The Truman Show, in which the “excess of reality” is stunningly unmasked as unreal, this show is known to be mere show from the start. Its harking back to the 1950s, or the 1930s, or even the “good old days” of the 1850s, when blacks who protested would be “ripped from their chairs” or “carried out on stretchers,” may launch a thousand rallies, a thousand golf weekends or expensive shopping expeditions, but cannot take a single step forward in real historical time. In the time of his imagination Trump is a king, but in 2017 no such matter. He does not belong to the real 2017 at all. A time-traveling stray from a dream past, he cannot grasp the first thing about the “brave new world” of today nor exclaim with Miranda “How many goodly creatures are there here!” Generic praise—“doing a great job” (even in speaking of the long dead Frederick Douglass) or “fine people” (even in speaking of the white supremacists of Charlottesville)—is the most articulate response he can manage; and when that world rises before him in its unpleasant facticity, all he can do is shriek “It’s a lie! it’s fake!” No, this is not Baudrillard’s “information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information” but an extreme exinanition of real information. The social media, held in thrall for two years already by one man’s pathology, battens on his empty soundbites, stunts, and gags. It’s a roller coaster, with lots of thrills, but always ending where it began. Or is this the new real? Are we just entering the Age of Trump? Has our entire culture prepared this ghastly moment, when it implodes on its own unsuspected hollowness?
The Ghost of Ayn Rand
The effort to pin down Bannon’s outlook by studying his sources leads to strange destinations. Perhaps a catalogue of the things to which he is virulently opposed is more revealing. Generation Zero, his 2010 documentary, shows how the “capitalist system” was undermined by spoilt baby boomers and socialist policies that sapped the spirit of enterprise. In a lecture for the Liberty Restoration Foundation he accused baby boomers of “abandoning the tried-and-true values of their parents (nationalism, modesty, patriarchy, religion) in favor of new abstractions (pluralism, sexuality, egalitarianism, secularism).” “Unmoored from a Judeo-Christian moral framework, capitalism can be a force of harm and injustice—exemplified by the US’s economic decline” (Guilford and Sonnad, 2017). Bannon wants to reform America and he proceeds about his task with moral earnestness.
If the disruptive and unpredictable Trump is the Luther of this reform, a man who speaks from the gut and to the gut, and whose twitterstorms trouble the world’s ear as Luther’s printing avalanche did, then Bannon could be cast as his steady if shadowy Melanchthon, brooding on the principles of the movement and clarifying them. The President is a businessman and Bannon is an intellectual, a line-up that would gratify Ayn Rand, for it is exactly the combination she saw as replacing the ancient collusion of Throne and Altar: “Capitalism wiped out slavery in matter and in spirit. It replaced Attila and the Witch Doctor, the looter of wealth and the purveyor of revelations, with two new types of man: the producer of wealth and the purveyor of knowledge—the businessman and the intellectual” (Rand, 1961, p. 21). Ironically, Trump bids fair to rival all Attilas as looter, while Bannon purveys not knowledge but rather rigid formulas. A businessman unrestrained by business ethics (though he may see his presidency as fulfilling his social responsibility) and an intellectual hobbled by ideological fixation make a strange couple as they tread the halls of supreme power.
Does Rand haunt those halls? Ray Dalio, a hedge fund billionaire, declared: “Her books pretty well capture the mindset. This new administration hates weak, unproductive, socialist people and policies, and it admires strong, can-do, profit makers” (Dalio, 2016). Rand’s influence is strong in the world of business, especially in Silicon Valley. “Her overarching philosophy that ‘man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself,’ as she described it in a 1964 Playboy interview, has an obvious appeal for self-made entrepreneurs” (Stewart, 2017).
Her appeal for Republican politicians seems just as strong. Her name keeps coming up, since she is probably the most convenient source for legitimizing their ideas. An article denying her influence nonetheless provides ample evidence of it:
The Washington Post’s James Hohmann recently devoted many column inches to trying, and failing, to paint the Trump administration as somehow Randian. His headline notwithstanding there’s virtually no evidence that Donald Trump is an Ayn Rand “acolyte.” Hohmann notes a report by USA Today’s Kirsten Powers, which, in full goes: “Trump described himself as an Ayn Rand fan. He said of her novel The Fountainhead, ‘It relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything.’ He identified with Howard Roark, the novel’s idealistic protagonist who designs skyscrapers and rages against the establishment.” Hohmann’s article goes on to note that three of Trump’s cabinet appointees show appreciation of Rand’s works. Rex Tillerson called Atlas Shrugged his favorite book in a 2008 feature for Scouting Magazine. Andy Puzder named his private equity fund in honor of a Rand hero, one of whose friends stated that he reads Rand in his spare time, and he recommended to his six children that they read Fountainhead first and Atlas Shrugged later. Rep. Mike Pompeo told Human Events, in 2011, “One of the very first serious books I read when I was growing up was Atlas Shrugged, and it really had an impact on me….” (Benko, 2016).
“In a 2005 speech, [Paul] Ryan said that Rand was required reading for his office staff and interns. ‘The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,’ he told a group called the Atlas Society” (Benko, 2016). In a 2009 campaign video, prompted by soaring sales of Rand’s novels, Ryan acclaimed her as “sorely needed right now” when “we are living in an Ayn Rand novel, metaphorically speaking,” due to President Obama’s “attack on the moral foundation of America.” Rand “did a fantastic job in explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.” Three years later he embraced Aquinas, dismissing as “an urban legend” the idea he was inspired by Rand. “‘I reject her philosophy. … It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. … Don’t give me Ayn Rand!’” (quoted by Costa, 2012). All of this suggests that Rand has been officially banished from GOP circles, but the need of exorcism suggests that her ghost does linger. Indeed, some might say that authentic Randism would be preferable to the parody of it offered by Trump and Bannon.
But here Bannon eludes us again, for like his fellow-Catholic Ryan he is sharply critical of Rand in his speech to the 2014 conference in the Vatican; yet he speaks of her with a lingering sympathy, and treats her as an authoritative reference for understanding contemporary capitalist culture:
There’s a strand of capitalism today—two strands of it, that are very disturbing. One is state-sponsored capitalism. And that’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. … The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. And, look, I’m a big believer in a lot of libertarianism. I have many many friends that’s a very big part of the conservative movement—whether it’s the UKIP movement in England, it’s many of the underpinnings of the populist movement in Europe, and particularly in the United States. However, that form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people … and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive. And if they don’t see another alternative, it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of “personal freedom.” (Feder, 2016)
The heroine of Rand’s first novel, We the Living (1936), indulges a violent Nietzscheanism: “What is the people but millions of puny, shrivelled, helpless souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the words that others put into their mildewed brains? And for those you would sacrifice the few who know life, who are life? I loathe your ideals because I know no worse injustice than justice for all” (quoted in Merrill, 1991, p. 38) Robert E. Merrill believes that minor stylistic alterations in this passage in the second edition (1959), such as the replacement of “justice for all” with “the giving of the undeserved” and “men are not born equal” with “men are not equal in ability,” show how Rand kept Nietzsche’s “emphasis on achievement, on aspiration, on pursuing supremely important values” while “she was able to clear away the debris of his ethical monstrosities” (Merrill, 1991, 40). Nietzsche is caricatured for the purpose of this argument, and even so it seems clear that Rand remained a pop pseudo-Nietzschean in 1959 as in 1936. Merrill speaks of Rand in cultic tones: “A hundred years from now, if civilization survives its present crises, Rand will be seen as a giant among twentieth-century thinkers. Not only will Objectivism be recognized as a major contribution to philosophical thought; not only will Rand’s ideas be accepted as correct; but very likely our whole way of thinking about philosophy will have changed” (163). The grandiosity here and the awed expectation of radical change bear a resemblance to the Inaugural Address. This middle-brow philosophizing is matched by equally tawdry esthetic judgment: “Strictly as a writer, Rand will certainly be classed among the top ten of her century. Her novels are already classics by any sensible definition.… Our descendants will envy us that we were her contemporaries” (163). At a time when academics teach Star Wars as a classic epic, and when Bob Dylan is widely regarded as an exemplary Nobel Prize for Literature, this sophomoric, nay, adolescent level of thought has wide purchase. The semi-intellectual Bannon has sponged up such half-baked notions, which allow him to project wisdom and depth to the shallow and impressionable Trump.
For another Rand scholar, she opposed “a statist society in which there is a deadly alliance between government, science, and big business” (Sciabarra, 1995, 339) and in the passage quoted by Merrill “Kira may not be expressing a Nietzschean contempt for the masses as much as she is expressing a desire to break free of a system that crushes the individual under the weight of an undifferentiated collective” (105). Bannon aimed to smash up government in favor of individualistic libertarianism, and Trump projected the charms of such an ethos; but in reality that is another bait and switch, for the winners will be the faceless capitalist and militaristic institutions that increasingly force citizens into a collectivist lifestyle. Had Trump been a truly charismatic great leader after Rand’s heart, who would raise the masses from their hebetude, the danger to democracy would be much greater than that posed by the actual farce his administration has become. Democracy faces a double threat: from economic liberalism, deregulation, and unbridled capitalism on one hand, and from right-wing populism on the other. But the two forces collude: the liberals need the rightists either to maintain order (Weimar and Hitler) or as a bogey man to get themselves elected (Hillary Clinton and Trump, Macron and Marine Le Pen). Their candidate may alienate support on the left, who “lack all conviction” about his or her merits, thus leaving the door open to the rightist candidate, sustained by the “passionate intensity” or his or her gung-ho supporters. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” written just after the Great War, is more and more on our lips as a new season of convulsions opens. “The centre cannot hold” and makes way for a “rough beast, its hour come round at last.”
The Ghost of Julius Evola
America for Bannon is an empty signifier, provided with an unreal paradisal past, an unreal apocalyptic present—the “crisis”—and an unreal future, blank and undefined. An anonymous article at summeroflove85.wordpress.com (2017), titled “The Unhappy Ghost of American Identity: Hauerwas, Bannon and the ‘Emptiness’ of National Promise,” notes that “most of Bannon’s claims are less to do with cultural essence and more to do with economic freedom of the nation ‘to do things’ (‘sovereignty’, ‘bringing back jobs, and ‘supporting deregulation’);” “That’s all a story-less politics can really do. It can only talk about conditions of action, it has no account of what actions should be preferred and why. Beyond the defense of doing and choosing, it has little substance.” Should we think of the fascist hyper-activism, energeticism, decisionism cultivated in the age of Gabriele d’Annunzio, F. T. Marinetti, Ernst Jünger, and Carl Schmitt? Perhaps, but Bannon lacks their wit and their power to grip; his preachy prescriptions are banal and deathly dull.
Still Bannon, playing Mephistopheles to Trump’s Faust and Rasputin to his Nicholas II, invites comparison with Baron Julius Evola who played, briefly, a comparable role for Mussolini. Here again connections are elusive. “While Bannon’s references to Evola don’t prove he sees eye to eye with the philosopher, the openness with which he mentioned the Italian philosopher suggests that Evola’s name is not only circulating in Bannon’s circles, but that Bannon does not consider Evola’s thinking particularly problematic” (Merelli, 2017). Bannon’s actual words, in response to a question about Russia, were: “When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he’s got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism” (quoted by Liverant, 2017). As in the case of Rand, Evola is put at a distance but his name keeps recurring. It is true, however, that his critics have been too quick to put Bannon in the same basket as these two thinkers.
When Mussolini came to power with his amorphous and flexible fascist ideology, many stepped forward to give it shape: “Like Gentile, all the most articulate hierarchs or ideologues who served the regime nurtured the illusion that they could be the mid-wives of a new Italy reborn in their image” (Griffin, 1991, p. 69). Evola, a Dadaist painter who believed that civilization was entering the “black age” or Kali Yuga of Hinduism (Griffin, 2007, p. 6), bears a resemblance to the composer of the Inaugural Address. Evola was a similar literary attitudinist, and Mussolini “early decided that Evola was an hysteric—but that his views might serve to convey, to equally hysterical fanatics in National Socialist Germany, Fascism’s seriousness of purpose” (Gregor, 2005, 218). Meanwhile, “Evola clearly held Mussolini and Fascism to have been nothing other than a ‘hypnotic’ side show that might be conveniently employed as a means of communicating the profound realities of a transcendent world to those capable of understanding” (219). It would not be surprising if Bannon had an equally cynical attitude to Trump, for his own apocalyptic world-view is far more sublime than what any ordinary politician can begin to comprehend.
Mussolini rued his use of Evola, who started an independent right wing movement that through its influence on Mussolini’s rump Republic of Salò rendered Fascism for the first time “complicit in the murder of Jews” (220). Trump should have learnt from Mussolini’s mistake in “burdening Fascism with an ill-contrived and immoral racism” (221). Ideologists may look lightweight, but if given a hold on power they can swing things in a sinister direction. “Montini [the future Paul VI] identified Evola as suffering from ‘those strange forms of cerebralism and neurasthenia, of intensive cultivation of incomprehensibility, of the metaphysic of obscurity, of cryptology of expression, of pseudo-mystical preciosity, of cabalistic fascinations magically evaporated by the refined drugs of Oriental erudition’” (198). How many have trashed with equal flamboyance the intellectual misery of Trump and his supporters. But their kind of power is not measurable in those terms, and in fact is better secured by the intellectually mediocre who are adroit communicators. “The wholly Fascist intellectuals … were for the most part middle-notch figures, among whom one could distinguish the delirious Julius Evola or a dilettante in the vein of grandeur such as G. A. Fanelli, who defined Fascism as ‘integral monarchy.’ No one took them seriously” (Bobbio, 1973, 230-31). The doctrine of these thinkers had little consistent positive content beyond its opposition to democracy and socialism (232). Trump has found no major intellectual to lean on, no one like what Giovanni Gentile (Mussolini’s first education minister) was for Fascism or Carl Schmitt was for Nazism. Bannon may have seemed a lucky catch to him for a few months, but disappointment set in, for Bannon did not have the capacious and realistic political intelligence of figures in previous administrations who starred as the “brain of the president.” “The fact that totalitarian government, its open criminality notwithstanding, rests on mass support is very disquieting” (Arendt, 1961, vii). Trump enjoys the solid support of at least a third of the American population, and if he were called upon to be the leader in a terrorist or military crisis that support would shoot up. So it is perhaps fortunate that his charism is not of a higher order and that he has not found collaborators of genius.
One difference from Evola is that neither Bannon nor Trump are traditionalist in the European style. They would not say, with Evola in his defense statement of October 1951, “My principles are only those that before the French Revolution every well-born person considered healthy and normal” (quoted in Furlong, 2011, p. 9). Also missing among Trumpists is the mystic exaltation that Evola experienced and that led him to study Buddhism (see Furlong, pp. 2-12). Yet their contempt for empirical fact and their faith in instinct (“my temperament” as Trump calls it) does suggest a quasi-religious assurance, a belief in an alternative source of truth, a gnosis.
At the end of our brief inquiry, Bannon remains not so much an enigma as something of a blob. The alleged brain of Trumpism turns out to be a disappointing blank. There is nothing as substantial here as the neocon ideology of a previous deplorable regime. When the show ends, we will be left with a sense of empty exhaustion, for the sound and fury of this tale told by an idiot indeed signifies nothing. The morning after will be bleak and cheerless, but it will be a blessed relief to return to the light of common day, freed of all the ghostly ghastliness.
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