As President Trump continues to generate attention for all the wrong reasons, some of his formerly active and outspoken surrogates and aides have retreated into silence. The most notable of these is Stephen Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist, whose earlier demotion from the National Security Council continues to be dogged by rumours of an imminent departure from the White House. Yet he remains for now, America’s equivalent to Vladmir Putin’s ideological lead, Aleksandr Dugin—and no less dangerous for democracy.
Trump’s peculiar, ego-driven rise has led many to search for its ideological underpinnings. While terms like ‘Trumpism’ can be a useful reference for explaining Trump’s erratic behaviour, it is Bannon’s views that are most concerning. Quietly, Bannon has been making this power play for many years. He has previously referred to Trump as a “blunt instrument for us”, part of a larger “long term play”. This pronouncement begs the question: To whom does Bannon refer when he speaks collectively? Is there a broader political movement, “Bannonism”, behind Trump’s rise in American politics? And if so, what exactly does it consist in?
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, so-called “President Bannon” received a significant amount of media attention. Many of the analyses on Bannon pulled at similar threads. He was formerly the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, a right-wing news publication that embraced a provocative brand of ‘separate but equal’ ethno-nationalism under his watch. Rebranding Breitbart as the home of the ‘alt right’—a loose collection of what some have called “racists, pick-up artists, men’s rights activists, and other noxious trolls of the internet”—Bannon greatly expanded the outlet’s reach. He was helped by insights gleaned from Cambridge Analytica, a big data analytics firm where he was previously a board member. Both companies are significant investments of the billionaire Mercer family, and it would seem Bannon is a public extension of their private politics.
In his ascent to the White House, Bannon overcame accusations of domestic violence, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy. He has reportedly described himself as a Leninist who wants to “destroy the state”. He’s cited proto-fascistic Traditionalist thinkers like Julius Evola and Charles Maurras, and produced a slew of documentaries that call for a violent renewal of Western Judeo-Christian civilisation. He’s taken his theories to Vatican audiences in an attempt to woo the Christian religious right, a core voting bloc in America. He’s called the American media “the opposition party” that needs to “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while”. Simply put, Bannon is an amoral Machiavellian actor whose penchant for provocation and love of the “gunfight” make him a highly destabilising influence in the White House.
But behind the man there is rising movement that could prove larger than him or his backers. Some analyses have focused on the various elements of Bannon’s rhetoric to the exclusion of others, or placed emphasis where it seems ideologically inconsistent. How, for example, to reconcile the strict Traditionalism of his Judeo-Christian rhetoric with his provocative radical alt-right individualism?
There is certainly an uneasy alliance between these two groups. Bannon’s now-admonished chief loyalist and star of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopolous, is an openly gay man who claims Jewish heritage. He has an affinity for premarital sex, drag, and vulgarities. At the end of last year, Yiannopolous visited a restaurant in Indiana to “apologise on behalf of the normal gays” for the backlash owners received after refusing to cater to same-sex marriages on religious grounds. These publicised gestures are suggestive of a larger bargain keeping the current administration in power. Yet once the perceived common threat of the ‘liberal left’ is effectively neutralised (however that is), there seems little to unite these groups.
To Bannon, the religious right simply provides the core populist base required to advance his aims. To him, at least, it would seem they are just as instrumental as Trump. The alt-right are his (anti)intellectual foot soldiers, bridging the divide between an older religious right working class and a younger rising elite as it seeks to overthrow the incumbents. In this sense, Bannon’s populist movement is, at heart, one that uses provocation to promote a revisionist brand of nationalism defined by ideas such as religion, race, and ethnicity—which in turn mediate America’s capitalism. It is a Darwinian movement of superiority that has many parallels with pre-Second World War movements in Italy and Germany. Breitbart stories celebrating the return of “alpha males”, and the popular uptake of this term, are clear evidence for this.
Many of the analyses on Bannon’s vision of America also focus on the future of the current order—dystopian outlooks on globalism, establishment elite, liberalism, democracy. But this movement is also deeply internally problematic, because the alt-right and the Christian religious right cannot and will not coincide forever due to the culture of superiority that is inherent in Bannonism. It is still an open question what will happen when this conflict erupts on the surface but much will depend on whether we will have seen fundamental changes to the constitutional structure of America by then.
In the current constitutional system, such a conflict would lead either to a normal change in the Administration where it would become harder for Bannon to find the electoral support that he needs, or Bannonism would have to create a message with which it could appeal to a larger and possibly different electorate. It is difficult to see how Bannonism would be able to create a political ideology capable of doing that and how this will work in a diverse society as we find it in America —unless through coercion. The provocative, often ironic, and trolling-type behaviour of alt-right leaders is little protection from the interests of a group far larger and more mobilised. To hold on to power, Bannon and the alt-right will need to eventually bend to the ideology of the Christian religious right (which seems unlikely), or exert control over them. Ethno-nationalistic, ‘survival of the fittest’ politics means that alt-righters who do not manage to do this, or who lose favour in relation to the Christian religious right, either because of who they are or what they say, are replaced. Milo’s political ‘ex-communication’ is an example of the operating mechanism of these types of movements.
But in order to be able to exercise coercion on such a large scale, Bannonism must rely on the full capabilities of the security and intelligence apparatus of the state and must be able to use it for its aim. The chilling point is that even if Bannon and the alt-right fail to do so, they might still use the capabilities and the coercive potential that they have to try to bring about what they believe in: collapse as a necessary precondition of renewal.
Ultimately, no group wins when ideologies of superiority dominate politics. Putting aside the erosion of liberalism and its associated groups, Bannon’s movement primes itself for cannibalism. For members of the alt-right, dedicated to provoking and individually expressing themselves, the best-case scenario is worse than the current order. While Bannonism may aim to have a large-scale destabilising impact and collapse ideas of liberalism, democracy, and globalism, in the longer run its own centre cannot hold even if it successfully achieves its aims.
Once society and democratic institutions are fractured, alt-righters have little protection from the own forces they unleash above and below them. Only those who are willing to relinquish their agency and cater to the increasing demands of the base below—and ruler above—are ‘rewarded’. The rest are shed until only the most loyal remain.
History teaches us that these types of movements must eventually end because they fail to generate support through a belief in the legitimacy of the order they seek to establish. They also fail to produce the stability and freedoms that they promise to their supporters. And because people will continue to disagree politically, lying about facts and revising history is ultimately a limited endeavour.
Trump’s errant antics, therefore, should not distract us from the very real ideological battle for America’s future, and the seeds planted for a version of its violent renewal. Bannon may now be laying low and in the shadows. But these shadows still cast long over American politics.
Lead photo by Gage Skidmore.