It is refreshing to see that the realm of politics is once again bursting with new ideas, bold proposals, and a sense of purpose, as opposed to the pragmatic sterility that has characterized Western governments in the age of neoliberalism. In contrast to a mentality of ‘managing decay’ that more accurately described a Cameron or an Obama, the Trump administration appears to sail bravely into long avoided territory, inspired by the counsel of Stephen Bannon. Yet, we can’t say that his conception of the world or his lucid diagnoses of the crises we’re undergoing aren’t without detractors, far from it.
For instance, there appears to be a certain conspiracy theory gaining circulation, particularly in the mainstream media, concerning his intentions vis-à-vis liberal democracy. According to various outlets, from The Guardian, to the Washington Post, Bannon’s vision and its implementation through the Trump administration involves nothing more than the utter destruction of the liberal order, and the background assumptions both in politics and society, which have prevailed hitherto. This is in a sense a response of alarm and fear, not altogether unjustified at least in so far, it is the case that Bannon’s conception of the direction of history lends itself to many interpretations, owing to its broad brushes- including the religious element present in it.
Revealing at times oblique shades of fundamentalist Catholicism, encapsulated in his use of the “Church Militant” terminology, and driven by bigoted impulses, so the story goes, the architect of Trumpism aims to radically steer the US into a dark path, as well as undermine the Francis papacy by currying favor with extreme right-wing elements therein. Surprisingly enough, far from being a peripheral view, this is a story that was even regurgitated by a cleric, the Jesuit Fr. James Martin, on his appearance on MSNBC, where he denounced Bannon for cultivating ““racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic sentiments.”
The news segment in question was interesting enough as a window into the shared presuppositions of the panel members, particularly in the instinctive admonishing of Russia- which is perceived to be Bannon’s model in the kulturkampft. There is an irony in the fact that everyone present, including the Jesuit, were aghast at an apparent political weaponisation of Catholicism and a cynical alliance between so-called ‘radical traditionalists’ and the disparate demographic elements which form the Trump support base. The irony being of course that this alliance merely mirrored that of the convergence of liberals in the secular world and in the Catholic Church, exemplified in the person of Fr James Martin, who has been on board with just about every progressive stance on the topics that have defined Trump’s election: immigration, LGBT rights, feminism, and so on.
Perhaps this would explain how these apparent alliances have formed, not as necessarily sinister unilateral maneuvering by right-wing bigots, but merely as a reflection of a chasm that is already existent within society- where people are increasingly sharply divided on such issues as the ones I mentioned earlier.
“We think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti-’ the permanent political class” – Stephen Bannon
At any rate, it is true that Bannon does perceive himself as a radical, uncompromisingly invested in the cause of doing away with current ‘common sense’ assumptions on the nature of the state- in his own words.
We can get a better look at the rich tapestry of his critique by surveying the way he gave it expression through the medium of film. Prior to his ascendancy to the Presidential inner circle, the Breitbart News chair released the documentary Generation Zero (2010), based on the generational theories of Neil Howe and William Strauss. The explanatory principle employed by the authors is reminiscent of a form of Hegelianism, as they go about arguing that ideas and the social movements they spawn unfold until the tensions inherent in them culminate in a crisis, such as a war, and thereby at such a turning, history transitions into a new cycle- a movement which in its totality occurs every 80 years, or in other words, up until the point the structures of governance become obsolete to the needs of the populace.
According to this cyclical reading of historical change, each cycle contains four periods of crises, with the fourth heralding a new cycle, hence the title of the book upon which Bannon’s documentary is based, being “The Fourth Turning” (1997). Going by the succession of events, and against the grain, the 1960’s generation rather than being lionized as it often is in the mainstream media and popular culture is instead, in this account, held accountable for the socio-political dysfunctions which characterize our times. Namely in terms of the baby-boomers’ narcissism, rebellion against traditional morality, and lack of restraint- all of which culminated naturally in a public sphere where deregulation, in all its forms, predominates whether it be in the form of unbridled sexual ethics or for that matter, the unbridled capitalism that birthed the financial crisis of 2008.
Contemplating contemporary affairs from the heights of this theoretical mountain peak, Bannon emerges as a thinker who sees much more at stake in Trump’s election, than any mere run-of-the-mill point-scoring politicking. Rather, his is a Herculean role in the drama of history, laboring for the sake of Western civilization itself, stepping into the corridors of power to embrace and manage a once-in-a-generation opportunity for cataclysmic change.
With this grandiose mission statement in mind, it is understandable why the prospect of its realization should necessarily strike some of us as “terrifying” or “frightening”, as The Guardian has suggested. Given his pronounced loathing of establishment politicians, their corporate financial backers, and their enablers and apologists in the media, it’s predictable that the unabashed articulation of his views should make some commentators run for the hills. Clearly, some of these shots hit too close to home, when many of the detractors not long ago were for all intents and purposes, fully signed-up to the Clinton presidential campaign- the epitome of all ills, going by the Generation Zero perspective.
Much attention, which has usually taken the form of boggle-eyed alarm, on the part of the media has been focused on the views elucidated by Bannon in 2014, where he addressed a conference at the Vatican, hosted by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. It was on this occasion where Trump’s chief adviser expounded on his holistic approach, discussing the manner in which such contemporaneous phenomena as secularization, Islamic extremism, and inequality are related.
He delivers an engaging censure of the more unpalatable strands of capitalism, namely the crony corporatist variety, as he puts it “General Electric and these major corporations that are in bed with the federal government are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists. We’re backers of entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re not. They’re what we call corporatist. They want to have more and more monopolistic power and they’re doing that kind of convergence with big government”. When it comes to social issues, he takes a clear stance, “we’re the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement”.
Most significantly, he traces the root of the societal malaise in the West to its metaphysical source, concluding that “I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals”. It is this foundational precept of modern liberalism, which ultimately precludes anything other than a myopic purely utilitarian calculus from being the normative lens through which to grapple with society’s ills, and its resolution. As he puts it, “that [corporate] 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”.
“In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges” – Pope Francis
Bringing it all back home, in relation to Fr Martin’s ill-judged appearance on MSNBC, mentioned earlier, the Jesuit’s ideologically-skewed version of the story certainly fails to convince on some levels. There’s an unmistakable resonance between Pope Francis’ own populist call to arms against the “idolatry of money” and Bannon’s crusade. The Pontiff’s manifesto Evangellii Gaudium (2013), after all included such radical views as that “This opinion [of trickle-down economics], expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system.”And one may reasonably assume that Francis would concur with the thesis on secularization.
Yet Fr Martin isn’t entirely wrong, for economics may be the area where Bannon and Pope Francis’ similarity begin and come to an end. When it comes to how one should confront the polarization on social issues, there is a substantial difference of tone. Steven Bannon’s stance is belligerent and confrontational, on its collision course with the entrenched progressivism which is commonplace in affluent cosmopolitan circles.
Particularly on the question of radical Islam, in Bannon’s view it is simply a question of an existential threat, the suicide of the Judeo-Christian roots of Western civilization in the context of “the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.” There is quite evidently an insurmountable contrast between this interpretation of events, and for instance Pope Francis’ recent statement that “there’s no such thing as Islamic terrorism” – a statement that is emblematic of the stances taken by this pontificate, which happen to be in line with that of the liberal intelligentsia, on the question of the refugee crisis, as well as terrorism.
This is the stark distinction, between a ‘Church Militant’ approach of robust defiance in face of grave dangers, which Bannon called for in 2014, and that of the “Field Hospital Church’, which Francis calls for- characterized as it is by acceptance of the ‘other’, and indeed his less than subtle dig at Trump about “building bridges, not walls”.
In any case, I think it is notable that though Bannon will most likely not find a friend in the Vatican of 2017, he certainly will find one elsewhere, in another time. The narrative of Western decadence “sapping the strength to defend ideals” and precluding an adequate response to a resurgent radical Islam was after all entertained before.
A very similar scenario to this was given expression by a now largely forgotten writer, who went by the name of Hilaire Belloc in the 1930s. Somewhat gnomically, he wondered aloud in words that deserve to be quoted in full:
“The story must not be neglected by any modern, who may think in error that the East has finally fallen before the West […] — to our political and economic power at any rate if not to our philosophy. It is not so. Islam survives […] we worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship (some few of us) a particular economic arrangement believed to be the satisfaction of social justice. Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline”.
He further elaborated on this, concluding that “our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent”. No doubt, Steven Bannon would find this to be a perfectly pertinent and cogent analysis of the problems as he sees them.