If there’s one man who’s dominated the political news cycle lately, it’s not Donald J. Trump. It’s his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
He’s been all over the place, most recently addressing California Republicans in (appropriately enough, since it’s the home of Disneyland), Anaheim. Bannon pilloried George W. Bush for the latter’s New York speech the other day, in which Bush slammed “nationalism distorted into nativism,” in a not-so-subtle swipe at Trump. Bannon’s shot at Bush—“There’s not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush’s”—was simply the latest in his self-declared “season of war” on the Republican Party, a war Bannon might temporarily be winning, given Roy Moore’s Senatorial victory in Alabama.
We know that Bannon is a bomb-thrower, famous (or infamous) for wanting to destroy “the system.” Among his more notable sayings:
Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.
I’m a Leninist. 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.
The Tea Party in the United States’ biggest fight is with the Republican establishment, which is really a collection of crony capitalists.
The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work. You’re the opposition party.
The rise of Breitbart is directly tied to being the voice of that center-right opposition. And, quite frankly, we’re winning many, many victories. On the social conservative side, we’re the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement, and I can tell you we’re winning victory after victory after victory.
There is every reason to believe that Bannonism is on the rise in America. Bannon gave form to Trump’s inchoate irritations, helping to shape the message into coherence. Bannon touches on the sore spot in the American psyche: every resentment, every grievance that people feel finds its way onto his radar, thence to his lips. Hitler did the same thing. It’s hard to tell if Bannon himself harbors political aspirations—at least, in the sense of elected office, although more of that in a moment. For the present, it is useful to think of him as a propagandist. In that sense, of all the figures in modern fascist history, he resembles no one so much as Josef Goebbels, whose Orwellian title, Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, was given him by Hitler.
Louis Lochner, the American-born correspondent in Berlin for the Associated Press during the Hitler years, knew Goebbels, whom he described as “one of the most versatile spellbinders Germany has had in generations.” Beyond the “deeply resonant voice” and “fanaticism,” Lochner chose the word “versatile” for a reason: “With Goebbels I had the feeling that he would have defended Communism, monarchy or even democracy with the same pathos and emotion, yes, even the same fanaticism, had his idol, Adolf Hitler, chosen to sponsor any of these.”
In his book The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943, Lochner tells the story, related to him by a friend who had been there, of a Goebbels performance—there’s no other word for it—at a party. “Goebbels amused all present by successively delivering a speech on behalf of the restoration of the monarchy, the re-establishment of the Weimar Republic, the introduction of Communism in the German Reich, and, finally, on behalf of National Socialism…At the end of each speech”, Lochner reported the friend as saying, “I was ready to join the particular cause Goebbels had just advocated.”
One has the same feeling about Bannon (and about Trump, for that matter). These are not individuals with fixed beliefs. They are opportunists, out for the main chance. Someone like Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton) is more or less guided by an overarching liberal vision. Not so Trump, who may be for the Dreamers one day, against them the next, for higher taxes on billionaires, against them five minutes later, for healthcare insurance for everyone, then against it, in favor of working with Democrats one moment, then assailing them the next. Bannon, too, seems guided, not by specific issues so much as leveraging the resentments of the working class to his advantage. It’s easy to slam Wall Street. Everybody does it, including me. It’s also easy to denigrate “the media,” whatever that means. In Bannon’s (and Trump’s) case, it’s any media that disagrees with him. Fox and Friends is “good” insofar as its right wing panel floats right wing views. Critics of Trump are “disloyal,” “wacky,” “traitors.”
Bannon’s favorable references to “Satan” and “destroying the state” are more problematic. Churchill himself famously quipped, “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”; but that is a far cry from alleging that Satan is an ideal good. Bannon’s Lenin reference is from the latter’s essay, “The State and Revolution.” Lenin foresees a time when “the oppressed classes, and the proletariat at their head” (i.e., the same classes as today’s red state white males) become aware “of their irreconcilable hostility to the whole of bourgeois society” (today’s version of “bourgeois society” being the media/Hollywood elite Bannon wishes to smash). The resulting revolution, which Lenin led in Russia and Bannon hopes to arouse in America, will “concentrate all its forces of destruction against the state power, and to set itself the aim, not of improving the state machine, but of smashing and destroying it.”
Lenin won his battle, but at what cost? His revolution gave the world Stalin and Stalinism, the cynical Nazi-Soviet Pact that brought about World War II and 70 million deaths, and, ultimately, the collapse of the very Soviet Union Lenin helped to found. “Smashing and destroying” may feel good, and make for fine rhetoric, but its outcome is hardly reassuring.
Moreover, does Bannon really believe that the majority of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton would stand silently by while he and his Charlottesville followers “smash and destroy” the country? That is an idle fantasy. More probably, he thinks—if he actually believes his own speeches—that his side has more guns and muscle than the media-Hollywood elite; and that his side would be joined, in the event of a big fight, by the Pentagon’s armed troops. If worse came to worst, in Bannon’s dream, it might be that ten million soldiers and police would enforce and impose Bannonism upon 100 million Americans who were dead set against it.
That scenario has a name: civil war. Far from the stuff of movies and cheap fiction, it may well be precisely what Bannon foresees, and desires. Bannon is only eight years younger than Trump, but that is two U.S. presidential administrations in length. When Steve Bannon lays his fleshy body down for sleep, the glittering vision on the dark side of his eyelids may be that of President Bannon, presiding over a single-party America, with smoke still rising from the ruins of the democracy he smashed. In this sense, Bannon is not so much the “nationalist” he claims to be, as a nihilist; but he might consider this warning from the Father of Nihilism, Friedrich Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
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