Deciphering the Bannon Doctrine

Time’s recent cover story asks: Is Steve Bannon “the second most powerful man in the world?” The former Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood producer transformed the news website Breitbart into a media powerhouse for the Right. For detractors, Breitbart is a platform for racist and nativist clickbait. Bannon lauds it as “a global, populist, anti-establishment news website,” courageously challenging global elites. As campaign CEO in the election’s final months, Bannon pushed Trump to double down on populist rhetoric. Both Bannon and his candidate took a gambleand won.

Most expected Bannon, now Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, to be one force among many in the administration. But the fiery “America First” philosophy preached during Trump’s inaugural speech not only echoed Bannon’s worldview, it was written by him and his closest ally Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior advisor on policy. The pair developed the explosive executive orders for a temporary ban on travelers, refugees, and (initially) green-card holders from seven Muslim majority countries. The Time story parallels similar reports of his growing influence. A contributor at War on the Rocks warns that Bannon has the makings to be “Trump’s Rasputin.”

Even if such ominous fears fail to materialize, Bannon will certainly be a prime actor in this presidency. But what drives his worldview?   

Bannon summarized his political philosophy in a 2014 speech at the Vatican. In his reading, postwar America and Europe was a golden age, combining capitalist dynamism with a strong middle class and cultural cohesion through shared “Judeo-Christian belief.” But forces accelerated by elites destroyed this “enlightened capitalism.” A debased form of capitalism emerged, best reflected in the speculative bubbles preceding the 2008 financial crisis. An “immense secularization of the West” robbed it of moral foundations. Free trade and mass migration eroded national sovereignty and identity. The result? A decaying Western civilization “in crisis” and “sapped of strength.”

Thoughtful intellectuals have raised similar concernshere one thinks of the iconoclastic leftist Christopher Lasch, the French writers Pierre Manent and Michel Houellebecq, and Catholic intellectuals like Ross Douthat and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. But Bannon sees change arising not through reform but destruction. As he told a journalist in 2013, “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.” These are indeed the words of a revolutionary Jacobin, not a traditional conservative.

More eerily, Bannon appears to regard war as a source for national restoration. Some of his former colleagues recalled to The Daily Beast that he seemed to be a “strong militarist…in love with war,” constantly absorbed in military history and rhetoric. An in-depth Quartz profile describes Bannon’s belief in America’s formation and renewal through a product of three violent crisesthe American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. We are now, says Bannon, at a “fourth great crisis point in American history.” David Kaiser, a historian who partially subscribes to this cyclical theory of U.S. history, recounted in Time a conversation where Bannon “expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.”

“Bannon sees change arising not through reform but destruction.”

Bannon’s fear of national decadence combined with his acceptance—if not enthusiasm—for military conflict echo earlier US. history. The “fear of decadence,” according to historian Christopher Lasch, absorbed thinkers of the Gilded Age who dreaded that the United States was now “rotten to the core” thanks to mass immigration, unchecked industrial capitalism, and rising foreign powers. Subsequently, the masculine virtues of the “strenuous life” praised by Theodore Roosevelt could be best recovered—as the president himself sadly argued—through war and imperialism, the means of moral regeneration for an Anglo-Saxon culture that allegedly faced “the decline of heroism” and greatness.

Bannon’s philosophy shapes how he views Europe. The continent’s political class “allowed [for] the complete collapse of the Judeo-Christian West in Europe.” Breitbart‘s Europe is a dystopian nightmare of secularism, insolvent welfare states, and alienated, growing ethnic minorities with minimal respect for Western values. Bannon praises European far-right populist parties as “a global Tea Party movement” of “the middle class,” and hints of these anti-EU sentiments appear to shape early actions in the Trump era. Prior to inauguration, Trump called the organization a “vehicle for Germany” and predicted that Britain, and perhaps other nations, would flourish outside of it.

Bannon’s reading of Russia is more complex. He has described it as a “kleptocracy…an imperialist power that [wants] to expand.” He warns conservatives not to be seduced by Russia’s claim to be a defender “of more traditional values.” Similarly, a review of Breitbart by Politico Europe found plenty of strong criticism of Putin’s regime and its Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad.

But Bannon minimizes the Russian threat relative to “Radical Islam,” which could “completely eradicate everything we’ve been bequeathed over the last [2,000] years.” This “global existential war” against “Islamic fascism” is Bannon’s core foreign policy concern. Frequent analogies to Tours and the siege of Vienna suggest belief in a cyclical, inevitable conflict between Islam and the West. Muslim refugees are not “Jeffersonian democrats”; for Bannon, true integration is impossible. Bannon once framed the current refugee crisis through the highly controversial novel The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail, where naïve, sentimental French elites inflict national suicide through borders opened to mass migration from India and the Near East. Bannon appears to share the hawkish approach of George W. Bush’s Middle East policy without his respect for Islam or aspirations to build free societies there. It’s a nihilistic, cynical revision of neoconservatism.

Several writers discern the origins of Bannon’s thought in the famed political theorist Samuel Huntington. Foreign Policy’s Stephen Walt thinks Bannon and the Trump administration could be “operating from a broad, Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations’ framework that informs [their] identification of friends and foes abroad.” Emma Ashford in The National Interest posits an “incoming administration [fully embracing] the ideas of Samuel Huntington.” Salon’s Jalal Baig similarly finds echoes of Huntington in Bannon’s worldview. Similarly, one New York Times analysis posits that the “deeply suspicious view of Islam” shared by Trump, Bannon, and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn “borrows from the ‘clash of civilization’ thesis [of] Samuel P. Huntington.”

Bannon and Huntington share notable parallels in their thought. Both stress the power of loyalties to specific civilizations, religions, and cultures in shaping geopolitics. The two doubt the reconciliation of Islam with liberal democracy due to the religion’s inherent theological premise and origins in political expansion and conquest. Huntington’s controversial text Who Are We?—charged by Alan Wolfe as “Patrick Buchanan with footnotes”—questioned the prospects of assimilation into American life by Latino immigrants. It posited a chasm between the “nationalism” of ordinary Americans and the “cosmopolitanism” of a globalized, aloof elite imposing unpopular policy preferences on trade, immigration, and foreign policy. Huntington similarly saw the United States as most challenged by the growing economic muscle of the East (“the Asian affirmation”) and the militancy and expanding demographics of the Muslim world (“the Islamic resurgence”); minimal threat was expected from Russia, whose regional influence should be respected.  

“Bannon and Huntington share notable parallels in their thought. Both stress the power of loyalties to specific civilizations, religions, and cultures in shaping geopolitics.”

Ultimately, though, Bannon’s philosophy profoudly departs from this famed international relations theorist. Huntington acknowledged a division between “Islam” and “the West,” but he insisted this did not imply “two homogenous sides starkly confronting each other.” In his seminal Foreign Affairs essay, Huntington wrote that more assertive Islamic and Sinic (Chinese) civilizations required a firm response. But their ascendency also required the West “to develop a more profound understanding of [the] assumptions underlying other civilizations…[and] identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations.” Safe to say, neither Bannon nor Trump seems interested in this responsibility to calmly understand the world on its own terms.

Huntington’s theory of international relations also leads to policy recommendations profoundly opposed to Bannon. As he writes in the conclusion of The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, the West is an historically “unique” shared community. But its survival would be best achieved not through retreat into isolated, disconnected nation-states but “greater political, economic, and military integration” to “safeguard [Western] culture.”

While contemporary readers might gasp at Huntington’s demarcation of distinct Western and Latin American civilizations, Huntington believed these cultural differences demanded active engagement by the United States to move Central and South American countries toward Western institutional models. Contra Bannon or Trump, Huntington, for all his criticism of Western elites, did not cite their stupidity, incompetence, or weakness as the root cause of European and American decline. No leader can escape the demographic, economic, and geopolitical realities favoring ascendant non-Western cultures and states. As The Clash of Civilization repeatedly makes clear, this reality must inspire a Western statecraft that calmly accepts the end of its “unparalleled dominance” and responds to new, inevitable realities with a mixture of prudence and courage.  

In his final years, Huntington assured readers he was not a “dogmatic ideologue.” If only this could be said of Bannon—a man who could ironically accelerate the very decline of the West he has so long lamented.

Image: Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore, Flickr, Creative Commons)

David Jimenez is an English Teaching Assistant in Romania for the Fulbright Program, where he teaches courses in English and American Studies at Ovidius University of Constanta for the academic year 2016–2017. He is a 2016 graduate of Bowdoin College, where he completed his BA in history. His WordPress blog, “‘Polar Bear in the Balkans,” features his writing on both travel and ideas. He is also a contributing opinion writer for Revista 22, a leading Romanian news weekly.

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