And it came to pass that fear did grip all of the Swamp, from Foggy Bottom to DuPont Circle; and it did spread unto all of the region beyond the Potomac. For behold, Steve Bannon had come.
Or, if we prefer not to use the familiar “Steve,” Stephen K. Bannon. The K must not be spelled out, however, for there is no way to make Kevin sound sinister, after the manner of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Beauregard just sounds like a character from Birth of a Nation, and saying it has the power to melt the ears of snowflakes. (The real Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard, for whom Attorney General Sessions is named, was legendary for commanding the troops that fired on Fort Sumter and for ruining Yankee picnics at First Manassas. After the War, he also led Louisiana’s Unification Movement, which sought to integrate schools and other public places, and to grant voting rights to black men. “I am persuaded that the natural relation between the white and colored people is that of friendship,” said that vicious racist with a French-sounding name.)
Where was I—oh yes, Stephen K. (but not Kevin). It is a crying shame that K doesn’t stand for “Kristol” or “Kristallnacht,” because then the man who made a fortune out of investing in Seinfeld could be more readily subjected to serial-killer or terror-plotter treatment, like John Wayne Gacy, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or William Charles Ayers.
After President Trump’s senior advisor spoke at CPAC, the media was in a titter. The Washington Post’s coverage actually began by describing “Stephen K. Bannon” as “the reclusive mastermind.” We then read of his commitment to “nationalist ideology,” “combative tactics,” “fiery rebuke,” “unending battle,” his “vow,” and “hardline pledges.” These words and phrases appear in the first two paragraphs, and the piece concludes with a reference to the “air of secrecy” that remains around Bannon.
Cue Beethoven’s Fifth.
Such coverage is not unusual. Although he has spoken publicly on various issues in sundry places, from Breitbart Radio to the Vatican, Mr. Bannon grants the mainstream media (whom he has dubbed the “opposition party”) few interviews. This leaves commentators who call themselves reporters with little room to spin in the now-hourly news cycle. They sputter and clang to distill from the President’s policies and statements whiffs of Bannonism, a philosophy or “ideology” whose precepts remain murky to them. That murkiness, of course, has not stopped them from asserting that they know just exactly what Stephen K. Bannon is up to, and that is pure evil. “Masterminds” do not do good things.
Bannon has played along, and even helped to cultivate this image, referring to himself as Darth Vader. The former Breit bart chief has discovered that it takes very little to rile up the media. His choice of clothing (lots of black!), his hairstyle (long for a White House advisor!), his cryptic words (“corporatist”?): Everything he says or does confirms the bias the Keepers of Democracy—men like Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow—are sworn to defend.
And thus did they salivate when CPAC rolled around, and Bannon was scheduled to speak. Or rather, he was scheduled to be interviewed by American Conservative Union president Matthew Aaron Schlapp of Virginia, father of five, along with Green Bay Packers fan Reinhold Richard “Reince” Priebus of Kenosha. And this 20-some-minute co-interview was then subjected to dozens and dozens of analyses—at least three in the Washington Post, and several more in the New York Times, including “Stephen K. Bannon’s CPAC Comments, Annotated and Explained.”
I watched CPAC and took notes for myself, and this is what Bannon said. (Hold on to your midichlorians!)
The Trump administration has thus far focused on three things: “national security,” “economic nationalism,” and the “deconstruction of the Administrative State.” The first priority has materialized in the form of the enforcement of immigration law and an attempt at tightening restrictions on our refugee program. The second was explained as the “center core of what we believe: We are a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” This was exemplified in our withdrawal from the TPP, and will be seen in “new bilateral trade relationships,” which will establish America as a “fair-trade” country. The third has to do with cutting growth-stifling regulations and destroying the power of the “corporatist, globalist media,” which are “adamantly opposed” to economic nationalism.
“If you think they are going to give you back your country without a fight,” said the Sith Lord in reference to the scrappy young Jedis of the Media Resistance, “you’re sorely mistaken.”
I have two heresies for you this month, and here is the first: Stephen K. Bannon is not the devil. We know this for two reasons. The first is that he is merely a man who has ideas about the state of the world in general and the U.S. economy in particular. Not only are these ideas not radically wicked; they are perfectly sensible. A bilateral trade agreement is simply a trade agreement between two countries. Enforcing immigration law is another way of saying “the President is doing his job”—executing the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Open borders is an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or peaceful jihad. President William Jefferson Clinton advocated many of the same things that Bannon is advocating—not at CPAC or the Democratic Ball and Gala (DBAG) but in State of the Union Addresses. The terror watch list comprising majority-Muslim countries was drawn up by Barack Obama. America the noun refers to “America” the place, which by definition excludes “not-America.” The same logic applies to American things, like culture, to which this magazine is dedicated.
All of this is so reasonable that it is unremarkable. The same goes for the unreasonable reaction of the press. And yet their words still possess the power to shape us—particularly when they attach a dark ism to something that is going on in national politics. We instinctively scramble to condemn or defend that ism, as if supporting or favoring any particular policy or candidacy requires an attachment to the ideology with which it has been officially branded. This is not the intellectual behavior of a free people—a judgment with which Steve Bannon appears to agree.
Any politician who appeals to the will of the people against a powerfully entrenched elite is evoking populism. Barack Obama was a populist. So is nearly every other politician on the national scene. That is simply the nature of popular democracy. The success of populism may be measured only by the accepted definition of the populi.
Despite the ease with which we sling around isms, we are politically averse to rational discourse on the historical and philosophical meaning of words. Capitalism, Russell Kirk argued, is a term of opprobrium popularized by Karl Marx: Using it rigs the game, defining society in terms of capital’s haves and have-nots. But economic nationalism is itself a fraught, polarizing term that leads to inaccurate associations and misunderstandings. Yet what lies behind economic nationalism, when Steve Bannon uses the term, is good. It is the economic policy advocated for decades by this magazine and championed by Pat Buchanan.
Is it worth quibbling over terms? Only if words represent realities and nominalism is false. And like nominalism, nationalism has a long history, as any reader who appreciates T.S. Eliot, Donald Davidson, George Orwell, Joe Sobran, or John Lukacs would tell you. Furthermore, the throngs that gathered at Trump rallies across the country simply did not and do not care. They are not converts to any ideology; what matters to them is the fact that Donald Trump ran on promises to do particular things, and Steve Bannon is committed to keeping the President focused on accomplishing those things. NAFTA really is a disaster, and repealing it is good, no matter what ism we attach to Trump’s plan to rid us of it.
The second reason we know that Stephen Kevin is not the devil is this: The Devil is the devil. This matters, because the Devil is real, and Christians at least ought to remember it. The Devil seeks to mar, twist, and distort the image of God in man by distracting us from the Word of God and the imitation of Christ. And as C.S. Lewis showed in The Screwtape Letters, the Devil would thus prefer that all of our attentions be focused on things outside of our control, beyond our immediate sphere of influence, where charity begins (and ends, at least when it comes to our ability to foresee and act). The Devil would therefore encourage us to invest our energies in worrying over the success or failure of ideologies and isms that we cannot personally affect. “You must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy,” advises the devilish Uncle Screwtape.
This leads to my second heresy of the month: Steve Bannon is not an angel. No, I’m not talking about his personal life, nor am I referring to his centauric cycles-of-history movie. But just as we may confidently say that Bannon, despite the games he plays with the media, is not really Darth Vader, we may also affirm that he is not Luke Skywalker. These are fictional characters, of course, but they represent a kind of Manichaean approach to the rise and fall of the Galactic American Empire. They belong on the flickering screen along with the breathless moment-by-moment coverage of Washington, Manhattan, and Hollywood.
America was free (or more free) when the average person simply did not care, and did not think that it was his obligation to care, about every movement of the actors on our national stage. His life was focused on his immediate sphere of influence. Decades of centralization, regulation, and corruption at the national level were made possible by a people who ceded their spheres of influence to faraway powers—always with the best of intentions, of course, to serve some imagined good. Today, we continue to give power to the image of the beast by fearing, loving, and trusting in it above all things.
Some of us can still remember a time before the Cable News Network went on the air 24 hours per day, when news had a daily cycle—the morning paper, the nightly broadcast. What is sad is that those of us who can remember that culture prefer the current one, and cannot even imagine going back.
“Deconstruction” was Stephen Kevin Bannon’s watchword at CPAC. That is encouraging. We should earnestly cheer on his and his boss’s dismantling of the bureaucratic, managerial, corporatist, globalist state. But while we watch and wait, we might as well think and live as if they’ve already succeeded—like a free and independent people capable of charity and worthy of self-government.