According to the grandest of his official titles, Steve Bannon is White House Chief Strategist; according to his political enemies, and they are legion, he is actually the real President of the United States.
Donald Trump’s profoundly influential consiglieri is not exactly a conservative, not if that term connotes a cautious regard for peace, order and good government, but the 63-year-old former naval officer and Goldman Sachs banker cum media baron is as right-wing as they come.
Bannon is a flame-throwing polemicist, a believer in creative destruction, a Catholic traditionalist, an ethno-nationalist, a one-percenter who despises contemporary capitalism and a man who thinks the whole world is at a turning point reminiscent of 1914, with a morally decrepit West under existential threat from radical Islam. And those are just descriptions his friends would sign off on.
Bannon is also, all sides would agree, a voracious reader, the polar opposite of his notoriously illiterate boss. Voracious but not wide-ranging: Bannon is reportedly an admirer, as befits his evident belief that peace is just war-in-waiting time, of Sun Tzu’s 2,500-year-old classic The Art of War. He’s also a devotee (of sorts) of the Hindu religious epic the Bhagavad Gita, concentrating more on the endless cycle of war than the complex morality.
Trump’s strategist shows a rare familiarity with the writings of a group of blood-and-soil-minded authoritarian intellectuals who can be called the alt-right of the pre-Great War era, men who responded to the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution from the opposite perspective of Marx and Lenin; they are mostly ignored today because their views metastasized into inter-war fascism. Bannon preaches their virtues.
Those who have tried to draw a line from Bannon to Curtis Yarvin, the computer programmer who blogs under the name Mencius Moldbug (Yarvin denies any links), have focused on a 2008 post in which the self-described neo-reactionary asks “What’s so bad about the Nazis?” aside, that is, from that Holocaust thing.
Bannon’s critics are attempting, of course, to firmly situate him on the wrong side of a very bright red line, with Moldbug’s comment itself dismissed as an instance of a favourite alt-right tactic—uttering provocations simply so the speaker can be amused by the outraged reactions.
But there is an actual link in thought, if not in person, here between Bannon’s interest in traditional and authoritarian ethno-nationalism and the alt-right’s admiring reappraisal of pre-genocide Nazis. Before war and mass murder put them beyond the pale, there was much sympathetic interplay between German and American racist attitudes. The Nazis looked across the Atlantic for practical measures not just in eugenics, including forced sterilization, but, as James Whitman’s forthcoming Hitler’s American Model points out, aimed at banning intermarriage.
The influence of American miscegenation statutes on the Nuremberg blood laws is undeniable, even if the early Nazis found some of the U.S. provisions too harsh. (Nazi jurists rejected American one-drop rules, whereby any known black descent put an individual on the oppressed side of the colour line, as “unforgiving hardness” and were more lax in determining Jewish identity.) The past is not even past, let alone dead, as William Faulkner famously noted: the Nazis may still be interred, but their racist roots are sprouting anew, in European far-right politics and in the White House.
Bannon also reportedly admires Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, a paen, according to critics, to the sort of “randomness, volatility and stress that keeps institutions and people healthy.” Like many utopians across the political spectrum, when faced with a situation he doesn’t like, Bannon leans to the ‘blow it up and start all over’ approach. That’s an irony that makes his frequent warnings about the law of unintended consequences—the root of his public praise for David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, an account of the missteps that enmeshed the U.S. in Vietnam—laughable. Consider his role in the drafting of Trump’s shambolic executive order, now mired in court, regarding travel from Islamic countries.
The progressive book-lovers’ response to Trumpism has so far been dominated by a rush to dystopian classics like 1984. They—and Bannon too—might want to turn to Black Earth, historian Timothy Snyder’s eye-opening 2015 account of the Holocaust, which roots the mechanics of the killing in state destruction. Plain, plodding bureaucracy—a life-saving force wherever it managed to maintain itself in wartime Europe—is often one of the first victims of the law of unintended consequences.