6. Trump’s Philosopher (II)

In my last posting, I described Steve Bannon – Donald Trump’s idea-man – as a Christian nationalist, based on remarks he made to a 2014 Vatican conference.  I’ll now back up that assertion with some direct quotes.

Bannon begins by declaring the world to be in “a crisis both of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West.”  His observations, like Gaul, are divisible into three parts:  (1) a description of the happy state of humanity prior to the first World War; (2) an account of the economic and religious factors that led to the defeat of Fascism – and to broadly-based prosperity – in the mid-twentieth century; and (3) the character of the “crisis” confronting us now.

I’ll discuss these in turn.

(1) Bannon observes that when what he (inexactly) calls “the Victorian era” was abruptly terminated at Sarajevo in 1914, “the world was at total peace.  There was trade, there was globalization, there was technological transfer, the High Church of England and the Catholic Church and the Christian faith was predominant throughout Europe.”  This is apparently his notion of a Golden Age.

It’s interesting to find that Bannon isn’t necessarily against globalization and its associated economic consequences – at least not when the global order is presided over by European imperial powers.  This seems a poor fit with his nationalism.  It’s likewise interesting to see him waxing nostalgic for the Church of England by law established, and for the European Catholic Church of a century ago with its opposition to religious freedom and democracy.  If this is his idea of a proper religious settlement, Americans should indeed sit up and take notice.

(2) What followed that blessed era was a “Dark Age” of barbarism “unparalleled in mankind’s history.”  Humanity survived, Bannon asserts, largely on account of “the enlightened capitalism of the Judeo-Christian West.”  World War II wasn’t only won by the “men … who stormed the beaches of Normandy,” but also by the “enlightened form of capitalism” that “built the materials needed … to take back continental Europe and to beat back a barbaric empire in the Far East.”

This enlightened capitalism, says Bannon, “generated tremendous wealth.  And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who came from really working-class environments.”  Capitalism was benign in those days, Bannon explains, because the capitalists were dedicated Christians and Jews:  “if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was … spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West.  They were … active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and … the underpinnings of their beliefs was (sic) manifested in the work they did.”

(3) Unfortunately, laments Bannon, “we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union,” and the current century finds the world in “a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.”  This crisis has “three kinds of converging tendencies,” of which I’ll deal with the first in this post:  “a form of capitalism that is taken away from the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity and, really, Judeo-Christian belief.”

This irreligious form of capitalism has “two strands … that are very disturbing.”  One is “state-sponsored capitalism” – “crony capitalism” – which concentrates wealth “for a very small subset of people” instead of the “the broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century.”  Second is “the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism,” which “looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost – as many of the precepts of Marx.”  I’ve a soft spot for anyone who disses Ayn Rand, but there’s more than one way to construct a bad social theory, and Bannon finds his own.

Bannon contrasts these capitalistic corruptions with the “entrepreneurial spirit” embodied in “Reaganesque principles” – by which he evidently means laissez-faire or something like it.  Yet while this clearly isn’t “crony capitalism,” how is Reaganomics to be differentiated from the Ayn Rand School?  After all, Bannon admits to being a “hard-nosed … capitalist” and “a big believer in a lot of libertarianism.”  The only distinction seems to be that in days of yore capitalists were kinder because, unlike contemporary Objectivists, they were Judeo-Christian believers.

This is fantasyland.

If capitalism spread wealth more broadly in the mid-twentieth century than it does today – and I agree it probably did – this was due, not to the benevolence of pious plutocrats, but in America to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and in Europe to the British Labor Party and the German Social Democrats and the other mildly leftist parties who weren’t afraid to restrain predatory capitalistic behavior and tax the rich to provide a modicum of benefits for the common folk.  That began to unravel, not in 1989 (as Bannon asserts) but 1981, when a new President, Ronald Reagan, began to apply the principles that Bannon applauds.

Yet if Bannon’s political economy is suspect, one thing is clear:  the centrality of religion to his political outlook.

News Flash — the day before this posting was scheduled for publication, Bannon was demoted from his National Security Council position.  This is a big development, which I’ll deal with next time.