A little over a year ago, I lost my grandfather. Born to a British servicemember who had stormed the limestone cliffs of Gallipoli and to a French woman from rural Perigord, he had something of an unconventional childhood. One of the few “papists” in his austere British boarding school, he would trudge several miles every Sunday to reach the closest Catholic chapel in time for mass. He experienced a similar sense of isolation when he returned to the French countryside during the holidays only to find his father had decided to up and leave the family. At a time when divorce was still subject to opprobrium, this abandonment triggered a village-wide scandal. Peter — the young boy with an English name living alone with his mother — was trapped at the heart of this storm of sanctimony.
Despite all this, my grandfather never ceased to view this dual heritage as a formidable richness—and source of opportunity. When he was a young bachelor, debutantes would often ask him which half was French, to which he would simply respond, “the lower half.” With the onset of World War II, however, he was given little time to refine his pickup lines. After joining the King’s African Rifles, he was dispatched to the warmer climes of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, serving as a British intelligence officer liaising with the Free French. A lot of his time was spent trying to root out Vichy spies and sympathizers in local Francophone communities. I remember being absolutely fascinated by the stories of his interactions with these individuals. All French schoolchildren grow up learning about the painful legacy of Vichy, collaborationism, and betrayal. As the historian Henry Rousso once famously quipped, Vichy is still in many ways “un passe qui ne passe pas”—a past that doesn’t pass. As a child, it was easier for me and many of my classmates to view Marechal Petain’s regime as a historical aberration; an ugly parenthesis in a great nation’s history, populated by shadowy figures and cartoon villains.
My conversations with my grandfather helped disabuse me of this notion, and reminded me of the complexity of the human condition. “The saddest thing,” I remember him saying, was that, “were it not for some fatal errors of judgment, or warped orders of priority, many may have ended their lives as honorable men.” Now, this is not to say that Vichy did not contain some profoundly dishonorable men — whether in the form of rank opportunists, avid collaborationists and “true believers,” or rabid anti-Semites. That being said, many chose to turn a blind eye to the more unsavory aspects of collaboration with Nazi Germany for utilitarian or banal reasons. Writing in the 1960s, De Gaulle acknowledged that the scale of wartime collaboration could be imputed to the manner in which many citizens chose to “put their little houses, their little gardens, their little shop, their little workshop, their little farm, their little collection of books or state bonds above the nation.”
Meanwhile, historians have since shown the extent to which some traditional French conservatives viewed an alliance with Vichy in narrow tactical terms and as a means of furthering their own socio-economic agenda. In particular, many industrialists were keen to roll back some of the social advances made by the socialist Front Populaire government, including their imposition of France’s first universal paid holidays—the famous Conges Payes. There was a naked self-interest behind their rallying to the Vichy flag.
For others, there was an ideological rationale, but one that stemmed from nationalist self-loathing rather than from any real love for Nazi Germany. Here it is perhaps useful to draw on the operative distinction established by George Orwell in-between patriotism and nationalism:
Nationalism is not to be confused to be patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and to a particular way of life, one which believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to focus on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
The intensity of nationalist feelings, notes Orwell, “does not prevent nationalist loyalties from being transferrable.” Indeed, the ugliness of nationalism is that it is almost inevitably curdles into self-loathing, as embittered ideologues redirect their rancor inwards, towards the perceived domestic obstacles to national rejuvenation. Early 1930s France, like its German neighbor, was an extremely polarized country, with deep-seated animosities occasionally leading to pitched street battles between left and right-wing groups or “leagues.” Hatred of socialism and fear of communism ran deep in many households. So did Anglophobia, which was still rampant despite the decades that had passed since the signing of the Entente Cordiale. For many of those who later collaborated with the Nazis, subordination to a foreign power was an unpleasant reality, but one which they nevertheless deemed preferable to the alternative — continuing to fight alongside compatriots and allies they despised. In short, all too often political partisanship prevailed over love of country. Or — in the words of Stanley Hoffman — “their ideological predispositions overrode their scruples as French citizens.”
One must, naturally, exercise caution when drawing parallels from such an era when discussing today’s political realities, if only because such comparisons might immediately be dismissed as overwrought. As one leading historian of Nazi Germany recently noted, democracy dies in different ways at different times. That being said, it is hard not to be reminded of these childhood conversations when contemplating the moral cowardice and strategic myopia currently on display within certain quarters of the Republican Party.
It is all the more troubling considering the very serious risks this presidency poses to U.S. national security. The issues inherent to Donald Trump’s worldview — his fondness for autocrats, disdain for allies, and unabashed embrace of mercantilism — were first laid out by my friend and former colleague, Tom Wright. It is no secret that the new president’s approach to global affairs constitutes a major break with core bipartisan traditions in American foreign policy. Even more concerning, however, is the mindset of this White House’s new ideological wing, composed of Stephen Bannon — the commissar — and his reactionary guard.
The Trumpian Tragedy
The 45th U.S. president is a pathological liar who indulges in petty cruelty, revels in his ignorance, and struggles to string together coherent sentences. He is impulsive, thin-skinned, and wholly self-centered. Like the more depraved Roman emperors, he likes to surround himself with crowds of cheering sycophants when he “performs,” even in the most hallowed of grounds. The past few weeks have provided ample demonstration that this 21st century Nero cannot be channeled, counseled, or controlled — whether by Republican apparatchiks, or by his stoic, Marcus Aurelius-reading secretary of defense. During the campaign, there were many dark moments, but none — for me at least — were quite as disturbing as his repeated recitation of the lyrics of the song “The Snake.” There is something unconscionably vile about the way the man shudders in pleasure while reading the tale of an innocent woman bitten by a serpent — an animal which, in Trump’s mind, serves as a metaphor for Syrian refugees. How anyone could then have doubted his inhumanity and autocratic aspirations beggars belief. Each day provides new evidence of his fundamental disregard for the ideational pillars of the American republic.
And yet, despite all of this, congressional Republicans continue to demonstrate an astonishing degree of servility. There are some exceptions — and these are all the more admirable, considering the circumstances — but they are few and far between. The reasoning behind such submissiveness is transparent — mainstream Republicans still believe that they can “instrumentalize” Trump, all while stifling their moral retches at his egregious misconduct and deeply troubling relationship with a hostile foreign power. In exchange, there is hope of advances on certain core items of the Republican agenda, from lower taxes and repealing the Affordable Care Act to financial and environmental regulatory relief. This is a short-sighted and faustian pact, however. Bannonism — as defined by Stephen Bannon and his motley crew of ethno-nationalists — has nothing to do with traditional American conservatism.
Indeed, in many ways, Bannon’s fevered vision has been defined in opposition to this tradition. Trump’s Rasputin, along with his fellow “alt-righters” in the West Wing (Julia Hahn and Michael Anton) has repeatedly stated that his end goal is the destruction of the Republican establishment, which he has dismissed as a “collection of crony capitalists,” that, “needs to be bitch-slapped.” To put it more simply, the Bannonites in the White House are like the facehugger in Alien. They have latched themselves onto the Republican party, and—when the time is ripe—hope to burst out of the husk of their dead host. And yet many establishment Republicans still seem to cling onto the hope that both organisms can somehow learn to live in symbiosis.
Rancid Wine in New Bottles
The divisiveness and acrimony of last year’s election cycle was the moral equivalent of peering under a large rock. All forms of ugliness were found scuttling around in the dank darkness of the nation’s blogosphere. Thus, over the course of the past 18 months, the American public has become ever more familiar with formerly marginal clusters of extremists, ranging from the euphemistically named “alt-right” or “new right,” to the self-dubbed “NRx” movement. The use of such nomenclatures serves little purpose. In reality, the Bannonites in the West Wing are simply reactionaries, whose mishmash of crudely assembled ideas stems from a longstanding counter-enlightenment tradition. It would be a mistake to view this collection of autodidacts as intellectuals, but there is no denying the toxic potency of their ideology, and the danger it poses to traditional conservatism. Isaiah Berlin provided a good definition of what constitutes a reactionary, describing one such individual as someone who,
wished to return to an older tradition of the ages of faith; quality in place of quantity, primacy of the given, not of the analytic intellect, the immediately perceived secondary qualities, not the inferred primary ones; the free imagination, not logic.
The anti-rationalism of reactionaries is essential to understanding the post-truth mindset of Bannon and his intellectual bedfellows, along with their disdain for journalism and reliable facts. Having recently subjected myself to many of their writings and televised speeches, I came to the conclusion that there were five clear components to Bannonism: class resentment, millenarianism, decadentism, ethnotribalism, and illiberalism. None of these themes have their place in traditional American conservatism.
Many of the pained postmortems of the election have focused on the inability of the Clinton campaign to connect with white, lower middle class voters, in places such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Certain studies have indicated that more than economic hardship, it was economic anxiety—i.e. concern over an uncertain future — that pushed many voters towards Trump. While these analyses are certainly useful, there is a risk of overlooking a less quantifiable, yet no less real causal factor: class resentment or class rage. The politics of class — whereby social categories are defined not only by their income levels but also by certain shared cultural traits or identifiers — often gets short shrift in the United States. Yet one could argue that class resentment is one of the major causes behind last year’s electoral upheaval. As one sociological study notes,
Emotion influences class formation and class action….The emotional consequences of membership in descending (socio-economic) groups vary with their position in the preceding [economic] cycle. Groups displaced by ascendant groups from once favorable economic positions will be oriented to the past and will develop an emotional pattern congruent with status defensiveness. In particular, such groups will develop a pattern of resentment which is directed to those perceived as threatening their area of ascendancy.
Bannon is a compelling orator, with the ability to speak articulately for close to an hour without notes. He is also a master at whipping up class resentment. A prime example of this is his talk at the 2016 South Carolina Tea Party Coalition, during which he repeatedly reminded his audience that they had “been mocked and ridiculed,” and—rather ominously—“stabbed in the back.” Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, with its focus on “forgotten men and women” overlooked by callous cosmopolitan elites was vintage Bannon.
There is a distinctly apocalyptic flavor to the West Wing reactionaries’ worldview, with frequent references to the looming dangers of great power war in a “world on fire,” and a bizarre obsession with doomsday scenarios involving nuclear weapons. The belligerent Bannon seems convinced that the United States and China will clash militarily within “the next ten years,” whereas Michael Anton, now a staff member working for the National Security Council, believes that the United States will eventually suffer a nuclear attack and devolve into “warlordism.” The main obsession, however, is the notion that the United States is caught in the throes of a civilizational struggle — a bloody Ragnarok — in-between the “Judeo-Christian West” and Islam. Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka is a particularly staunch proponent of this view. Those who deny this reality, are — in the minds of Gorka and his fellow Bannonites—hopelessly naïve. As one historian has noted in a commentary on medieval apocalyptic thinking,
Whatever the subsequent costs, apocalyptic believers live in a world of great intensity—semiotically aroused, they see every event as a sign with a specific message for them. Emotionally aroused, they feel great love and sympathy for their fellow believers and for all potential converts; physically aroused, they act with great energy and focus; vocationally aroused, they believe that they live at the final cosmic conclusion to the battle between good and evil and that God has a particular role for them.
The trailers for two of Bannon’s movies, Generation Zero and Torchbearer, with their booming, melodramatic soundtracks, violent images, and apocalyptic messaging, provide perfect illustrations of this mindset. The morbid visuals and obsession with bloodshed bring to mind the writings of Joseph de Maistre, an early authoritarian thinker who famously wrote:
When the human soul has lost its strength through laziness, incredulity, and the gangrenous vices that follow an excess of civilization, it can be retempered only in blood…the manure of the plant that we call genius.
This apocalyptic worldview goes hand in a hand with a pronounced form of decadentism — a corrupted romanticism that rejects postmodernism and continuously relays themes of entropy and decline. A core feature of decadentism is the belief that history unfolds in great cycles, in an almost biological process of growth and decay. Bannon subscribes to this theory, as do many of his ideological bedfellows. This is something that, once again, George Orwell had picked up on, observing that,
A nationalist sees history, especially, contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade.
Breitbart’s coverage of Western Europe, invariably presented as a crumbling and godless continent beset by hordes of Muslims and refugees, is at the heart of this declinist persuasion. Bannon and his acolytes view themselves as twilight warriors waging something of a spiritual battle to preserve the remnants of the West. It is in this light that one must view his attempts to meddle in the politics of the Vatican, which he deems too left-leaning and insufficiently combative under Pope Francis. It also helps explain his visceral hatred for the European Union, which is presented as having smothered individual European nations’ Judeo-Christian identities under a thick blanket of postmodernism.
Characterized primarily by a knee-jerk hostility towards Hispanic immigrants and Muslims, ethnotribalism constitutes one of the more repulsive aspects of the reactionary guard’s thinking. White House advisor Stephen Miller has repeatedly expressed his deep hatred of American multiculturalism, and Breitbart has become the leading platform for nativist populism. Such forms of “racial nationalism” have always been present in American politics. This was the case in the days of Lindbergh and the America First Committee (which Michael Anton has described as having been “unfairly maligned”), or during the 2000 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan, during which he suggested erecting a sea wall to stop “immigrants sweeping over our southern border.” This is the first time, however, that ethno-tribalists have found themselves in such positions of power. Ethno-tribalism also helps explain the international far-right’s fascination for Vladimir Putin. Indeed, from the French Front National to the German National Democratic Party, the Russian autocrat has become an object of reverence—a symbol of white nationalism and martial virility in the face of creeping Islamic expansionism. The so-called American alt-right is no exception to this trend, even though Stephen Bannon has expressed a certain wariness vis-a-vis Putin’s “imperialism” in the past.
Last but not least, the ideology espoused by the reactionary guard is, unsurprisingly, profoundly illiberal. Miller and Bannon have shown they have little respect for the separation of powers, and have publicly challenged core aspects of American democracy — such as freedom of the press and independence of the judiciary. Bannon seems to take a wicked pleasure in employing Soviet terminology when describing the media, which he has characterized as the “main opposition party”. Curtis Yarvin, a far-right blogger close to Trump supporter Peter Thiel and Stephen Bannon, has stated that he has “stopped believing in democracy.” Much of the earlier European literature at the heart of modern far-right thinking is deeply hostile to democracy. It is also extremely anti-American, and depicts the U.S.’s embrace of diversity as everything that is wrong with the world. Bannon famously described himself as a “Leninist,” not because he subscribed to the Soviet’s vision of economic collectivization, but because he views himself as an anti-democratic revolutionary with the desire to “bring everything crashing down.” It is no coincidence that the word “democracy” did not feature once in the inauguration speech. More recently at CPAC, the White House senior advisor bragged that one of the overarching motivations behind certain cabinet selections was their ability to engage in the “deconstruction” of existing American government agencies. Like a villain in a James Bond movie, or Iago in Othello, Bannon seems remarkably fond of publicly divulging his plans at length. Meanwhile, the only organization he does seem intent on establishing is a Komintern of far-right populism within the White House, with the goal of exporting his noxious ideology to European allies of the United States. This is already generating fissures in the transatlantic relationship. Americans should not underestimate the seriousness with which European countries are taking these threats of political warfare.
Honor and the American Tradition
The combination of all these elements constitutes a major departure from the American tradition, let alone mainstream conservatism. The dark pessimism and tribalism of the West Wing reactionaries stand in stark contrast to the humanism of the Founding Fathers, and to their “lively faith in the perfectibility of man.” It is not what drew me, an immigrant, to this great nation, nor is it what fired the souls of my wife’s ancestors when they fought in the Revolutionary War. It is time for the party of Lincoln to recover its cherished principles, and to recognize that Bannonism — if not checked — poses a true threat to American democracy and security. All principled Republicans should support a full and thorough investigation into the Trump administration’s ties with Russia. They should also immediately stem the reactionary rot spreading through White House, by working to remove Bannon and his minions from the process of national security decision-making. Their ideology is not only un-American; it also profoundly corrosive.
It is time to behave with honor. In The Spirit of Laws, the philosopher Montesquieu famously gave the inspiring example of a French noble, the Viscount of Orte. Ordered by his monarch, Charles IX, to massacre all the Huguenots (French protestants) in his city, the Viscount refused. The knight, noted Montesquieu, “regarded a cowardly act as an impossible thing.” Honor, pursued the philosopher, is “not so much what calls us to our fellows as what distinguishes us from them.” Civic virtue can be taught, but honor must be asserted, for at the end of the day, “it is what teaches man never to forget himself.” Let us not forget ourselves.
Iskander Rehman is a Senior Fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University. Prior to joining the Pell Center, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He can be followed on twitter @IskanderRehman.
Image: Amanjeev, CC