The tell-all book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff appears to be everything people have hoped for, an inside look at the Trump White House, which is surely one of the most interesting presidential administrations in American history. It’s all the better than it’s been met with a cease-and-desist letter from Trump’s attorney: this alone immortalizes the book.
A main source for the author is said to be Steve Bannon, whom Trump had appointed to his National Security Council before later driving him from the White House. Trump released a remarkable statement that utterly repudiates everything about Bannon’s life and work, basically calling him a demented liar. This is in response to Bannon’s suggestion that the meeting the Trump campaign had with Russia really amounted to treason.
That latter point plays into the media narrative about Russia meddling in the 2016 election. Thus are we faced with a very strange irony. You have the media today celebrating a man whose views on politics, race, and human liberty are the crystallization of everything Trump’s worst enemies claimed Trump to be. Trump has only inclinations; Bannon is the true believer.
The Great Divide
What has gone completely missing here is a burning philosophical and ideological dispute between two wings of Trumpism. One seethes with right-wing Hegelian longings for an overthrow of the modern world and a resuscitation of tribalist nationalism (in short, fascism). The other is quasi-liberal at its best, seeking mostly to get government off our backs and unleash merchant-driven enterprise and economic recovery.
These two worldviews are utterly and completely incompatible. Bannon believes that Trump has made his choice and he despises that choice. Why? Because after a year of floundering around with anti-immigrationist agitation, incoherent attempts to reform health care, protectionist bellicosity, and law-and-order demagoguery, Trump finally got his groove at year’s end. And what was that groove? He worked with his appointees and Republicans in Congress to enact tax cuts and deregulation, the very essence of the pro-market Reaganism that Bannon had set out to purge from the Republican party.
As I tried to show at length in my book, the ideology of rightist collectivism that Bannon embodies has experienced a huge and unexpected resurgence in the United States and Europe over the last several years. The roots of this style of politics is anti-liberal all the way back to the early 19th century. It resented the rise of bourgeois culture because it feared the loss of heroism, great leaders, social hierarchies, tribal attachments, racial distinctions, and elite hegemony over culture and economy. It became as much an enemy of capitalist forms as the left-socialists. Indeed, it gradually developed into another brand of socialism, national socialism, if you will.
Steve Bannon made his mark in American public life by becoming a champion of this ideological style. He took the reins of Breitbart and developed a policy of no enemies to the right. He tested messaging and came to specialize in anti-liberal rabble rousing about race, blood, soil, and the entire right-collectivist tradition. In the background here was a reactionary spirit, a complete turning on the merchant class he once served at Goldman Sachs. The “buy America, hire America” material during the campaign and the inauguration was part of that, but the real apotheosis of Bannon’s influence on Trump came with a May 2, 2016, speech that declared “the nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.”
That’s an amazing statement. Most people think of happiness as something else, like having money to pay rent, watching your child’s piano recital, playing fantasy football, or free overnight shipping from Amazon. In the wild imaginings of the right-Hegelians, all this constitutes capitalist decadence that is dangerous to the true spirit of life. They have a special loathing for the merchant class that knows no loyalty to nation, religion, and race, but instead is happy to have cooperative dealings with everyone in the interest of growing national wealth. In the most violent fantasies of the right-Hegelian tradition, the merchant class must be laid low to their ancient status as only slightly above the slaves.
Bannon the Evolaite
Where do such ideas come from? In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, Bannon name-dropped one of the most bizarre thinkers among the displaced class of unemployed nobles who look to the Hitler movement to deliver the final blow the modern materialist spirit. His name was the monocle-clad Julius Caesar Evola (1898-1974), known mostly as Baron Evola to his fanatical followers. He was an Italian philosopher who made his mark by promoting occultism over Christianity and celebrating violence as a sacrament. He was loved by Mussolini, wrote adoring letters to Hitler, and spent a lifetime advocating for the subjugation of women and holocaust for Jews, and continued to scribble down his ghastly fantasies long after the Second World War.
In the writings of Evola, we find the culmination of the hard-core anti-liberalism of the right-Hegelian tradition, complete with dreams of mass internment and death for political dissidents. It is extremely telling that Bannon would write and speak favorably about his work, all of which are newly available in English for your shock and awe. And yes, I’ve read most of them.
Let’s just say that this is not an agenda that Trump could use to gain political traction (not even from his base) while in office. Above all else, Trump wants to be seen as a winner, whatever that means. After battling it out with both parties, and denouncing the Freedom Caucus of the Republican by name, he turned his attention to finding something he could actually achieve in order to declare himself a winner by year’s end. The nation-state-as-happiness agenda moved to the sidelines while a cut-the-government agenda moved to the forefront. This is essentially the story of 2017.
It’s striking how much the tide has turned against what Bannon represents. Rumors of coming budget cuts are causing bureaucrats actually to flee Washington, and Trump hasn’t even bothered to appoint two thirds of the political positions he is entitled to name. He has toyed even with the idea of granting amnesty in case of DACA. His much-vaunted protectionist plots have mutated into personal diplomacy and unilateral trade deals. In sum, Trump seems to have failed to become the full warrior against modernity that the alt-right hoped he would be. Bannon believes that Trump is now the enemy.
How far this will go is impossible to say, given that Trump is not exactly known for having a philosophical core. He had no problem dabbling in fascist rhetoric and symbolism throughout the campaign but he might continue to tack in the direction of liberalization while in office, providing he finds this advantageous to his personal brand.
So here is the underlying issue between Trump and Bannon. It isn’t really about White House leaks, contacts with the Russians, tell-all books, and so on. What’s really at stake is a fundamental governing philosophy. If Trump continues to prioritize cuts in regulation and taxes, and continues to neglect his promised protectionism and nativism, he can expect to earn the eternal ire of his one-time allies like Bannon.
To be sure, there is a wide gap between going full Bannon and embracing liberalism as a governing style. There are countless issues on which the Trump administration has authoritarian tendencies, even without the influence of Bannon. Still, I have to see the growing enmity between the paragon of the alt-right and the Trump administration as a good step.