The illiberal world of Stephen Bannon
In considering the furor around President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Stephen Bannon, the CEO of the hard-right news website Breitbart, as his chief strategist, let’s start with the perspective of those who have defended him.
On one important level, their anger over the Bannon spat is justified. It is galling to see the behemoths of the liberal left, from MoveOn.org to The New York Times, suddenly discover the threat of anti-Semitism after showing general indifference to its resurgence in public life during the last 16 years.
Simply put, their negative feelings toward Israel got in the way of acknowledging that larger reality; but as Israel isn’t a factor in the case of Bannon, they can level the accusation of anti-Semitism safely, untainted by any association with the Jewish state or its “occupation” of Palestinian territories.
On top of that, there is no meaningful record of statements or actions on Bannon’s part to convict him of the charge of being, on a personal level, anti-Semitic. And since Americans tend to understand anti-Semitism as suggestive of a character defect, it is not surprising that many people also interpreted the attacks upon Bannon as a low blow against his boss, the incoming president.
It’s at precisely this juncture, however, that the Bannon quarrel has gone awry. The issue was never really about Bannon’s own sensibilities, and in fairness, that was never the focus of the much-discussed Anti-Defamation League statement on Bannon released Nov 13. What the ADL said is that Bannon “presides” over the “premier website” of the “alt-right,” which it then defined as “a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.”
This raised the legitimate question of whether a man with such associations is suited to one of the county’s top political appointments — whether he can be one of the unifying figures this country needs. But that is not the discussion we have had these past days; it’s all been about the personalities, and not the politics.
David Hirsh, the British academic who has played a key intellectual role in confronting the academic boycott of Israel, put forward a better standard with which to make a judgment at the ADL’s “Never is Now” summit on anti-Semitism, held in New York Nov. 17. Bannon’s case reminds us, he said, that “anti-Semitism is about politics, not personal moral failure.”
Our bitterly sectarian politics compromise the discussion of anti-Semitism, and more broadly racism and prejudice, in America today. In the debate about Bannon, there seems to be an assumption among his supporters that nobody as implacably opposed as he is to the progressive left — powerful elements of which have allied with Islamists, and enabled the spread of anti-Semitic discourse in the guise of anti-Zionism — could possibly share any of their flaws.
As a result, Bannon’s defenders adopt many of the same rhetorical tactics that left-wing anti-Zionists deploy when confronted with the charge of anti-Semitism: listing their Jewish political comrades or friends or relatives, decrying reputational smears without foundation, asserting their fondness for Jewish culture, and so on.
In rushing to Bannon’s aid, they overlook the deeper historical truth that anti-Semitism has always been promiscuous, finding favor on right and left. Yet in their alternative imagining, anti-Semitism is solely a problem of the political left.
Let me offer a brief explanation of why some aspects of Bannon’s intellectual universe should be of concern to anyone who cares about the basic social empathies that are needed to sustain democracy — the same empathies, I would add, that have been badly damaged by the growth of identity politics on left and right.
Take Bannon’s own ideas, insofar as they were set out in a talk he gave to a group of European right-wingers gathered at the Vatican in 2014. In his address, he outlined a vision of a world order based on “strong countries” with “strong nationalist movements.”
Bannon does not explain what he means by “strong” here, but the implications are disconcerting. Not least, it begs the question of how one defines and organizes a “nationalist” politics in nations that have achieved independence.
In European nations, over the course of the last three decades, the answer has crystallized in the twin resistance against liberal immigration policies and the cross-border institutions of the European Union. The corresponding political goal is for nation states to reign supreme on trade, on defense, and — critically — on regional spheres of influence. In this climate, both liberal democracy and its American example will cease to be posited as a system superior to other forms of government.
As strong as these nationalist movements can hope to be, they will never enjoy periods of harmony or consensus when in government — unless of course they enforce it. Democratic politics will therefore become an ugly confrontation marked by terse and coarse exchanges, character assassination, rewards for doctrinal orthodoxy, retribution for dissent, and dangerous polarization between the races and ethnicities and religions that compose our society.
Many of the world’s illiberal and authoritarian states will become our friends and trading partners, and our new-found tolerance of their norms will eventually come into conflict with the maintenance of our own. I have no doubt that voices arguing that “Russia tried democracy and it didn’t work — now we should try it their way” will grow louder and less exotic.
Is it possible to conjure up a more benign vision of a world in which the democracies are represented by Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and, perhaps, future French President Marine Le Pen, at the same time as authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan become sustainably more oppressive? Suffice to say, this prospect is what girds the widespread apprehension over what the next four years have in store — and there is perhaps no better emblem of that, for now, than Stephen Bannon.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org and The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.