Donald J. Trump may have changed tone Tuesday night in his first joint address to Congress from the sometimes apocalyptic language of recent months to a more conciliatory rhetoric. The speech proved once again that ascribing a consistent political philosophy to Mr. Trump is perhaps impossible. But there is a coherent political theory operating in the White House, and it belongs to the president's chief advisor and strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. If recent analysis like that by Christopher Caldwell in The New York Times is to be believed, Mr. Bannon’s political thought is largely benign. But the wall, the travel ban, the assaults on the media and the hostility toward undocumented immigrants and Muslims all find support in Mr. Bannon’s view of the United States as a civilization in a dark crisis requiring immediate, forceful action.
Until recently, American conservatives often presented themselves as happy warriors. William F. Buckley (a founder of American conservatism) enjoyed befriending his liberal and socialist adversaries; Ronald Reagan fashioned himself as a buoyant optimist; and George W. Bush described his philosophy as “compassionate conservatism,” grounded in a faith that the United States was able to meet its challenges.
By contrast, Mr. Bannon’s vision of pessimistic decline is, in part, imported from Europe’s far right. Intellectual affinities can be found in Friedrich Nietzsche’s fin de siècle fear that Western civilization’s spiritual sources were drying up in “suicidal nihilism” and Oswald Spengler’s interwar claim that the West would die after being held together for a brief final period by authoritarian “Caesarism.” More recently, the French reactionary novelist Michel Houellebecq has imagined Europe succumbing in the near future to cultural conquest by Islam.
Before joining the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon was a polemicist running the Breitbart News website and making conservative documentaries. In these venues, he often articulated the central theme of his political thought as the existential threat to Western civilization. As he said in a 2014 talk held on the grounds of the Vatican, “I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis.”
The problem, according to Mr. Bannon, is that the United States has lost confidence in its values, turning to secularism and a self-absorbed materialism. In his Vatican talk, Mr. Bannon said there are two “strands” of capitalism, one that is spiritually debased and another that is informed and limited by Judeo-Christian values. When the materially debased form takes over, the result is “crony capitalism” and crass materialism. What is needed instead is the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West.
Like most cultural pessimists, Mr. Bannon has an imagined Golden Age or Eden. The philosopher Bernard Williams has observed that there is a peculiar tendency in the modern world to adopt and radically change the biblical story of the fall into one in which “the Western world” is presented as an integrated, edenic whole suddenly shattered by a cataclysmic event. Depending on one’s proclivities, what constitutes the cataclysm can vary widely; common culprits include World War I, the Industrial Revolution, Galileo, the Reformation and the atom bomb. Highly rarified thinkers like Martin Heidegger have gone back even further to blame things like Platonism and Christianity.
For Mr. Bannon, the chief offending events are found in the 1960s. The American Eden was last complete in the middle of the 20th century, after the “Judeo-Christian West” beat back Nazi and Soviet “atheists” in a “great war” establishing a moralized form of capitalism. This created a “Pax Americana” of middle-class wealth and Judeo-Christian values.
For Mr. Bannon, the American Eden was last complete in the middle of the 20th century.
How did America lose its Eden? Mr. Bannon blames the baby boomers’ and hippies’ turn away from Judeo-Christianity. For their supposed betrayal Bannon has denounced baby boomers as “the most spoiled, most self-centered, most narcissistic generation the country’s ever produced.”
What followed from the move away from Judeo-Christian traditions, according to Mr. Bannon, was a malicious secular pluralism. In this world unmoored from national folkways, a liberal elite emerged that enriched itself through globalization and favored the further dilution of the cultural identity of Middle America. “There are people in New York,” Mr. Bannon declaims, “that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado.”
Chasing a naïve globalism, this thinking goes, the secular liberal elite opened the United States to foreigners from outside the national religious traditions—especially Muslims. In his effort to communicate lost religious unity, Mr. Bannon is highly selective in his portrayal of the American past. (For example, the American traditions the “hippies” arguably inherited, like Jeffersonian deism and the transcendentalism of Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson, are routinely overlooked.) But Mr. Bannon’s story is clear enough in its outlines: Judeo-Christian national folk traditions are betrayed by liberal elites, bringing on moral and economic collapse. For this reason, Mr. Bannon believes that “the central thing that binds” the new global right-wing movement is “really the middle class, the working men and women” who have retained a nationalized form of religion.
Mr. Bannon’s story is clear enough in its outlines: Judeo-Christian national folk traditions are betrayed by liberal elites.
Mr. Bannon also sometimes presents his views of American societal decline through the theories of two amateur historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe, who believed that history repeatedly passes through four fixed generational stages, each lasting about 20 years: “highs,” “awakenings,” “unravelings” and “crisis.” Such deterministic conceptions of history cannot deal with the actual empirical variety or contingency of the human past. But conservative writers like Christopher Caldwell have argued that this cyclical quality has a moderating effect on Mr. Bannon’s politics—rendering him a figure merely “managing” the inevitable cycles of history.
I believe Mr. Caldwell’s assessment is misguided. Subscribing to a cyclical view of history does not in any way necessitate either political moderation or extremism. What is more politically decisive is Mr. Bannon’s view of a fall from grace requiring powerful restoration.
A false view of Eden
There are at least two questions thoughtful people should ask themselves before adopting a crisis narrative about society (as told by Mr. Bannon or anybody else). The first is: Is society in its current form really catastrophic, or does the secularized story of the fall distort or neglect certain positive features of reality?
One problem with Mr. Bannon’s pessimistic narrative is it asks us to believe that the past few decades in the United States have been all about downward movement. Of course, people from a wide variety of ideological perspectives would each have some merit in criticizing serious flaws and injustices within contemporary American life. To reject cultural pessimism is not to embrace a simple-minded, sunny optimism. But the problem is rendering all of American life with the same pessimistic brush.
Consider the many features of our common life in the past 30 years that represent real forward movement and accomplishment. For example, the United States has helped advance the computer revolution at an astonishing pace; scientists have mapped the human genome and continued to fight back disease; athletes have set new global standards in swimming and women’s sports; artists have continued to make major contributions to film, music and literature.
But more important than these heroics is the way life in the modern democracies has been marked by what the philosopher Charles Taylor has identified as the affirmation of the ordinary. Americans for at least the past half-century have sought and found great joy in their families, friends, pets, food, nature, travel and small acts of charity. Perhaps no period in history has been as marked by the identification of ordinary people and ordinary pursuits as sources of profound value and dignity.
The second question anyone presented with a politicized version of the story of the fall should ask themselves is: Was the Golden Age ever that golden? Mr. Bannon seems to achieve his story of civilizational decline only through continual omissions.
The United States at midcentury was certainly an exciting place with its own accomplishments and dynamism. Yet any serious look at that era makes its designation as Eden problematic. Perhaps the United States’ greatest blemish was that it still upheld an official, codified system of racial apartheid in many of its states (and deeply racist practices in the rest of them). Also injurious was the limiting of opportunities to women, who were still often barred from professions like the law, business and academia. Similar points could be made about the awareness of people with disabilities or other identities that did not fit a preset cultural pattern. In many ways, the United States became a manifestly more Judeo-Christian place through the experience of the 1960s—not in numbers of the officially religious, but in terms of its shared prizing of kindness and respect for the dignity of human conscience.
Mr. Bannon’s Judeo-Christian alliance was solidified by the move toward the greater tolerance that he so derides.
Mr. Bannon’s description of Eden is not even an adequate portrait of what faith was like in the United States in the mid-20th century. As the sociologist José Casanova has shown, the United States was marked not so much by a pan-Judeo-Christian culture as by a more narrowly Protestant one. Jews and Catholics were still often kept out of the major positions of leadership in American institutions (as evident in the high suspicion around John F. Kennedy’s bid for the presidency). Indeed, there is a sense in which Jews and Catholics were the Muslims of 19th-century America—a suspicious immigrant “other” that might never assimilate. Mr. Bannon’s Judeo-Christian alliance was itself solidified by the baby boomers and their move toward the greater pluralism and tolerance that he so derides.
At bottom, as political scientist Mark Lilla has argued, grand philosophical narratives of decline are as often about political mythology as actual history. This mythologizing is betrayed in Mr. Bannon’s lack of either understanding or interest in the fact that the “Judeo-Christian West” is not a unitary political project. Rather, there have been rival political projects built and carried out by Christians in Europe and the United States. So, for example, the Christians who believed in the medieval divine right of kings were at violent odds with those who favored a society comprised of individual rights and democratic self-rule. St. Thomas Aquinas and John Locke were not part of the same unified political project.
Yet Mr. Bannon’s rallying narrative of crisis is not without concrete political consequences. Crisis is an extremely effective tool for claiming extraordinary powers, suspending ordinary rules of law and even enacting violence. If the problem is dire enough, then perhaps only strength, authority and war can fix it.
By contrast, the United States has a long tradition of commitment to hopefulness in politics that extends beyond political parties and ideologies—from Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. This tradition of hopefulness has never simply been reducible to sentimentalism or sunny optimism. Democracy requires trusting that another’s freedom does not spell society’s doom. Liberty and this hopeful trust are ultimately a very different story than that told by Steve Bannon.