These are murky times we live in. Very murky. Dissecting just what’s going on at top levels of government is opaque at best. It’s not clear what Trump wants, how he sees governance, what his vision of government looks like, and, frankly, it’s not even clear that he cares about any of it. In reality, he could care more about personal profits than actual governance. It’s all up in the air.
However, we do know information about the people around him, and those who influence his policy. For instance, it’s exceedingly clear that Steve Bannon is a close advisor. We know from leaks and journalists that Trump is frustrated the government can’t be run like a business — something I sincerely hope all Americans take to heart. Additionally, Trump doesn’t like details, and allegedly defers such policy questions to Bannon (who is largely seen as the architect of not only Trump’s campaign, but also several executive orders), Kushner (his son-in-law), or Paul Ryan. So it seems that Trump himself is by-and-large acting as what he thought he would be — a CEO. Governmental politics, however, is far more complex than any business.
And this is where things get confusing. Who is calling the shots? What motivates Trump’s decisions? What guides Trump’s thinking?
To which I answer, Bannon and Kushner seem to be key decision makers at this point. And while we don’t know much about Kushner or his role (even aides are confused about that), we know much more about Bannon. And, make no mistake, Bannon is hands on writing orders, and now sits on the National Security Council (presumably because Trump himself doesn’t follow the nuance such discussions need — and, in a separate occasion, Trump ordered military action when not having enough intel resulting in death of both civilians and one military member).
So there are people doing policy work for Trump (Bannon and Kushner). And, because of this, their imprints are all over the orders, and part of a larger worldview. And, particularly with Bannon, we can piece together his philosophy, view of America, and better understand the ideas shaping Trump’s presidency. In the end, Trump is a CEO. Nothing more. There are others crafting policy while Trump manages operations.
And with that, here are some of the external ideas shaping Trump and his presidency:
Where to start.
If you aren’t already aware, Steve Bannon is Trump’s number one (or two, behind Kushner) advisor. It’s not clear how much power he has, but it’s safe to say that a lot of what Bannon believes in is manifesting itself in Trump’s policies and thought. He crafted Trump’s campaign and messaging, and reportedly crafted the immigration executive order. While Trump’s actions are completely the invention of his own thoughts, and his policies seem to have a randomness to them, there is indeed an architect behind such shock and awe. And in this case, the policies are the logical conclusion of a growing part of Trump’s constituency: a movement called the alt-right.
NOTE BEFORE PROCEEDING: I know Trump demonizes media literally every chance he gets (which is part of a larger authoritarian problem), but contrary to what Trump supporters think, the alt-right is a formal organization, and this is the name they gave to themselves. Thus, in reality, there exists a group of people, and they call this group the alt-right. It isn’t an invention of the media, it simply is an organization.
The alt-right is what it says it is: an alternative to the conventional American right (or conservative). It’s kind of like the Tea Party EXCEPT that the alt-right explicitly wants to highlight the “greatness” of white, Eurpoean-centric culture. The group, trying to intellectualize racism, tries to escape the racial stigma by labeling white, Christian-ness as “European,” but knowing full well that means white people. The movement is a pro-white group, and as such white supremacists are calling themselves alt-right — because it’s better than being called a racist, which could have negative consequences. It’s a PR campaign. The movement believes in the superiority of white-dominated culture. The movement calls for a return to traditional European culture by reinstating the role of masculinity, patriarchy in society, and thinks that preserving culture is more important than free-market economics. It de-legitimizes feminism as nothing more than whining, and sees a country valuing a “nice” culture over one that is “great.”
And with a de-emphasis on free market economics is where the alt-right most certainly breaks with mainstream conservatism. And rather than free-market economics, the alt-right champions harvesting (European-centric) community via the return to a more-ancient time where men hunted, women had far fewer rights, and children were raised with a solid, nationalistic worldview.
The alt-right would favor national identity (Americanism) over personal identity (e.g. a conservative, gay, fundamental Muslim, for instance). National identity supersedes the individual in this view. The alt-right de-emphasizes individualism. And while many in the movement would push back against this idea (like that Milo guy — last name Yillionpoplous, or whatever?), the fact is that the alt-right is a nationalist-centered movement. While the Milo figure claims it’s a free-speech movement. But it isn’t. It’s a movement seeking to legitimize a particular way of life and identity while suppressing any contrary grievances.
And who is the alt-right? The alt-right is primarily made up of younger white men. Most of them are internet-based, but others are vocal advocates in the open (such as white supremacist groups), and they have many forums. The term is vague, but they all agree on European superiority, and also agree that masculinity is threatened in the modern world. They have no problem joking about the Holocaust, or “offending” anyone about literally anything. There are no limits to insults or trolling. Their primary mode of political discourse includes meme-making and trolling those who they see as being part of mainstream politics. The overall aim of the alt-right is to restore national identity (which includes choosing who is deemed “American”), de-legitimatize feminism, and the restoration of a distinctly European culture across America. They could care less about economics, it seems (unless it’s to restore funneling money back to “true” Euro-Americans).
And it’s at this point you could be asking: what does Trump have to do with all of this BS?
Bannon used to be the editor of Brietbart News, the self-proclaimed voice for the alt-right. Bannon also produced a movie about Regan, a pro-Citizens United documentary (promoted by Fox News), some documentary about the American heartland that got Sarah Palin’s attention, then a pro-Palin doc, and maybe a few other stupid ones. He also wanted to produce a movie about cloning Nazis …. yes, cloning Nazis. The movie plot proposal included investigating eugenics programs, and even had a frozen Walt Disney in it. Bannon also said his favorite filmmakers are Sergei Eisenstein, and Leni Riefenstahl (a Soviet director and Nazi propagandist). Bannon is in fact quite committed to the alt-right.
And speaking of the far right, allegedly Trump read Hitler speeches from time to time in the evening. And Trump is also informed by far right thinking — consider the recent visit to Trump Tower by Marine Le Pen, the far right French leader. His insistence that Vladimir Putin is a “nice guy,” or the comment where he offered to have a burger with Kim Jong-Un. Then there’s also the obvious ties to Russia in the Trump camp. There is clearly a preference for Trump, and Bannon, to reinvent political discourse — most likely in a way that strengthens the role of authority in society.
… and so, Bannon is part of the alt-right. He is also ultra conservative. Trump, it’s safe to say, is a schizophrenic/narcissistic mish-mash of a conservative guided by Bannon’s conceptions of policy (although he does, admittedly, have some socialist policies — consider his trade approach). But Bannon’s fingerprints seem very apparent in the latest immigration order.
In a blog awhile ago, I wrote about neo theories, which, coincidentally, was a good primer for this blog.
The alt-right is a movement. It’s a group of people voicing a view of the world with distinct political objectives. That means the movement has a clearer vision of policy, and a messaging platform to push those policies. But, the movement also does limit itself by claiming racial superiority (come on, it’s a hard sell to grow membership). So, to pick up the slack, there is a neoreactionary political philosophy, which Bannon reportedly subscribes to (or at least portions of the thought). This philosophy is, essentially, the intellectual backbone the alt-right uses to prop itself up. While these thinkers don’t necessarily view the alt-right as good, they do influence the alt-right by their thinking.
In essence, neoreactionary philosophy is the logic that justifies the alt-right movement. It’s far more intellectual than the alt-right is. These thinkers even have an established online community, complete with their own thought-inspired art.The art, by the way, is kind of an Assassin’s Creed-meets-Game-of-Thrones theme which is then married with cyborgs. And, just so everyone knows, this philosophy is pretty much openly against democracy.
Neoreactionary political theorists don’t necessarily think about policy, and as such, they don’t advocate how to get to their world one way or the other.
But here’s some of what they think: Their philosophy is meant to imagine an America in a more stylized, contemporary, simple, value-based and authoritarian way. Neoreactionaries don’t subscribe to democratic ideals, and instead see value in authoritarian power, well-defined positions in society, and a government run as a corporate entity rather than a law-making body informed by democratic consensus.
The philosophy envisions a state (country) as a corporation. In their words:
The core of our problem is that there is no one with the secure authority to fix things. The core of our solution is to find a man, and put him in charge, with a real chain of command, and a clear ownership structure.
Real leadership would undertake a proper corporate restructuring of USG [United States Government]: Pardon and retire all employees of the old regime; formalize obligations as simple financial instruments; nationalize and restructure the banks, media, and universities; and begin the long slow process of organic cultural recovery from centuries of dysfunction.
In this thought, people are meant to produce, hold place in society, have purpose as dictated, and contribute to a superior culture that emphasizes masculinity, aesthetics, and greatness through virtue. In this philosophy, the state essentially owns a company rather than the government “owning” a state, as they see it. It’s more efficient to be a business, in that rationalization. Equality in any sense, for neoreactionaries, is a sort of “false god,” and completely unattainable. I don’t know enough about their conceptions of law, but I would venture to guess they hold little regard for democratic law or justice (or human rights, for that matter). So while I don’t fully understand their conceptions of law, from what I gather, their primary motivation to reinvent modern America is because they have a very dark view of technocrats and contemporary government in general. They also see Trump’s rise as opportunity to reinvent the political space and plant some of these ideas.
So rather than a government using taxes to reinvest in programs and such, the philosophy envisions corporate state (sounds familiar — like Nazi Germany). And in this view, the goal isn’t policy, but profit perhaps in the form of work, output, militarization … who knows. People working to fulfill empty space in their life — who knows what that is. It’s an odd philosophy that melds a strange version of libertarianism, capitalism, and conservative values. In general, I find that it’s a new way to legitimize fascism.
Neoreactionaries, these days, also highlight the importance of masculinity in the world, the role of statehood, and, while it doesn’t necessarily discuss ethnicity or race, it is most certainly implied that Europeanism is superior. This a a steadily growing community of people claiming the modern world is a complete failure, and such language most certainly was featured in Trump’s inaugural address.
These days, there really is an assault not only on the Constitution, but there’s also a cult of neoreactionaries demonizing democracy itself; instead opting to extol the virtues of authoritarian power.
Make no mistake, Trump’s marginalization of free press, abuse of the judiciary, and disregard for professional specialization is an attack on core American values — that is, if you believe in the Constitutional document to begin with. And judging by some of the rhetoric these days, I can say there are far more people than I thought who are OK with breaking with American values.
And so it is, Steve Bannon is a direct advisor to the president. He was also the head of Brietbart, and is, at minimum, an alt-right sympathizer (though it’s pretty much determined he’s a supporter). In addition, he follows ideas that Islam is fundamentally incomparable with European culture, and therefore with the rest of the West. He also seems to prefer the corporatization of the government itself, and probably wants to abolish the bueraucracy (hence Trump’s Cabinet picks). Bannon seems to despise the media, calling them the “opposition party,” and sees a world where national identity and security supersede any construction of individual identity. And, for the moment, it seems as though America is on his side, at least in rural America (and white America, by extension) and among Republican voters.
Russia. Russia, Russia, Russia.
This is a big part of the Trump puzzle.
It’s not a stretch to say that Russia sympathizes with developments in the American right. After all, Putin’s “guided democracy” is a mix of dictatorship and managed elections. In the end, Putin puts people in power, and Russia is still an oligarchy. And at the international level, Putin wants a return to nation-based, pre-WWII politics where each country has a distinct identity. It’s also not a surprise that Putin wants Russia to influence the world in a more meaningful way. And, it’s also not a stretch to say that Putin and Trump share perhaps complimentary visions.
Trump wants a protectionist USA, and Putin wants a Russia that yields international influence. By Putin gaining such a foothold, Trump, in effect, also wins by scaling back international (particularly NATO and global trade, immigration, etc.) involvement. If Trump buys into conceptions of state-based identity, and purely European influence, then it makes sense for him to let Putin rise. In this way, Trump pleases his base constituency by providing minimum wage jobs (with ridiculous inflation though, minimizing gains mind you), and Putin wins by compelling states to adopt not only Russian cultural norms, but also by ensuring Russian Empire, which is certainly something Putin is interested in. And through it all, it’s a return to global oligarchy, which seems to be implemented already in the US via Cabinet appointments — Trump already filled his cabinet full of billionaires. Trump doesn’t seem to find value in NATO, which is clear, and that most certainly excites Putin. With a docile US and NATO, Russia is free to gallivant into whatever conflicts they deem necessary to complete objectives.
And we have a decently clear idea of what’s going on: Russian propaganda was meant to influence US Elections and keep Clinton (staunchly anti-Russia) from gaining power. From what we know about Russian intelligence, it’s certainly possible the FSB has a full, complete dossier on Trump as backup. Russians are prepared to offer Trump substantial stake in the Russian oligarchic society. Recently, Michael Flynn, a batshit crazy security advisor for Trump, suggests that he discussed upcoming sanctions with Moscow as a heads up (or perhaps a promise). And, unsurprisingly, Russian courts struck down Putin’s only viable competition for elections.
… It does seem as though Putin is running for another term despite his chatter otherwise … and, he WILL win. Perhaps with Russian protests and the like (similar to his last electoral “win”), but he will suppress, and he will win. So it looks like Putin is determined to work with Trump … again, unsurprisingly, given the worldview of the Trump administration.
In many ways, Russian views of the world have more value in today’s world over Western liberal conceptions of law, equality, freedom, and justice. Trump is using many autocratic tactics, and if he succeeds in securing 8 years in office (a tall order indeed), that’s plenty of time to craft a government in his image, and, more importantly, it’s enough time to ensure a cult of devotees follow in his leadership style. Indeed it could cripple traditional values that American leaders have worked for in the post-WWII world.
The global tides moving towards conservativism, I wrote some time ago, stem directly from the threat of terrorism. And I stand by that. This is all possible because terrorism exists in the world. Trump would not be possible in a pre-9/11 world. Terrorism, not the Muslim religion itself, but terrorism (and, more importantly, radicalization) makes possible a range of reactions. And at the current time, the reaction is to recoil, protect statehood and culture, and strive for a return to “simpler” times in a world full of danger.
But I’m afraid that this disturbing trend moving towards authoritarianism won’t resolve violence but perpetuate it. When the world has protectionism, closed borders, and distinct identity, history teaches us that war is inevitable.
And what I presented are only some of the influences on Trump. There are also subjects including his business empire, his family advice (nepotism), and the multitude of underlings fighting for his attention. Trump is a minefield of ethical problems, and he hasn’t even gotten his feet wet in international or domestic policy. And while he seems to be ill-equipped for the job (businessmen don’t necessarily translate to politicians), I’m sure he’ll learn quite a bit along the way towards this dystopian nightmare some of those around him have constructed.
At best, Trump is in a job over his head and just listening to advice from those he thinks best capable of giving it. At worst, Trump want’s neoreactionary approaches to politics implemented, and to make America an authoritarian-based, European, closed-border country. In either case, I don’t see a lot of hope for Trump’s administration, and I certainly think American political safeguards will test Trump to his limits. Perhaps stopping him all together.