The Fascination of Steve Bannon

How important is the distinction between nationalism and patriotism? Could it be that this distinction might be all that stands between Steve Bannon and political power?

It may seem too slender a distinction, too thin a thread, to matter so much. Yet as G.K. Chesterton’s wrote on Fairy Tales (reprinted at All Things Considered, 1956, p.188-9):

If you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other — the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow.…

This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folk-lore — the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative. Now it is obvious that there are many philosophical and religious ideas akin to or symbolized by this; but it is not with them I wish to deal here. It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairy-tale tune; that if one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided.

Patriotism vs. nationalism?

Bannon is currently a, perhaps the, leading imaginary hobgoblin of progressives, elites, and globalists. Bannon is surpassed in hobgoblinish notoriety only by the Big Billy Goat Gruff himself, Donald Trump.

The fascination with Bannon by the reigning intelligentsia brings to mind Joseph Conrad’s observation from The Heart of Darkness:

He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination — you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

As Ivan Krastev recently reminded us in the New York Times, “‘If there’s an explosion or fire somewhere, Steve is probably nearby with some matches,’ one of Steve Bannon’s former Breitbart News employees once said (admiringly).’” That said, it would be a vulgar mistake indeed to mistake Bannon for a mere hooligan.

The persistence and intensity of interest Bannon evokes suggests that there is more here than a Loki-like provocateur. A recent feature in the elite media highlights Bannon’s efforts to unite the European right-wing nationalist factions into a coherent movement. (The inherent paradox rather puts me in mind of a trope by an old progressive-libertarian friend, the late Rep. Ned Pattison: “We anarchists need to get organized.” How does one unite rival nationalists?)

Excited publicity about what Bannon calls “The Movement” was promptly followed by Bannon’s forthcoming cinematic billet doux to the president, “Trump @ War.” This was followed by eager sneak previews of Erroll Morris’s forthcoming Bannon documentary, American Dharma, slated to premier September 4th at the Venice Film Festival.

Bannon continues to fascinate even his enemies.

It has taken Adam Gopnik, an unusually discerning globalist (raised in Montreal in Habitat ’67 no less), to propose a really compelling resolution to the paradox that is Steve Bannon. Gopnik, while a card-carrying member of the cosmopolitan elite — an award-winning writer for the New Yorker — is refreshingly free of the strong priors that blind many of his contemporaries.

In a recent, brilliantly understated essay entitled “The General Will” — superficially a review of the new biography by Julian Jackson of Charles de Gaulle — Gopnik offers a revelation about the currently confounded state of world politics in general and (without naming names) about Bannon. Gopnik puts his finger squarely on the source of the cognitive dissonance that compels attention to Bannon. He then offers a profound resolution, one with potentially transformational political implications.

Bannon is harnessing the chthonic forces of nationalism — tribalism on steroids — as a source of political power. Spoiler Alert! There is a force that has even greater power than, one without the sinister undercurrents of, nationalism. It is called patriotism.

While out of favor, patriotism is angelic, not demonic. Follow along.

Gopnik puts his readers at risk of missing his politically essential cultural haymaker by burying his lede and identifying his true quarry obliquely, by description rather than by name. In reviewing Jackson’s laudable but somewhat obscure new biography De Gaulle (Harvard), Gopnik assesses, with mordant near-reverence and near-Canadian sangfroid, De Gaulle, as

the biggest pain in the ass in the history of the liberal order. By alphabetical accident, the heading “De Gaulle: Personal Characteristics” in Jackson’s index gives us, in sequence: arrogance, austerity, authoritarianism, cigarette smoking, coldness, contempt for human nature. It’s quite a list. Yet, as this classically composed and authoritative (if culturally somewhat shallow) book makes clear, he remains an amazing figure.

De Gaulle had three rendezvous with history, in the old-fashioned sense he loved: in 1940, in 1958, and in 1968. On all three occasions, he saved the French state by sheer theatricality and élan. First, by embodying the French republic in retreat from the Germans; then by seizing power, in a republican mode, to end the Algerian crisis; and, finally, when he ended the potential chaos of the May revolt by massing almost a million people on the Champs-Élysées in a counter-demonstration.

It was not all theatrical élan. As Jackson, a British history professor, shows, it also involved political savvy and the quiet weighing of odds among competing factions. But he depended more on theatrical élan than did pretty much any other public man of his century. Churchill in 1940 was far from powerless. He had radar and Ultra, an intact R.A.F. and a large empire. De Gaulle had nothing except his uniform and his voice. No one has ever played a weaker hand more compellingly. His life was one long brilliant bluff, and the things that make him exasperating — his vanity and closed-mindedness; his unearned sense of superiority and egocentric blindness — were also why the bluffs worked. He convinced others, sitting at the card table with all the aces in their hands, that he might have somehow manufactured an extra ace by pure force of will.

Enough, however, about the indispensable De Gaulle (to whom is attributed the trope “The graveyards are full of indispensable men”). How are Gopnik’s observations about this dead French president relevant — even essential — to our current political situation?

[Jackson’s] account misses the central lesson that de Gaulle intuited: myths matter. Without a sense of shared symbols, it is impossible for any modern state to go on. France is a frustrating state, but it has never been a failed one. It works. National dignity is hugely important to any program of national renewal. (Had American policy toward Russia post-1989 been shaped with an eye not just to that country’s political system but to its pride — to making sure that the Russians had a myth of their own self-liberation, instead of being so obviously plundered and defeated — the ensuing disaster would, conceivably, have been less disastrous.) De Gaulle crafted a symbolic history for the French in place of a real one, because symbols were among the most real things they knew.

The distinction that’s sometimes made between patriotism and nationalism is at the essence of his existence. The patriot loves his place and its cheeses and its people and its idiosyncrasies; the nationalist has no particular sense of affection for the actual place he advocates for (he is often an outsider to it) but channels his obsessive grievances into acts of ethnic vengeance. De Gaulle is a nearly perfect example of the right-wing patriot in power — of the constitutional conservative who accepts the modern order.

With his love of honor and pageantry, de Gaulle might seem to offer a very dated model of politics. And yet in an odd way there’s an urgent, living lesson for the twenty-first century in what de Gaulle accomplished, one that can’t be overlooked — indeed, President Macron spends every day trying not to overlook it. What de Gaulle’s example reminds us is how valuable an insistence on the shared symbols of a common fate can be if carried out with integrity and a residual deposit of democratic values. The politics of grandeur, he shows, need not be the exclusive province of bullies and gangsters and crooks and clowns. It’s a fine French lesson.

Gopnik hereby nails the two things that Bannon (as well as Trump) gets importantly right. And he nails the crucial distinction which Bannon subtly, potentially tragically, gets wrong. The collapsed distinction is a crucial nuance, something that Chesterton called “the one thread” upon which all else depends.

The two big things that Bannon and Trump surely get right are the importance of myth — our narrative, both personal and national — and of our pride (in the sense of dignity, not the deadly sin of superbia). These factors, so far, elude the left. Grasping them represents a major source of Bannon’s power.

So long as the left remains clueless about myth and dignity, it will remain politically underpowered.

Myth speaks for itself. As for dignity, Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado opens with words that now seem a prophecy of the blue-collar working class’s repudiation of the condescending elites and their paladin, Hillary Clinton: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

Until the elites develop a decent respect for the virtues and values of the blue collars they will be politically immured alive: “For the love of God, Montresor!” The left also would do well to contemplate the crest of the formerly great and numerous Montresor family: “A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are impeded in the heel.”

And the motto: “Nemo me impune lacessit.”

“No one attacks me with impunity.”

The crucial nuance that eludes Bannon (and Trump) is the critical distinction between patriotism and nationalism:

The distinction that’s sometimes made between patriotism and nationalism is at the essence of [De Gaulle’s] existence. The patriot loves his place and its cheeses and its people and its idiosyncrasies; the nationalist has no particular sense of affection for the actual place he advocates for (he is often an outsider to it) but channels his obsessive grievances into acts of ethnic vengeance. De Gaulle is a nearly perfect example of the right-wing patriot in power — of the constitutional conservative who accepts the modern order.

This distinction may hold within its DNA the blueprint for a road to political power and glory while avoiding ignominy. If Bannon were to tilt the world away from nationalism, with its ugly chauvinist undercurrent, toward patriotism, with its beautifully idealistic subtext, he could own the secret recipe for creating a modern, multinational Gaullism: the “right-wing patriot in power, the constitutional conservative.”

Without grasping and activating the distinction between nationalism and patriotism, durable power — Bannon’s stated desire to have his vision dominate for generations — is likely to merely tantalize him. And if Bannon does not seize as his tentpole patriotism instead of nationalism, a challenger could eat Bannon’s lunch.

Implausibly, but not impossibly, this challenge could arise from within the GOP. More likely it could arise from within a chaotic and confused Democratic Party. Alternatively, we may just remain in the realm of chaos. Loose ball!

As Aristotle teaches, the strongest persuasive force (rhetoric) is pathos, not logos, feelings, not logic. Whoever uses patriotism to trump the nationalism now besetting politics, hither and yon, could quickly find herself within striking distance of seizing the throne. Bannon’s vulnerability right now is to his power being wrested from him by a better-quality insurgent populism — patriotic rather than nationalistic — than Bannon and those he is mentoring are now projecting.

Yes, as Gopnik reminds us, “myths matter. Without a sense of shared symbols, it is impossible for any modern state to go on.” Napoleon shared a similar sentiment (and used it to propel himself, albeit briefly, to glory).

What a thing is imagination! Here are men who don’t know me, who have never seen me, but who only knew of me, and they are moved by my presence, they would do anything for me! And this same incident arises in all centuries and in all countries! Such is fanaticism! Yes, imagination rules the world. The defect of our modern institutions is that they do not speak to the imagination. By that alone can man be governed; without it he is but a brute.

The mythos of patriotism resoundingly trumps the shopworn myth of nationalism. Steve Bannon might even, thereby, surpass De Gaulle as “the biggest pain in the ass in the history of the liberal order.” That’s a status that surely would appeal to him. Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!

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