I also hear a lot of claims that Bannon is a white nationalist. Some are based on stuff he allowed to be published at Breitbart (e.g., this), but many seem to rely on one thing he said while interviewing Donald Trump, in which he worried that too many immigrant CEOs would reduce "civic society." That's not something I agree with, since I'm strongly in favor of skilled immigration. But it certainly doesn't peg him as a white nationalist, especially when he vigorously and publicly and explicitly denies being a white nationalist. So if you think he's B.S.-ing about that, your case will have to rely entirely on Breitbart articles. (UPDATE: Since this post was written, we've learned a lot more about Bannon, but that's material for another post. The remainder of this post stands on its own...)
So what does Bannon believe in? The only lengthy articulation of his worldview that I know of comes from this 2014 speech. Essentially, Bannon's worldview, as laid out in this interview, seems to have three main pillars:
1. The fruits of capitalism should be more broadly distributed.
2. The West is in a war with radical Islam and must prevail.
3. Secularism contributes to the weakness of the West.
Here's where he talks about Pillar #1, his economic philosophy:
[C]apitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments...
But there’s a strand of capitalism today — two strands of it, that are very disturbing...One is state-sponsored capitalism...The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism...It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people...So I think the discussion of, should we put a cap on wealth creation and distribution?...
The central thing that binds [my movement] together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos...[T]here are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado, and they have more of this elite mentality that they’re going to dictate to everybody how the world’s going to be run.This "center-right populism" is basically a cross between FDR, Bernie Sanders, and Ross Douthat. Bannon also lambastes "crony capitalism", and says that he thinks a Judeo-Christian ethic facilitates a more equitable form of capitalism.
Bannon criticizes secularism, which is pretty standard for religious conservatives, and which also reminds me of Ross Douthat. In fact, Bannon's ideas sound a lot like the "reform conservatism" that had been making the intellectual rounds before Trump showed up on the scene.
But the one place where Bannon comes out very strongly against an external enemy is when he talks about radical Islam:
[W]e’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict...the people in this room, the people in the church, [need to] bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant...to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting..
[I]t’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it...
[L]ook at what’s happening in ISIS...That war is expanding and it’s metastasizing to sub-Saharan Africa. We have Boko Haram and other groups that will eventually partner with ISIS in this global war, and it is, unfortunately, something that we’re going to have to face, and we’re going to have to face very quickly...[W]e’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism...
I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam...If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places… It bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.Bannon's view is that radical Islam is attacking the West, and must be defeated by a united Judeo-Christian West.
This is part of a very very long strain of thought. Europeans and Middle Easterners have been fighting each other for basically all of recorded history. Two heavily populated regions, mostly but not completely separated by natural barriers, naturally tend to come into conflict at their borders. The millennium of wars between Christendom and the Islamic Umma was actually a sequel to the wars between the Greco-Romans and the Persians, and maybe even to the Trojan War and the Late Bronze Age Collapse. So this is a clash of civilizations that has been going on essentially forever.
Bannon's call for a "church militant" and a "church of the West" is basically similar to the Holy Leagues that fought the Ottomans in the 1500s. It's not a call to invasion, like the original Crusades, but rather a defensive move. Bannon is calling on the Catholic Church in particular, but also Christianity, Western capitalism, and all other unifying institutions of the West, to act as unifying and motivating forces to fight this struggle.
This is perfectly understandable. Al-Qaeda killed thousands of innocent American civilians on 9/11, and carried out a bunch of other smaller attacks on the West. ISIS has attacked the West a few times, and has horrified the world with its gruesome videos. Barbaric indeed.
But I believe that Bannon fundamentally misunderstands what's going on with radical Islam. Some of the malign energy of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other radical Islamic groups has been directed against the West and against Christians, yes. But most of it has been directed at other Muslims in Muslim countries. Only a very small part of what we're witnessing is a continuation of the eternal clash between Europe and the Middle East. Most of it is an internal civil war within the Islamic Umma.
Let's look at the main wars currently being fought by radical Islamic forces. These are:
- Syrian Civil War (~470,000 dead)
- 2nd Iraqi Civil War (~56,000 dead)
- Boko Haram Insurgency (~28,000 dead)
- War in Afghanistan (126,000 dead)
- Somali Civil War (~500,000 dead)
- War in Northwest Pakistan (~60,000 dead)
- Libyan Civil War (~14,000 dead)
- Yemeni Civil War (~11,000 dead)
- Sinai Insurgency (~4,500 dead)
This is a lot of dead people - maybe about 2 million in all, counting all the smaller conflicts I didn't list. But almost all of these dead people are Muslims - either radical Islamists, or their moderate Muslim opponents. Compare these death tolls to the radical Islamist terror attacks in the West. 9/11 killed about 3,000. The ISIS attack in Paris killed 130. The death tolls in the West from radical Islam have been three orders of magnitude smaller than the deaths in the Muslim world.
Three orders of magnitude is an almost inconceivable difference in size. What it means is that only a tiny, tiny part of the wars of radical Islam is bleeding over into the West. What we're seeing is not a clash of civilizations, it's a global Islamic civil war. The enemy isn't at the gates of Vienna - it's at the gates of Mosul, Raqqa, and Kabul.
And radical Islam is losing the global Islamic civil war. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is losing. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is losing. In all of these wars except for possibly Afghanistan, radical Islamic forces have been defeated by moderate Islamic forces.
Sometimes that's because of Western aid to the moderates. But much of it is just because a medievalist regime holds very, very little appeal for the average Muslim in any country. Practically no one wants to live under the sadist, totalitarian control of groups like ISIS. These groups are fierce, but their manpower is small and their popular support is not very large anywhere.
So I think Bannon should relax. Radical Islam will punch itself out. It's a brief, violent outpouring of reaction against internet-borne modernity, and against stagnant and repressive local regimes. It has weak popular appeal, little organization, few adherents, few weapons, and almost no safe territory anywhere on the planet. The Western attempts to help local Muslims defeat radical Islam, which have been largely successful everywhere, have not required a church militant or a Crusading spirit - in fact, they were pretty cheap and low-risk.
Many conservatives also fear that Muslim immigrants will become a fifth column in the U.S., a group with strong anti-American sentiments, committed to destroying the country from within. In fact, nothing like this is happening. Muslim immigrants in the U.S. are marrying out of the faith at increasing rates. The same pressures of modernity that have increased secularism among Jews and Christians are secularizing Muslims in the West. A lot of American Muslims now celebrate Christmas. (A few Muslims in the West, spurred by the incredibly bad example of ISIS, are even converting to Christianity, which just goes to show how radical Islam is backfiring.)
In other words, secularism isn't a dagger in the heart of Western resistance to radical Islam. It's one of the key forces that will eventually cause Muslims in the West to assimilate into broader Western society - just as it has done for non-Orthodox Jews, and many others.
So I think Steve Bannon should rethink his view on the war against radical Islam. If you think secularism is bad for society, fine. But we definitely don't need to transform our society in order to resist a radical Islamic menace. In fact, the menace was always mostly a danger to other people, far away. And they're whupping its ass. Meanwhile, Islam in general does not look like a threat to the Western way of life.