Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Thank you, Steve Bannon. I mean that sincerely. I’m sleeping better because of you.
Over the first few weeks of the Trump administration, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon has worked hard to establish himself as the would-be Grand Vizier of the White House. Bannon, the former executive chair of the winkingly white nationalist website Breitbart, was the driving force behind the executive order banning entry into the United States of immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries and now sits on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council.
And if he had his way, the rest of this piece would be about how frightening he is.
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Being scary is Bannon’s schtick; he publicly compares himself not only to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s newly popular fixer, but also to Darth Vader and Satan, declaring, “Darkness is good … that’s power.” In 2013, he told a reporter that he identified as a Leninist: “I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
The press is eating this up. Recently, Time described him as “The Great Manipulator,” and a Politico profile on his reading habits emphasized his supposedly towering and arcane intellect. The New York Times describes Bannon’s familiarity with the midcentury Italian philosopher Julius Evola, who was too far to the right even for the fascists. But his tastes are also distinctly modern: he is familiar with the work of programmer Curtis Yarvin, who produced a now-shuttered but still influential cult blog on far-right anti-democratic theory under the name of Mencius Moldbug, and of Michael Anton, whose anonymous essay “The Flight 93 Election” marked one of the major (and only) attempts to provide an intellectual scaffolding for Trumpism. (Anton now works as a staffer on the National Security Council; Politico writes that Yarvin is now indirectly in touch with Bannon, though Yarvin has denied this.)
I’m going to call nonsense on this whole meme. In fact, I’d like to take a moment to thank Bannon for tempering my libertarian panic about the fate of democracy in America.
Three weeks ago, my libertarian panic was full-throated. I speculated that we had cause for concern that Trump might be our first president in the mold of the fascist thinker Carl Schmitt, who notoriously wrote that the “sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” In the worst-case scenario, I worried that we would see the executive branch directly rejecting the authority of the courts.
To be sure, I’m still concerned about how the country will fare under the presidency of Donald Trump. But Steve Bannon has proved himself to be so monumentally incompetent that I am fairly certain the Republic is safer than I could have believed three weeks ago, at least from Bannon’s flailing efforts to maximize whatever supposed contradictions he believes he has identified.
Bannon isn’t an arch-villain. And he’s not the guy who’s going to destroy American democracy. Instead, as I’ll explain, he’s just an internet troll.
Bannon’s ineptitude has become clear in the context of his role at the center of the refugee order’s botched writing and rollout—strangely, the same context out of which emerged the portrait of him as the sinister, all-knowing eminence grise. To paraphrase Benjamin Wittes, the executive order was both deeply malevolent and profoundly incompetent. The question is whether the chaos that attended the order’s rollout, in which legal permanent residents of the United States were denied entry into the country and travelers were stranded in airports as federal officials frantically tried to figure out the legal scope of the ban, should be understood as a component of the order’s malevolence or of its incompetence. In other words, did chaos blow the plan or was chaos part of the plan?
Only a few months ago, the notion of an executive order intentionally botched in order to engineer chaos would have been difficult to propose with a straight face, but such are the times we live in that this is precisely what people are proposing, and with very straight faces. The first and most hyperbolic version of this argument arrived in the form of a viral post by Google engineer Yonatan Zunger, who floated the theory that the acute disorganization of the rollout was in fact not a sign of incompetence but rather a “trial balloon for a coup” designed to “test the extent to which DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government.” Zunger also suggested that the chaos may have been intended to exhaust protesters’ ability to counter such a power grab by overloading them with outrages.
Zunger’s post was an extreme example, but like most other examples of the theory that the chaotic rollout was intentional, it shared a focus on Bannon. Writing in Foreign Policy, Dan de Luce described Bannon’s “disruption strategy,” while the Washington Post referred to Bannon as having “used chaos to implement transformative policy.” In this reading, Bannon meant to engineer a “Leninist” crisis in drafting a broad and confusing order, refusing to run the draft through the normal inter-agency process or have it reviewed by competent counsel, and intentionally failing to provide reasonable guidance to CBP officers. Bannon’s history with Breitbart certainly reinforces the conspiracy theories. He’s been pretty clear about what he would like to rebuild in the ruins of the state he wants to tear down: he has repeatedly suggested that the United States should curtail even legal immigration and keep the country for those already here. So the notion that he might have been engineering chaos over the entry into the country of lots of non-white people sounds like common sense to a lot of people.
But intuitive or not, it’s almost certainly wrong. If Bannon’s ultimate goal in drafting the executive order were really to create a white ethnostate by limiting immigration, he would have been far more effective in doing so if he had opened up the draft order to inter-agency review and evaluation by counsel. When Trump first proposed a “Muslim ban” during the campaign season, there was much debate over whether such a plan could be effectuated constitutionally. By including green card-holders along with immigrants who held pre-existing visas and by implementing the ban immediately (thereby trapping travelers in airports), Bannon generated a ready-made group of highly sympathetic plaintiffs with standing to sue, along with a vocal and extremely visible protest movement. The government is now tied up in an extraordinary amount of litigation and the executive order itself has been halted under a nationwide freeze. Meanwhile, the administration’s lack of discipline in routinely referring to the executive order as a “Muslim ban” and attacking the competence and integrity of the federal courts has already begun to limit the willingness of the judiciary to grant the executive branch its usual deference in national security matters, to the point where the fate of a case that should have easily gone in the government’s favor is now seriously in doubt. All of this was entirely avoidable. It isn’t the way an effective white nationalist would make policy or undermine the courts or keep the nation pure of Muslims.
I want to suggest an alternative way of viewing Bannon’s recent behavior: It is best understood, particularly given the symbiotic relationship between online culture and Bannon’s and Breitbart’s particular brand of reactionary politics, as government by internet trolling.
Trolling, in its purest form, is the act of deliberately behaving in an upsetting or offensive way in order to provoke an angry response. It’s a form of entertainment, but in recent years, it’s also become linked to reactionary politics. A troll might, say, post a racial slur and then mock anyone who responds for being oversensitive. Trolling has become a central component of many of the online communities that make up the far right’s online culture—most recently and prominently including the alt-right.
Likewise, Breitbart, which Bannon referred to as a “platform for the alt-right,” may be the most well-known example of the coupling of trolling with reactionary politics. The website isn’t just far-right; it’s loud and brash about it. Articles like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew” aren’t just intended for Breitbart’s core audience; they’re also meant to outrage everyone who is not in Breitbart’s audience.
Trolling reflects a profound lack of sincerity, even a hostility to sincerity. It allows the speaker to make an offensive declaration and then insist that his or her (usually his) statement was just intended to make you mad—that you’re the real fool for taking this seriously. The speaker gets to say the thing and also gets to deny responsibility for it. The troll believes that people who care about things are chumps and that the only wise way to go through the world is with a level of ironic detachment that borders on nihilism. Trolling isn’t just about being offensive. It’s about being gleefully offensive.
The confluence of trolling with far-right politics makes for an interesting phenomenon. In the case of Breitbart, for example, we can see both a deep commitment to a political cause and ideology and a cheerfully nihilistic lack of sincerity when discussing that same cause. Breitbart’s writers believe that Trump’s executive order on immigration is wise and necessary, for example, but it also trumpets this belief because doing so enrages people who disagree.
We see the most extreme examples of this dynamic in the case of Trump supporters who associate themselves with neo-Nazi ideas but do so at a winking distance—like Richard Spencer, coiner of the term “alt-right,” who led a “heil Trump” salute at a white nationalist gathering and then claimed it was ironic when challenged. There is both a belief there and a refusal to own the belief at the same time.
Of course, Bannon is not at Breitbart any more, nor is he the alt-right exactly. But he’s sufficiently steeped in the culture of both that they provide a useful context with which to understand him: he is simultaneously a committed nationalist ideologue and a person whose commitment to that ideology aims, among other things, to make people angry. In this way, the chaos of the EO’s rollout fits perfectly with the logic of trolling. It effectively pissed off as many people as possible, from Cabinet secretaries to private citizens marching at airports. This Breitbart piece, for example, bubbles with barely contained glee over protests by “Islamic and left-wing groups.”
Nor is Bannon, in fact, some great intellectual of far-right thought. His knowledge of supposedly arcane philosophical texts is actually not impressive at all—and the texts not that arcane. Take his affinity for Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug, whom Politico describes as “an obscure Silicon Valley computer scientist whose online political tracts herald a ‘Dark Enlightenment.’” Yarvin/Moldbug is not, in fact, particularly obscure. He’s been discussed (and taken with varying degrees of seriousness) in any number of online publications, including (with varying degrees of sympathy) on the more traditional American right. His writings are commonly passed around on the far-right corners of the internet, especially among residents of Silicon Valley.
Then there is the fact that Yarvin’s writing is, not to put too fine a point on it, terrible. Once you penetrate his bizarre prose, his conclusions are laughable and even boring to anyone with a basic understanding of political theory. Yarvin’s notion of a “Dark Enlightenment”—a systematic rejection of Enlightenment principles of equality and democracy—may sound sinister, especially when expressed so incomprehensibly, but it is not in the least new, though it is inflected with the particular anxieties of 21st century America.
I emphasize that Yarvin is a bad writer not as a potshot but because the obscurity and density of his work is itself a cultural signifier of the “neoreactionary” (or NRx) movement within which he situates himself, along with hard-right corners of the internet more generally. There is an obsession in these communities with proving one’s intelligence in relation to other people, with a tinge of eugenecism that ranges anywhere from the implicit to the smarmily obvious. (An Atlantic journalist recently wrote that a prominent neoreactionary writer refused to explain his philosophy to her because “115 IQ people are not generally well equipped to summarize 160 IQ people.”) For this reason, self-consciously sinister and edgy language, along with five-syllable words and obscure references, is common coin. It is designed to make the reader feel stupid in order to puff up the writer’s ego.
Then there’s the question of Julius Evola, whom Bannon briefly cited in a 2014 speech and whom the Times describes as “esoteric” and “deeply taboo.” On the contrary, Evola has long been a fixture of alt-right thinking. Breitbart’s piece on “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” cites Evola by name as an alt-right influence, along with Oswald Spengler. Richard Spencer’s early website AlternativeRight.com published glowing work on Evola’s brilliance, and Spencer himself has spoken about Evola at length. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the white nationalist blog The Right Stuff ran a post by “Professor Evola-Hitler” arguing that the alt-right should throw its support behind Trump. So in this context, Evola is not obscure in the least. He’s exactly what you’d expect Bannon to be reading.
There is currently an ongoing, somewhat Delphic, debate among alt-right and neoreactionary circles over the extent to which Bannon is truly one of the tribe. But whether or not Bannon would identify himself as among them, or whether they would accept Bannon with open arms, this odd corner of online culture provides the context that much of the media coverage of Bannon has been lacking.
My point is that Bannon is not some sui generis political genius. And his supposed vast and arcane intellect is neither vast, nor is it arcane. It’s the regular stuff of the trolling culture of the modestly-educated, pseudo-intellectual hard right.
This brings me to the nonsense that Bannon is some kind of Darth Vader-like figure or the evil master manipulator behind the throne. The alternative and more convincing explanation is that Bannon’s just a clod with delusions of grandeur and that his disrespect for process has come back to bite him, as it will tend to do to people who don’t think through the implications of their actions carefully. It’s that the difficult, bureaucratic, legalistic inter-agency processes associated with actually putting together national security policy exist for a reason, and that when they’re disregarded, chaos and disorganization tend to result. And just to be clear, I don’t mean chaos in the Bannon-as-Rasputin sense, in which the Great Manipulator intentionally tries to “disrupt” the state. I mean chaos of the kind that has rocked the administration back on its heels and injured it before the courts not only in the case at hand but likely in many cases to come involving national security deference. I mean the kind of chaos that causes a broad degradation of this administration’s credibility and ability to function on national security matters.
In short, Bannon’s role as the ideological father of the EO strikes me as an instance of an internet troll coming up against legal and bureaucratic structures of process and accountability, and losing—because he didn’t understand the importance and power of those institutions in the first place.
As an astute acquaintance put it, we can best understand Bannon not as Darth Vader or Rasputin but as an angry blogger sitting in front of his computer tapping out a post on how he would run things if he were in charge. The difference is that, in this case, Steve Bannon actually is in charge.
Incompetence has a lot of dangers. My libertarian panic may have calmed somewhat, but I’m still deeply concerned, for example, about the profound disorganization that apparently plagues the National Security Council, and about the Trump administration’s willingness to conduct a hurried strategy session over the recent North Korean missile launch in full view of paying guests at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, with classified documents lit by camera lights from cell phones that could have been compromised by foreign intelligence. I’m concerned about the dismantling of NATO, the alienation of America’s international allies, and the looming possibility of a botched White House response to an international crisis. I’m concerned about Trump’s bizarre connections to the Kremlin, a worry unmitigated by the recent resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
But that being said, it’s very hard to dismantle major democratic institutions without a certain degree of capability. The establishment of authoritarianism takes both effort and cunning. And I’m much less worried than I was that these folks have the kind of cunning and focus it would take to take down the American experiment.
And for that I say, thanks, Steve Bannon.