Community Forum: Who’s afraid of Steve Bannon?

This week’s writer is Victor Nuovo, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Middlebury College and a senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, England.
In a recent Op-Ed to The New York Times, Christopher Caldwell, who regularly writes for the conservative Weekly Standard, chides critics of Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s chief political strategist, for calling him an extremist, anti-Semite, racist, misogynist and other unsavory things. Caldwell claims that Bannon is none of these. Instead, he argues, Bannon is an intellectual, who is well read, highly intelligent, and has clear ideas of his goals.
I won’t dispute this, and in any case calling Bannon names is no substitute for taking him seriously, which it would be unwise not to do — because some of his ideas are truly dangerous.
Bannon’s ideas of economic and cultural nationalism, if made into policy, would cause financial ruin and violate our fundamental rights of freedom of expression and religion. His thoughts about religion are also most disturbing, and they proceed from a profound ignorance.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are successive moments in the historical development of a single tradition, the Abrahamic tradition. While it is true that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — who is the same God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims — is often depicted in their scriptures as cruel and intolerant, a tyrannical and jealous God, these traditions have, over their long histories, modified and softened this harshness and supplemented it with admirable sentiments of compassion and humanity. Islamophobia, in short, is not only hateful, it is also uninformed and stupid.
But there is another idea that Bannon has advocated, which I consider most dangerous of all, for, if it were implemented, it would destroy democracy in America.
In his op-ed, Caldwell seems to believe that being an intellectual makes one respectable. He is mistaken. In 1933, the Nazi Party had its intellectuals. Two of them remain even today major figures in their fields. In 1927, Martin Heidegger, a philosopher, published Being and Time as a prelude to metaphysics. Five years earlier, Carl Schmitt, a noted jurist and philosopher of law, published Political Theology.
These soon to be Nazi intellectuals (both joined the Nazi Party in 1933) described their intellectual programs in much the same way. Heidegger wanted to destroy or deconstruct all previous metaphysical systems as a prelude to presenting his own; Schmitt, wanted to destroy the bureaucratic or administrative state, the rule of law, and what he labelled “liberal constitutionalism.”
Schmitt’s program should sound familiar, for Bannon uses just these words to describe the goal that he has set for the Trump administration: “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” I have no doubt that he has read Schmitt’s book.
How did Schmitt plan to accomplish the deconstruction of the administrative state? He proposed that it be done by a new sort of leader with power comparable to the divine. He entitled his book, Political Theology, because he believed that political ideas are merely secularized versions of theological notions. He argued that a successful political leader must be one whose sovereign power is like God’s, which he supposed is analogous to the power to perform miracles. Now miracles are events that violate the laws of nature. They demonstrate God’s arbitrary power. In all divine actions, the deity acts freely and arbitrarily, whether creating worlds, promulgating laws, showing mercy or wrath, saving or reprobating. The only justification for what God does is that he or she is God.
Schmitt does not suppose that a head of state should have divine power, but a secular version of it. He defines it in the following rather cryptic statement: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”
What he means is this: A ruler’s sovereign power is perfectly exemplified in unprecedented circumstances, in states of emergency, which require spontaneous and decisive action. It is the sovereign’s unlimited authority to do so. But Schmitt adds, it is also the sovereign’s right to decide when such action is needed; the sovereign is free to regard any and all events as exceptional; the sovereign free to declare states of emergency at will.
This sort of sovereignty requires no law and has no need for a bureaucracy and its rules of procedure and no precedents. By the same arbitrary power, the sovereign decides who are its friends, and who, its enemies; what is political and what isn’t; and perhaps also the power to replace facts with alternative facts — a practice known as propaganda. The sort of authority that Schmitt envisages is characteristic of a dictator and the political order that it establishes is totalitarian.
Now, in the light of this very dangerous idea, it is not hard to imagine how the American presidency might be transformed into a dictatorship. By attacking the free press, branding them as enemies of the state and producers of fake news and being reckless in its disregard for what is true or false, and by Trump promoting the myth of danger at our gates, citing a need to build walls, inciting culture wars, and raising the pitch of populist rhetoric to evoke a sense of crisis and to rally the faithful — all of these would lead up to the declaration of a permanent state of emergency. If these are Bannon’s ideas, then there is reason to fear him.

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