The Political Thought of Stephen K. Bannon

by Ronald Beiner on January 11, 2017

Every anxious citizen on this currently deranged planet of ours should feel a keen interest in penetrating the hyper-active political brain of Steve Bannon, who has been appointed as “senior strategist” by President-elect Donald Trump. Up until the point when he joined the Trump campaign, Bannon was a manically voluble communicator. He gave thundering lectures to right-wing groups.[1] He made films celebrating conservative icons from Reagan to Sarah Palin; there are reports that as a film-maker, Bannon modeled himself on Leni Riefenstahl.[2] He even collaborated on the script for a rap version of Coriolanus, “drawn to Shakespeare’s Roman plays,” according to the woman with whom he co-authored the script, “because of their heroic military violence.”[3] Then Bannon closed up like a clam. Presumably, the time for words had ended; the time for deeds had begun. Bannon is on record as welcoming darkness and destruction.[4] And in Trump, Bannon seems to have found the suitable political instrument of the darkness and destruction for which he yearns.

Since teaming up with Trump, Bannon seems to have broken his silence only to the extent of denying, through Trump spokespersons, that he is a racist. Are these denials reliable? If so, one has to ponder why white supremacists like Richard B. Spencer seem so enthused by the Bannon-Trump consortium. Spencer, one will recall, immediately became the most visible face of the alt-right (neo-fascist) movement in America by greeting the Trump victory with the proclamation, “let’s party like it’s 1933,” and by eliciting Nazi salutes from his followers when he shouted “hail Trump!” at a post-election alt-right conference in Washington.[5] In any case, soon after earning this notoriety, Spencer released a provocative podcast in which he offered the following astonishing commentary on Bannon: “I think Bannon is a wild card, and a wild card is good…. Bannon has made gestures towards us; he’s said Breitbart is a platform for the alt-right. He’s apparently read Julius Evola and Alexander Dugin. Make of that what you will…. We want a wild card; we want change. So, I think Bannon is a good thing.”[6] What’s wrong with this picture?

Julius Evola (1898-1974) was a ferocious racist and anti-egalitarian who characterized his politics as being to the right (!) of European fascism and who helped inspire far-right terrorism in Italy; Alexander Dugin (born 1962) is a Russian fascist who despises liberal democracy and believes in Russian imperial expansion far beyond anything aspired to by Putin.[7]

Clearly, Spencer refers to Bannon’s awareness of Evola and Dugin because he sees it as a further indication that Bannon is with “us.” We’ll turn next to the Bannon “text” to which Spencer is alluding in this commentary. Spencer, in the podcast, goes on to say that the final video ad of the Trump campaign (surely inspired by Bannon) “reminded me quite a bit” of videos produced by N.P.I. (National Policy Institute, Spencer’s far-right, white-nationalist outfit).

A fair bit of attention has been given to a discussion in which Bannon participated via Skype in the context of a 2014 conference held in the Vatican, the full transcript of which is available online.[8] Given the paucity of direct evidence with regard to how Bannon thinks politically, what his policy agenda is, and what might define his vision of a desirable politics, it is not surprising that this text is getting attention. In the interests of employing this Skype exchange as a preliminary window into Bannon’s political thinking, we offer the following summary of leading themes.

  • Bannon claims that there is both a crisis of capitalism and a crisis of Judeo-Christian values, and the two crises are interwoven. Bannon endorses a Christian rejection of liberal secularization; in fact, the contempt for Christianity on the part of ruling elites constitutes proof, for him, of the cultural arrogance of those elites. He suggests that Christianity was a key part of what sustained the health of capitalism, so secularization is simultaneously anti-religious and anti-capitalist.
  • Again and again, Bannon rails against “crony capitalism.” (This from a former investment banker working for Goldman Sachs!) At the same time, he attacks what he calls “state-sponsored capitalism” (in China and Russia).
  • Bannon endorses a quasi-Marxist critique of the kind of Wall St. capitalism that treats people like commodities. But this doesn’t deter him from also saying: “We are strong capitalists; the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better.” He claims that God favors capitalism (“divine providence” intends for us to be committed job-creators and wealth-creators). But Christian capitalists must support “putting a cap on wealth creation and distribution.”
  • Bannon endorses a Samuel Huntington-type thesis of a clash of civilizations between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam. He suggests that the coming fight between Christianity and Islam will be of the same order of magnitude as the civilizational cataclysms associated with the First and Second World Wars. He more or less assumes that jihadi versions of Islam are what represent Islam in this coming civilizational struggle.
  • Bannon aligns himself with a Tea-Party critique of the Republican establishment (the fight against which is more urgent than the fight against the Democrats); with right-wing Catholic anti-abortion and pro-traditional-marriage politics; and with far-right European populist parties like UKIP and the Front National. He repeatedly refers to the latter as “center right,” because they represent a backlash of “the middle class, the working men and women in the world” against arrogant cosmopolitan elites. Washington, Beijing, and Brussels all belong to the same international elite that disdains ordinary people and bosses them around.
  • While conceding that Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy, Bannon defends far-right (“center-right”!) populist movements in Europe with respect to admiring Putin because Putin stands for a firm concept of committed nationality. Insofar as Putin’s nationalism draws sustenance from fascist sources, that doesn’t seem objectionable to Bannon. (He cites Julius Evola and alludes to Alexander Dugin, hence the remarks made by Richard Spencer.) He even goes so far as to suggest that the centralized U.S. government matches the E.U. in its elitism and detachment from the ordinary citizenry. (Should both be disbanded? Bannon definitely gestures in that direction.)
  • Overall, Tea-Party themes (particularly outrage at the complicity between big government and the bankers responsible for the 2008 financial crisis) seem much more salient than alt-right themes, though Bannon puts a lot of emphasis on the “Judeo-Christian” foundation of the West. He believes (or says that he believes) that racial and ethnic aspects of contemporary populism will fade as populism attains its ends, which largely consist in the humbling of ruling elites.

Putting it all together, his worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of elites. One can speculate that Trump was drawn to Bannon because Bannon shared Trump’s sense of the political opportunities ripe to be exploited of European-style right-wing populism: whatever is driving the rise of populism in Europe can drive populism in America as well. Beyond this strategic instinct or insight, neither of them seems to have any particularly coherent idea of what they believe in, apart from the notion of a conspiracy on the part of a sinister liberal-cosmopolitan elite (“the party of Davos”) against common folk in Kansas and Colorado. As the statement of a political philosophy, one has to say that it is pretty shallow and poorly thought-through. How do Bannon’s professed Christian beliefs comport with his commitment to hard-nosed capitalism (the harder-nosed the better)? How does his vehement anti-statism mesh with his forbearance for authoritarian Putinite nationalism? Why are Bannon and Trump themselves exempt from membership in the despised elite? It suggests to me that people whose whole life revolves around the making of money and the consolidating of power (including media power)—and this is true of Bannon no less than Trump—haven’t had the time to reflect on what their actual political principles are, or didn’t think it was worth bothering about. That was reflected in the hollowness and inconsistency of Trump’s campaign; and (dangerously) this lack of thought-out principles may well define the incoming Trump Administration. Whether they have a coherent political vision or not, they conduct themselves in practice simply by appointing the most right-wing people they can find. Welcome to the Age of Trump.

It should not be expected that speech and deeds, logos and praxis, will be in harmony. Bannon and Trump are ruthless operators, playing the political game in a hyper-Machiavellian fashion. Words are not used primarily to express political intentions or to articulate a sincerely-held political vision. To a much greater extent, they serve to keep people guessing or to provide active smokescreens for their real designs (or maybe it’s just a question of getting a “buzz” from knowing that millions of people are getting stirred up by one’s words and images – hence the Riefenstahl fixation). The political activist Bannon casts “crony capitalists” as the root of all evil, yet the Trump cabinet nominations (surely with Bannon’s encouragement) exhibit no shortage of crony capitalists – on the contrary, they seem to predominate. “Globalism” is supposedly the enemy, but that seems not to rule out appointing Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil executives to positions of consummate power.

In truth, the disparate balls being juggled in Bannon’s juggling act – Tea-Party libertarianism, compassionate conservatism, Christian piety and moralism, European-style populist nationalism (not excluding its Putinophile aspects), clash-of-civilizations Islamophobia, with ominous “gestures” to the alt-right – are much too eclectic to be taken at face value. Still, the overall political effect is in deadly earnest. Recent reports suggest that the Trump crew has welcomed the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party at Trump Tower.[9] This is fully consistent with the pattern of Bannon’s political alignments as we know them. Despite what he says, Bannon is emphatically not a political thinker or political doer of the “centre-right” (or at least, what he takes to be centre-right is very far removed indeed from what the vast majority of us understand by the centre-right).

 

*****************************************************************************

Ronald Beiner is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

 

NOTES

[1] For instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nTd2ZAX_tc

In the lecture, Bannon claims that he gives such lectures “three times a week all across the country.”

[2] http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-bannon-influences-20161209-story.html

[3] Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, “Bannon’s ‘Coriolanus’ Rewrite, New York Times, December 18, 2016, p. SR 2.

[4] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/08/22/steve-bannon-trump-s-top-guy-told-me-he-was-a-leninist.html

http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/18/politics/steve-bannon-donald-trump-hollywood-reporter-interview/

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/lets-party-like-its-1933-inside-the-disturbing-alt-right-world-of-richard-spencer/2016/11/22/cf81dc74-aff7-11e6-840f-e3ebab6bcdd3_story.html?utm_term=.43ec3280155f

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwlzvqBXNDU

[7] For an account of Dugin’s ideology and why he’s so dangerous, see: http://crookedtimber.org/2015/03/10/who-is-aleksandr-dugin/

[8] https://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/this-is-how-steve-bannon-sees-the-entire-world?utm_term=.mwMpXoQbLk#.bgkYKwld6z

[9] http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/12/mike-flynn-nazi-sympathizers

{ 58 comments }

1

Holden Pattern 01.11.17 at 4:49 pm

[Judeo-]Christian supremacy + White Nationalism + Anarchocapitalism ≈ Dominionism.

Of course, this is the direction in which the Republicans have been heading for a long time, so it’s not much of a surprise. Bannon just lards it up with a bit of populism for the rubes.

2

fnn 01.11.17 at 5:10 pm

Evola disliked fascism and national socialism because of their modernism. He was for a pre-capitalist order ruled by warriors and priests, which he thought the world would return to when the current degenerate age (the Kali Yuga) came to an end.

3

Dr. Hilarius 01.11.17 at 6:33 pm

Bannon may be more extreme in his views than others in the Trump camp but there is nothing unique about his intellectual incoherence. This has been a growing feature of the US right wing for years. I regularly hear expressions of totally incompatible views from Trump supporters. Once the gates of reason are blown down and every conspiracy theory is judged only by the standard of “it could be true” then anything goes. On Tuesday, Trump named Robert Kennedy, Jr. to head up a panel on vaccine safety. Just another example that when it comes to fact-free lunacy, the Republican Party is a big tent.

4

Raven Onthill 01.11.17 at 7:04 pm

The connecting thread among all of Bannon’s crank ideologies is fear. He is an intellectual and moral coward, in other words. He and his faction is vastly terrified by the world we have arrived in.

The last two times such fear came to ascendance we have global wars. Now…?

5

Omega Centauri 01.11.17 at 7:46 pm

“Bannon claims that there is both a crisis of capitalism and a crisis of Judeo-Christian values, and the two crises are interwoven. Bannon endorses a Christian rejection of liberal secularization; in fact, the contempt for Christianity on the part of ruling elites constitutes proof, for him, of the cultural arrogance of those elites.”
To me this sounds consistent (which makes it scarier as I can’t refute the observation). So if you
accept that observation as true (which I do), then the issue is whether you think the twin crisis is good or bad. I’m happy with both these systems in some amount of turmoil, but if you hold them holy and non-negotiable, then that leads to much of what follows.

6

Matt 01.11.17 at 8:44 pm

As far as I can glean without being able to speak Russian, much of modern Russia also celebrates historical greatness generically and without regard for contradictions. Like the majestic Russian Orthodox Church and the majestic USSR: both great! Even when they were enemies! And even though modern Russia has low church attendance, much of the non-attending population is quick to defend the concept-if-not-practice of the Church against Muslims, liberals, and other unwanted party-poopers. Pick your favorite historical regalia to wear to the party: there’s a lot to choose from and they’re all great. But celebration is mandatory and if you want to harsh the buzz with a lot of tedious thinking or criticism, be prepared to get a drink thrown in your face, or worse.

7

Jay Conner 01.11.17 at 9:00 pm

Dives way too deep in shallow water
Bannon’s entire worldview is captured in the Honey Badger video.

8

Matt 01.11.17 at 9:11 pm

9

derrida derider 01.12.17 at 12:10 am

Its interesting to contrast Reagan and Trump – both right wing populists with remarkably little intellectual curiosity.

Apart from Reagan having a great deal more personal charm and having fewer personal insecurities than Trump, Reagan surrounded himself with right wing NON populists – that is people who, however ugly their policy views (and man were some of them ugly), knew more than him and were politically competent.

Trump is making a classic manager’s mistake – surrounding himself with people just like himself. Of course the reason Trump is making that mistake and Reagan didn’t is because of those personal insecurities. It will end in tears.

10

bruce wilder 01.12.17 at 12:36 am

The historian, David Kaiser, wrote a column for Time Magazine, published after the election in November, in which he shared his impressions of Bannon and his fellow radicals among Republicans and Trumpsters. Kaiser had been interviewed by Bannon for Bannon’s documentary of the 2008 financial crisis, Generation Zero. Kaiser is notable among professional historians for his unusual enthusiasm for Straus and Howe’s generational theory of history, a theory Bannon also seems to find cordial to his own vision. (Kaiser identifies as a liberal Democrat.)

Their [the radical Republicans’] rhetoric and personalities, viewed in the context of Strauss and Howe’s theory of crisis, suggest that they will not be bound by existing precedents and that they will rely on their own view of the heroes and villains of our time.

Generation Zero slanted the story of the economic crisis rather cleverly. On the one hand, plenty of contributors pointed out that greed and shoddy banking practices had brought about the economic collapse, but the ultimate blame is placed on liberals, bureaucrats and established politicians. And just as Republican politicians and commentators have done for the last seven years, many of the contributors—speaking at the dawn of the Obama administration—pictured a horrible fate under Barack Obama, featuring economic catastrophe and attempts to impose socialism.

This, however, is one of the terrible things about crisis periods: many people will believe almost anything. The United States faces a terrible crisis right now even though our economy is much improved from eight years ago and we are not involved in a large war. And the Republican Party and Donald Trump are poised to take advantage of it. In my opinion, Trump, Bannon, Gingrich, Ryan and the rest will use their opportunity during the next year or two to undo as much of the Democratic legacy as they can—not only the Obama legacy, but that of FDR and LBJ as well.

Meanwhile, however, two other dangers lurk—one of them embodied in my most vivid memory of my own encounter with Bannon.

When I was first exposed to Strauss and Howe I began thinking how their ideas explained the histories of other countries as well, and during our interview, I mentioned that crises in countries like France in the 1790s and Russia after 1917 had led to reigns of terror. Bannon included those remarks in the final cut of Generation Zero.

A second, more alarming, interaction did not show up in the film. Bannon had clearly thought a long time both about the domestic potential and the foreign policy implications of Strauss and Howe. More than once during our interview, he pointed out that each of the three preceding crises had involved a great war, and those conflicts had increased in scope from the American Revolution through the Civil War to the Second World War. He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.

I did not agree, and said so. But, knowing that the history of international conflict was my own specialty, he repeatedly pressed me to say we could expect a conflict at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term. I refused.

Apocalyptic rhetoric and apocalyptic thinking flourish during crisis periods. This represents perhaps the biggest danger of the Trump presidency, and one that will bear watching from all concerned citizens in the months and years ahead.

There’s an old political joke about accusing your opponent of some shocking act (pig f*cking), just so the electorate can hear him deny it. It’s a clever strategy, that really does depend on the willingness of people to believe anything. As I watch the way the smoke of nebulous Russian electoral interference is being blown into Trump’s face, and Trump forced to deny it, I wonder if Trump and company are the only crazed people with completely incoherent views.

Kevin Phillips published his American Theocracy back in 2006, warning of the fetid alliance of religious fundamentalism, dirty oil and financial fraud that had taken over the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the center-left keeps re-reading Nixonland. There really has been a disconnect from reality on the center-Left that has failed conspicuously to even acknowledge what has been going on, and has now decided the best course is to ignore the consequences of its own neoliberal economics or failed wars, and gin up Russian electoral interference out of thin air.

Bannon’s political theatre of the absurd is something I gaze upon in wonder. The first task of political dialectics is to anchor everything to the construction of shared, consensus reality and we seem to have lost the thread.

Maybe, it is, as Kaiser speculates, a symptom of crisis that people are ready to believe almost anything. But, maybe it is also a by-product of a politics of denial and pretence on one side and relentless, radical aggression on the other.

11

Sandwichman 01.12.17 at 1:02 am

I’m waiting for volume II: The Wit and Wisdom of….

12

J-D 01.12.17 at 5:01 am

Putting it all together, his worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge …

That’s not strictly accurate. The word ‘hodge-podge’ is accurate, and the word ‘incoherent’ is accurate, but the word ‘fairly’ is inaccurate. A good copy-editor would question it.

… neither of them [Trump and Bannon] seems to have any particularly coherent idea of what they believe in …

That’s not strictly accurate, either. I don’t know about Bannon, but it seems clear what Trump believes in: Trump believes in The Donald.

13

John 01.12.17 at 5:12 am

This worse than horrible movie sums up the kind of applied Christian-ISM that Bannon promotes http://www.torchbearermovie.com

14

ZM 01.12.17 at 6:24 am

It’s interesting how America and Russia are confronting some similar issues after the Cold War has been over for a bit longer than 2 1/2 decades.

Russia has probably suffered more with the end of the Cold War with its economy undergoing profound restructuring and not being as prosperous as America overall, but they both have economic issues and both face some big cultural issues now post-modernity seems to have largely run its course. As well as both facing declining power globally as a multi-polar world comes to replace the 1st world-2nd world-3rd world world order of the postwar era.

I’ve got Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich and Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance on my (Australian) Summer reading list, have only had time to read a little of Secondhand Time at this point, but the American-Russian relationship seems topical with what looks like proxy war in Syria, and the intelligence agency allegations about Russian involvement in Trump’s victory, and Russia’s and Trump’s counter allegations. Interesting times.

15

kidneystones 01.12.17 at 10:46 am

The OP seems very good, especially the second time round. Many thanks.

@10 Hi Bruce. I read the Kaiser piece (link below).

” The United States faces a terrible crisis right now even though our economy is much improved from eight years ago and we are not involved in a large war.”

If the United States has a much improved economy and is not involved in a large war, the logical question would seem to be what exactly is this ‘terrible crisis’ that so worries Kaiser?

Evidently this crisis is self-evident – to Kaiser and, we assume, his editors at Time.

http://time.com/4575780/stephen-bannon-fourth-turning/

16

kidneystones 01.12.17 at 11:15 am

So, I watched Kaiser in Generation Zero on You Tube. I don’t care where he taught, his theory of ‘turnings’ (which no historian I ever trained under ever felt compelled to broach TG!) is as loopy and poorly-grounded as anything I’ve ever encountered anywhere.

Generation Zero is unwatchable. I stuck around just long enough to hear Kaiser. Pure bunk and mighty dull, too.

17

MisterMr 01.12.17 at 12:50 pm

“Putting it all together, his worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of elites.”
This is sort of the definiton of “fascism”. I hasten to note that I don’t think Trump is the same of Mussolini, there are big differences in degree and historical conditions, however Trump’s ideology clearly belongs to the “fascist” family (in the same way that many politicians might be socialists but not everyone of them is Lenin).

“Why are Bannon and Trump themselves exempt from membership in the despised elite?”
In the fascist version, because the “elites” are decadent Britons or Jews, whereas the fascists are True Italians; in the Trump version more or less the same about True Americans.
The “tribalism” of fascism is a way to square the contradictions of fascist ideology: fascist ideology doesn’t make coherent sense but, if we start from the idea that there is a virtuous “us” and everything bad comes from people who hate or want to take advantage of this “us”, everything works nicely.
In other words tribalism/racism/nationalism is not the essence of fascism but the price fascism pays to mantain the contradictory ideology.

Why do fascists try to mantain the contradictory ideology? In my opinion because they live in a capitalist world, and they think capitalism should work out for the best, but at certain times it doesn’t and creates a lot of havoc. They for various reasons don’t want to ditch capitalism althogether but can’t face the problem that the havoc is a natural outcome of capitalism, hence they create this sort of psychotic contradictory ideology, that in turns causes a great deal of wicth hunts.

18

reason 01.12.17 at 1:42 pm

“Bannon claims that there is both a crisis of capitalism and a crisis of Judeo-Christian values, and the two crises are interwoven.”

I think the two crises are interwoven, but I don’t think there is any link at all between capitalism and Judeo-Christian values. Christianity (which was originally a radical sect of Judism) as such is communist. It is inherently capitalist values that are causing the crisis in the religions (which are basically feudally organised at root).

19

Jake Gibson 01.12.17 at 7:17 pm

I have online “discussions” with a conservative who is what I would describe as both a fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist free-market capitalist.
He certainly sees no contradictions between the two. I find many people who think and might even say that God is a Capitalist.

20

Theophylact 01.12.17 at 7:19 pm

Always keeping in mind that “Judeo-Christian” ≡ Christian.

21

Ronald Beiner 01.12.17 at 8:47 pm

Comment 19: “I find many people who think and might even say that God is a Capitalist.” That’s more or less what Bannon himself says in his Vatican remarks.

22

Pavel 01.12.17 at 8:51 pm

@reason

There are (at least) two broad interpretations of Christianity. “Strong Christianity”, focused on God’s dominance of man and (Christian) man’s dominance of nature and non-Christian man, derived largely from the Old Testament. In contrast, “Weak Christianity” is derived from the New Testament, focused on Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, the meek inheriting the Earth and a variety of other proto-communitarian notions.

All debates about what “Christian values” are and what they’re in conflict with are largely a product of the interpretation one is indoctrinated into. In fact, I think that the American emphasis on “Judeo-Christian” values implies both the historical references at the founding of the nation and preponderance of Old Testament interpretations in many of the Evangelical churches.

23

novakant 01.12.17 at 8:52 pm

Judging by his IMDb / RT ratings, it seems that he aspires to be the Uwe Boll of documentary film making.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re not inadvertently dignifying a bunch of greedy, opportunistic narcissists by trying to make sense of their professed worldview, e.g. these two or Putin.

24

LFC 01.12.17 at 8:54 pm

bruce wilder @10

Kaiser is notable among professional historians for his unusual enthusiasm for Straus and Howe’s generational theory of history

It’s too bad in a way (assuming one’s inclined to find Strauss and Howe oversimplified or wrong or etc.), b/c apart from that Kaiser is a serious and prolific historian. That doesn’t mean one has to agree w him, but his bks are not, afaict, those of a crank. The one I’m familiar w and happen to have on the shelf is Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler (Harvard U.P., 1990).

Sorry for the digression. (Haven’t properly absorbed OP, just happened to see ref to Kaiser in the thread.)

25

novakant 01.12.17 at 8:57 pm

NB I’m not saying the OP tries to do this – I guess I’m actually speaking more about myself as someone who has a hard time to come to grips with the fact that some people are actually only in this game for the money, power and fame, I should know better, but still…

26

bruce wilder 01.12.17 at 11:20 pm

Re: Kaiser

Kaiser chose to become a classic “Kings and Generals building the nation-state” kind of historian at a time when that choice was going from predominant to fatally unfashionable in the academy; thus, his career suffered. I read his recent book on FDR’s management of the U.S. entry into WWII and thought it a better than respectable, reliable journeyman’s effort. He did what historians are supposed to do: immersed himself in the documentary record and used methodically balanced judgment to extract an informative narrative that highlighted what was important to subsequent developments.

I expect his alienation from current mainstream fashions in historiography, which emphasize research on economic and social factors over the acts of great men, contributes to his openness to Strauss and Howe, who brought social and cultural evolution into history’s story in quite a different fashion. I’m interested in cyclic theories of politics and economics, but I, personally, cannot stomach Strauss and Howe; their insistence on assigning cutely named generations a character feels too much like astrology to me and overlooks a lot of institutional detail I think important. It’s goofy and, as ks says, ungrounded. In defense of Kaiser, I believe his own detailed research on state-building projects stretching back to Philip II and Louis XIV and how those expansions ground to a halt upon the exhaustion of spirit and resources prepared his mind for cyclic ideas, in a way that could be grounded in copious detail.

Kaiser: “The United States faces a terrible crisis right now even though our economy is much improved from eight years ago and we are not involved in a large war.”

Kidneystones: If the United States has a much improved economy and is not involved in a large war, the logical question would seem to be what exactly is this ‘terrible crisis’ that so worries Kaiser?

You hardly have to be Strauss & Howe to see our current politics in a frame that emphasizes, say, the end of the neoliberal era in globalizing economic policy, or the end of the American imperium in foreign policy. Or, to think that if history does not repeat, sometimes it does rhyme, as Twain supposedly had it, or that tragedy is echoed as farce, to which effect Marx famously purported to quote Hegel. It doesn’t need to be only a superficial literary conceit either. There are good reasons to think that the neoliberal policy regime has run out of road; ditto for the U.S. “empire” abroad.

So, Bannon is picking up on ideas that are filling the air, more than a little. And, what Kaiser instinctively pulls back from — Bannon’s affection for apocalypso — is worth noting.

I think the OP is excellent and valuable. It does bear re-reading more than once. (Is that terrible syntax?) If there’s a risk in the presentation, imho, it is in feeling superior or detached from the emergent madness. Trump is not all incoherence all the time and I am sure Bannon — an highly intelligent man — is not either. But, as the OP says, they seem to throw up a smokescreen. Something, though, is getting thru that has been stifled by the establishment — some truth, some perhaps feeble responsiveness to reality.

Actually competent and responsive governing elites do not willy nilly hand off power to a Trump or Bannon.

27

Andrew Brown 01.13.17 at 12:08 pm

Looking through the transcript of that Bannon talk to the Vatican, it’s obvious where he thinks the next world war is coming: it’s with Islam.

eg

But I strongly believe that whatever the causes of the current drive to the caliphate was — and we can debate them, and people can try to deconstruct them — we have to face a very unpleasant fact: And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act

And his line on Putin is clear — that he’s a kleptocrat, but a Christian nationalist kleptocrat and as such to be preferred to the rootless cosmopolitans of crony capitalism and certainly to the jihadi hordes.

28

Lyle 01.13.17 at 12:29 pm

“Actually competent and responsive governing elites do not willy nilly hand off power to a Trump or Bannon.”

Enter Mike Pence (once Trump gets impeached).

29

casmilus 01.13.17 at 1:23 pm

pavel @22

It would be helpful if you could link these 2 “interpretations” to actual existing denominations and churches, since those are still the main way in which christian religion is propagated.

30

reason 01.13.17 at 1:32 pm

Pavel @22
I was basing my argument on the view that Christ was not a part of the old Testament and that “Christianity” as distinct from Judeo-Christian is based fundamentally on the philosophy expounded in the gospels. I hope that clarifies my point.

31

casmilus 01.13.17 at 1:37 pm

32

kidneystones 01.13.17 at 1:52 pm

Hi Bruce, thanks for the reference to Kaiser’s good work. I’ve never even considered cycles, but perhaps that’s just me. I certainly manage to repeat mistakes, and to some degree I’m sure these can be predicted by one more self-aware than I. Going into Iraq seemed like a fantastically bad idea simply on logistical grounds. The subsequent failures in Libya and Syria were equally predictable, but I’m not sure they qualify as ‘cyclical’ in the sense of seasonal cycles, or any other kind.

Anyway, I don’t see the US (or any other nation) facing the kinds of crises commonplace in the past three centuries. We’ve never had it so good. I woke up this morning seeing Kaiser’s piece in Time as post-election CYA. As he himself notes, he can’t complain about his treatment by Bannon in Generation Zero, and is likely quite aware that his role as a Bannon collaborator (among a cast of clowns) in a piece of propaganda is likely to attract some extra scrutiny of the negative career-killing kind. I’d have thought, btw, we turn power over to clowns all the time, but perhaps that’s just me.

Re: the looming apocalypse. Can’t see it, but that doesn’t mean we won’t manage to manufacture one. Cheers.

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divelly 01.13.17 at 3:34 pm

FRANKEN STEIN 2020!

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LFC 01.13.17 at 6:07 pm

bruce wilder @26:
tragedy is echoed as farce, to which effect Marx famously purported to quote Hegel.

The first-time-tragedy-second-time-farce thing is not Marx “purport[ing] to quote Hegel”; rather, it’s Marx amending or adding to something he recalled Hegel as having said.

Opening lines of Marx’s ’18th Brumaire’ (with emphasis added):

Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

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notsneaky 01.14.17 at 8:30 am

MrMister in 17 is right. Once you get into the “far” or “fringe” part of the political spectrum, whether right or left (but probably more so for the right) it just doesn’t make much sense to try and understand the politics as some kind of mostly logical construct. If it WASN’T “a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies” it wouldn’t be the extremist fringe. These movements are pretty much defined by the ability of their adherents to hold contradictory ideas simultaneously. Hell, they may even be (sort of) aware of it… and still not care. It’s more of an aesthetic.

Having said that, that Vatican speech pretty clearly indicates that Bannon is closest to “Francoism”, in particular of the post-Nationalist-victory variety which essentially took two mutually somewhat adversarial far right movements – Carlism and Falangism – and hammered them into a … fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies. Maybe with a few whiffs of French Traditionalism (Action Francaise and post WW2 Vichy apologists), which was of course a close relative of Francoism.

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Alex K. 01.14.17 at 12:44 pm

There must be an underlying, unifying mindset, sentiment, impulse or instinct. Fear (4) sounds a plausible candidate. Specifically, fear of an Islamic takeover of Europe (27) and then the rest of the West. But there’s surely more to the fuel cocktail.

“…Bannon rails against “crony capitalism.” (This from a former investment banker working for Goldman Sachs!)” This doesn’t have to be self-contradictory. Some people have to have worked within the system to admit and understand its corruption.

“How do Bannon’s professed Christian beliefs comport with his commitment to hard-nosed capitalism…?” There is a large subset of American Protestants who seem to believe the righteousness of hard-nosed capitalism is a natural consequence of their tenets. Bannon, however, is a Catholic.

@17: In the 1920s, Mussolini’s fascism exploited the widely shared notion that Italy was a “proletarian nation.” That is, while Britain, France and even Germany had managed to industrialize themselves by the end of the 19th century, Italy remained backward (despite its leadership in some areas – think Marconi, Agnelli, Macchi) and, worse, trapped in some bad equilibrium that made industrialization virtually impossible under a liberal regime. Hence, a newly defined national unity, or at least detente, was deemed necessary for economic development.

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Metatone 01.14.17 at 2:50 pm

In light of @27 – I’m curious if anyone has any idea how we got to a widespread belief in a coming war w/ Islam, rather than (for example) w/ China.

I don’t mean that I’m surprised that all the propaganda has been effective. I’m more curious about what were the pressures that pushed the choice in that direction.

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Layman 01.14.17 at 5:30 pm

Alex K: “Some people have to have worked within the system to admit and understand its corruption.”

Ah, so he saw the light, and returned the money…?

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passer-by 01.14.17 at 5:53 pm

“Putting it all together, his worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies”
That seems true of every single real-world implemented ideological world-view. That’s, of course, a fair description of Fascism / Nazism.
Putin, Xi or Erdogan all lack a coherent ideology. Their worldviews are a completely “incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies” (I’d say that they seem even more incoherent that Bannon’s). All informed observers are nonetheless able to recognize that all three are trying to implement distinct political programs informed by deeply held, if not logically thought-through, worldviews.
Of course, every single successful ideological leader active in politics was a “ruthless political operator”. Theorists with coherent ideologies (almost?) always fail as politicians.

“How do Bannon’s professed Christian beliefs comport with his commitment to hard-nosed capitalism (the harder-nosed the better)?”
Everyone who has read the gospels knows that it would be much easier to use them for a revolutionary, anarchistic program, than for what they have actually been used for – the promotion and defense of deeply unequal social and political orders. Everyone knows the quote about the wealthy guy, the camel and the eye of the needle. But in over twenty centuries, only a minority of catholics have actually embraced those radical views. The overwhelming majority has had no problem with seeing wealth and power as part of a natural, god-ordained order of things. We have generation upon generation of wealthy men, bankers, kings, whatever, who professed christian beliefs. You may argue that most self-identified Christians have not practised what Jesus preached, but why waste your breath?
I don’t know Bannon, but one possible way of linking christianity with a “healthy” capitalism would be for him to dream that christianity would provide the social order and cultural homogeneity that would ensure the morality of all actors, the “organic” national solidarity that many have always held to be much superior to the “corrupt” social-democratic version. Does not make sense to me, but a LOT of people think that only god, not man, can ensure a fair society – by considering that whatever unfair, ruthless, unequal order currently exists must be fair as long as its members are christian – because God.
Alternatively, I am not sure that personal faith really matters to Bannon, rather than christianity as culture and institution. Maurras, from the Action française, was an ardent defender of christianity with a mostly deeply catholic following, in spite of his being an avowed atheist with extreme (and coherent!) contempt for the figure of Jesus.
Telling self-identified Christians that Jesus would have disagreed with their positions is nice rhetorics, but it usually does not help understand them at all and I cannot think of a single instance when such an argument helped. No actual Communist in a really existing socialist country was true to Marx; so what?

“How does his vehement anti-statism mesh with his forbearance for authoritarian Putinite nationalism?”
Nationalists may admire their rivals without feeling the need to approve of all their stances, views and policies. The only thing nationalists accross borders share is their belief that national communities are each distinct and have their own character and nature. For all we know, Bannon may hate and despise Russia and the Russians. He does recognize a seemingly successful nationalist, who also happens both to want to “make his country great again” and to embrace a counter-revolutionary, anti-Enlightenment political ideology. That does not mean that Bannon longs for tsarist autocracy. Is that truly difficult to understand?

“…Bannon rails against “crony capitalism.” (This from a former investment banker working for Goldman Sachs!)”
“Why are Bannon and Trump themselves exempt from membership in the despised elite?”
Possibly, because
a) people are sometimes most critical of what they know best. Nobody wonders why former soldiers rail against war.
b) in that kind of populist discourse, the elite is not defined by socio-economic status, no more than a “true American” is defined by his citizenship status. The mythical organic body of “the people” is composed of those “true XXX”, and everyone else is either an elite, a dangerous foreigner or a deluded lost soul. There have been quite a few populist nationalist movements, including fascist ones; they all denounced some corrupt elite, but I cannot think of a single one that would consistently exclude people as “elite” based on socio-economic status.
And FWIW, this idea that there has to be a coherence between a politician’s private identity and his worldview is really a weak one, even though it’s an easy argument in political campaigning. Hitler was very far from the Aryan racial ideals he promoted, and he did not have children, although he promoted procreation as one of the highest duties to the race. Lenin came from a relatively priviledged background and had not worked a single day in his life; it did not stop him from presenting himself as the vanguard of the proletariat. Stalin was Georgian and Russians were clearly underrepresented in his inner circle; it did not stop him from extolling the greatness and superiority of the Russian nation and the leading role of Russians. Protesting that all those people did not have a legitimate claim to their political identities does not negate the reality of their success.

The whole article reads as a series of good campaign arguments, but I would actually really want to know whether Bannon has an ideologically grounded worldview or not, and which one. Maybe he has none, indeed. But he may very well have one, even if it’s incoherent, illogical, irrational and wrong, as most ideologies are. A lot of what Bannon says – including his apparent positive fascination with violence – seems to echo radical nationalist movements of the 20th century, much more than whatever nonsense Trump utters – Fascism (not the Nazi version, but the Italian / Eastern European ones?), Francoism, Action Française… adapted to the US context. There is no reason to expect him to be more coherent that all those earlier, European versions.

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Ronald Beiner 01.14.17 at 6:45 pm

@10: “More than once during our interview, he pointed out that each of the three preceding crises had involved a great war, and those conflicts had increased in scope from the American Revolution through the Civil War to the Second World War. He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect. I did not agree, and said so. But, knowing that the history of international conflict was my own specialty, he repeatedly pressed me to say we could expect a conflict at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term. I refused. Apocalyptic rhetoric and apocalyptic thinking flourish during crisis periods. This represents perhaps the biggest danger of the Trump presidency.”

Bannon’s general thesis, I would say, is that we are in a very big crisis, and very big crises eventuate in very big wars. That’s what he says in the Vatican talk, and that’s re-stated in the exchange with Kaiser. @27 is certainly right that in the Vatican remarks, Bannon sees that looming war as a war between the Christian West and “Islam.” But those remarks were in 2014, and ISIS looked a lot more formidable in 2014 than it does today. What matters in Bannon’s worldview, I would suggest, is more the apocalypticism and less any particular target of that apocalypticism, which borders on a yearning for World War III. One sees this quite clearly in the trailer linked in @13. So in 2014, the coming war is with Islam, but as @37 suggests, other civilizational enemies such as China can’t be ruled out: what counts is WWIII, not who the protagonists turn out to be. Clearly, this apocalypticism is not unique to Bannon, but runs through a bunch of scary contemporary ideologies. For those of us (including David Brooks) interested in the connection between Bannon and Dugin, it’s evident that this apocalypticism is the most salient common feature of these ideologies. The yearning for a cleansing apocalypse is to be found in the ideology of ISIS, in Duginism, and now in Bannonism.

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bruce wilder 01.14.17 at 8:02 pm

Metatone @ 37

At the risk of being excessively cynical, I would propose that there is a masturbatory quality to Bannon’s rhetorical frameworks: he says things to get himself and his audience worked up. So, “a clash of civilizations” is less an analytical insight than a perverse attractor of his psychological needs — and his audience’s psychological needs — for meaning. It doesn’t really matter whether this “clash of civilizations” is in the Mideast or the South China Sea, with militant Islam or a rising Middle Kingdom, because the point is to organize the home body politic emotionally around a common sense of grand purpose. This is a theme in fascism, loosely defined. It is not particularly conservative, this sort of authoritarianism; I would think many conservatives and reactionaries, protecting a vested interest in their privilege or secure place are instinctively risk-averse, even when given to self-justification or even bombast. But, this kind of proto-fascism sees opportunity in decadence and the indefensible insecurity of paper wealth piled to the rafters, whether it self-consciously recognizes the fragile circumstances for what they are or not. What someone like Bannon says isn’t about what he’s thinking; its a testing of an opportunity.

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Matt 01.14.17 at 8:59 pm

It’s dangerous to look for logic where there may be none, but the preference for war with “Militant Islam” over war with China could be the preference for being an executioner over murder-suicide. The homicide of Others is a man’s most heroic calling of course, and needs the spice of occasionally taking casualties as well as inflicting them for best results, but there are limits. China has thermonuclear weapons. So does Russia. That’s too spicy.

Let the Pentagon spend $500 billion here and there on the fantasy premise that the USA could need to wage total-but-thoroughly-nonnuclear war with China or Russia at some future date. We all know that the real meat and potatoes of American warfare is bearded guys with pickup trucks and small arms. Kill a few bystanders while attacking funerals for the previous generation of militants and you’re guaranteed a fresh crop every year. It’s permaculture war, sustainable, just dangerous enough to restore the masculinity stolen when OSHA and the EPA stopped letting enough men die of forklift accidents and solvent exposure.

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Collin Street 01.14.17 at 10:04 pm

It is not particularly conservative, this sort of authoritarianism

Apart from the fact that it’s strongly present in basically all forms of [self-described] conservatism, no.

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bruce wilder 01.15.17 at 2:46 am

Collin Street @ 43

Do you think you can find war-mongering bombast and nationalist religiosity in the thought of, say, Milton Friedman?

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Layman 01.15.17 at 3:01 am

@ bruce wilder:

FOCUS: You describe the concentration of power as the greatest threat to freedom – and thus to the economy as well. Many people judge the current war against Iraq very critically for this reason – you as well?

Friedman: A clear no. US President Bush only wanted war because anything else would have threatened the freedom and the prosperity of the USA. Counter-question: Do you recommend that Gerhard Schröder ask the whole world for advice before he engages in foreign policy?

FOCUS: The USA did at least ignore the opinion of the majority of UN members…

Friedman:…Bush is president of the United States and not the world. He didn’t even have to consult the UN at all. The United Nations is an absurd organization anyways. All votes count the same, regardless of whether the country has three or 300 million residents. Furthermore, many nations aren’t democratically legitimized at all.

FOCUS: Many Europeans see that differently. Does this political disagreement threaten a trade war between Europe and America?

Friedman: No, the end justifies the means. As soon as we’re rid of Saddam, the political differences will also disappear again very quickly.

FOCUS: What remains are the immense costs of war. Where is the money supposed to come from?

Friedman: It is a small war – also in comparison to the Gulf War of 1991. Back then we had a troop strength of around 400,000 men, today it’s not even 250,000. America is a big country – in comparison to the state expenditures of three to four trillion dollars a year, the costs for this war are only marginal …

46

Jake Gibson 01.15.17 at 4:53 am

“War is good for business”, from the “rules of acquisition”.
There seems to be a strong apocalyptic thread running through fundamentalist religion, Christian and Islamic. A lot of it among Christians can be blamed on The Revelation of St. John the Divine. But, I have no doubt that other Biblical justification could be found if needed. Just like justifications can be found in the Quran by those who wish to.
Other than Bannon and Gen. Flynn, are there other clash of the civilizations types among Trump’s cabinet nominees? I would be surprised if Pence does not lean that way.
Aren’t the themes of “the people” being betrayed by corrupt elites and an existential battle for the soul of the nation among the primary tenets of fascism? I suspect that Bannon is much more of an authoritarian that he would admit even to himself.
Even among many conservatives who are secularish, there is a view that religion is needed to mantain the discipline of the masses.

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Pavel 01.15.17 at 5:20 am

“US President Bush only wanted war because anything else would have threatened the freedom and the prosperity of the USA”.

In retrospect, this is perhaps one of the biggest lies I’ve heard since… Rumsfeld and Cheney said pretty much the same thing. Friedman is basically making the exact same argument as some of the worst warmongers in US government at the time.

Incidentally, this dovetails quite nicely with a variety of Right-Libertarian / Objectivist positions that a) that any relatively “more free” country has the right to wage war against any relatively “less free” country for any reason and b) by extension, the US (being the “most free”) has the right to wage war unilaterally and without adherence to any international codes of conduct at any time and for any reason (since in effect they threaten your freedom by the mere act of being less free). Even so-called Laissez Nous Faire Libertarians are prone to warmongering.

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bruce wilder 01.15.17 at 8:26 am

Layman @ 45

I don’t much like Milton Friedman or his ideas. He was a tremendously destructive guy. But I can tell that interview is not verbatim Friedman. He had distinctive patterns of speech. There are fragments there that might be genuine, but there’s been some heavy handed editing, because he would alternate between sweeping idealism and weaselly qualification and, though a Republican partisan in his way he never gave any politician unqualified support. I absolutely guarantee Friedman never said the exact words, “US President Bush only wanted war because anything else would have threatened the freedom and the prosperity of the USA”.

What follows is an interview transcript I found on Fox News from an interview that took place in 2004. There is some correspondence with the interview you quote, like the point about the proportionate size of war expenditure, but in other respects the tone is quite different and I think you are quoting something that does not represent Friedman accurately.

MF: . . . The facts are that during the Clinton Administration government spending did go down as a fraction of national income. However, that was almost entirely because of reductions in military expenditures.

DA: Which have gone up since then.

MF: Oh yes, because of the Iraq war. And war is an enemy of freedom.

DA: In a time of war, how do we maintain our freedom?

MF: We don’t. We invariably reduce our freedom. But that doesn’t mean it’s a permanent reduction. As long as we really keep in mind what we’re doing, that we keep it temporary, we need not destroy our freedom.

DA: Are you concerned that some of the measures we’re taking now to fight the war, like the Patriot Act, may be more than just temporary?

MF: It’s not clear. The Patriot Act is a very complicated issue, and I’m not going to get involved in that. But I think that on the whole, this war is small enough relative to our economy that it is not going to be a serious impediment to our freedom. But the sooner we can get rid of it and out of it, the better.

DA: Do you agree with President Bush that the actions in Iraq were necessary as a part of our war on terrorism?

MF: I think you can argue either side of that. Where I do feel strongly, is that having gone into it, whether we should have or not, we must see it through.

DA: Even if it costs some of our freedoms?

MF: There’s no way to avoid a burden on your freedom. The costs themselves are a burden on your freedom. The restrictions that are necessary in order to get rid of the terrorists are a burden to your freedom. So there’s no way in the short run to avoid a restriction on your freedom. But if we’re going to avoid a permanent reduction in freedom, we have to see this war through.

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Guy Harris 01.15.17 at 8:49 am

Layman:

In case anybody’s curious where that wisdom from Uncle Miltie came from, it’s from FOCUS magazine, 4 July 2003; Naomi Klein provides an English translation.

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Layman 01.15.17 at 1:19 pm

bruce wilder: “But I can tell that interview is not verbatim Friedman.”

Which are your other superpowers, bruce?

Guy Harris, thanks for providing the link. I didn’t think it was necessary, assuming that anyone opining about Friedman and war would be familiar with his evolving positions on the Iraq war.

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bruce wilder 01.15.17 at 6:14 pm

Naomi Klein did the translation? That (and previous translation to German), not my superpowers (which are not to be doubted), would explain a lot.

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Guy Harris 01.15.17 at 7:09 pm

bruce wilder:

Naomi Klein did the translation?

I said “Naomi Klein provides a translation”, with “provides” being in the sense of “the translation is available on a page from naomiklein.org”. The page does not indicate who performed the act of translating, so I don’t know (and didn’t state) whether she performed the translation.

I also don’t know whether Friedman was fluent enough in German for the interview to be conducted in German, so I don’t know whether the interview was conducted in English and translated into German for publication.

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bruce wilder 01.15.17 at 8:18 pm

Guy Harris

Psst, I have a dossier on Friedman . . .

54

Layman 01.15.17 at 11:14 pm

@ bruce wilder, if you don’t like the translation offered, then find another or do your own and tell us what Friedman really said. Short of that, I’d say you’re just being churlish about it.

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Layman 01.15.17 at 11:18 pm

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hix 01.15.17 at 11:47 pm

My educated guess: The interview was done in English and then translated into German with very limited editing – the sentence structure sounds more natural in the English back translation.

He said it alright.

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Guy Harris 01.16.17 at 5:45 am

bruce wilder:

Psst, I have a dossier on Friedman . . .

And it says?

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Alex K--- 01.16.17 at 10:02 am

A postmodern, eclectic worldview mixed with vaguely apocalyptic (sometimes millenarian) fantasies is probably becoming more widespread among somewhat educated Russians. However, calling it Duginism is giving too much credit to the man: there is no need to invoke Dugin to explain these states of mind (or of the subconscious). Turning on a state-controlled TV channel would go a longer way; the philosophy of Russian TV chiefs such as Konstantin Ernst or Vladimir Kulistikov might be more relevant to this discussion.

In addition, most of the eschatologically-minded Russians would prefer an Apocalypse localized elsewhere, say, an Armageddon in North America or Western Europe, but not so much at home, since Russia’s 20th century was sufficiently apocalyptic in itself. These Russians’ doomsday wishes are extremely unlikely to reach the suicidal intensity of self-immolating Old Believers.

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