“We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism,” Steve Bannon said in 2014, “and this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.” Bannon made these remarks at a Vatican conference, where he argued “Islamic fascism” is in a civilizational struggle against the “Judeo-Christian West.”
This belief did not come from nowhere—Bannon, unlike the president, is an avid reader. His influences include Julius Evola, an Italian thinker who inspired fascists, and white supremacists like Jean Raspail. But Bannon’s repeated references to a war between Islam and the West reveal the influence of another, more mainstream thinker.
Samuel Huntington, the former Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, proposed a new theory of international relations in 1993. He argued that states would no longer be the primary actors on the world stage, as they had been throughout the twentieth century. Instead, conflict would be driven by the “clash of civilizations.” Huntington identified eight civilizations destined to struggle for supremacy: “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African.” Why these groups were considered “civilizations” is never explained.
Huntington argued that in a post-USSR world, the struggle between capitalism and communism would be replaced by multipolar conflicts between different cultures. He called it “the West versus the rest,” and it’s a zero-sum battle of survival. Bannon’s views on Islam come from this idea.
Plenty of writers have written about how this model fails. Huntington’s ideas suggest far more inter-civilizational conflicts than we see today—most wars are still fought between bordering people of the same culture. Most victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims living in Muslim countries. Politics continues to be local, and so does violence. Claims of civilizational conflict between Islam and the West do not reflect reality.
The more fundamental question is not whether Huntington’s ideas work in practice—he was a theorist, in the business of creating ideas and models. The question is why they caught on fire in the first place, especially among Bannon and the alt-right.
Ever since Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, certain groups have looked to extend the methods of hard science into the social sphere. Theories like Social Darwinism and Phrenology twisted Darwin’s ideas to justify stylish beliefs of the late 19th century, like the biological supremacy of white Europeans. These ideas were often sold as scientific and objective, despite their lack of intellectual depth: Social Darwinism was based solely on taking the line “survival of the fittest” out of context and using it to justify economic and racial domination, no science necessary.
The scientific method is dedicated to destruction. It takes human theories of the physical world and throws all its might into disproving them. Its purpose is to tear back human biases and use the weight of evidence to get at the truth, without regard for the ideas of the scientific establishment. This dispassionate approach to experimentation has played an enormous role in creating the modern world, and as a result the scientific method is now a part of our culture.
Huntington uses what feels like science without any of its depth. He tears back the illusions of the naive, politically-correct establishment to reveal his twisted truth that Islam and the West are in irreconcilable conflict. It does not matter that the theory is wrong. It feels right. It feels true, even scientific, to attack the establishment. Such is the “telling it like it is” phenomenon. By playing to the laziest beliefs of Americans, Bannon and Trump sweep aside the establishment to tell a Breitbart-approved “truth.” There is nothing more satisfying than taking someone’s rosy worldview—say that the Earth is the center of the universe—and smashing it beneath your feet. That’s what Kepler did, after all.
But what the far right does is not science. Unlike Kepler, Bannon does not pit evidence against entrenched ideas. He takes joy in smashing the entrenched idea of human decency, tasting liberal tears, but unlike a scientist he cites no evidence. The violence of his ideas is his evidence. Bannon thinks of himself as unblinded by political correctness, but instead he makes the same mistake as the Social Darwinists—he mistakes depravity for truth. This is not Keplerian. This is white supremacy.
Even before Trump, American policy had been drifting dangerously close to this thinking. Realism, the dominant American doctrine during the Cold War, is based on “telling it like it is.” It holds that nations behave rationally and in their own self-interest, and that practicality is above morality. According to critics Francis Beer and Robert Hariman, realism “is a story of men with the intellectual courage to admit that humanity is red in tooth and claw, and with the strength to push through the pressures of common opinion and official doctrine to advance rational analysis of the world as it is, not as either the few or the many would like it to be.”
The realist model assumes, in the tradition of Hobbes or Calvin, that humans are inherently violent and depraved. Anyone who denies this claim is attacked as a bleeding-heart, politically-correct liberal. Realism persists not because it is particularly successful—the Vietnam War being its crowning achievement—but because any argument against it resists the American trend towards blinding pessimism.
Bannon takes the principles of realism and applies them to race and religion. He, like the realists, uses pessimism as if it is an argument. He, like Huntington, throws aside the old nation-state model. Bannon calls the European refugee crisis “an invasion” on white Europeans. The Muslim ban, which Bannon helped design, reveals his belief that religious diversity is actually destruction of the “Judeo-Christian West.”
To many of the more classical realists, like Bush-era neoconservatives, Bannon’s ideas are reprehensible. Yet they share the same argument, or lack of an argument. These ideas are propped up by something that feels like science, that shares the scientific method’s appetite for destruction, but without its regard for truth. And without that regard for truth, all that remains is a cesspit of fear.
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