From Buckley to Bannon: Whither the Scribbler Scrapper of the Right

I have a piece in The Guardian on the meaning of Steve Bannon’s departure from the White House:

Once upon a time, conservatives plotted a path that began with the magazines and ended in the White House. With Steve Bannon’s departure from the Trump administration on Friday to head the Breitbart News Network, we seem to be witnessing the reverse: an unspooling of history that begins in power and ends in print.

In 1955, William F Buckley launched National Review, declaring war against liberalism and the Democratic party but also, and more immediately, a civil war on the right.

Since Charlottesville, pundits and historians have wondered whether we’re headed for a civil war. With Bannon’s exit, it’s clear that we are. Only it won’t be between North and South or right and left. It will be within the Republican party itself.

The question is: will it be like the war Buckley launched, a purgative struggle as a prelude to a new era of conservative power and rule? Or will it mark the end of the Reagan regime, unveiling a conservative movement in terminal crisis as it strives to reconcile the irreconcilable?

In the wake of the Charlottesville controversy, Bannon laughed at liberals and leftists who called for taking down Confederate statues. “Just give me more,” he told the New York Times. “Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”

As he explained to the American Prospect, “the longer [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ‘em. I want them to take about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Ironically, as the Republicans flounder in their attempt to get anything done – much less enact a program of economic nationalism – Trump emits tweet after plangent tweet about “the removal of our beautiful statues.” It is the Republicans, in other words, and not the Democrats, who are saddled with identity issues, while their economic program (on healthcare, the debt, and taxes) remains stalled.

Before he left, Bannon’s parting words to Trump were to resist the siren calls of so-called moderates, who were pushing him to soften his stance on things like Charlottesville. Moderation would never win over Democrats or independents. The best thing was to appeal to the base: “You’ve got the base,” Bannon said. “And you grow the base by getting” things done.

But appealing to that base is precisely what is preventing things from getting done. As one top Republican strategist told the Wall Street Journal: “By not speak out against” Charlottesville and the white supremacy of the Republican party, “it is bleeding into the party, and that is going to make it far more difficult to pass anything.”

The right-wing racial populism that once served the conservative cause so well is now, as even the most conservative Republicans are acknowledginggetting in its way. Whatever the outcome of the civil war Bannon intends to fight, it’ll be waged against the backdrop of a declining rather than an ascendant movement, with the tools of yesterday rather than tomorrow.

That is why, having had seven months in the White House to prosecute his populist war on the Republican establishment – something Buckley and his minions could only dream of in 1955 – Bannon now finds himself staring into the abyss of a website, hoping to find there a power he couldn’t find in the most powerful office of the world.

And don’t forget to buy the second edition of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (yes, you read that subtitle correctly), now available for pre-order on Amazon.


  1. Deadl E Cheese August 22, 2017 at 10:20 am | #

    I wonder if it occurs to the anti-establishment right wing that their fealty to capitalism is the real thing enabling this constant ‘cucking’ of the volkheit by Reaganites. A lot of the features of modern society they hate (social alienation, globalism, secularism, unchecked immigration, etc.) aren’t imposed on them by a shady, conspirational elite. They’re emergent properties of late-stage capitalism that are by-and-large unconsciously designed to perpetuate itself.

    Trust me, the Kochs and Romneys and Morgans of the world would absolutely love to have the cultural zeitgeist of the 50s — but not if it costs them money.

  2. Chris Morlock August 22, 2017 at 12:09 pm | #

    I just fail to see how Bannon’s economic populism is worse than McMaster’s global imperialism. In the terms of Consequentialism, as a progressive I was ready to give it more of a chance. Perpetual foreign wars traded for some good old fashioned class warfare, it seemed like the lesser of too evils. We could have fought Nativism at home rather than kill hundreds and thousands of brown people abroad while creating some kind of bullwark to unmitigated corporate greed at home, something the Dems haven’t been able to do since well before Reagan.

    For this I am called a Nazi by some fellow progressives and liberals. I don’t know which way is up anymore. Confederate war statues seem more important than bombing and killing endlessly in over 7 semi-covert wars all over the world.

    There was much iintersectionality with the pop nationalists, at least on the surface. Greenwald had a great article earlier this year about the dangers of interpreting the policy of the pop-nationalists with their motives. He urged progressives not to be fooled into thinking that their seemingly anti-war stance was in fact that. It was rather a move away from wars for global interests and a return to war for national interest, which I still thought would be a minor upgrade. I hated the Nativist Rhetoric but loved the idea of raising taxes on the rich and investing in infrastructure, a concept I thought would appeal to the Left on all points. I also liked elements of the economic protectionism of American workers.

    But somehow there was almost zero acknowledgement of these intersections, and Bannon was instead Hitler.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 22, 2017 at 1:07 pm | #

      I think the problem you may have been running into is that many of us progressive don’t believe you can make common cause with the so-called “economic” nationalists for class warfare at home because these “nationalists” hate progressives, LBGTQs, women, and people of color too much and they would rather side with the plutocrats who will promise the bread of jobs for THEM along with circus of mutilating of OUR bodies. “The idea of raising taxes on the rich and investing in infrastructure” cannot come at the expense of rounding us up for deportation to concentration camps, to get all Godwin on you, because there is no reason to believe that jobs or no, the “nationalists” will rethink their impulse — merely for the sake of class solidarity — to drive their Dodges over our flesh. You must be as aware as I am that our record for choosing actions for class solidarity is far better than that of the of the “nationalists”.

      When WE win, they will benefit materially. When THEY win, people are murdered with impunity and history offers too many examples showing that the murdering will not stop at the boundary of the nationalists’ own white skin when they run out of “us” to kill. Also, their economy will suck bigly since their “economic nationalism” has no historically viable model to reference. Besides, these “nationalists” don’t really have an anti-war stance; by definition they will inevitably pick a fight with some other nation whose stuff they want and whose butt they think they can kick. The plutocrats know that they can be goaded into war with the right rhetoric.

      Don’t ask US to give up taking down Confederate monuments. Ask THEM to give up their genocidal ideals.

      • Chris Morlock August 22, 2017 at 2:07 pm | #

        McMaster’s genocide seems to be much more real than the “Godwin” predictions about some basic Nativism. The war machine is actually killing people now, and has been, for 50 years. Millions and millions and millions of them, a holocaust in and of itself.

        I agree with some of sentiments on how nationalists are not to be trusted and their intention is awful, but again, Consequentialism. Couldn’t some kind of common ground have been staked out on key issues will fighting culturally on race issues, etc. as we finally remove ourselves from foreign conflicts? As a progressive it pains me to say this, but Dems and Liberals accomplished nothing in the last 50 years like Trump’s pop nationalists did in the first day of his admin, the removal from TPP.

        I wanted to see more of that, but I guess now the Left, along with the pressure from the Military Industrial Complex, the deep state, and the media have turned Trump into another George W Bush.

        • Stergios mimidakis August 22, 2017 at 5:35 pm | #


          You’ve hit on something I find interesting. I do find that media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post and the New York Times focus primarily – overwhelmingly – on Brannon’s stance on social issues. There seems to be far less attention paid to the economic platform he espouses, such as investing in infrastructure, taxing the wealthy, killing the TPP, etc… I’m wondering whether that is done by design : his economic platform is undoubtedly attractive to some progressives, who may, like you, gamble that his deleterious social agenda could be kept at bay by constant vigorous grassroots opposition, while the implementation of his economic policies would improve the material situation of the average American.

          But these entities are run by corporations – who fear economic populism far more than they do regressive social policies. To them, class warfare waged by the working and middle classes is far more menacing than racism and social reaction. After all, these companies have no problem with the murder of countless people abroad…

          For them, Brannon’s crime is threatening their position of economic dominance….

          And please bare in mind that I’m no fan of Brannon or Breitbart

          Your post gave me something to think about.

          • Chris Morlock August 22, 2017 at 6:06 pm | #

            Yes, that’s exactly what a meant and how I feel. Greenwald’s article earlier this year point’s out the emptiness of both anti-interventionism abroad any economic reforms at home coming from the nationalists is always suspect in their intent (they obviously do not feel the same way progressives do). I agree with that, but I wondered if it wasn’t an upgrade from the current state of affairs. No one ever talked about Bannon and the “alt-rights” economic message at all, not the MSM or most left journalism.

    • WLGR August 24, 2017 at 11:14 am | #

      If you’re willing to risk a foray into terrain to the left of the Greenwald/Jacobin set, these issues have been discussed for a long time; here’s a good place to start.

  3. Roquentin August 25, 2017 at 12:30 am | #

    I can’t harp on this enough. If the “left” merely offers neoliberalism covered with a flimsy veneer of liberal identity politics it is inevitable that the right will offer people an attempt to solve the problems of capitalism via nationalism. I’m considerably less optimistic than you here. Actually, there’s something you wrote in the Reactionary Mind about how conservatives tend to recognize shifts in society quicker than liberals in many cases (or something along those lines). I think Bannon is a perfect example of that. He’s smart enough to know that neoliberal capitalism is a dead letter, and also savvy enough to realize if the GOP could be the first to the party for what comes next the neoliberal Democrats could be put out to pasture for decades.

    It was a bold plan, and in a weird way I have a little respect for Bannon. He was always the brains of the operation. Trump is an empty-headed buffoon. With Bannon gone he’ll run the same tired old conservative playbook of the last 30 years and fail miserably. Thank heaven for small favors, because I’m guessing that will be a boon for the left. But man, how grim is it to think that Bannon is less clueless, less out to lunch than someone like Nancy Pelosi. I can’t remember a time in my life where elected leaders across the board seemed so comically useless. Maybe that’s the true silver lining of the Trump presidency: to so thoroughly befoul the institutions of the US government that they get the deligitimization they deserve, fostering a healthy distrust in the general population and opening up the door for further radicalization on the left.

    • WLGR August 25, 2017 at 10:31 am | #

      And in turn, I’m considerably less optimistic than you that the Trump administration fully reverting to establishment GOP autopilot would be “a boon for the left” — at this point nothing would be a greater disaster for an independent US left than the general perception of politics reverting back to the tired old political Kabuki theater of “conservative right versus liberal left”, as opposed to “fascist right versus socialist left versus liberal/conservative neoliberal center”. The more liberals like Pelosi are forced to confront the latter narrative directly, the more they stick their feet in their mouths and demonstrate their own irrelevance to any genuine political struggle, which is exactly why they’re chomping at the bit to reassert the former narrative and make the Trump years a repeat of the exact same useless races they ran during the Bush years.

      Bannon meanwhile is probably shrewd enough to recognize that as Don Hammerquist puts it, in the confrontation between fascists and the left “the side that is identified with the state is ultimately going to lose politically”, so he and those to his right must be over the goddamn moon at the post-Charlottesville parade of everybody from Bernie Sanders to Mitt Romney publicly aligning themselves with antifa in contrast to Nazis. When neoliberal capitalism has devastated people’s lives thoroughly and undeniably enough to delegitimize the existing institutions of US politics and government as thoroughly as they deserve, leftists will have our work cut out for us convincing people that the side someone like Romney applauded offers a more genuine alternative than the side he denounced, assuming an actual organized left independent from liberalism even exists to make this claim true at all.

      • Roquentin August 26, 2017 at 12:07 am | #

        You raise good points, but we seem to be drawing opposite conclusions. My thinking is mostly Trump is successful, precisely because and only insofar as the departs from the standard conservative playbook, neoliberal orthodoxy, the extreme center, current ruling ideology, whatever term you like. I simply don’t think that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again, there’s no going back to the standard “Kabuki theater of conservative right vs liberal left.” That whole era is dead, a lot of people just don’t realize it yet. It’s haunting us like some kind of decaying zombie. They can try, GOP and Dem alike, but all the king’s horses and all the king’s men… It’s not as if they don’t want to, but to get all Marxist about it the underlying material conditions have changed and the superstructure is going to have to go with it….even if its drug kicking and screaming.

        Mitt Romney can condemn Neo-Nazis all he likes, and I’d even support him doing so, but even after they are beaten back, the neoliberal center will still be right back where it started, facing the same problems. I agree there’s no guarantee what comes next won’t be worse, but I’m pretty certain of my view that the neoliberal center quite simply can’t hold.

        • WLGR August 28, 2017 at 1:23 pm | #

          Well sure, but if we’d really extend an olive branch to Mitt goddamn Romney just for coughing up a vague pro-forma sort-of-rejection of literal Nazis, it’s probably a sign that we’re not really over our commitment to the current ruling ideology as much as we’d like to think. The fascists understand that the way to implement an alternative to the current ruling ideology isn’t to strive fruitlessly seize power right now, it’s to be ready to seize power in the wake of a future crisis that will discredit the old donkeys-vs-elephants Kabuki theater every bit as much as the fascists themselves seem discredited today. When that time comes, every condemnation the fascists have garnered from the Mitt Romneys of the world will be a weapon in their arsenal, and every shred of credibility we’ve built with the Mitt Romneys of the world will be a weight around our necks.

          For the left to take these issues as seriously as the fascists do, we need to understand that it’s ultimately to our advantage if the fascists’ political project can be entangled in the procedural and ideological commitments of a doomed liberal technocracy, which in case we’ve forgotten, is perfectly capable of all kinds of atrocities all over the world without even letting the fascists take charge. We need to understand that this technocracy ultimately regards fascism as the lesser evil compared to a truly independent international left, and we need to understand that participating in the charade of a united front with Mitt Romney isn’t some savvy short-term tactical maneuver but a grievous long-term mistake that will ultimately redound to the fascists.

  4. Tom DUmm August 26, 2017 at 9:28 am | #

    From what I’ve read of Bannon, his “economic nationalism” is little more than a placeholder for white nationalism. That is, there is little content to it. He does seem deeply concerned about civilizational decline and a need to return to the greatest of Roman civilization (in a parallel to Italian fascism, and actually inspired by some of their theorists, like Evola).

    • Chris Morlock August 26, 2017 at 3:23 pm | #

      I can buy that argument, it was a “bait-and-switch”, tantalizing people with the return to class based identity, whilst always intending to veer into a return to white nationalist identity. But another reading could be that the establishment used the fear of white nationalism to discredit the core argument. I’ve always though that racism wasn’t really a problem for the current establishment, for them it’s a necessary thing to shore up the wall. They say they were threatened by the white supremacy, but in reality they are most afraid of the economic populism.

      We’ll never know probably, Bannon is an oddity at best. But the anti-capitalist anti-globalist tendencies of the “alt-right” was very real, and largely ignored. I hope Bernie can appeal to it and use it in 2020, sans the Nazi stuff.

      They certainly didn’t get anything done, that’s for sure, for all the rhetoric. The destruction of TPP was the only gem in a sea of nothing. Too bad it didn’t even last to the supposed “re-negotiation” of NAFTA, which turned out to be a joke.

      • WLGR August 28, 2017 at 1:42 pm | #

        It’s a mistake to imagine that the fascists’ anti-capitalist tendencies can be turned to the left’s advantage, especially if we’re willing to take up their mantle of nation-state level resistance to “globalism”, a nice little obfuscatory term that blurs the distinction between capitalist global imperialism and socialist international solidarity. Their ideological universe is tailor-made to channel any conceivable anti-capitalism into ethnonationalism (the problem isn’t that capitalists exploit people, it’s that foreigners exploit real Americans) and unless we smash that ideological universe to pieces by committing first and foremost to anti-racist, anti-imperialist internationalism, we’ll never be able to co-opt their anti-capitalism without their ethnonationalism co-opting us first.

        • Chris Morlock August 28, 2017 at 6:27 pm | #

          But then is any talk of protecting the rights of citizens of a country defacto ehtno-nationalism? If so most of the New Deal / 1930-1980 Liberal way of thinking was indeed ethno-nationalism.

          My problem is that anything even remotely tied to returning to a citizenship based identity in the US is heavily criticized by the Left immediately as some kind of veiled white supremacy. I don’t want to push any buttons with Corey, but Mark Lilla’s new book talks about this phenomenon. Is it possible that contemporary neo-liberalism has lost the ability to universally embrace people and develop working class identity through common non-racist ID as citizenship? Bannon was a charlatan like Trump no doubt, but didn’t he drive a bus through this gaping hole?

          • WLGR August 29, 2017 at 10:33 am | #

            I’m not sure if invoking the rights of citizens is supposed to function as a reductio ad absurdum or something — especially given all the enormous national and racial inequalities of global capitalism, it seems irresponsible to discount out of hand whether an ideal of equality within national or racial groups might imply a disregard (or even tacit approval) for entrenched inequality between them. Again, it’s easy to find this critique leveled at nation-state social democracy if you’re willing to venture to the left of the Jacobin/DSA crowd, but even more mainstream voices like Ira Katznelson have articulated it well enough to be at least a gateway drug. In that spirit, few identities have historically been more enmeshed in racism than the identity of “citizenship” both in a general global capitalist context and specifically in the US, where our discriminatory citizenship and immigration laws were the primary inspiration for new citizenship and immigration law in Nazi Germany.

            Bannon is driving the bus through a gaping hole, all right, but the only thing that can fill that hole is a mass-scale international anticapitalist left. If anticapitalism is impossible beyond the nation-state level, the fascists will always be able to articulate a more consistent and coherent vision than the left, so insisting on that impossibility plays directly into their hands.

  5. LFC September 2, 2017 at 10:14 pm | #

    That ‘’ site you link to looks interesting in some respects, even to someone who doesn’t share most of its overall perspective.

    That said, in the opening of the linked review of the Cope book, the reviewer says that the gap betw rich and poor countries has been getting larger, not smaller. However, in terms of per capita GDP figures (which seems to be at that pt what he’s referring to), I don’t think that’s the case. Inequality *within* many countries has been increasing, but inequalities betw countries, though still v. substantial of course, have been decreasing, albeit no doubt unevenly.

    That not’s to say there can’t be a leftist critique of ‘nation-state level social democracy’, but I don’t quite understand why that review begins by stating something that’s not necessary to the critique, and that moreover I believe is inaccurate.

    • WLGR September 6, 2017 at 11:26 am | #

      I’m pretty sure that’s just Matthijs Krul’s personal blog, but assessments like that of social democracy aren’t at all unusual in spaces to the left of the Berniesphere, that one in particular just happened to be a review I liked of a book I also liked. These radical perspectives are commonly written out of the more mainstream neoliberal-v-socdem debates, partly for the basic reason that it’s a revolutionary leftist orientation with no prominent avatars in existing developed-nation electoral politics, but partly because it endorses each camp’s most salient critique of the other without ceding ground to either camp — the social democrats are correct that neoliberalism is a broad assault on the victims of capitalism, but left-neoliberals are often correct as well that the old Euro-American left is prone to a narrowly chauvinistic “workerism” that gives short shrift to issues like race, nationality, and gender. (Here’s Krul, here’s the influential J Sakai, and here’s the influential Silvia Federici on some of those issues.)

      That said, inequality between rich and poor countries is absolutely still getting more severe even with the turn from social democracy to neoliberalism, as authors like Cope and John Smith have outlined in painstaking detail. The neoliberal turn by no means implies some beneficent redistribution of wealth from the chauvinist white Global Northern labor aristocracy to the larger nonwhite Global Southern poor, it’s a redistribution from all Keynesian social democratic projects (including various abortive attempts at such projects in the Global South) to the coffers of multinational capitalist conglomerates, which of course are generally still based in the Global North too.

      • LFC September 6, 2017 at 5:35 pm | #

        Large numbers of factory (and other) workers in the global South work under highly exploitative conditions. The ‘neoliberal turn’ has facilitated and intensified this, at the same time that it has coincided with the escape of fairly large numbers of people in parts of the global South from ‘absolute’ poverty as defined by the standard of living on less than $1.25/day (note: I say “coincided with,” not “caused”; temporal correlation is easier to detect than causation). One can debate the tradeoffs between unpalatable options from the comfort of a First World study — i.e., is it “better” or “less bad” to be a marginal poor farmer in a village or an exploited worker making cell phone components (or whatever) in a factory? — but on the empirical trends I think there is little real dispute. Close to a billion people still live in absolute poverty and hundreds of millions still lack access to clean water and secure food supplies, and outright famine conditions have recurred in parts of Africa such as S. Sudan (and in Yemen as well), but overall the statistics on things like access to clean water (and certain other basic indicators of quality of life) have been moving, albeit too slowly, in a positive direction.

        Revolutionary leftists should be able to make their case for the overthrow of global capitalism without falsifying and/or obscuring facts. In the long run the credibility of their indictment, and the prospects for transformational change, can only be harmed by such obfuscation.

        • WLGR September 7, 2017 at 12:47 pm | #

          I highly recommend checking out John Smith’s book linked above, a large portion of which is dedicated to a detailed account of the evasion and obfuscation that go into both the headline metrics like the “global poverty line” itself, and the more granular calculations like purchasing-power parity that are used to determine how many people fall over/under it. On a broader level, though, you’re missing the fundamental point that capitalism’s only reliable method for lifting people out of poverty is by lowering others into it — a self-contained capitalist economic system without mass poverty is inherently impossible for the same reason as the Lake Wobegon educational system where all children are above average.

          Of course confining the sphere of debate to global neoliberalism versus nationalist social democracy is a great way to head off any dispute of the “fact” that capitalism is good for the global poor, since social democrats one way or another have come to terms with their disregard for such questions, hence their ever-present tendency to find common ground with fascists that the only possible “globalism” is a capitalist one. Still, in the long run liberalism’s credibility as an open marketplace of ideas can only be harmed by such obfuscation.

          • Billikin February 5, 2018 at 11:11 am | #

            “you’re missing the fundamental point that capitalism’s only reliable method for lifting people out of poverty is by lowering others into it”

            That’s only true in a zero sum game, which trade, including capitalistic trade, is not. Typically trade is win-win. Capitalists may try to take it all, but that’s another matter.

      • Billikin February 5, 2018 at 11:07 am | #

        Inequality in terms of the average person (median) has gotten less between countries. There is no third world anymore. There is Africa. The average person in developed nations has treaded water while the average person in developed nations, and even in Africa, has made gains. Where inequality has risen, however, is within nations, not between nations. Since the ultra rich tend to live in developed nations, it appears that inequality between nations has increased, but that is not so in terms of the average person.

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