Unmasking the extreme right threatening U.S. liberal democracy

In the interest of knowing your enemy, here are some thoughts on what former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon, a.k.a. Trump's Brain, represents. Whether these two in fusion -- a political Vulcan mind meld -- can uproot two centuries-plus of American liberal democracy, is what's at stake in the coming years (or weeks). For instance, are Bannon and the alt-right, for which, he acknowledges, Breitbart has been "the platform," racist?

It's not your familiar, Nazi-era racism, based on genetic pseudo-science, even if it loves quoting "studies" on IQ differences. Its stress is on "culture," which "is inseparable from race." (Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart editor and star.) White folks just want rights too. Humans divide "naturally" into "tribes"; and "some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved." These are "reasonable white identitarians," not KKKers, even if a few of those hang on the fringe. They merely want the "self-determination" that every "people" wants but whites have recently been denied.

Something seems a little off here. First, it ignores reality. "Whites" aren't just another tribe; they've dominated in their own societies and globally -- even if they, too, are fractured between those with less and more power. And second: why define tribes through crude measures like racial markers? There are innumerable other ways to identify groups.

Bannon's favourite term is sovereignty. But he doesn't mean popular sovereignty, by which an entire population democratically chooses its destiny. He means restoring a nostalgic America, which he defines as Judeo-Christian and white.

He refers to "We the Judeo-Christian west." By fiat, Americans are that and anyone else is "not us." The emphasis in the phrase, Make America Great Again, isn't on Great; it's on Again -- the way the U.S. was -- before Obama but also before Martin Luther King and maybe even Lincoln.

So Bannon's call for sovereignty isn't only about the threat of forces abroad. There are as many sinister forces at home: non-white, non-Christian, feminist, gay. This isn't just hate or scapegoating; it's restorative. The past will rise again.

Here Bannon owes a debt to Clash of Civilizations theories. He gets teary at how "our forefathers" beat back the Islamic hordes the rare times (732, 1529) they neared the gates of Europe. How undergraduate can you get? These are the grand abstractions you argued over late at night in the res.

And what's with "Judeo-Christian." Just decades ago, the U.S. was solely a "Christian" civilization. Judeo got added after Hitler made anti-Semitism unrespectable. Why not Judeo-Christian-Muslim? They come from the same Biblical source. There was a 700-year period in Spain in which the three fruitfully coexisted. He's just playing around with historical categories to make them turn out as he wants them to.

Why choose to demonize Muslims? It's convenient, it gives you a reason to bar "others" and rebuild white America "again." That's the only sense one can make of Trump's Muslim travel ban. It accomplishes bubkes on terror threats but may jump-start the reconstruction of a white supremacist U.S.

There's also heavy intellectual narcissism in the alt-right. Yiannopoulos calls it "dangerously smart," meaning himself presumably, and distinguishing it from the yobbos in the Klan, as well as the ordinary working people who gave Trump the crucial votes he needed to win. Bannon seems a bit more genuinely concerned with the white masses but he too subordinates them to his immortal crusade for the larger vision of Judeo-Christian, Western blahblahblah.

To prove how smart they are they use words like "incontrovertible" (and alt-right). Yiannopoulos, whose speeches were shut down by protesters in California this week, says they wax deliberately outrageous to drive political correctness people crazy and compares this to the new left of the 1960s baiting their elders with drugs, sex etc.

This omits the civil rights and anti-war components of those years, reducing them to adolescent acting out. But at least it makes some sense of Trump mimicking a disabled reporter. He wasn't just displaying his own crotch-grabbing crassness. He was participating in an alt-right meme.

As for Trump himself, you can almost pity him being surrounded by these self-regarding intellects and trying not to get swallowed up or even, gulp, mocked like everyone else. So yes it's racist -- allowing for the vagueness, even racism, of the term itself -- though dressed up in elevated lingo and hipster couture. That's what intellectuals are good at.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Ben Alexander/Wikimedia Commons

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