Thanks to BuzzFeed, there is an extended transcript of Steve Bannon speaking to a Vatican conference in 2014 making the rounds online. Reading Bannon’s comprehensive vision for the world, the intellectual framework underpinning Trumpism comes into much clearer focus.
In fact, Bannon’s comments read like a polished version of a Trump speech, which should tell you a lot about Trump’s source material (and his curiosity and rigor). What’s difficult for the average reader, and I believe what was difficult for many voters, is that Bannon, and so by extension Trump, speaks in heavily coded language—and with a very effective rhetorical strategy.
At this point, it’s important to make a distinction between the obviously racial attacks Trump made during the course of the campaign—on Judge Curiel, the Khan family, his comments about Mexican immigrants, and the Muslim ban—from the seemingly dry, boring language that made up large chunks of his stump speeches. The headline-grabbing comments are so direct it’s easy for most people to disavow them. And this is something reporters who covered Trump’s rallies would repeatedly share. People in attendance often felt like Trump needed to “tone it down” or that he “crosses the line” too much for their liking.
Think of these easy to identify racist comments from Trump as the opening salvo in a negotiation. They’re terms he knows most people won’t readily accept (and that will excite a few). Once they were out there, though, Trump was allowed to bargain down his comments during those dry and boring sections. He could “clarify” or reframe each and every comment into a broader, more palatable context. All the while, he never moved off of the underlying thesis. He simply used different vocabulary.
The vocabulary he used, it needs to be said, is almost synonymous with a very mainstream or orthodox conservative worldview. This is where we need to go back to the Bannon speech, because it provides foundation for Trump’s ideas and the language he uses to describe them.
But it’s wrong to take Bannon’s working definitions of the conservative vernacular found in the speech-text at face value, which is what I fear millions of Americans did during the campaign when Trump parroted them so effectively. Instead, it’s paramount to filter Bannon’s language through the alt-right’s glossary of terms and ideas. Remember, his website, Breibart.com, embraces this alt-right label willingly.
Now, ask yourself, what typical voter—even a vigorous and enthusiastic voter—is going to soldier through the backwaters of what was, heretofore, a fringe online movement to contextually understand the code words and dog-whistling of someone who was a behind the scenes influence on the Trump campaign? Especially when they hear a message like this:
“...That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana. It was many, many years and decades of peace. And I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.”
This is bread-and-butter conservative hermeneutics and will speak, reassuringly, to almost every regular evangelical church-goer and church leader in the country. Trust me, these are my people and this is a batting-practice fastball. I don’t need exit poll data for validation. Trump used these themes over, and over again on the trail for this very reason.
The trouble is that, through Trump, Bannon so easily speaks to both mainstream conservatism and the alt-right simultaneously. Take this excerpt for example where Bannon is speaking about Breibart’s coverage of far-right political movements:
“Look, we believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement. We’ve seen that. We were the first group to get in and start reporting on things like UKIP and Front National and other center right. With all the baggage that those groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially — but we think that will all be worked through with time.”
UKIP and Front National (commonly referred to as the National Front in english) become “center-right” in his worldview, and accurate reference points for the tea party movement in America. These are, in fact, decidedly right-wing anti-immigrant parties. And, neither of these parties hide behind those facts. Nigel Farage, UKIP’s recently retired leader, actively campaigned for Trump. And Bannon immediately reached out Marine Le Pen on election night. If UKIP and Front National are what Bannon envisions for American conservatism, and I’m confident it is, the things we’ve seen so far are just setting the table.
All of which makes Bannon’s remarks about racial and ethnic “baggage” at best disingenuous. More reasonably, this is a veiled reference to global anti-multiculturalism. And if you were inclined to take the harshest interpretation, working through the racial “baggage” is a signal to the idea of white genocide.
Regardless, what one person reads as a self-aware need to deal with racism, the other person reads as an endorsement of it, given the context of the remarks.
This dualism isn’t happenstance. It’s exactly how coded language or dog-whistling works. Those who want to hear it do, and are empowered by it. Those who are ignorant—naturally or willfully—can look right past it. There are certainly more blatant examples of this, but it’s the subtlety and nuance of Trump’s public remarks (yes, I know how that sounds)—using Bannon’s material—that have left such a large segment of people surprised by the backlash to Trump’s victory. Despite the comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and women that they personally disagree with, millions of people heard a very familiar, safe, and socially acceptable message from Trump.
While it may seem hard, if not impossible, to believe that millions of Trump voters truly don’t also see the pernicious, deep-seeded, racism powering the president-elect we need to accept that reality. Moreover, simply labeling those people as “racists” isn’t helpful. It’s not that simple. Even as neo-Nazi groups celebrate Trump’s victory in stunning fashion, we can’t overstate the common voter’s empathy for such extremism. That’s just as dangerous as denying their existence and importance to Trump in the first place.
Make no mistake, as Jamelle Bouie wrote so powerfully, that this doesn’t absolve the voters of their moral complicity for what comes next. People who voted for Trump own what they’ve done, whether they want what they bought or not. They were either willing to accept the racism inherent in Trumps rise as a risk worth taking or they denied the basic truth of it. There’s no getting around either of those fundamentals.
It does, however, require a much more rigorous engagement to understand, and ultimately undo the connection between Trump voters, whatever their rationale, and Trumpism than simply discarding them all as hopeless, neo-nazi, racists.
First, there is a journalistic responsibility to get past Breitbart’s click-bait headlines. They’re unquestionably shocking and offensive, but they also distract from the seriousness of what we’re dealing with. This isn’t jockular “locker room talk” as Trump would have us believe. There is a thought-structure, and belief system behind the pranksterism, and that’s what needs to be reported, at length, in the coming years.
Second, connecting the ideas of the alt-right and neo-nazisms—white supremacy and male domination—to real-life events, and to the real people who further these ideas without hysteria or sensationalism is critical. These are incredibly dangerous ideas, as the death of millions has proved. We cannot whitewash them with tabloid coverage, like what happened during much of the campaign season. That only serves to further the gap between the rank-and-file Trump voter from introspection, and gives more life to Trumpism.
And Third, we can’t forget people’s ability to change. We commit a fundamental error believing that people are fixed in place and time. Many of these same voters voted for President Obama. Some even did so twice. That isn’t to paint an Obama vote as “right” and a Trump vote as “wrong,” but it is to prove that people frequently hold competing tensions and ideas, and based on the particulars of circumstance, or emotion, or group-think or some other mystery of the human condition, contradict their past decisions and/or even their better judgement.
The evils of racism and nazism present in Trump’s campaign and forming administration need to be virulently placed in the public spotlight. In the same regard, those with buyer’s remorse need to be allowed to change their mind and not be cast in with this dubious lot.
In this new age of Bannon and Trump (whose ideas are not new) the burden falls on those who see them for who they really are to soberly persist that our culture is far worse when we permit their ideas — and that there is a way forward without such toxicity.