What Steve Bannon Wants You to Read – Politico

The first weeks of the Trump presidency have brought as much focus on the White House’s chief strategist, Steven Bannon, as on the new president himself. But if Bannon has been the driving force behind the frenzy of activity in the White House, less attention has been paid to the network of political philosophers who have shaped his thinking and who now enjoy a direct line to the White House.

They are not mainstream thinkers, but their writings help to explain the commotion that has defined the Trump administration’s early days. They include a Lebanese-American author known for his theories about hard-to-predict events; an obscure Silicon Valley computer scientist whose online political tracts herald a “Dark Enlightenment”; and a former Wall Street executive who urged Donald Trump’s election in anonymous manifestos by likening the trajectory of the country to that of a hijacked airplane—and who now works for the National Security Council.

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Bannon, described by one associate as “the most well-read person in Washington,” is known for recommending books to colleagues and friends, according to multiple people who have worked alongside him. He is a voracious reader who devours works of history and political theory “in like an hour,” said a former associate whom Bannon urged to read Sun Tsu’s The Art of War. “He’s like the ‘Rainman’ of nationalism.”

But, said the source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Bannon, “There are some things he’s only going to share with people who he’s tight with and who he
trusts.”

Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory, and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years—a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history. His ascendant presence in the West Wing is giving once-obscure intellectuals unexpected influence over the highest echelons of government.

Bannon’s 2015 documentary, “Generation Zero,” drew heavily on one of his favorite books, “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which explains a theory of history unfolding in 80-100 year cycles or “turnings,” the fourth and final stage of which is marked by periods of cataclysmic change in which the old order is destroyed and replaced—a current period that, in Bannon’s view, was sparked by the 2008 financial crisis and has now been manifested in part by the rise of Trump.

“The West is in trouble. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, and Trump’s election was a sign of health,” said a White House aide who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It was a revolt against managerialism, a revolt against expert rule, a revolt against the administrative state. It opens the door to possibilities.”

All of these impulses are evident in the White House, as the new administration—led by Bannon and a cadre of like-minded aides—has set about administering a sort of ideological shock therapy in its first two weeks. A flurry of executive orders slashing regulation and restricting the influx of refugees bear the ideological markings of obscure intellectuals both in form and content. The circumvention of the bureaucracy is as much a hallmark of these thinkers, as is the necessity of restricting immigration.

Their thinking has a clear nationalist strain, and Bannon has considered hiring a staffer responsible for monitoring nationalist movements around the world, according to two sources familiar with the situation. French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s visit to Trump Tower in mid-January was his handiwork. Le Pen has devoted her political career to softening the image and broadening the appeal of the nationalist movement in France by marginalizing its most extremist members. Her views are typically nationalist: She is hostile to the European Union and free trade and opposes granting foreigners the right to vote. Bannon’s former employer, Breitbart News, has covered Le Pen obsessively, casting her as the French Trump.

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Many political onlookers described Trump’s election as a “black swan” event: unexpected but enormously consequential. The term was popularized by Nassim Taleb, the bestselling author whose 2014 book Antifragile—which has been read and circulated by Bannon and his aides—reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insurgency.

It’s a broadside against big government, which Taleb faults for suppressing the randomness, volatility and stress that keeps institutions and people healthy. “As with neurotically overprotective parents, those who are trying to help us are hurting us the most,” he writes. Taleb also offers a withering critique of the global elites, whom he describes as a corrupt class of risk-averse insiders immune to the consequences of their actions: “We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.”

It might as well have been the mission statement of the Trump campaign. Asked in a phone interview this week whether he’s had meetings with Bannon or his associates, Taleb said he could not comment. “Anything about private meetings would need to come from them,” he said, though he noted cryptically he’s had “coffee with friends.” Though he has been supportive of Trump but does not define himself as a supporter per se, and he said he would “be on the first train” to Washington were he invited to the White House.

“They look like the incarnation of ‘antifragile’ people,” Taleb said of the new administration. “The definition of ‘antifragile’ is having more upside than downside. For example, Obama had little upside because everyone thought he was brilliant and would solve the world’s problems, so when he didn’t it was disappointing. Trump has little downside because he’s already been so heavily criticized. He’s heavily vaccinated because of his checkered history. People have to understand: Trump did not run to be Archbishop of Canterbury.”

Trump’s first two weeks in office have produced a dizzying blur of activity. But the president has also needlessly sparked controversy, arguing, for example, that his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever and that millions of people voted illegally in last November’s election, leaving even seasoned political observers befuddled.

Before he emerged on the political scene, an obscure Silicon Valley computer programmer with ties to Trump backer and PayPal co-found Peter Thiel was explaining his behavior. Curtis Yarvin, the self-proclaimed “neoreactionary” who blogs under the name “Mencius Moldbug,” attracted a following in 2008 when he published a wordy treatise asserting, among other things, that “nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth.” When he was frogmarched out of a computer software conference where he was scheduled to speak following an outcry over his blogging under his nom de web, Bannon took note: Breitbart News decried the act of censorship in an article about the programmer/blogger’s dismissal.

Moldbug’s dense, discursive musings on history—“What’s so bad about the Nazis?” he asks in one 2008 treatise that condemns the Holocaust but questions the moral superiority of the Allies—include a belief in the utility of spreading misinformation that now looks like a template for Trump’s approach to truth. “To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable [sic] demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army,” he writes in a May 2008 post.

In one January 2008 post, titled “How I stopped believing in democracy,” he decries the “Georgetownist worldview” of elites like the late diplomat George Kennan. Moldbug’s writings, coming amid the failure of the U.S. state-building project in Iraq, are hard to parse clearly and are open to multiple interpretations, but the author seems aware that his views are provocative. “It’s been a while since I posted anything really controversial and offensive here,” he begins a July 25, 2007, post explaining why he associates democracy with “war, tyranny, destruction and poverty.”

Moldbug, who does not do interviews and could not be reached for this story, has opened up a line to the White House, communicating with Bannon and his aides through an intermediary, according to a source. During the transition, he made clear his deep skepticism that the Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the source said – a message that Trump himself reiterated several times.

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If Taleb and Yarvin laid some of the theoretical groundwork for Trumpism, the most muscular and controversial case for electing him president—and the most unrelenting attack on Trump’s conservatives critics – came from Michael Anton, a onetime conservative intellectual writing under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus.

Thanks to an entrée from Thiel, Anton now sits on the National Security Council. Initial reports indicated he would serve as a spokesman, but Anton is set to take on a policy role, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. A former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush’s National Security Council, Anton most recently worked as a managing director for Blackrock, the Wall Street investment firm.

Hiring Anton puts one of the key intellectual forces behind Trump in the West Wing. In his blockbuster article, “The Flight 93 Election,” a 4,300-plus-word tract published in September 2016 under his pseudonym, Anton strikes many of the same notes as Taleb and Yarvin. “America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad,” he writes. He blasts conservatives as “keepers of the status quo” for refusing take account of the need for “truly fundamental” change—especially a crackdown on immigration that he argues is promoting “ethnic separatism” and risks entrenching a permanent Democratic majority.

Anton is no blind Trump supporter—the analogy in his essay’s title suggests that electing the Manhattan mogul was merely an alternative to the certain civilizational death of choosing another member of the “bipartisan junta” that he says is driving America “off a cliff.”

“2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” he writes. “You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.”

Will Trumpism work, Anton asks? He’s not sure—but argues that it’s worth trying, given the alternative: “[T]he ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”

Anton’s real target is his fellow conservative intellectuals, who by opposing Trump are “objectively pro-Hillary”—a choice he warns will lead to “Caesarism, secession/crack-up, collapse, or managerial Davoisie liberalism as far as the eye can see.”

If that sounds like a highbrow expression of Trumpism—his inaugural address ripping the “establishment” in both parties for allegedly selling out the American people to foreign interests—it’s because it is. Hiring Anton speaks to Bannon’s ambition to displace traditional American conservatism with the sort of populist nationalism that Trump rode to office, and that his allies say is merely a return to the country’s original ideals.

“To me, part of the attraction and the appeal of Trump was that actually, if you take a look at what Trump’s saying and what he’s trying to do, [it] is actually more in keeping with the founding principles than the rest of the Republicans,” said the White House aide.

Eli Stokols is a national politics reporter.

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