The Struggle for the Soul of the West

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The defining ideological battle of our present moment can best be understood as a competition between two individuals: White House Senior Counselor Stephen Bannon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The fate of the Western world as we know it may very well depend on whose worldview succeeds.

Bannon, President Donald Trump’s most influential and powerful advisor, sees Western civilization locked in an eternal struggle with Islam. “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” he told a conference of conservative religious leaders assembled at the Vatican in 2014. “If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing.” Bannon is obsessed with war; references to battle a constant refrain of nearly every speech he’s delivered and interview he’s granted. “There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” he said in 2014, “we’re in a war of immense proportions,” a “global war against Islamic fascism.”

Unlike Bannon, who casually conflates the religion of 1.7 billion practicing Muslims with a radical variety of that faith bent on violence and subjugation, Merkel believes that Islam is compatible with Western democracy. In 2015, at the height of protests organized by the Dresden-based People Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), the Chancellor expressed her conviction that “Islam belongs to Germany” and that those joining the weekly demonstrations had “hatred in their hearts.” Later that year, in a move that would earn her the undying enmity of Bannon and the right-wing nationalist website he used to run, Breitbart.com, Merkel opened Germany’s doors to some 1 million mostly Muslim migrants. Whatever one things of that decision (and for what it’s worth, I believe it was misguided), it sprung from the best of intentions, namely, a belief that the democratic West has a duty to help those in need regardless of their religious affiliation.  

Bannon subscribes to a theory of history laid out in a 1997 book, The Fourth Turning, which argues that sweeping changes in America come about every 80 years through the force of a great crisis that destroys an existing order and replaces it anew. The first of these world-historical moments was the American Revolution, next was the Civil War, followed by the Great Depression and World War II. According to this hypothesis, America (and thus the world) is currently ripe for another earth-shattering upheaval.

Viewing history in such cyclical, even dialectical materialist terms, it should come as no surprise that Bannon would describe himself as a Leninist, as he once did to my friend, the historian Ronald Radosh. Which is where the next major difference with Merkel emerges, one of temperament. Merkel is, perhaps to a fault, bloodlessly pragmatic. Rare does she implement sweeping, dramatic policy changes, her decisions on refugees and eliminating nuclear power being the exception rather than the rule.     

Ironically, many Europeans would find much to like in Bannon’s economic philosophy, characterized as it is by a reverence for “enlightened capitalism” over “crony capitalism.” In his Vatican address, Bannon criticized the “state-sponsored capitalism” of Russia and China as well as the “Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism”, both of which, he argued, have enriched “the party of Davos” while leaving the majority of “working men and women” behind. Though his protectionism is anathema to devotees of the world’s greatest free trade zone, the European Union, Bannon otherwise advocates the sort of system embraced by the broad consensus of German politicians, business leaders, and regular citizens, the “social market economy”.

If Bannon is basically a Christian (or Social) Democrat on economics and an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist like Frank Gaffney on the question of Islam, he’s a Pat Buchanan-esque paleoconservative when it comes to national identity. His hostility to immigration stems from a belief that non-Western immigrants are largely incapable of assimilation; it was Bannon who was allegedly the brains behind Trump’s disastrous Executive Order temporarily prohibiting citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. In his Vatican speech, Bannon spoke favorably of “a global tea party movement” whose European affiliates include the United Kingdom Independence Party and France’s National Front (and, presumably, the Alternative for Germany, Poland’s Law & Justice and Hungary's Fidesz, all of which have received fawning coverage from Breitbart). Acknowledging how some of these movements have “baggage, both ethnically and racially,” Bannon ultimately wishes them success because “strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors.” This, of course, runs counter to everything that a conscientious and historically-aware German Chancellor like Angela Merkel has come to believe, as must Bannon’s chilling, post-election promise, uttered to the Hollywood Reporter, that, “We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s.”

Finally, Bannon and Merkel differ profoundly in their visions of Europe. The Chancellor, who grew up in communist East Germany, innately understands Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a threat to Western values and security. Fending off complaints from both her left (Greece’s Syriza-led government) and right (Hungary’s Viktor Orban), she has held the line on the European Union sanctions regime imposed upon Moscow for its territorial annexation of Crimea and ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which she termed as exemplifying “the law of the jungle.” Bannon, meanwhile, like Trump, sees Russia as a potential ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism as well as a bulwark in defense of traditional values; both Bannon and Putin support the same, illiberal populists currently on the rise across Europe. “The Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing,” he said of Putin in 2014. Whereas Merkel stresses the importance of NATO as the bedrock of Western security and a deterrence against Russian revanchism, Bannon, also like his boss, appears to view the alliance as a nuisance. According to the New Yorker, Bannon recently asked the National Security Council staff to compile a list of contributions that each member state has made to the alliance since its 1949 founding, a peculiar obsession of the president he serves and a question “designed to impugn NATO’s legitimacy.”

With federal elections approaching this fall, it’s not only Russian meddling that should concern Merkel, but American as well. Trump has made clear that he’s at best indifferent, if not openly hostile to the modern European project, and Bannon has indicated that anti-E.U. populists have a friend in the White House. Breitbart.com is said to be opening a Berlin bureau later this year (and has tried to hire, I am told, writers from Tichy’s Einblick) a development that could radically alter German journalism for the worse by injecting into public discourse the sort of crude, conspiratorial xenophobia that, by law and custom, the postwar Federal Republic has heretofore largely avoided.

In the wake of Trump’s election, much has been said and written about how Germany in general, and Merkel in particular, are now the last remaining guardians of the liberal world order, a sentiment that Senator John McCain appeared to endorse over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference when he praised “the absolutely vital role that Germany and its honorable Chancellor, Chancellor Merkel, are playing in defense of the idea and the conscience of the West” and not so subtly chastised his own president for “flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.” Talk of Merkel being “leader of the free world” is rather simplistic and self-flattering; Germany does not possess anything near the military means necessary to assume such responsibility and the scandalous prosecution of a comedian for insulting Turkey’s authoritarian president undermines its commitment to free speech. But in the emerging confrontation between Bannonism and Merkelism that characterizes the struggle for the soul and direction of the Western world, there can be no question of which Weltanschauung must prevail.

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