From Plato to Stephen K. Bannon, conservatives long for order and stability but are spellbound by the idea that only a calamity can provide the opportunity to start anew, to get it right, and to order the world as it should be according to eternal and immutable principles. In other words, in their hearts conservatives yearn for the fixed, unchanging order that belongs to God or nature, but their actions often precipitate radical disruptions. This is the profound contradiction at the heart of conservatism.
Plato longed for a simpler time. He romanticized the nobility of an agrarian landlocked society away from the openness to the sea that made his native Athens a prosperous, dynamic, and commercial empire. He shrank from Athenian openness to new ideas and radical critiques of social, moral, and religious orthodoxy. He longed for a society of closed borders—closed to the corrosive influence of outsiders. He fancied a homogeneous society steeped in custom, sharing a single religion that could be questioned only on pain of death. He dreamed of a deluge of mythic proportions that would provide a few wise men with the opportunity to start anew—to establish strict laws that would extinguish the licentious freedom of Athenian society. In the absence of a great deluge, Plato allied himself with tyrants willing to use murder and mayhem, shock and awe, to establish entirely new modes and orders.
Interestingly, the conservatism of Bannon, who remains the chief strategist and senior counselor to President Donald J. Trump, displays the same contradiction and the same fascination with extreme disruption and autocratic power. Like Plato, Bannon longs for a simpler time. He pines for a time when capitalism was confined to the nation state. He abhors the global neoliberal world order. He longs for a time when capitalism was national—not global—in its orientation. Bannon believes that the audacity of Trump is the vehicle that will bring an end to the neoliberal world order. This is part of the reason that Trump and Bannon do not share the traditional American animus toward Russia.
In his documentary film Generation Zero (2010), Bannon traced the roots of the banking meltdown of 2008 to the Woodstock generation, which replaced the generation that won World War II and put a man on the moon. In other words, the discipline, science, and work ethic of the fifties were replaced by self-indulgence and the triumph of the pleasure principle in the sixties. The result was the neoliberal greed that led to the banking calamity from which we have yet to recover. The banks were bailed out at taxpayers’ expense, but no one in the economic elite was held accountable. Today, the corporate bonuses continue to flow as if nothing happened. Bannon is convinced that the political elite is in cahoots with the economic elite. The result is crony capitalism, where capitalist competition has given way to the establishment of a permanent elite of corporate welfare bums.
While the elites and the poor live off the largesse of the state, enjoying socialism, the middle classes are squeezed out—hence the anger of the Tea Party. Bannon celebrates Tea Party leaders such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann but rejects the Occupy Wall Street movement. Unlike the latter, the Tea Party activists are not socialists at heart. Like Bannon, they want to restore the pristine purity of capitalism. How? By the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Why? Government bureaucrats are socialist parasites on the body politic; not only are they unproductive, but they hamper the productivity of others by endless regulations. Radical deregulation is necessary.
The immigration debate is at the heart of the matter. Unskilled illegal immigrants take the jobs of native-born Americans who would rather live on welfare than do menial work. The result is the erosion of the work ethic and the ballooning of “entitlements,” which are the hallmark of the socialist mentality.
The solution is tax cuts for the heroic entrepreneurs: their drive, discipline, daring, and imagination will rebuild the nation. Bannon and Trump live in the imaginary world of Horatio Alger’s novels, which explains why tax cuts for the rich make sense to them. In truth, the golden age of capitalism in which sobriety and hard work are rewarded is a fantasy.
Bannon believes that history is cyclical—it contains a cycle of birth, development, decay, degeneration, and death. He thinks that we are at the end of a cycle that portends a calamity of global proportions. Nevertheless, he is optimistic because he believes that calamities invariably give way to a rebirth—especially when there are fearless men at the helm who are willing to take bold measures that will lead to the death spiral of the existing order.
What makes conservatives, who long for the stability and order of a simple life, choose political disruption, mayhem, and autocracy? Conservatives become radical and destructive when they reject the present in favor of an imaginary past. To be genuinely conservative, it is necessary to conserve what is good in the existing order. But it is hard to conserve anything when all you see is “carnage,” as President Trump described America in his inaugural address. When there is nothing good to conserve, destruction becomes the modus operandi.
Conservatives become radical and destructive not because they love disorder and disarray but because they believe in magic. They believe that the destruction of the existing order will make way for something wonderful to emerge, as if by spontaneous combustion. They imagine that out of mayhem and destruction, a phoenix will rise out of the ashes. In contrast, a genuinely conservative approach must proceed piecemeal. It must be slow and gradual. It must identify particular evils and seek reforms that mitigate concrete injustices.
In rejecting the existing order, believing in a world of fantasy, and expecting the magical transformation of the world, conservatives—ancient and modern—betray the sobriety that gives conservatism its appeal. Instead of containing fervor and fanaticism, they invite chaos and calamity—then, autocracy becomes indispensable.