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 thinks 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.
A paleoconservative like Pat Buchanan
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”.