David Brooks, ever the hack, imagines there’s a very real split within the Republican Party over foreign policy in his piece “Bannon Versus Trump”:
It’s becoming clear that for the next few years American foreign policy will be shaped by the struggle among Republican regulars, populist ethno-nationalists and the forces of perpetual chaos unleashed by Donald Trump’s attention span.
I know exactly what an “ethno-nationalist” is—it’s a Brooksian way of getting around saying “white supremacist” or “racist” or, in this case, the relatively polite “bigot.” That’s what Steve Bannon is. As one commenter points out, “He’s Dylann Roof without the rap sheet of nine souls destroyed.”
I also know about Donald Trump’s short attention span. When Meryl Streep dumped on him in her Golden Globe speech, Trump was up in the middle of the night talking to The New York Times about it. But what the hell’s a “Republican regular”?
The Republican regulars build their grand strategies upon the post-World War II international order — the American-led alliances, norms and organizations that bind democracies and preserve global peace. The regulars seek to preserve and extend this order, and see Vladimir Putin as a wolf who tears away at it.
So this is essentially David Brooks’ worldview, the ideology he’s been propounding most of his professional life, and he doesn’t even have the courtesy to refer to it by its real name, “neoconservatism.” See, post-Cold War neoconservatism is the belief in American unipolarity (a phrase coined and popularized by Washington Post op-ed columnist Charles Krauthammer), namely that America should be the world’s foremost military and economic power and should take steps to preserve that power, which means undermining other countries’ efforts to compete realistically with the United States. This is most often manifested in foreign intervention (i.e. one-sided war) to pursue American business interests. It is, by its own admission, not so much concerned with humanitarianism, though neoconservatives will gladly wave this flag when the chance to expand business interests coincides with a humanitarian crisis, real or imaginary. The Iraq War is an example of this. In the old days, they used to call it the White Man’s Burden. (We don’t call it that anymore thanks to librul PC media! #MAGA!)
Neoconservatism, then, is largely an ideology based around foreign policy, so no wonder Brooks seems to be actually concerned with what he’s writing about this week! He sums up Bannon’s worldview, which Brooks understandably attributes to Trump (though my own opinion is that Trump doesn’t have a ‘worldview,’ per se; he reacts to whatever’s in front of him egoistically), this way:
Once there was a collection of Judeo-Christian nation-states, Bannon argued, that practiced a humane form of biblical capitalism and fostered culturally coherent communities. But in the past few decades, the party of Davos — with its globalism, relativism, pluralism and diversity — has sapped away the moral foundations of this Judeo-Christian way of life.
Humane capitalism has been replaced by the savage capitalism that brought us the financial crisis. National democracy has been replaced by a crony-capitalist network of global elites. Traditional virtue has been replaced by abortion and gay marriage. Sovereign nation-states are being replaced by hapless multilateral organizations like the E.U.
Decadent and enervated, the West lies vulnerable in the face of a confident and convicted Islamofascism, which is the cosmic threat of our time.
I gotta say, I don’t know how Brooks differentiates Bannon’s worldview and that espoused by his “Republican regulars.” Sure, maybe “Republican regulars” don’t say this some of this stuff as explicitly as Bannon, but Republicans have very much been decrying the declining morality of the American Judeo-Christian experiment because of diversity. They hate foreigners. They think multiculturalism is is a plague (Megyn Kelly, the supposedly sane former anchor at Fox News, insisted on the innocuous point that Santa is white). And what Brooks refers to here as “Islamofascism,” his “Republican regulars” refer to as “radical Islam,” and get pissy every time Obama says we’re not at war with an entire religion. Cosmic threat? It was George W. Bush who said our invasion of the Middle East was a friggin’ crusade.
Brooks continues with his analysis, comparing Bannon to Russian political scientist Alexander Dugin:
One is American Christian and the other orthodox Russian, but both have grandiose, sweeping theories of world history, both believe we’re in an apocalyptic clash of civilizations, both seamlessly combine economic, moral and political analysis. Both self-consciously see themselves as part of a loosely affiliated international populist movement, including the National Front in France, Nigel Farage in Britain and many others. Dugin wrote positively about Trump last winter, and Bannon referred to Dugin in his Vatican remarks.
Again, I don’t see much difference between this and Brooks’ “Republican regulars.” Republicans’ view of history is that it starts with America, and we’ve been virtuous and good forever, always coming to the rescue of inept Europe. They see themselves as oppressed victims, not only of liberal factions at home but of a shadowy, global conspiracy tied up in agencies like the UN. And yes, Republicans believe in a fundamental clash of civilizations between the Christian West and Islamic Middle East. Brooks himself retroactively offered a mild critique of the Samuel Huntington book The Clash of Civilizations.
But Brooks insists that a conflict exists:
Last week’s intelligence report on Russian hacking brought the Republican regulars, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, into direct conflict with the ethno-nationalist populists. Trump planted himself firmly in the latter camp, and dragged Fox News and a surprising number of congressional Republicans with him.
That Fox News and a number of congressional Republicans jumped on board with Trump’s dismissal can only be surprising to someone like Brooks, because he believes that Republican representatives actually hold conservative principles and values, when in reality they espouse those principles, do something completely immoral, and then try to wrap those principles around their actions. Brooks does it, too, but he’s not aware of it. And this isn’t really a direct conflict—the two camps agree on everything else, they’re just disputing how they’re going to talk about how significant the Russian hacking is. (Spoiler: because it affected Democrats more than Republicans, at least so far, they’ll continue to downplay it.)
So where, then, in this op-ed is the “Bannon Versus Trump” part? They’re on the same team. Trump hired Bannon. The only sort of battle going on is between Bannon and the Republican Party, and even that isn’t so much a battle between conflicting ideologies, but rather a disagreement on how explicit and potentially violent they’re going to be in their endeavors.
I think in part what makes people like Brooks nervous is not what the human fallout of a Bannon-inspired foreign policy would be, but that Bannon actually has beliefs that are grounded in something more substantive than a supposed set of conservative principles that can be bent around whatever entanglement Republicans want to enmesh themselves—and us—in. Bannon’s beliefs are obviously crazy, of course—he believe capitalism was at one point “humane” by its own virtue, not that the people who suffered under its harshest aspects revolted against the system in pursuit of livable standard—but they’re crazy to Brooks because they seem to be very much rooted in a real sense that what he’s doing is the right thing, not a facade adopted to temporarily advance a momentarily-advantageous agenda. So when Brooks makes this prediction:
I’m personally betting the foreign policy apparatus, including the secretaries of state and defense, will grind down the populists around Trump. Frictions will explode within the insanely confusing lines of authority in the White House. Trump will find he likes hanging around the global establishment the way he liked having the Clintons at his wedding. In office he won’t be able to fixate on ISIS but will face a blizzard of problems, and thus be dependent on the established institutions.
The result may be a million astounding tweets, but substantively no fundamental strategic shift — not terrible policy-making, but not good policy-making, either.
he’s unknowingly conceding that there are no fundamental differences between the Bannons of the world and the current Republican Party.
The larger battle is over ideas, whether the Republican Party as a whole will become an ethno-populist party like the National Front or the U.K. Independence Party. In this fight the populists might do better.
Of course the ‘populists’ will do better. They helped get Trump elected. And the Republican Party is already very far to the right. Their ideas are not different—its just a matter of explicitness. In these early stages we’ll see Republicans continue to test the waters to see just how outrageous they can be in their words and actions without any real repercussions. They’ve done plenty to disenfranchise people at home and hurt people abroad, but with Trump and by extension Bannon, they have new license to be less dog-whistley about it.