President Steve Bannon laid out his plans for America at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past Thursday. Since at one point he employed a term used in literary theory, I’m weighing in on what that says about him.
According to Bannon, there are three pillars to Donald Trump’s plan for America:
If you look at the lines of work, I would break it up into three verticals or three buckets. The first is kind of national security and sovereignty. … The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism. The third, broadly, line of work is deconstruction of the administrative state. … If you look at these cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction. The way the progressive left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just going to put in some sort of regulation in an agency. That’s all going to be deconstructed and I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.”
Deconstruction, a theory promulgated by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, came to prominence in the 1970s, after which various literary theorists took it up. Although some today use “deconstruct” interchangeably with “analyze,” it’s a bit more complicated.
Literary deconstructionists were reacting to attempts by New Critics in the 1960s and by structuralists in the 1970s to find an underlying unity in every literary work. Searching for unity is still what many of us do. For instance, we might describe Pride and Prejudice as a systematic exploration of a woman’s different marriage options. Every female character represents a different take on marriage (Jane, Elizabeth, Lydia, Caroline Bingley, Miss Darcy, Miss de Bourgh, Charlotte Lucas), with Elizabeth achieving the optimal outcome. Structuralists sometimes plotted out novel plots (pun intended) as schematic diagrams.
Deconstructionists looked at these constructions and uncovered a contradiction at the core of each one, showing how each work inevitably unravels or deconstructs itself. Essentially, they took other people’s interpretations and blew them up. Certain feminist, Marxist, Queer, and other social justice theorists were drawn to deconstruction in order to expose contradictions within prevailing ideologies—say, between the marriage plot and the quest plot for women and between different classes for Marxists.
For these social theorists, deconstruction was a temporary tool, used to clear away obstacles to envisioning more equitable societies and then abandoned. Mainstream deconstruction, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in reconstruction. It was, instead, a radical skepticism, intent on taking things apart without offering anything in return. In other words, it was parasitical, with the result that it eventually came to be seen as irrelevant. It gave way to New Historicism and other approaches in the 1990s.
I believe that Bannon’s version of deconstruction is parasitical. I say this even though he once claimed to be a Leninist who “wanted to destroy the state.” Ronald Radosh of The Daily Beast reported the comments:
“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.
Lenin was famous for locating contradictions, “heightening” them, and exploiting the chaos that ensued. That appears to be Bannon’s approach as well. Why else name an EPA head who is against environmental protection and an education secretary who is against public education?
It is certainly true that liberal democracies have contradictions, some very worrying. Perhaps the most acute contradiction is growing income inequality, which is distorting some of our most fundamental institutions. Liberal democracies, however, at least have as an ideal the good of the whole as they attempt to balance different interests. Bannon’s deconstruction project, by contrast, is only in the interests of a few. He wants to end regulations so that those in power can rip off society more thoroughly. He’s angling for a Putinesque kleptocracy, not a workers paradise.
I became clearer about this after reading a Matthew Yglesias article arguing that Bannon is basically a very good bullshit artist, not unlike his boss/puppet. Yglesias is responding to a post-election Bannon declaration that “Darkness is good … Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”
Yglesias rather brilliantly compares Bannon to Hans Gruber, the villain in the first Die Hard movie.” Let’s take a look at it before moving on to Milton.
If for some reason you haven’t seen Die Hard, it’s a movie about a gang of thieves who hold an office building hostage to perpetrate a robbery. Except part of the plan to get away with it involves pretending to be ideologically motivated terrorists. At one point the ringleader, Hans Gruber, is speaking on the phone with an FBI negotiator and rattles off a list of political prisoners being held around the world whose release he is demanding.
It’s just a stalling tactic, designed to get the authorities spinning their wheels for no reason. After rattling off the list, Gruber confesses to a confederate that one of the groups of imprisoned terrorists he’s claiming allegiance to is something he read about in Time Magazine recently.
Yglesias thinks that Bannon, underneath his rhetoric, is just another Republican who favors less regulation. (As Sam Spade puts it,“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”) The Vox writer finds nothing substantive in Bannon’s theories:
[F]rankly, I don’t think Bannon spends much time worrying about how he plans to implement an economic program of “America first” nationalism without an administrative state. Or why the Judeo-Christian West is good but Mexico is bad. And of course Bannon isn’t a Satanist. But he knows Satan gets the best lines in Paradise Lost and everyone knows that Darth Vader is a cool badass character and Luke is a lame weenie. But there’s no grand ideological vision here; it’s marketing and clickbait and sloganeering and self-puffery.
At one point, Holly McLane confronts Gruber, saying, “after all your posturing, all your little speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.”
Gruber retorts, “I’m an exceptional thief.”
If Yglesias is right, Bannon provides the non-reading Trump with veneer of policy respectability, thereby obscuring the fact that they’re two well-matched con men out to make a buck. Like Gruber, however, Bannon and Trump can still hurt a lot of people.
Satan too is a bullshit artist. He claims to be a heroic rebel leading his troops to freedom against a tyrant, but he is never out for anyone but himself. His ego, as Douglas Adams writes of Zaphod Beeblebrox, is as big as the universe.
And Satan too hurts a lot of people. After all, if you’re the one who introduced Sin and Death into the world, every other tyrant has to compete for second place.
The GOP might take warning that those angels who are smitten by Satan’s rhetoric end up much worse off. First they are thrown out of Heaven and eventually they all end up as groveling snakes.
In Bannon’s case, however, I could imagine him ending up as a snake with a lot of money. Trump too.
One other thing: Often people use “deconstruct” pretentiously—it sounds more elevated than “analyze” or, for that matter, “destroy.” “Deconstruct” makes it sound like Bannon is doing something more systematic than throwing a wrench into the machinery to see what happens. Maybe deconstruction for him is another way of saying “gum up the works.”