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Our Apocalypse Problem from Baghdadi to Bannon (Part 2)

Between Radical Jihad and the Radical Right

A graphic that aired on Fox News on February 8, 2017, in a piece responding to comparisons drawn between the radical ideologies of Steve Bannon and ISIS. While it is obviously true that Bannon has not engaged in slave trafficking, killed journalists, or sought to found a caliphate, the rebuttal did nothing to address the central claims of pieces drawing this comparison, which have appeared in a number of mainstream media outlets.

Michael Pregill


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. Part 1 can be found here.

Several statements and policy decisions made by the new Trump administration after the inauguration in January 2017 confirmed many observers’ fears that the extreme behavior, language, and proposals associated with the Trump campaign were in fact mere hints of worse to come. Mainstream Republican apologists insisted during the campaign that Trump’s provocations were mere rhetoric, spirited attempts to stir up the support of his base in the runup to the election.

As the benchmark of the first hundred days looms, however, an objective assessment would be that the candidate has seldom manifested the sober, dignified demeanor we were assured would emerge, as would befit the gravitas of the presidential office. The now-notorious “American carnage” speech Trump delivered at his inauguration established that apocalyptic urgency and messianic deliverance would continue to be defining themes of his presidency, moderated only by the more tedious realities of governance that have inevitably intruded on the administration’s larger ideological program.

The Provocateur-in-Chief and his Doomsday Prophet

One of the most shocking developments of the first month of the Trump administration was the shift from a mere flirtation with ultra-right wing figures as consultants, surrogates, and liaisons with media outlets on the campaign trail to an actual empowerment of such figures through appointment to official advisory positions. Trump’s executive order to place Steve Bannon on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council – equal in status to the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense – while downgrading the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence to lesser roles quickly drew bipartisan criticism. In an interview on NPR, Admiral Mike Mullen, U.S. Navy (ret.), former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed exactly why such an unprecedented move is dangerous: NSC appointments are generally not given to a president’s political staff, but rather are selected on a nonpartisan basis to avoid tainting security decisions with considerations of political advantage.1 Given that candidate Trump made repeated appeals to the xenophobic and nativist sentiments of his base, it is reasonable to assume that this decision signaled an intention to curry favor with the base for political leverage, especially through the manipulation of immigration policy under Bannon’s guidance.

It is clear that the appointment of Steve Bannon represented more than simply the solidification of Trump’s direct line to right-wing media, organizations, and constituencies whose support would be needed in coming months and years, however. Rather, investigation into Bannon’s ideas points to the inevitable conclusion that the intended effect is the shaping of policy and responses to domestic and international affairs in order to best exploit, or perhaps actually precipitate, crisis. The goal is not merely to disenfranchise and marginalize Muslim citizens and immigrants, though that is certainly one intended result. Rather, Bannon’s long-term agenda is to guide the United States and its allies towards large-scale war with Muslim state and quasi-state entities (presumably starting with ISIS), thus triggering a transformative cataclysm that will reshape the global political, social, and economic order.

During the campaign, when Bannon’s ties to Trump were discovered, there were some early attempts to probe Bannon’s political views and raise public awareness about his radicalism and the pernicious influence he could exert on Trump.2 Post-inauguration, several new investigative pieces discussed his political philosophy, the larger political context behind Trump’s drastic breaks from previous policy, and the likely long-term strategic goals Bannon and his circle intend to pursue in the White House.3 It is by no means clear that Bannon’s recent demotion and withdrawal from the public eye, at least as a close official adviser to Trump, means that these goals have receded as administration priorities.

The uncomfortable similarities between Bannon’s worldview and the ideology of ISIS was noted by a number of journalists, and even publicized in an editorial in the historically uncontentious USA Today.4 Somewhat amusingly, the mainstream coverage of these allegations about Bannon’s ideas prompted numerous outraged denials on the right, including a systematic examination of the ways in which Bannon is not like Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī by Tucker Carlson on Fox, in an interview in which he directly confronted one of the authors of the USA Today editorial.5 While it is undeniably true that Bannon is not guilty of beheading journalists, establishing a caliphate, or the other crimes for which Baghdādī may be culpable (and admittedly, establishing a caliphate is technically not a crime), it is telling that this exercise was even deemed necessary in the first place. Likewise telling is the fact that Carlson’s negative comparison avoided every point of positive similarity between Bannon and Baghdādī alleged in the reportage that he sought to definitively discredit.

The element of similarity between them that should be the cause of greatest concern is that for Bannon, as for the ISIS leadership, apocalyptic brinksmanship appears to be a primary, if not the ultimate, goal of foreign policy. The apocalyptic ideology of the Islamic State has been widely discussed, particularly by Will McCants and Graeme Wood. Following in the footsteps of their idol, Abū Muṣʿab al-Zarqāwī, the head of Al-Qaʾidah in Iraq (the precursor to the Islamic State), the ISIS leadership are devotees of traditional Islamic prophecies of the end of the world. Zarqāwī, and the ISIS leadership after him, was heavily influenced in this direction by the work of Abū Muṣʿab al-Sūrī, who infused millenarian enthusiasm into his influential manifesto on jihadist strategy, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance.6 Drawing on Sūrī’s ideas, the ISIS leadership appear to believe that their actions help to fulfill an apocalyptic timetable that will ultimately, through provoking armed confrontation with Western powers, culminate in Armageddon.

In turn, Bannon has on numerous occasions expressed his belief in a pseudohistorical theory called the Fourth Turning. According to this theory, epochal transformations in American history have followed upon increasingly devastating wars that brought major social, political, and economic upheavals in their wake. Bannon seems to believe that the global status quo is ripe for overthrow, and that a major war is coming – or can be precipitated – that will result in massive transformations both in the U.S. and across the globe. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that Bannon and his supporters in the Trump administration are waiting for a massive disaster of some sort, possibly even a world war, that will sweep away the current global order and usher in a radically new age – a kind of secular apocalypse. One might readily infer that Bannon’s appointment to the NSC as one of Trump’s main advisers on national security was intended to enable him to harness both American foreign and domestic policy in pursuit of this goal. Strikingly, the apocalyptic drama of the Fourth Turning even features a messianic leader, the “Gray Champion” or “Gray Warrior”; it is unclear if it is Trump or Bannon himself who is supposed to be the Gray Champion, a kind of American mahdi who will preside over the transformative cataclysm to come and shepherd the faithful through it.7 In other quarters, partisans and supporters of Trump have been much less circumspect in casting Trump in the role of messiah.8

Even more distressing is the recent disclosure that Bannon’s radical views appear to be shared by certain Republican politicians now enjoying a newfound prominence in the Trump era, especially Jeff Sessions, the new Attorney General. What may seem like a fringe tendency now brought center stage by the Provocateur-in-Chief actually links Bannon to well-established Republican insiders like the four-term former senator Sessions, who shares Bannon’s extreme racist and anti-immigrant views and has publicly discussed the various ways in which the federal law enforcement system can be used to implement them.9 (As with Steve King’s allusion to and promotion of the ‘cuck’ trope, this is another example of a mainstream, or supposedly mainstream, politician embracing a tendency or proposition that formerly would have been considered so fringe as to be completely toxic politically.)

It would be reasonable to conclude, given Trump’s persona and political philosophy (such as it is), that he has deliberately sought to empower a host of advisers and operatives who are not bound by convention and the rules of “business as usual” that govern Washington politics. This, at any rate, would be the way to spin his provocative choices as a virtue: as a disruptor himself, Trump naturally sought out others who had similar ideas, and were similarly unbound by convention. However, it actually seems that it was Trump who was selected by Bannon and his allies. Vicky Ward’s recent reporting on the Mercers, the billionaire backers behind Bannon, Breitbart, and Trump, shows that these megarich right-wing donors were looking to support any candidate who could potentially upend the political establishment – including displacing Republicans they saw as too constrained by the politics of compromise in Washington. Before throwing their weight behind Donald Trump, the Mercers originally backed Ted Cruz; notably, there seems to have been considerable friction between the Cruz campaign and the operatives the Mercers foisted upon them, Bannon and his political machine in particular. It is also worth noting that before dropping out, Cruz seems to have proposed a limit on the issuing of H1-B visas to foreign nationals from Muslim countries because Trump had proposed some kind of Muslim ban, and the Mercers were eager for Cruz to follow suit.10

The Mercers represent a kind of neofeudalist tendency currently on the rise among the upper reaches of the donor class. The lifting of campaign finance limits with the Citizens United ruling now provides an opportunity for the megarich to not only influence the political process, but – through the sheer brute force exerted by unfettered campaign spending – to remake the legislative and regulatory landscape entirely, thus sweeping away the rules governing economics, development, and labor relations in America in place since the New Deal. (Ward’s profile of the Mercers indicates that they seek to marginalize other megarich donors like the Koch family whom they perceive as too liberal, being soft on trade, immigration, and the like.) Funding Breitbart provided the Mercers with a media outlet that could provide a populist ideology that would be both a spearhead for radical change through the electoral process and a fig leaf for the kind of drastic reform they sought to pursue in Washington. The nativist, ethnonationalist ideology pushed by Breitbart is the popular right-wing counterpart to the Mercers’ upper-class anarchism aiming at eliminating the regulatory regimes that hinder total domination of American workers by the ownership class. This is the moneyed interest that is betting on – and hoping to reap the benefits of – massive geopolitical shifts like the Fourth Turning as the key to demolishing legal protections, individual freedoms, and the social safety net as we know it.11

We Have Met the Enemy and They Is Us

ISIS appears as the perfect foil for Bannon’s conspiratorial, Islamophobic worldview and policies – visceral confirmation that chauvinistic claims about immigrants undermining Western civilization are grounded in the hard reality of an actual terror threat to the safety of citizens of the American and European democracies. ISIS’ dramatic presence in the media landscape – a terrifying image cultivated by the movement itself – provides the ideal pretext for creating an atmosphere of fear and apprehension. Unsurprisingly, when we dig deeper, image collides with reality: while 75% of Americans say that terrorism is a critical issue, research by the Cato Institute indicates that an American’s chance of being killed by a foreigner in a terrorist attack is 1 in 3.6 million.12 This statistic should give all Americans pause, especially when one considers the significant transformations of our laws and institutions that have already occurred in order to “keep us safe.”

At the same time, it is difficult to overlook the fact that the worldview of the right-wing ideologues driving administration policy on these matters resembles and reflects that of ISIS in many ways. As we have already noted, in each case, the leadership believes it is engaged in total war against an implacable enemy, and will resort to drastic measures to eliminate moderates or perceived traitors in their camp. In each case, this mindset justifies authoritarianism as a means of driving our societies towards a violent confrontation that will escalate into some kind of transformative catastrophe. This symmetry is similar to that of the post-9/11 era, in which the ideology of the “War on Terror” resembled and reflected that of the Salafi-Jihadi leadership of Al-Qa’idah and other groups that epitomized the Islamic terrorist threat the War on Terror putatively sought to vanquish.

The current ideologies are more extreme, and yet these distorted worldviews appear even more symmetrical. Bannon and ISIS spokesmen similarly repudiate the globalist cosmopolitanism that knits contemporary nation-states together in commercial and cultural networks; instead, they espouse a worldview in which Islam and the West are inevitably moving towards total existential war, with no viable space in between, no quarter possible. Both see the forces arrayed on either side moving towards inevitable cataclysm. In this leadup to apocalypse, there is no room for those who seek a sustainable (or even survivable) space in the middle; therefore, they must be eliminated.

For ISIS, the people caught in the middle are the Muslims of the “Grayzone” who refuse to pledge obedience to the caliphate, rejecting their duty to join the Islamic State and wage jihad against the West. The “grayzone” is exactly what it sounds like – the intermediate area where ISIS locates Muslims who are not in solidarity with them but rather criticize them and thus side with unbelievers, making them, essentially, infidels. In the eyes of ISIS spokesmen, those dwelling in the grayzone merit death for their hypocrisy and disbelief. This “gray movement,” the Islam of the “grayish,” has existed since the time of the Prophet, but must be eliminated because Islam in their view is intrinsically about drawing a sharp distinction between truth and falsehood, with no compromise possible. The obsessive attention the media pays to ISIS and the threat they pose to Western countries overlooks the fact that the main victims of their millenarian violence are actually their fellow Muslims, who are to be subordinated or eliminated as ISIS remakes the world into something radically new.13

[GRAYZONE]

Issue 7 of Dabiq, the English-language propaganda magazine of the Islamic State, dated to Rabīʿ al-Ākhir 1436 (January-February 2015). The cover story calls for the elimination of Muslims of the “grayzone,” occupying an intermediate place between the West and “true” Islam as supposedly represented by ISIS.

For Bannon and his circle, those caught in-between are immigrants who seek to benefit from the successes of the capitalist West but can never truly assimilate, and are thus incapable of embracing or perpetuating American values. This was the thinking exposed during Bannon’s now-notorious interview with Trump on Breitbart News, during which he asserted (falsely) that two-thirds or three-quarters of CEOs in Silicon Valley are Asian. Implying that these Asians can never truly share “our” values, Bannon complained, “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civil society.”14

The flatly racist conception behind the false claim of the corrosive dominance of Asians in executive positions in American tech firms dovetails with the basic presupposition that lies behind administration agitation and provocations against Muslim citizens. This is the premise, energetically promoted by the Islamophobia industry, that Muslims in Western societies are fundamentally incapable of accepting Western values and so, due to their inevitably subversive presence, Muslims in America and other Western states are essentially a problem that must be solved. Recently, Brigitte Gabriel, a leading anti-Islam agitator, bragged on social media that she had met with White House staff (and possibly Trump himself, though this seems to remain unconfirmed). Breaking with Islamophobe activists who adopt more circumspect means of pursuing their goals, Gabriel has repeatedly asserted that an observant Muslim simply cannot be a loyal American citizen, and even called for the literal criminalization of the practice of Islam in America.15

Just as in the post-9/11 era, so too now do spokesmen of the campaigns against Islam claim that “they” hate “us” because of “our” values – Islam supposedly being incommensurable with Western ideals because of the intolerance, belligerence, and oppression of women and minorities it inevitably inculcates in its adherents. These traits have, if anything, been on the rise in the U.S, itself, first gestating under Bush and coming out into the open during the Obama years. In sharp contrast to the post-9/11 insistence that America is not at war with Islam, racist and Islamophobic rhetoric has become increasingly mainstream, the denunciation of Islam as insidious, corrupt, violent, and theocratic now permissible in public debate and open conversation.

This language has been accompanied by brazen anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate crimes, sometimes perpetrated by organized hate groups and militias. These organizations have been on the rise for some time – largely as a response to the Obama Presidency – and are now increasingly coming out of the shadows, emboldened by Trump’s victory.16 Particularly disturbing in this connection is the Trump administration’s announcement that the “Countering Violent Extremism” program will now be rebranded as “Countering Islamic Extremism,” and that it will exclusively focus on surveillance and deterrence of violence among Muslim communities, while no longer directing program resources to surveillance and deterrence of white nationalist organizations.17 This is a stunning development in light of the growing consensus among security experts and law enforcement specialists that the latter pose a far greater threat to the safety of Americans.18 As MediaMatters and other outlets have noted, white nationalist groups openly celebrated the CVE announcement, which they interpreted as implying the Trump administration’s tacit support for their cause.19

While ISIS is upheld as the preeminent bogeyman du jour, proof of the intractable, implacable threat “radical Islamic terrorism” poses to the freedom and security of Americans, it is clear that this rhetoric masks (and actually legitimates) a different but more proximate reality for citizens and immigrants of color, particularly but not exclusively Muslims: that of state-sponsored (or at least state-tolerated) discrimination, harassment, and violence. Once again, insofar as strategies of radical othering, especially as a means of enabling or exacerbating a larger conflict, are a primary goal of the regime, comparison of the behavior, language, and goals of pro-Trump cadres with that of ISIS proves productive. ISIS and the newly empowered right wing fringe in America would agree: Muslims have no place in Western society.20

The Education of Steve Bannon and the Endgame of Securitization

In the aftermath of prominent media coverage of Bannon’s extreme ideology and belief system, a set of competing narratives emerged either indicting or vindicating him based on discussions of his intellectual proclivities and interests. It is hard to recall another moment in recent history when a public figure’s intellectual formation (essentially, his reading list) captured the media’s attention in a similar way, but this is hardly surprising given the allegations about Bannon’s views, loyalties, and ultimate agenda in the White House.

Bannon’s public discussion and endorsement of the Fourth Turning theory has already been noted. He has also made public reference to a profoundly racist dystopian French novel of the 1970s called The Camp of the Saints, which describes Europe and America overrun with blacks and Asians who destroy the society, economies, and way of life of civilized white people; the invasion occurs because of liberal tolerance for immigration.21 Bannon has repeatedly referred to The Camp of the Saints not only as a warning about the possible future faced by Europe and America, but as a template for understanding events that are currently underway.

Strikingly, although Bannon’s admiration for and inspiration by these books is literally a matter of public record, media outlets allied with or sympathetic to the Trump administration have sought to change the narrative to preserve the appearance of legitimacy or normalcy. At exactly the same time as Bannon’s enthusiasm for The Fourth Turning and The Camp of the Saints was being discussed in the mainstream press, Axios sought to counter this coverage with a piece about the profound influence of another book on Bannon’s thinking: Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, an anti-globalist screed condemning coastal elites for being out of touch with real Americans and praising politicians who defy and challenge established media narratives. The Revolt of the Elites is as much a manifesto for would-be disruptors as The Fourth Turning, but sheared of mystical and apocalyptic trappings; that is, it is more likely to be acceptable to a mainstream audience.22 More recently, Fox released a hagiographic account of Bannon’s formative years that omits any mention of influential reading or an intellectual bent at all; Bannon is here portrayed as a hard-headed, pragmatic former Navy officer who came of age in the Reagan years and who champions the common man as he tackles real world problems. Stunningly, there is only a single brief reference in this article to his apocalyptic view of a coming war against Islam – and no mention of Breitbart or his involvement with the white nationalist cause at all.23

bannonreadingThe jury is still out as to how effective Bannon and his allies can or will be in promoting his antiglobalist, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-immigrant ideology in the Trump era. There is, of course, an enormous gap between ideology and practice; the institutional and constitutional constraints on federal-level policy are of course considerable. But the signs from the first fifty days of the Trump administration were dismaying, inasmuch as they indicated an eagerness to drive policy towards certain objectives as rapidly as possible, as well as at least tacit acceptance, if not wholehearted enthusiasm, on the part of the president himself for Bannon’s ideas. In the first fifty days, two different executive actions were signed pertaining to immigration from the Islamic world; both were challenged and blocked by the judiciary in recognition of what they were – and what the administration openly touted them as, at least at one point – namely a “Muslim ban.” As many have observed, it is obvious that these restrictions on immigration could not realistically have aimed at actually making us safer. Nor is the selection of countries whose citizens are singled out rational, except as a representation of Muslim states that the administration can afford to alienate with minimum political consequence.

It is clear that these orders had a primarily symbolic function, playing a role in what is now commonly called security theater.24 The administration profits by looking busy at the work of “keeping us safe,” engaging in a performance with little traction or persuasive power among the majority of Americans but with significant appeal to Trump’s base. A longer-term strategic goal is also accomplished, namely that of promoting and maintaining an image of American safety and well-being as constantly in jeopardy from foreigners, Muslims in particular. Such actions keep Islam in the news as an urgent problem to be dealt with; they encourage and justify an ideology of resistance to and vigilance against looming foreign threats; and they continue to sustain a perception of Muslims as subversive and dangerous.25

Even minor restrictions such as the new “tech ban” for airline passengers traveling from various Middle Eastern countries – which advocates will quite plausibly claim as a minor but necessary precaution – functions to single out Muslim passengers and encourages a basic presumption that travelers from these countries or who have business there – obviously predominantly Muslim by a large margin – warrant suspicion and scrutiny.26 The same is even more true of the recent escalation of “random” selection of Muslim travelers for special screening at security checkpoints, especially the dramatic, largely unannounced (and so nearly unreported) confiscation and examination of cell phones. This tactic has the effect of both intimidating Muslim passengers (as well as those others who may be caught in the dragnet) and making a routine occurrence of public displays of enhanced surveillance, again contributing to a perception of imminent threat. Even if seemingly justified by credible reports of specific threats, such alerts commonly supply grist for the mill of those who wish to paint with a broad brush and cite them as evidence of an ongoing, persistent, and inevitable threat posed by Middle Easterners or Muslims generally.

Other concrete actions undertaken by the administration during the last two months –the aforementioned revision to the CVE program so that it exclusively targets Muslims, or the declared government campaign against ‘honor killings’ – have similarly been directed towards the unambiguous goal of placing the spotlight on the purported threat Muslims pose to American safety and values while deemphasizing other, more tangible and realistic, threats.27 The easily anticipated effect is that white perpetrators of crimes against Muslims and other people of color will be emboldened while the media, already reluctant to classify white violence as terror, looks the other way – as in the recent case of the federal trial of Robert Doggart, a Christian minister apprehended before he could carry out a terror attack against a Muslim community in New York.28

If nothing else, this incessant insistence on vigilance and resistance against Muslims prepares the way for future crisis to be cynically exploited. When the next inevitable conflict, confrontation, or terrorist action occurs, the administration will find its exhortations about drastic measures that must be taken to combat the existential threat posed by radical terrorists falling on well-tilled soil. As one scholar of fascism in Europe has noted, the next shooting or bombing blamed on radical Islam will likely provide the Trump administration with its ‘Reichstag moment’ – an opportunity to consolidate power and undermine, if not wholly remove, institutional and popular opposition using national security concerns as a pretext. Such action will likely seem more legitimate to the public because of the persistent awareness of jeopardy created by constant securitization and surveillance.29

Sore Winners, or, Fear and Xenophobic Loathing in America

One might object that right-wing radicals are not ‘religiously’ motivated like Muslim terrorists; that is, it is only jihadists who cite religious sources as sanction for their views and deeds, whereas white nationalists and others who commit hate crimes do not. Religion is thus made to seem the problem when we speak of Muslim perpetrators of violence and oppression, whereas Christianity is demonstrably not the problem when we look at their Christian counterparts in Europe and America.

As has been noted by many observers, this argument is – so to speak – a whitewashing. Whether anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim, right-wing radicals commonly couch their views in language and concepts associated with Christian identity and grounded in notions of Christian cultural superiority, even if religious sources of authority or classical doctrines are not invoked. The common appeal to a “civilizational” threat simply nudges the criterion of identity out of the explicitly religious realm, but the common inability of partisans of right-wing, pro-white chauvinist views to articulate any justification for their racism that is not, in the end, at least partially configured along lines of cultural heritage and religious identity is telling.30 This is to say nothing of ongoing evangelical lobbying and agitation against Muslims, where chauvinism of a specifically and explicitly religious sort overtly comes into play.31

Right-wing agitators against Muslims often present themselves as champions of traditional American values such as democracy, freedom of religion, and constitutionalism, and sound the alarm against ‘radical Islam’ in the name of secularism and preserving the separation of church and state. This is often the explicit framework of accusations about ‘creeping shari’ah,’ for example. At the same time, a very large proportion of those who support legal discrimination against Muslims subscribe to a form of cultural or religious Christian triumphalism that readily veers in a theocratic and antidemocratic direction. American Islamophobia has a strong foundation not only in popular nativism, but also in Christian dominionism, the attempt to increase the role of Christianity in American public life through privileging Christian values in the spheres of government and law. Islamophobic activists are often skilled at varying their arguments depending on context and audience, appealing to secularist values at one moment and pivoting to appeal to more explicitly religious values the next. But the claim of a threat to “Judeo-Christian” civilization or identity tends to have traction across the political spectrum, specifically because it is so vague and subject to varying interpretations.32

Few would argue that the historical and contemporary association of Christianity with empire-building, as well as the many ways in which Christian supremacism contributes to real violence against communities at home and abroad, constitutes a refutation of Christian principles as such as expressed by the majority of Christians. To suggest that the actions of a Dylan Roof would justify blaming or marginalizing people who embrace the tenets of Christianity would be absurd. It is self-evident, even banal, to note that the same consideration should apply to Muslims. But even-handed approaches to and representations of Islam continue to be frustratingly elusive in the current American political environment, in which calls for the closing of the borders to Muslims, impositions of oaths of loyalty, and “shari’ah bans” are now considered mainstream and acceptable propositions to the American right wing, so common that they barely warrant commentary by the mainstream media. Islam continues to be pathologized and Muslims subjected to racialized strategies of discrimination while Christians, particularly white Christians, continue to enjoy the unparalleled privilege of having their faith be beyond reproach regardless of any crimes perpetrated by Christian bad actors – even those who explicitly cite their Christian identity as a motive for violence.

The racism and xenophobia openly embraced by Trump and his partisans and proxies is certainly more than just rhetorical: the rush to implement new immigration restrictions against Muslims indicates a clear intention to translate talk into action. But it would be a mistake not to recognize that talk is action – that the open articulation and promulgation of certain types of discourse produces specific effects.

Thus, we must acknowledge that real injury has been done to both American citizens and immigrants who have been singled out, humiliated, and intimidated by the administration’s embrace of Islamophobic ideas and themes – just as real harm has occurred to Latinx communities not only through increasingly aggressive policing by ICE and surveillance at the borders, but also through the fostering of a climate of suspicion in which the legitimacy of Latinx Americans as claimants to American identity is now called into question. Political and ideological advantage accrues to the administration among its base for indulging in Islamophobia, just as it does for its anti-immigrant stance. This is also true for right-wing agitation against LGBTQ citizens, which has mostly occurred at the state level, but for which the administration has signaled its support. It is at least reassuring that the intersectional nature of these causes has been recognized and embraced by the resistance movement that has sprung up in the aftermath of the election and inauguration.

[DABIQ FLOOD]

Dabiq issue 4, dated to Ramaḍān 1435 (June-July 2014). The cover story details the coming “flood” of fitnah or intercommunal strife that will sweep away any Muslims who do not take refuge with ISIS and support their cause.

Similarly, we must recognize that the most obvious and unsettling parallel between the Trump political machine and the ISIS movement is the routinization of extreme, polarizing language that plays upon the tension between doomsday dread and messianic promise and draws stark boundaries between insiders and outsiders, those who belong and those who do not. As many noted in the leadup to the election, the campaign itself was gravely damaging to public discourse in America in terms of coarsening political debate, pushing the boundaries of what it is acceptable to say in public, of how racist a politician may be before committing political suicide, of how much conspiracy theory can be tolerated.

The boundaries continue to be pushed, racist ideas articulated without penalty, and conspiracy tolerated as if it were worthy of serious debate and consideration. It is important to underscore once again the degree to which the campaign foreshadowed these developments in a clear and unambiguous way. Rather than the candidate toning down his views in response to ascending to the presidency, it has been the case that the candidate’s assumption of power has caused the radical propositions of the campaign trail to be rapidly normalized as a part of mainstream political discourse.

In turn, the impact of ISIS’ embrace of radical discourse has yet to be fully understood, though its repercussions will likely be felt for a long time. For decades, takfīr, the practice of Muslims branding other Muslims as infidels and questioning (or annulling) the legitimacy of their profession of Islam, was anathema even among the radical Salafi-Jihadi fringe represented by Al-Qa’idah and its affiliates. Thus, Osama bin Laden expressed grave reservations about the legitimacy of Muslims shedding the blood of other Muslims or denying their Islam altogether. It was Abū Muṣʿab al-Zarqāwī’s fanatical hatred of Shi’ah that led to the schism between Al-Qa’idah and its former proxy in Iraq that eventually evolved into ISIS. ISIS now use takfīr in their propaganda and strategic communications without restraint, and the obvious consequence is the routinization of extreme acts of violence by Muslims against other Muslims in the name of Islam.

Likewise, in democracy, civility is a delicate bulwark against radicalism, especially against political violence. Trump’s “American carnage” speech, the manifesto of the newly triumphant ethnonationalist wing of the Republican Party, demonstrated that the rough xenophobia and nascent fascism of the campaign was not a means but an end in itself. The medium is the message; as some right-wing apologists have gloated, Trump is doing exactly what he was elected to do, with that supposed mandate defined around the Islamophobic and anti-immigrant planks that more mainstream Republican proxies assured us were just red meat the candidate was throwing his most excitable partisans on the campaign trail.

Rather than the candidate tempering his ideas and language upon receiving first the party nomination and then the presidency itself, it is the incipient fascism and xenophobia of the campaign that has now been normalized not only as acceptable political talk, but actually contemplatable as policy. The obvious consequence is that once radical measures have been discussed long enough, they no longer seem so radical; after enough time passes, they may even seem reasonable. Talking about extreme ideas is a necessary – though perhaps not sufficient – precondition to actually undertaking them.

A related point, one that has received increasing attention in recent weeks, is the question of how Trump supporters are characterized and what their motivations for that support are. After Clinton’s defeat in the November election, the media sought to explain the electoral upset by focusing on the Democrats’ lack of outreach to white working-class voters (particularly men), especially in the industrial states that switched from blue to red in this election. As some have noted, this reportage plays an underlying ideological function in shifting the focus from the ideas promoted by the candidate – and presumably embraced, or at least tolerated – by his supporters to the failure of the media and the Democratic Party (or at least the Clinton campaign) to embrace these voters, often implicitly represented as “real” Americans whose important economic concerns were simply not taken seriously.33 This reportage has often had the effect of diminishing the value of supposedly “boutique” causes like social justice, diversity issues, and feminism – denigrated as “political correctness” and “identity politics” – that the Democrats favor but that alienate the white working-class majority who supposedly have more concrete concerns.

However, other observers have pointed out that this approach to the election results is not only misleading (since Clinton actually won the popular vote by a historic margin) but implicitly racist; for example, Americans of color are disproportionately affected by most of the economic and social ills from which white working-class voters suffer.34 Moreover, and more germane to my main point here, this analysis overlooks the obvious fact that cultural politics are real politics and not just a cover for material issues. On a symbolic level, “identity politics” were exactly what as at stake for many Trump voters: not only do economic concerns fail to justify the open embrace of racist ideology, but arguably, asserting and maintaining white dominance (specifically, white male dominance) was exactly the goal many Trump supporters sought to achieve.35

Legacy of Brutality: The Bannon Ouster and its Implications

On April 5, only a week before the first part of this essay was published, a shakeup of the composition of the National Security Council was quietly announced through the medium of a memorandum about the NSC published in the Federal Register. In this memo, Steve Bannon is no longer listed among the members of the Principals Committee of the NSC.36 Within 48 hours, news of this development spread throughout major media outlets, inspiring widespread speculation about the nature of this apparent demotion and the causes behind it. Divergent hypotheses and competing accounts rapidly multiplied in Rashomon-like fashion; true to form, Trump administration statements were ambiguous and did little to clarify things.

The explicit reason for the change in Bannon’s appointment status – which the administration emphasized was not a demotion or dismissal – was that he had originally been appointed with the specific mandate of “de-operationalizing” the NSC; this was necessary as a reversal of Obama-era policy, though what de-operationalization exactly entails was left unexplained.37 Many observers conjectured that Bannon’s main role on the NSC had been to supervise Mike Flynn; with Flynn’s dismissal, Bannon’s work on the NSC was done.38

Other explanations that dig deeper into the internal politics of the administration have been floated as well. For example, two of Bannon’s protégés were implicated as go-betweens in the debacle involving collusion between the White House and Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, that discredited Nunes and the HIC investigation into Trump’s false allegations that Obama wiretapped him during the 2016 campaign.39

The evocative graphic that accompanied Conor Lynch's piece in on March 11, “Does the Trump Administration Want a Holy War against Islam? It’s a Terrifying But Reasonable Guess"; the background photograph captures a suicide bombing carried out by ISIS in Kobani on October 20, 2014.

The evocative graphic that accompanied Conor Lynch’s piece in Salon on March 11, “Does the Trump Administration Want a Holy War against Islam? It’s a Terrifying But Reasonable Guess”; the background photograph captures a suicide bombing carried out by ISIS in Kobani on October 20, 2014.

The narrative that has come to be most widely accepted as plausible is that Bannon’s relocation in the administration hierarchy was in fact a demotion, though different individuals have been given responsibility for this ouster. One scenario is that Bannon was pushed out by H.R. McMaster, Trump’s chief national security adviser; this is an especially plausible hypothesis, given that McMaster has publicly objected to the involvement of political operatives in NSC affairs. McMaster has also openly rejected the anti-Islamic ideology that is the cornerstone of Bannon’s worldview.40 Another plausible explanation, one that has perhaps been most widely accepted, is that Bannon’s demotion was engineered by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and proxy in many of the day-to-day operations of the administration, including foreign policy. That conflict with Kushner was the driving force here seems to be verified by Trump’s public acknowledgment of an ongoing dispute between them.41 That the two would be at loggerheads is unsurprising given their ideological incompatibility: Bannon represents the populist, ethnonationalist aspect of Trump’s platform and base of support, while Kushner is obviously a globalist technocrat of the sort Bannon has loudly railed against in his rabblerousing past. In an ironic twist, unnamed sources have testified to the bitter feud between the men, with Bannon reportedly not shying away from labeling Kushner a technocrat and even a cuck.42 (What Bannon was therefore insinuating about Ivanka Trump, the so-called “First Daughter,” is a question better left unexplored here.)

While the gloating about Bannon’s dismissal by leftist media commentators surely reflects some underlying sense of relief based on the execrable nature of his views and associations, it is noteworthy that the administration has never disavowed those views and associations or attributed the dismissal to the general outcry over them. That is, while the increasing exposure of Bannon’s ideology to public view (and, one hopes, revilement and ridicule) is certainly a net positive, it is striking that this was not the primary cause for Bannon’s reduction in status. Further, while the failure of the policies of which he was almost certainly the main architect likely diminishes his stature in Trump’s eyes, his removal cannot be linked to any significant change of heart about important issues by Trump or anyone else in his administration. It is more likely the case that Trump simply wished to distance himself from a perceived loser or rival to his son-in-law.

There is actually very little indeed here for liberals to gloat over, for the damage may have already been done. Bannon’s blasé attitude about his removal from the NSC, his cryptic statement about “de-operationalizing” the NSC and his seeming resignation to his change of status – as if it only made sense because he’d already accomplished what he’d set out to do – is, perhaps, a chilling foreshadowing of things to come.

While some might argue that the resistance to the Muslim bans as his signature initiatives is evidence of the failure of his agenda, it is quite likely that Bannon may enjoy a renewed prominence in the administration if and when terrorism once again becomes a pressing public issue. Moreover, it is clear that the anti-immigrant agenda that is one of Bannon’s signature causes is already well enshrined as an administration priority, especially judging by Jeff Sessions’ aggressive moves forward on this front.43

Even more than this, however, Bannon’s cancerous introduction of racist ideology into the inner sanctum of the White House has likely already had a profound, if not transformative, effect. With Islamophobia now a regular feature of mainstream political discourse – with a clear emboldening effect that translates into real violence by partisans – there is no knowing what formerly unthinkable political possibilities, what crimes against decency, may seriously be countenanced by the administration in the future. An institutional commitment to the idea that Muslims are dangerous is inherently injurious, and reshapes our political discourse every time derogatory views are expressed or debated.44 Similarly, although the ISIS apocalypse has probably been permanently deferred, the mindset they sought to cultivate is contagious, with the jihadist fringe now fatally poisoned with the idea that a war without limits against other Muslims is totally legitimate. Cultures of extremism are now festering on either side of the divide, with the Muslim majority – especially American Muslims – caught in the middle.

 

MICHAEL PREGILL is Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University and coordinator of the Mizan digital scholarship initiative.

 

  1. “National Security Council Shouldn’t Be Politicized, Ret. Adm. Mullen Says,” NPR, February 22, 2017. See also David J. Rothkopf, “The Danger of Steve Bannon on the National Security Council,” Washington Post, January 29, 2017.
  2. See, e.g.: Jonathan Martin, Jim Rutenberg and Maggie Haberman, “Donald Trump Appoints Media Firebrand to Run Campaign,” New York Times, August 17, 2016; Jessica Roy, “What Is the Alt-Right? A Refresher Course on Steve Bannon’s Fringe Brand of Conservatism,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2016; David A. Fahrenthold and Frances Stead Sellers, “How Bannon Flattered and Coaxed Trump on Policies Key to the Alt-Right,” Washington Post, November 15, 2016.
  3. Scott Shane, Matthew Rosenberg, and Eric Lipton, “Trump Pushes Dark View of Islam to Center of U.S. Policy-Making,” New York Times, February 1, 2017; Scott Shane, “Stephen Bannon in 2014: We Are at War with Radical Islam,” New York Times, February 1, 2017; Paul Blumenthal, “Steve Bannon Believes the Apocalypse Is Coming and War Is Inevitable,” Huffington Post, February 8, 2017; Conor Lynch, “Does the Trump Administration Want a Holy War against Islam? It’s a Terrifying But Reasonable Guess,” Salon.com, March 11, 2017. Along with Bannon, noted Islamophobe and fascist sympathizer Sebastian Gorka has been profiled as one of the main players among the right-wing security hawks behind the shift in policy; see Greg Jaffe, “For a Trump Adviser, an Odyssey from the Fringes of Washington to the Center of Power,” Washington Post, February 20, 2017.
  4. “Editorial: What Bannon Shares with ISIL Leader: Our View,” USA Today, February 5, 2017.
  5. “Tucker Grills USA Today Editor over Op-Ed Comparing Steve Bannon to ISIS Leader,” Fox News Insider, February 8, 2017; Zack Beauchamp, “Fox News Host: At Least Steve Bannon Isn’t ISIS,” Vox.com, February 9, 2017.
  6. See Abhijnan Rej, “The Strategist: How Abu Mus’ab al-Suri Inspired ISIS,” ORF Occasional Paper 96, August 2016.
  7. “Gray Champions” is the title of Chapter 5 of William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny (New York: Random House, 1997). The appellation is taken from the eponymous story by Nathaniel Hawthorne describing the reappearance of a legendary “priest-warrior” from the original generation of Puritan settlers of New England at the time of the American Revolution. Strauss and Howe cast this figure as a symbolic archetype that manifests at different times in order to play a key role in major transformative events in American history; his previous avatars have included John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The implication is that after decades of spiritual decadence and economic decline, a new avatar of the Gray Warrior is due to appear to lead America through its greatest crisis yet.
  8. The most explicit discussions of Trump as messiah figure have occurred in the evangelical context, in which some have justified rallying behind a candidate so clearly lacking in Christian credentials by labeling him a contemporary Cyrus – the Persian emperor called God’s messiah in Isaiah 45:1, which portrays the king as acting as God’s chosen instrument in repatriating the Jews to the Promised Land after the Babylonian Exile. Some Israeli figures have likewise been able to reconcile the paradox of backing a leader who openly consorts with white supremacists and anti-Semites by casting Trump in the Cyrus mold, particularly appropriate given the desire by some for Trump to back (or at least tolerate) the expansion of illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories, a kind of modern equivalent to Cyrus’ repatriation program in their eyes. See Chris Mitchell, “Chaos Candidate: Is Trump a Modern-Day King Cyrus?”, CBN.com, November 4, 2016; Yardena Schwartz, “In Donald Trump, Israeli Settlers See a Message from God,” HuffingtonPost.com, March 29, 2017.
  9. Emily Bazelon, “Department of Justification,” The New York Times Magazine, February 28, 2017. Sessions has openly indulged in extreme, racist language in drumming up support for administration anti-immigration policies, predictably portraying these efforts as an existential struggle against evil: Gabe Ortiz, “‘We Take Our Stand Against This Filth’: Sessions Speech Goes Full-On White Nationalist,” DailyKos.com, April 11, 2017.
  10. Vicky Ward, “The Blow-It-All-Up Billionaires,” HuffingtonPost.com, March 17, 2017.
  11. Of course, chaos and cataclysm are not absolute prerequisites for enabling the kind of right-wing anarchist disruptions of the status quo that Bannon and his ilk seek to promote through influencing Trump. As Steven Harper’s recent multi-part essay demonstrates, virtually all of the key cabinet posts of the new administration appear to have been filled by individuals whose main agenda is to demolish the agencies and regulatory regimes they now supervise, or at least to radically transform their institutional priorities. Steven Harper, “100 Days of Deconstruction: Part 1,” BillMoyers.com, April 17, 2017; “100 Days of Deconstruction: Part 2,” BillMoyers.com, April 19, 2017; “100 Days of Deconstruction: Part 3,” BillMoyers.com, April 21, 2017.
  12. Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, “Nearly Half of Americans Worried That They or Their Family Will Be a Victim of Terrorism,” PRRI.org, December 10, 2015; Alex Nowrasteh, “Americans’ Fear of Foreign Terrorists Is Overinflated,” Time, September 13, 2016, citing his policy report “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 798, September 13, 2016.
  13. The “Extinction of the Grayzone” was the cover story of ISIS’ propaganda magazine Dabiq in January-February 2015, which celebrated the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris earlier that year and marked for death those Muslims who had made public apologies for the attacks and pledged their solidarity with the people of France.
  14. Interview on Breitbart News Daily, November 2, 2015, as reported in Fahrenthold and Sellers, “How Bannon Flattered and Coaxed Trump.” Many observers noted that Bannon’s longstanding negative views of legal immigrants provided an obvious and salient context to the administration’s rush to issue the executive orders imposing the ill-considered and impractical travel bans; see, e.g., Andrew Prokop, “Steve Bannon’s Longtime Suspicion of Successful Immigrants Is the Key to This Weekend’s Chaos,” Vox.com, January 29, 2017.
  15. Peter Beinart, “America’s Most Prominent Anti-Muslim Activist Is Welcome at the White House,” The Atlantic, March 21, 2017. Gabriel is the founder and head of ACT for America, a “non-partisan, grassroots national security organization” that regularly lobbies politicians at the local, state, and federal levels to undertake surveillance of and discriminatory legislation against Muslims. For a number of years, Bannon has openly embraced anti-Islam activists such as Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney and promoted their cause on Breitbart. With Bannon’s proximity to Trump, the Islamophobia industry completes its movement from the fringes of American politics to center stage and is granted a newfound legitimacy along with, e.g., the white nationalist factions now legitimized as the “alt-right.”
  16. Rita Katz, “ISIS Hunter: Time to Wake Up to the White Nationalist Terror Threat,” TheDailyBeast.com, March 9, 2017. 2016 was a banner year for right-wing hate groups of every stripe, according to the annual census of the Southern Poverty Law Center; the number of anti-Muslim hate groups alone tripled in 2016, accompanied by a sharp rise in hate crimes against Muslim individuals and communities: “Hate Groups Increase for Second Consecutive Year as Trump Electrifies Radical Right,” Southern Poverty Law Center, February 15, 2017. White supremacist groups have even reportedly established a significant presence in law enforcement agencies around the country: Alice Spieri, “The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement,” TheIntercept.com, January 31, 2017.
  17. Julia Edwards Ainsley, Dustin Volz, and Kristina Cook, “Trump to Focus Counter-Extremism Program Solely on Islam,” Reuters.com, February 2, 2017. The Obama-era “Countering Violent Extremism” initiative, an attempt to empower communities to police extremism at the local level, was widely criticized as unfairly singling out Muslims as the main source of terrorist violence in America when statistics demonstrate otherwise.
  18. The contrast between two reports by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University is striking. A 2014 survey of nearly 400 American law enforcement agencies by David Schanzer and Charles Kurzman demonstrated that these agencies deemed anti-government extremists a much greater threat than radicalized Muslims (“Law Enforcement Assessment of Terrorist Threat,” Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, June 25, 2015). Meanwhile, a more recent report established that violent extremism among Muslim-Americans sharply declined in 2016 – despite the high-profile case of the Orlando shooting – and that attacks by Muslims constituted less than 1% of murders committed in the United States during that year (“Muslim-American Involvement with Violent Extremism,” Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, January 26, 2017).
  19. Eric Boehlert, “Exciting the Right Wing, Trump Downplays Threat of Right-Wing Terror,” MediaMatters.org, February 3, 2017.
  20. In a personal communication to me, Juan Cole notes that the underlying commonality between ISIS and Bannon in this regard may be due to a mutual dependence on Leninism, specifically a sympathy for the strategy of encouraging polarization through fomenting violence. On this aspect of ideology as it may help to explain the Paris Charlie Hebdo attack, see his “Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda Attacked Satirists in Paris,” Informed Comment, January 7, 2015.
  21. Paul Blumenthal and JM Rieger, “This Stunningly Racist French Novel Is How Steve Bannon Explains the World,” HuffingtonPost.com, March 6, 2017; Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Bannon, Adviser Behind Travel Ban, Is Fan of Novel About Feces-Eating, Dark-Skinned Immigrants Destroying White Society,” Slate.com, March 6, 2017. In the aftermath of the controversy over his racist tweet about “other people’s babies,” Steve King likewise expressed his admiration for the novel: Osita Nwanevu, “GOP Congressman Steve King Is Now Endorsing Explicitly Racist Books, Because He’s Steve King,” Slate.com, March 14, 2017. One of Bannon’s explicit references to the novel as an explanation of contemporary events occurred in the context of an interview with then-senator Jeff Sessions in 2015, during which Sessions praised the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act that severely limited or totally blocked immigration of Italians, Jews, Asians, and Africans into the United States.
  22. Jonathan Swan, “The One Book to Understand Steve Bannon,” Axios.com, March 7, 2017; the piece was quickly picked up and recirculated by Breitbart. See also Marc Tracy, “Steve Bannon’s Book Club,” New York Times, February 4, 2017: appearing before most of the other pieces about Bannon’s radical ideology, Tracy’s article is an ironic discussion of an encounter with Bannon in which the latter spoke admiringly of David Halberstam’s 1972 book The Best and the Brightest, about the errors that drew the Kennedy administration to involve America in the Vietnam conflict. Tracy notes Bannon’s obvious interest in the work as a classic example of the failure of leadership by the traditional northeastern political elite, but observes that the larger point – the need for administrations to rely on sound judgment and expertise over ideology – seems to have been lost on him completely. A similarly sanitized presentation of Bannon’s views on immigration, the global economy, elite versus popular politics in America and Europe, and related matters appears in his long presentation to a conference held at the Vatican in 2014: for a transcript, see J. Lester Feder, “This is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World,” Buzzfeed.com, November 15, 2016.
  23. Douglas Kennedy, “The Making of Steve Bannon, from Young Navy Man to White House Power Player,” FoxNews.com, March 30, 2017.
  24. As one commentator observed, it is quite possible that the confusion caused in administrative, legal, and media circles by the hasty rollout of the first travel ban signals that it was a deliberate provocation orchestrated by Bannon, essentially trolling liberals, the Democratic opposition, the ACLU, and Muslims affected by the restrictions in order to curry favor with Trump’s base: Daniel W. Drezner, “Two Theories About Why Steve Bannon Midwifed Such a Bad Executive Order,” Washington Post, January 29, 2017.
  25. As activist and legal scholar Khaled Beydoun has remarked regarding the revised travel ban of March 2017: “government law and policy… endorses bigoted views and authorises the violence unleashed on Muslims and individuals perceived as Muslims. This dialectic, whereby the state criminalises Muslim identity or brands it suspicious by law, effectively instructs its citizens to partake in the national project of identifying and punishing ‘the terrorist outsider’” (Khaled Beydoun, “How Muslim Ban Incites Vigilante Islamophobic Violence,” AlJazeera.com, March 7, 2017).
  26. Like the travel bans, the specifics of the tech ban makes it clear that it is a symbolic gesture rather than having much substantive value in increasing security: Pamela Engel, “Tech and Terrorism Experts Question Trump’s Airline Electronics Ban: It ‘Makes Absolutely No Sense’,” Business Insider, March 21, 2017. Some reportage has suggested that there may have been a credible threat behind the restrictions, namely reports of an Al-Qaʾidah affiliate perfecting techniques of smuggling explosives concealed in laptops onto planes (Paul Cruickshank, “What Prompted the US and UK Electronics Bans?”, CNN, March 22, 2017).
  27. The executive order issued in early March that contained the revised travel ban included an explicit statement that the federal government would begin compiling and publicizing information about “acts of gender-based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States [committed] by foreign nationals.” See Nahal Toosi, “‘Honor Killings’ Highlighted under Trump’s New Travel Ban,” Politico.com, March 6, 2017. 
  28. Dean Obeidallah, “The Terror Trial We’re Really Ignoring,” TheDailyBeast.com, February 7, 2017. Doggart was found guilty of “solicitation to commit a civil rights violation, solicitation to commit arson of a building, and making a threat in interstate commerce” (“Tennessee Man Convicted of Planning to Attack New York Mosque,” The Guardian, February 16, 2017); terrorism-related charges were not brought because current federal statutes define terrorism as actions planned or committed by foreign extremists. Doggart’s sentencing is scheduled for May 31.
  29. Timothy Snyder, “The Reichstag Warning,” New York Review of Books, February 26, 2017.
  30. While scholars of religion have interrogated the complexity of religious motivations and justifications for violence – from which no tradition is exempt – for decades, only recently has the problem of bias in associating Islam in particular with violence been discussed in the mainstream media. The Christian double standard – claiming Christians who commit violence are not acting in a Christian fashion while Muslims who do so epitomize Islam – is still commonplace. See Brandon Withrow, “Is There a Christian Double Standard on Religious Violence?”, TheDailyBeast.com, March 4, 2017, discussing the findings of a survey recently conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute: see Betsy Cooper and Daniel Cox, “Americans’ Double Standard on Religious Violence,” PRRI.org, February 16, 2017.
  31. Mainstream media coverage of the Trump phenomenon, especially his upset victory over Clinton in 2016, has focused largely on class issues, often to the detriment of cultural and religious issues; that is, basic economics have been overemphasized to the detriment of reflection upon value systems and ideology. Trump’s questionable personal rectitude and lack of credibility as a Christian candidate has meant that his engagement with evangelicals and other committed right-leaning Christian constituencies has been at most an occasional flirtation, with proxies such as Mike Pence doing the heavy lifting of securing their vote and consistent support. Once again, as in the cases of the purported terrorist and immigrant threats, religious concerns for Trump supporters are more an issue of perception than reality: among white evangelicals, a demographic that voted overwhelmingly in favor of Trump, a majority (57%) believe that Christians are subject to religious discrimination in the U.S., while only a minority of white evangelicals (44%) believe that Muslims are victims of discrimination. See Emma Green, “White Evangelicals Believe They Face More Discrimination Than Muslims,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2017, citing a PRRI survey on religious liberty issues.
  32. The complex relationship between religious, ethnic/racial, political, and cultural identity is in full view here, as it is when one interrogates the terms through which Islamophobic discourse seeks to vindicate itself within the frame of secularist politics. Anti-Muslim animosity is often justified as not racially motivated, because it singles out people who are distinguished by their voluntary association with a community. At the same time, proponents hold, it is not religious discrimination (and thus unconstitutional) either, because what they object to is Islam (or ‘radical’ Islam, poorly differentiated by those who use the term from other types) as a political philosophy or ideology rather than as a private expression of faith and devotion. These distinctions are certainly legible, and thus superficially reasonable, within the boundaries of conventional American strategies for navigating questions of religious freedom and civil liberty. Yet they lose plausibility when one considers the fact that it is still primarily people of color who are singled out for suspicion and scrutiny, by a large majority. Moreover, it is even less plausible to claim that the problem is the specifically political aspects of ‘radical’ Islam when it is not only Muslims’ views about jihad or shari’ah in public life but even such intimate practices as veiling that are commonly at issue.
  33. Reportage of this sort has been so widespread that it has become a genre of its own and even inspired satire: Alexandra Petri, “Every Story I Have Read about Trump Supporters in the Past Week,” Washington Post, April 19. 2017. Frank Rich points out the problematic presuppositions of much of this liberal ethnography of the “white working class” in “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly,” New York, March 19, 2017. Rich’s proposal that the Democrats largely write off the deep red states as irredeemably backwards or racist has itself has inspired a significant backlash. For example, Rich overlooks critical support for Trump among enclaves of more affluent white voters in communities in such places as Staten Island or Atlanta; he also overlooks the substantial efforts at democratic resistance made by women and people of color seeking to mobilize in the south, Appalachia, and the Rust Belt.
  34. Cf., e.g., Christina Cauterucci, “When People Talk About ‘Working-Class’ Voters, They Only Mean White, U.S.-Born Men,” Slate.com, April 6, 2017.
  35. Mehdi Hasan, “Top Democrats Are Wrong: Trump Supporters Were More Motivated by Racism Than Economic Issues,” TheIntercept.com, April 6, 2017. Many observers did not fail to grasp the real nature of the Trump campaign and its support among white voters sympathetic to ethnonationalist messaging when it was underway: cf., e.g., Lincoln Blades, “Call the Alt-Right Movement What it Is: Racist as Hell,” Rolling Stone, August 26, 2016.
  36. Vivian Salama, “Trump Removes Steve Bannon from National Security Council,” Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2017.
  37. “Susan Rice operationalized the N.S.C. during the last administration. I was put on the N.S.C. with General Flynn to ensure that it was de-operationalized. General McMaster has returned the N.S.C. to its proper function,” quoted in Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, and Glenn Thrush, “Trump Removes Stephen Bannon from National Security Council Post,” New York Times, April 5, 2017.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Matthew Rosenberg, Maggie Haberman, and Adam Goldman, “2 White House Officials Helped Give Nunes Intelligence Reports,” New York Times, March 30, 2017.
  40. Robert Costa, Abby Phillip, and Karen DeYoung, “Bannon Removed from Security Council as McMaster Asserts Control,” Washington Post, April 5, 2017; Bryan Bender, “Bannon’s Departure Solidifies McMaster’s Control over the NSC,” Politico.com, April 5, 2017. McMaster himself has sought to depoliticize the shakeup: Rebecca Savransky, “McMaster Downplays Removal of Bannon from Role on NSC,” TheHill.com, April 9, 2017.
  41. Christina Wilkie, “Jared Kushner Helped Push Steve Bannon Out of the NSC,” HuffingtonPost.com, April 6, 2017; Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Fires Warning Shot in Battle between Bannon and Kushner,” New York Times, April 7, 2017.
  42. Asawin Suebsaeng, “Steve Bannon Calls Jared Kushner a ‘Cuck’ and ‘Globalist’ behind His Back,” TheDailyBeast.com, April 6, 2017. Unsurprisingly, close professional and personal ties to Trump have not spared Kushner from being targeted by the white nationalist cadres that congregate virtually around Bannon and Breitbart: Arthur Delaney, “Jared Kushner Increasingly Targeted by Anti-Semites, Anti-Defamation League Says,” HuffingtonPost.com, April 10, 2017. Nor, it seems, is Trump immune to challenges from his “Bannonite” supporters, who have strenuously objected to various aspects of Trump’s policy, especially his willingness to increase American involvement in the Syrian conflict: Rachel Roberts, “Trump Faces ‘Open Warfare’ with Breitbart if Bannon is Fired, Says Former Executive of the Far-Right Website,” The Independent, April 8, 2017; Alex Isenstadt and Madeline Conway, “Trump’s Base Turns on Him,” Politico.com, April 13, 2017; Ryan Lizza, “Steve Bannon’s Nationalist Team Prepares for the Long Game,” New Yorker, April 14, 2017.
  43. Ezekiel Kweku, “Steve Bannon Isn’t a Genius,” New York Times, April 6, 2017; Helen Digby Parton, “Is Bannon Doomed? It Hardly Matters – Jeff Sessions is Much Better at White Nationalism Anyway,” Salon.com, April 13, 2017. As Parton notes, while Bannon’s role on the NSC and direct proximity to Trump gave him greater visibility, it is the rapid changes Sessions is pushing through at the Justice Department – massive increases in felony prosecutions for immigration-related offenses while canceling programs intended to mitigate profiling and other questionable law enforcement practices targeting African-Americans in particular – that will have the most immediate and tangible effects in enacting the white nationalist agenda through federal policy. Likewise, extreme anti-immigrant activists continue to find roles in federal-level agencies, and presumably will continue to do so under the Trump administration: Nicholas Kulish, “With Ally in Oval Office, Immigration Hard-Liners Ascend to Power,” New York Times, April 24, 2017. 
  44. In a bizarre recent piece in Bloomberg News, journalist Caroline Winter interviewed cartoonist and blogger Scott Adams, a noted Trump partisan, who, like many among his cadres active in social media, is convinced that Trump is a genius manipulator versed in the art of suggestion and perhaps even hypnosis. Adams suggests that Trump covertly reshaped the media landscape and even the contours of public discourse during the campaign to make his rise to power almost inevitable (“How Scott Adams Got Hypnotized by Trump,” Bloomberg News, March 22, 2017). While we might be skeptical about Adams’ contentions about Trump’s skills at mass hypnosis or the inevitability of his success, this hyperbole conceals a more profound point, which is that due to his near-monopolization of the media, every proposal, contention, and paranoid allegation Trump makes effectively enters public discourse as potentially meriting serious consideration and discussion no matter how absurd. This, more than anything else, is the effect he has managed to have on our politics, which makes his frequent flirtation with xenophobic and racist ideas all the more dangerous.

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Michael Pregill

As an interesting postscript to this piece, I might note that Trump's conciliatory and non-inflammatory remarks about Islam during his visit to Saudi Arabia, a much-heralded event during his May Mideast trip, have not been welcomed by all of his supporters. As one put it in a tweet, "Today is the day President Trump became President Cuck." It was perhaps only a matter of time that the diehards in the rabidly Islamophobic wing of the Trump movement rebelled against the inevitably pragmatic positions the president has been obliged to take out of sheer political necessity.

http://www.salon.com/2017/05/22/president-cuck-trump-supporters-are-freaking-out-over-the-presidents-tone-change-on-islam/

Our Apocalypse Problem from Baghdadi to Bannon (Part 2)

Between Radical Jihad and the Radical Right


Michael Pregill


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. Part 1 can be found here.

Several statements and policy decisions made by the new Trump administration after the inauguration in January 2017 confirmed many observers’ fears that the extreme behavior, language, and proposals associated with the Trump campaign were in fact mere hints of worse to come. Mainstream Republican apologists insisted during the campaign that Trump’s provocations were mere rhetoric, spirited attempts to stir up the support of his base in the runup to the election.

As the benchmark of the first hundred days looms, however, an objective assessment would be that the candidate has seldom manifested the sober, dignified demeanor we were assured would emerge, as would befit the gravitas of the presidential office. The now-notorious “American carnage” speech Trump delivered at his inauguration established that apocalyptic urgency and messianic deliverance would continue to be defining themes of his presidency, moderated only by the more tedious realities of governance that have inevitably intruded on the administration’s larger ideological program.

The Provocateur-in-Chief and his Doomsday Prophet

One of the most shocking developments of the first month of the Trump administration was the shift from a mere flirtation with ultra-right wing figures as consultants, surrogates, and liaisons with media outlets on the campaign trail to an actual empowerment of such figures through appointment to official advisory positions. Trump’s executive order to place Steve Bannon on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council – equal in status to the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense – while downgrading the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence to lesser roles quickly drew bipartisan criticism. In an interview on NPR, Admiral Mike Mullen, U.S. Navy (ret.), former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed exactly why such an unprecedented move is dangerous: NSC appointments are generally not given to a president’s political staff, but rather are selected on a nonpartisan basis to avoid tainting security decisions with considerations of political advantage.1 Given that candidate Trump made repeated appeals to the xenophobic and nativist sentiments of his base, it is reasonable to assume that this decision signaled an intention to curry favor with the base for political leverage, especially through the manipulation of immigration policy under Bannon’s guidance.

It is clear that the appointment of Steve Bannon represented more than simply the solidification of Trump’s direct line to right-wing media, organizations, and constituencies whose support would be needed in coming months and years, however. Rather, investigation into Bannon’s ideas points to the inevitable conclusion that the intended effect is the shaping of policy and responses to domestic and international affairs in order to best exploit, or perhaps actually precipitate, crisis. The goal is not merely to disenfranchise and marginalize Muslim citizens and immigrants, though that is certainly one intended result. Rather, Bannon’s long-term agenda is to guide the United States and its allies towards large-scale war with Muslim state and quasi-state entities (presumably starting with ISIS), thus triggering a transformative cataclysm that will reshape the global political, social, and economic order.

During the campaign, when Bannon’s ties to Trump were discovered, there were some early attempts to probe Bannon’s political views and raise public awareness about his radicalism and the pernicious influence he could exert on Trump.2 Post-inauguration, several new investigative pieces discussed his political philosophy, the larger political context behind Trump’s drastic breaks from previous policy, and the likely long-term strategic goals Bannon and his circle intend to pursue in the White House.3 It is by no means clear that Bannon’s recent demotion and withdrawal from the public eye, at least as a close official adviser to Trump, means that these goals have receded as administration priorities.

The uncomfortable similarities between Bannon’s worldview and the ideology of ISIS was noted by a number of journalists, and even publicized in an editorial in the historically uncontentious USA Today.4 Somewhat amusingly, the mainstream coverage of these allegations about Bannon’s ideas prompted numerous outraged denials on the right, including a systematic examination of the ways in which Bannon is not like Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī by Tucker Carlson on Fox, in an interview in which he directly confronted one of the authors of the USA Today editorial.5 While it is undeniably true that Bannon is not guilty of beheading journalists, establishing a caliphate, or the other crimes for which Baghdādī may be culpable (and admittedly, establishing a caliphate is technically not a crime), it is telling that this exercise was even deemed necessary in the first place. Likewise telling is the fact that Carlson’s negative comparison avoided every point of positive similarity between Bannon and Baghdādī alleged in the reportage that he sought to definitively discredit.

The element of similarity between them that should be the cause of greatest concern is that for Bannon, as for the ISIS leadership, apocalyptic brinksmanship appears to be a primary, if not the ultimate, goal of foreign policy. The apocalyptic ideology of the Islamic State has been widely discussed, particularly by Will McCants and Graeme Wood. Following in the footsteps of their idol, Abū Muṣʿab al-Zarqāwī, the head of Al-Qaʾidah in Iraq (the precursor to the Islamic State), the ISIS leadership are devotees of traditional Islamic prophecies of the end of the world. Zarqāwī, and the ISIS leadership after him, was heavily influenced in this direction by the work of Abū Muṣʿab al-Sūrī, who infused millenarian enthusiasm into his influential manifesto on jihadist strategy, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance.6 Drawing on Sūrī’s ideas, the ISIS leadership appear to believe that their actions help to fulfill an apocalyptic timetable that will ultimately, through provoking armed confrontation with Western powers, culminate in Armageddon.

In turn, Bannon has on numerous occasions expressed his belief in a pseudohistorical theory called the Fourth Turning. According to this theory, epochal transformations in American history have followed upon increasingly devastating wars that brought major social, political, and economic upheavals in their wake. Bannon seems to believe that the global status quo is ripe for overthrow, and that a major war is coming – or can be precipitated – that will result in massive transformations both in the U.S. and across the globe. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that Bannon and his supporters in the Trump administration are waiting for a massive disaster of some sort, possibly even a world war, that will sweep away the current global order and usher in a radically new age – a kind of secular apocalypse. One might readily infer that Bannon’s appointment to the NSC as one of Trump’s main advisers on national security was intended to enable him to harness both American foreign and domestic policy in pursuit of this goal. Strikingly, the apocalyptic drama of the Fourth Turning even features a messianic leader, the “Gray Champion” or “Gray Warrior”; it is unclear if it is Trump or Bannon himself who is supposed to be the Gray Champion, a kind of American mahdi who will preside over the transformative cataclysm to come and shepherd the faithful through it.7 In other quarters, partisans and supporters of Trump have been much less circumspect in casting Trump in the role of messiah.8

Even more distressing is the recent disclosure that Bannon’s radical views appear to be shared by certain Republican politicians now enjoying a newfound prominence in the Trump era, especially Jeff Sessions, the new Attorney General. What may seem like a fringe tendency now brought center stage by the Provocateur-in-Chief actually links Bannon to well-established Republican insiders like the four-term former senator Sessions, who shares Bannon’s extreme racist and anti-immigrant views and has publicly discussed the various ways in which the federal law enforcement system can be used to implement them.9 (As with Steve King’s allusion to and promotion of the ‘cuck’ trope, this is another example of a mainstream, or supposedly mainstream, politician embracing a tendency or proposition that formerly would have been considered so fringe as to be completely toxic politically.)

It would be reasonable to conclude, given Trump’s persona and political philosophy (such as it is), that he has deliberately sought to empower a host of advisers and operatives who are not bound by convention and the rules of “business as usual” that govern Washington politics. This, at any rate, would be the way to spin his provocative choices as a virtue: as a disruptor himself, Trump naturally sought out others who had similar ideas, and were similarly unbound by convention. However, it actually seems that it was Trump who was selected by Bannon and his allies. Vicky Ward’s recent reporting on the Mercers, the billionaire backers behind Bannon, Breitbart, and Trump, shows that these megarich right-wing donors were looking to support any candidate who could potentially upend the political establishment – including displacing Republicans they saw as too constrained by the politics of compromise in Washington. Before throwing their weight behind Donald Trump, the Mercers originally backed Ted Cruz; notably, there seems to have been considerable friction between the Cruz campaign and the operatives the Mercers foisted upon them, Bannon and his political machine in particular. It is also worth noting that before dropping out, Cruz seems to have proposed a limit on the issuing of H1-B visas to foreign nationals from Muslim countries because Trump had proposed some kind of Muslim ban, and the Mercers were eager for Cruz to follow suit.10

The Mercers represent a kind of neofeudalist tendency currently on the rise among the upper reaches of the donor class. The lifting of campaign finance limits with the Citizens United ruling now provides an opportunity for the megarich to not only influence the political process, but – through the sheer brute force exerted by unfettered campaign spending – to remake the legislative and regulatory landscape entirely, thus sweeping away the rules governing economics, development, and labor relations in America in place since the New Deal. (Ward’s profile of the Mercers indicates that they seek to marginalize other megarich donors like the Koch family whom they perceive as too liberal, being soft on trade, immigration, and the like.) Funding Breitbart provided the Mercers with a media outlet that could provide a populist ideology that would be both a spearhead for radical change through the electoral process and a fig leaf for the kind of drastic reform they sought to pursue in Washington. The nativist, ethnonationalist ideology pushed by Breitbart is the popular right-wing counterpart to the Mercers’ upper-class anarchism aiming at eliminating the regulatory regimes that hinder total domination of American workers by the ownership class. This is the moneyed interest that is betting on – and hoping to reap the benefits of – massive geopolitical shifts like the Fourth Turning as the key to demolishing legal protections, individual freedoms, and the social safety net as we know it.11

We Have Met the Enemy and They Is Us

ISIS appears as the perfect foil for Bannon’s conspiratorial, Islamophobic worldview and policies – visceral confirmation that chauvinistic claims about immigrants undermining Western civilization are grounded in the hard reality of an actual terror threat to the safety of citizens of the American and European democracies. ISIS’ dramatic presence in the media landscape – a terrifying image cultivated by the movement itself – provides the ideal pretext for creating an atmosphere of fear and apprehension. Unsurprisingly, when we dig deeper, image collides with reality: while 75% of Americans say that terrorism is a critical issue, research by the Cato Institute indicates that an American’s chance of being killed by a foreigner in a terrorist attack is 1 in 3.6 million.12 This statistic should give all Americans pause, especially when one considers the significant transformations of our laws and institutions that have already occurred in order to “keep us safe.”

At the same time, it is difficult to overlook the fact that the worldview of the right-wing ideologues driving administration policy on these matters resembles and reflects that of ISIS in many ways. As we have already noted, in each case, the leadership believes it is engaged in total war against an implacable enemy, and will resort to drastic measures to eliminate moderates or perceived traitors in their camp. In each case, this mindset justifies authoritarianism as a means of driving our societies towards a violent confrontation that will escalate into some kind of transformative catastrophe. This symmetry is similar to that of the post-9/11 era, in which the ideology of the “War on Terror” resembled and reflected that of the Salafi-Jihadi leadership of Al-Qa’idah and other groups that epitomized the Islamic terrorist threat the War on Terror putatively sought to vanquish.

The current ideologies are more extreme, and yet these distorted worldviews appear even more symmetrical. Bannon and ISIS spokesmen similarly repudiate the globalist cosmopolitanism that knits contemporary nation-states together in commercial and cultural networks; instead, they espouse a worldview in which Islam and the West are inevitably moving towards total existential war, with no viable space in between, no quarter possible. Both see the forces arrayed on either side moving towards inevitable cataclysm. In this leadup to apocalypse, there is no room for those who seek a sustainable (or even survivable) space in the middle; therefore, they must be eliminated.

For ISIS, the people caught in the middle are the Muslims of the “Grayzone” who refuse to pledge obedience to the caliphate, rejecting their duty to join the Islamic State and wage jihad against the West. The “grayzone” is exactly what it sounds like – the intermediate area where ISIS locates Muslims who are not in solidarity with them but rather criticize them and thus side with unbelievers, making them, essentially, infidels. In the eyes of ISIS spokesmen, those dwelling in the grayzone merit death for their hypocrisy and disbelief. This “gray movement,” the Islam of the “grayish,” has existed since the time of the Prophet, but must be eliminated because Islam in their view is intrinsically about drawing a sharp distinction between truth and falsehood, with no compromise possible. The obsessive attention the media pays to ISIS and the threat they pose to Western countries overlooks the fact that the main victims of their millenarian violence are actually their fellow Muslims, who are to be subordinated or eliminated as ISIS remakes the world into something radically new.13

[GRAYZONE]

Issue 7 of Dabiq, the English-language propaganda magazine of the Islamic State, dated to Rabīʿ al-Ākhir 1436 (January-February 2015). The cover story calls for the elimination of Muslims of the “grayzone,” occupying an intermediate place between the West and “true” Islam as supposedly represented by ISIS.

For Bannon and his circle, those caught in-between are immigrants who seek to benefit from the successes of the capitalist West but can never truly assimilate, and are thus incapable of embracing or perpetuating American values. This was the thinking exposed during Bannon’s now-notorious interview with Trump on Breitbart News, during which he asserted (falsely) that two-thirds or three-quarters of CEOs in Silicon Valley are Asian. Implying that these Asians can never truly share “our” values, Bannon complained, “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civil society.”14

The flatly racist conception behind the false claim of the corrosive dominance of Asians in executive positions in American tech firms dovetails with the basic presupposition that lies behind administration agitation and provocations against Muslim citizens. This is the premise, energetically promoted by the Islamophobia industry, that Muslims in Western societies are fundamentally incapable of accepting Western values and so, due to their inevitably subversive presence, Muslims in America and other Western states are essentially a problem that must be solved. Recently, Brigitte Gabriel, a leading anti-Islam agitator, bragged on social media that she had met with White House staff (and possibly Trump himself, though this seems to remain unconfirmed). Breaking with Islamophobe activists who adopt more circumspect means of pursuing their goals, Gabriel has repeatedly asserted that an observant Muslim simply cannot be a loyal American citizen, and even called for the literal criminalization of the practice of Islam in America.15

Just as in the post-9/11 era, so too now do spokesmen of the campaigns against Islam claim that “they” hate “us” because of “our” values – Islam supposedly being incommensurable with Western ideals because of the intolerance, belligerence, and oppression of women and minorities it inevitably inculcates in its adherents. These traits have, if anything, been on the rise in the U.S, itself, first gestating under Bush and coming out into the open during the Obama years. In sharp contrast to the post-9/11 insistence that America is not at war with Islam, racist and Islamophobic rhetoric has become increasingly mainstream, the denunciation of Islam as insidious, corrupt, violent, and theocratic now permissible in public debate and open conversation.

This language has been accompanied by brazen anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate crimes, sometimes perpetrated by organized hate groups and militias. These organizations have been on the rise for some time – largely as a response to the Obama Presidency – and are now increasingly coming out of the shadows, emboldened by Trump’s victory.16 Particularly disturbing in this connection is the Trump administration’s announcement that the “Countering Violent Extremism” program will now be rebranded as “Countering Islamic Extremism,” and that it will exclusively focus on surveillance and deterrence of violence among Muslim communities, while no longer directing program resources to surveillance and deterrence of white nationalist organizations.17 This is a stunning development in light of the growing consensus among security experts and law enforcement specialists that the latter pose a far greater threat to the safety of Americans.18 As MediaMatters and other outlets have noted, white nationalist groups openly celebrated the CVE announcement, which they interpreted as implying the Trump administration’s tacit support for their cause.19

While ISIS is upheld as the preeminent bogeyman du jour, proof of the intractable, implacable threat “radical Islamic terrorism” poses to the freedom and security of Americans, it is clear that this rhetoric masks (and actually legitimates) a different but more proximate reality for citizens and immigrants of color, particularly but not exclusively Muslims: that of state-sponsored (or at least state-tolerated) discrimination, harassment, and violence. Once again, insofar as strategies of radical othering, especially as a means of enabling or exacerbating a larger conflict, are a primary goal of the regime, comparison of the behavior, language, and goals of pro-Trump cadres with that of ISIS proves productive. ISIS and the newly empowered right wing fringe in America would agree: Muslims have no place in Western society.20

The Education of Steve Bannon and the Endgame of Securitization

In the aftermath of prominent media coverage of Bannon’s extreme ideology and belief system, a set of competing narratives emerged either indicting or vindicating him based on discussions of his intellectual proclivities and interests. It is hard to recall another moment in recent history when a public figure’s intellectual formation (essentially, his reading list) captured the media’s attention in a similar way, but this is hardly surprising given the allegations about Bannon’s views, loyalties, and ultimate agenda in the White House.

Bannon’s public discussion and endorsement of the Fourth Turning theory has already been noted. He has also made public reference to a profoundly racist dystopian French novel of the 1970s called The Camp of the Saints, which describes Europe and America overrun with blacks and Asians who destroy the society, economies, and way of life of civilized white people; the invasion occurs because of liberal tolerance for immigration.21 Bannon has repeatedly referred to The Camp of the Saints not only as a warning about the possible future faced by Europe and America, but as a template for understanding events that are currently underway.

Strikingly, although Bannon’s admiration for and inspiration by these books is literally a matter of public record, media outlets allied with or sympathetic to the Trump administration have sought to change the narrative to preserve the appearance of legitimacy or normalcy. At exactly the same time as Bannon’s enthusiasm for The Fourth Turning and The Camp of the Saints was being discussed in the mainstream press, Axios sought to counter this coverage with a piece about the profound influence of another book on Bannon’s thinking: Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, an anti-globalist screed condemning coastal elites for being out of touch with real Americans and praising politicians who defy and challenge established media narratives. The Revolt of the Elites is as much a manifesto for would-be disruptors as The Fourth Turning, but sheared of mystical and apocalyptic trappings; that is, it is more likely to be acceptable to a mainstream audience.22 More recently, Fox released a hagiographic account of Bannon’s formative years that omits any mention of influential reading or an intellectual bent at all; Bannon is here portrayed as a hard-headed, pragmatic former Navy officer who came of age in the Reagan years and who champions the common man as he tackles real world problems. Stunningly, there is only a single brief reference in this article to his apocalyptic view of a coming war against Islam – and no mention of Breitbart or his involvement with the white nationalist cause at all.23

bannonreadingThe jury is still out as to how effective Bannon and his allies can or will be in promoting his antiglobalist, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-immigrant ideology in the Trump era. There is, of course, an enormous gap between ideology and practice; the institutional and constitutional constraints on federal-level policy are of course considerable. But the signs from the first fifty days of the Trump administration were dismaying, inasmuch as they indicated an eagerness to drive policy towards certain objectives as rapidly as possible, as well as at least tacit acceptance, if not wholehearted enthusiasm, on the part of the president himself for Bannon’s ideas. In the first fifty days, two different executive actions were signed pertaining to immigration from the Islamic world; both were challenged and blocked by the judiciary in recognition of what they were – and what the administration openly touted them as, at least at one point – namely a “Muslim ban.” As many have observed, it is obvious that these restrictions on immigration could not realistically have aimed at actually making us safer. Nor is the selection of countries whose citizens are singled out rational, except as a representation of Muslim states that the administration can afford to alienate with minimum political consequence.

It is clear that these orders had a primarily symbolic function, playing a role in what is now commonly called security theater.24 The administration profits by looking busy at the work of “keeping us safe,” engaging in a performance with little traction or persuasive power among the majority of Americans but with significant appeal to Trump’s base. A longer-term strategic goal is also accomplished, namely that of promoting and maintaining an image of American safety and well-being as constantly in jeopardy from foreigners, Muslims in particular. Such actions keep Islam in the news as an urgent problem to be dealt with; they encourage and justify an ideology of resistance to and vigilance against looming foreign threats; and they continue to sustain a perception of Muslims as subversive and dangerous.25

Even minor restrictions such as the new “tech ban” for airline passengers traveling from various Middle Eastern countries – which advocates will quite plausibly claim as a minor but necessary precaution – functions to single out Muslim passengers and encourages a basic presumption that travelers from these countries or who have business there – obviously predominantly Muslim by a large margin – warrant suspicion and scrutiny.26 The same is even more true of the recent escalation of “random” selection of Muslim travelers for special screening at security checkpoints, especially the dramatic, largely unannounced (and so nearly unreported) confiscation and examination of cell phones. This tactic has the effect of both intimidating Muslim passengers (as well as those others who may be caught in the dragnet) and making a routine occurrence of public displays of enhanced surveillance, again contributing to a perception of imminent threat. Even if seemingly justified by credible reports of specific threats, such alerts commonly supply grist for the mill of those who wish to paint with a broad brush and cite them as evidence of an ongoing, persistent, and inevitable threat posed by Middle Easterners or Muslims generally.

Other concrete actions undertaken by the administration during the last two months –the aforementioned revision to the CVE program so that it exclusively targets Muslims, or the declared government campaign against ‘honor killings’ – have similarly been directed towards the unambiguous goal of placing the spotlight on the purported threat Muslims pose to American safety and values while deemphasizing other, more tangible and realistic, threats.27 The easily anticipated effect is that white perpetrators of crimes against Muslims and other people of color will be emboldened while the media, already reluctant to classify white violence as terror, looks the other way – as in the recent case of the federal trial of Robert Doggart, a Christian minister apprehended before he could carry out a terror attack against a Muslim community in New York.28

If nothing else, this incessant insistence on vigilance and resistance against Muslims prepares the way for future crisis to be cynically exploited. When the next inevitable conflict, confrontation, or terrorist action occurs, the administration will find its exhortations about drastic measures that must be taken to combat the existential threat posed by radical terrorists falling on well-tilled soil. As one scholar of fascism in Europe has noted, the next shooting or bombing blamed on radical Islam will likely provide the Trump administration with its ‘Reichstag moment’ – an opportunity to consolidate power and undermine, if not wholly remove, institutional and popular opposition using national security concerns as a pretext. Such action will likely seem more legitimate to the public because of the persistent awareness of jeopardy created by constant securitization and surveillance.29

Sore Winners, or, Fear and Xenophobic Loathing in America

One might object that right-wing radicals are not ‘religiously’ motivated like Muslim terrorists; that is, it is only jihadists who cite religious sources as sanction for their views and deeds, whereas white nationalists and others who commit hate crimes do not. Religion is thus made to seem the problem when we speak of Muslim perpetrators of violence and oppression, whereas Christianity is demonstrably not the problem when we look at their Christian counterparts in Europe and America.

As has been noted by many observers, this argument is – so to speak – a whitewashing. Whether anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim, right-wing radicals commonly couch their views in language and concepts associated with Christian identity and grounded in notions of Christian cultural superiority, even if religious sources of authority or classical doctrines are not invoked. The common appeal to a “civilizational” threat simply nudges the criterion of identity out of the explicitly religious realm, but the common inability of partisans of right-wing, pro-white chauvinist views to articulate any justification for their racism that is not, in the end, at least partially configured along lines of cultural heritage and religious identity is telling.30 This is to say nothing of ongoing evangelical lobbying and agitation against Muslims, where chauvinism of a specifically and explicitly religious sort overtly comes into play.31

Right-wing agitators against Muslims often present themselves as champions of traditional American values such as democracy, freedom of religion, and constitutionalism, and sound the alarm against ‘radical Islam’ in the name of secularism and preserving the separation of church and state. This is often the explicit framework of accusations about ‘creeping shari’ah,’ for example. At the same time, a very large proportion of those who support legal discrimination against Muslims subscribe to a form of cultural or religious Christian triumphalism that readily veers in a theocratic and antidemocratic direction. American Islamophobia has a strong foundation not only in popular nativism, but also in Christian dominionism, the attempt to increase the role of Christianity in American public life through privileging Christian values in the spheres of government and law. Islamophobic activists are often skilled at varying their arguments depending on context and audience, appealing to secularist values at one moment and pivoting to appeal to more explicitly religious values the next. But the claim of a threat to “Judeo-Christian” civilization or identity tends to have traction across the political spectrum, specifically because it is so vague and subject to varying interpretations.32

Few would argue that the historical and contemporary association of Christianity with empire-building, as well as the many ways in which Christian supremacism contributes to real violence against communities at home and abroad, constitutes a refutation of Christian principles as such as expressed by the majority of Christians. To suggest that the actions of a Dylan Roof would justify blaming or marginalizing people who embrace the tenets of Christianity would be absurd. It is self-evident, even banal, to note that the same consideration should apply to Muslims. But even-handed approaches to and representations of Islam continue to be frustratingly elusive in the current American political environment, in which calls for the closing of the borders to Muslims, impositions of oaths of loyalty, and “shari’ah bans” are now considered mainstream and acceptable propositions to the American right wing, so common that they barely warrant commentary by the mainstream media. Islam continues to be pathologized and Muslims subjected to racialized strategies of discrimination while Christians, particularly white Christians, continue to enjoy the unparalleled privilege of having their faith be beyond reproach regardless of any crimes perpetrated by Christian bad actors – even those who explicitly cite their Christian identity as a motive for violence.

The racism and xenophobia openly embraced by Trump and his partisans and proxies is certainly more than just rhetorical: the rush to implement new immigration restrictions against Muslims indicates a clear intention to translate talk into action. But it would be a mistake not to recognize that talk is action – that the open articulation and promulgation of certain types of discourse produces specific effects.

Thus, we must acknowledge that real injury has been done to both American citizens and immigrants who have been singled out, humiliated, and intimidated by the administration’s embrace of Islamophobic ideas and themes – just as real harm has occurred to Latinx communities not only through increasingly aggressive policing by ICE and surveillance at the borders, but also through the fostering of a climate of suspicion in which the legitimacy of Latinx Americans as claimants to American identity is now called into question. Political and ideological advantage accrues to the administration among its base for indulging in Islamophobia, just as it does for its anti-immigrant stance. This is also true for right-wing agitation against LGBTQ citizens, which has mostly occurred at the state level, but for which the administration has signaled its support. It is at least reassuring that the intersectional nature of these causes has been recognized and embraced by the resistance movement that has sprung up in the aftermath of the election and inauguration.

[DABIQ FLOOD]

Dabiq issue 4, dated to Ramaḍān 1435 (June-July 2014). The cover story details the coming “flood” of fitnah or intercommunal strife that will sweep away any Muslims who do not take refuge with ISIS and support their cause.

Similarly, we must recognize that the most obvious and unsettling parallel between the Trump political machine and the ISIS movement is the routinization of extreme, polarizing language that plays upon the tension between doomsday dread and messianic promise and draws stark boundaries between insiders and outsiders, those who belong and those who do not. As many noted in the leadup to the election, the campaign itself was gravely damaging to public discourse in America in terms of coarsening political debate, pushing the boundaries of what it is acceptable to say in public, of how racist a politician may be before committing political suicide, of how much conspiracy theory can be tolerated.

The boundaries continue to be pushed, racist ideas articulated without penalty, and conspiracy tolerated as if it were worthy of serious debate and consideration. It is important to underscore once again the degree to which the campaign foreshadowed these developments in a clear and unambiguous way. Rather than the candidate toning down his views in response to ascending to the presidency, it has been the case that the candidate’s assumption of power has caused the radical propositions of the campaign trail to be rapidly normalized as a part of mainstream political discourse.

In turn, the impact of ISIS’ embrace of radical discourse has yet to be fully understood, though its repercussions will likely be felt for a long time. For decades, takfīr, the practice of Muslims branding other Muslims as infidels and questioning (or annulling) the legitimacy of their profession of Islam, was anathema even among the radical Salafi-Jihadi fringe represented by Al-Qa’idah and its affiliates. Thus, Osama bin Laden expressed grave reservations about the legitimacy of Muslims shedding the blood of other Muslims or denying their Islam altogether. It was Abū Muṣʿab al-Zarqāwī’s fanatical hatred of Shi’ah that led to the schism between Al-Qa’idah and its former proxy in Iraq that eventually evolved into ISIS. ISIS now use takfīr in their propaganda and strategic communications without restraint, and the obvious consequence is the routinization of extreme acts of violence by Muslims against other Muslims in the name of Islam.

Likewise, in democracy, civility is a delicate bulwark against radicalism, especially against political violence. Trump’s “American carnage” speech, the manifesto of the newly triumphant ethnonationalist wing of the Republican Party, demonstrated that the rough xenophobia and nascent fascism of the campaign was not a means but an end in itself. The medium is the message; as some right-wing apologists have gloated, Trump is doing exactly what he was elected to do, with that supposed mandate defined around the Islamophobic and anti-immigrant planks that more mainstream Republican proxies assured us were just red meat the candidate was throwing his most excitable partisans on the campaign trail.

Rather than the candidate tempering his ideas and language upon receiving first the party nomination and then the presidency itself, it is the incipient fascism and xenophobia of the campaign that has now been normalized not only as acceptable political talk, but actually contemplatable as policy. The obvious consequence is that once radical measures have been discussed long enough, they no longer seem so radical; after enough time passes, they may even seem reasonable. Talking about extreme ideas is a necessary – though perhaps not sufficient – precondition to actually undertaking them.

A related point, one that has received increasing attention in recent weeks, is the question of how Trump supporters are characterized and what their motivations for that support are. After Clinton’s defeat in the November election, the media sought to explain the electoral upset by focusing on the Democrats’ lack of outreach to white working-class voters (particularly men), especially in the industrial states that switched from blue to red in this election. As some have noted, this reportage plays an underlying ideological function in shifting the focus from the ideas promoted by the candidate – and presumably embraced, or at least tolerated – by his supporters to the failure of the media and the Democratic Party (or at least the Clinton campaign) to embrace these voters, often implicitly represented as “real” Americans whose important economic concerns were simply not taken seriously.33 This reportage has often had the effect of diminishing the value of supposedly “boutique” causes like social justice, diversity issues, and feminism – denigrated as “political correctness” and “identity politics” – that the Democrats favor but that alienate the white working-class majority who supposedly have more concrete concerns.

However, other observers have pointed out that this approach to the election results is not only misleading (since Clinton actually won the popular vote by a historic margin) but implicitly racist; for example, Americans of color are disproportionately affected by most of the economic and social ills from which white working-class voters suffer.34 Moreover, and more germane to my main point here, this analysis overlooks the obvious fact that cultural politics are real politics and not just a cover for material issues. On a symbolic level, “identity politics” were exactly what as at stake for many Trump voters: not only do economic concerns fail to justify the open embrace of racist ideology, but arguably, asserting and maintaining white dominance (specifically, white male dominance) was exactly the goal many Trump supporters sought to achieve.35

Legacy of Brutality: The Bannon Ouster and its Implications

On April 5, only a week before the first part of this essay was published, a shakeup of the composition of the National Security Council was quietly announced through the medium of a memorandum about the NSC published in the Federal Register. In this memo, Steve Bannon is no longer listed among the members of the Principals Committee of the NSC.36 Within 48 hours, news of this development spread throughout major media outlets, inspiring widespread speculation about the nature of this apparent demotion and the causes behind it. Divergent hypotheses and competing accounts rapidly multiplied in Rashomon-like fashion; true to form, Trump administration statements were ambiguous and did little to clarify things.

The explicit reason for the change in Bannon’s appointment status – which the administration emphasized was not a demotion or dismissal – was that he had originally been appointed with the specific mandate of “de-operationalizing” the NSC; this was necessary as a reversal of Obama-era policy, though what de-operationalization exactly entails was left unexplained.37 Many observers conjectured that Bannon’s main role on the NSC had been to supervise Mike Flynn; with Flynn’s dismissal, Bannon’s work on the NSC was done.38

Other explanations that dig deeper into the internal politics of the administration have been floated as well. For example, two of Bannon’s protégés were implicated as go-betweens in the debacle involving collusion between the White House and Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, that discredited Nunes and the HIC investigation into Trump’s false allegations that Obama wiretapped him during the 2016 campaign.39

The evocative graphic that accompanied Conor Lynch's piece in on March 11, “Does the Trump Administration Want a Holy War against Islam? It’s a Terrifying But Reasonable Guess"; the background photograph captures a suicide bombing carried out by ISIS in Kobani on October 20, 2014.

The evocative graphic that accompanied Conor Lynch’s piece in Salon on March 11, “Does the Trump Administration Want a Holy War against Islam? It’s a Terrifying But Reasonable Guess”; the background photograph captures a suicide bombing carried out by ISIS in Kobani on October 20, 2014.

The narrative that has come to be most widely accepted as plausible is that Bannon’s relocation in the administration hierarchy was in fact a demotion, though different individuals have been given responsibility for this ouster. One scenario is that Bannon was pushed out by H.R. McMaster, Trump’s chief national security adviser; this is an especially plausible hypothesis, given that McMaster has publicly objected to the involvement of political operatives in NSC affairs. McMaster has also openly rejected the anti-Islamic ideology that is the cornerstone of Bannon’s worldview.40 Another plausible explanation, one that has perhaps been most widely accepted, is that Bannon’s demotion was engineered by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and proxy in many of the day-to-day operations of the administration, including foreign policy. That conflict with Kushner was the driving force here seems to be verified by Trump’s public acknowledgment of an ongoing dispute between them.41 That the two would be at loggerheads is unsurprising given their ideological incompatibility: Bannon represents the populist, ethnonationalist aspect of Trump’s platform and base of support, while Kushner is obviously a globalist technocrat of the sort Bannon has loudly railed against in his rabblerousing past. In an ironic twist, unnamed sources have testified to the bitter feud between the men, with Bannon reportedly not shying away from labeling Kushner a technocrat and even a cuck.42 (What Bannon was therefore insinuating about Ivanka Trump, the so-called “First Daughter,” is a question better left unexplored here.)

While the gloating about Bannon’s dismissal by leftist media commentators surely reflects some underlying sense of relief based on the execrable nature of his views and associations, it is noteworthy that the administration has never disavowed those views and associations or attributed the dismissal to the general outcry over them. That is, while the increasing exposure of Bannon’s ideology to public view (and, one hopes, revilement and ridicule) is certainly a net positive, it is striking that this was not the primary cause for Bannon’s reduction in status. Further, while the failure of the policies of which he was almost certainly the main architect likely diminishes his stature in Trump’s eyes, his removal cannot be linked to any significant change of heart about important issues by Trump or anyone else in his administration. It is more likely the case that Trump simply wished to distance himself from a perceived loser or rival to his son-in-law.

There is actually very little indeed here for liberals to gloat over, for the damage may have already been done. Bannon’s blasé attitude about his removal from the NSC, his cryptic statement about “de-operationalizing” the NSC and his seeming resignation to his change of status – as if it only made sense because he’d already accomplished what he’d set out to do – is, perhaps, a chilling foreshadowing of things to come.

While some might argue that the resistance to the Muslim bans as his signature initiatives is evidence of the failure of his agenda, it is quite likely that Bannon may enjoy a renewed prominence in the administration if and when terrorism once again becomes a pressing public issue. Moreover, it is clear that the anti-immigrant agenda that is one of Bannon’s signature causes is already well enshrined as an administration priority, especially judging by Jeff Sessions’ aggressive moves forward on this front.43

Even more than this, however, Bannon’s cancerous introduction of racist ideology into the inner sanctum of the White House has likely already had a profound, if not transformative, effect. With Islamophobia now a regular feature of mainstream political discourse – with a clear emboldening effect that translates into real violence by partisans – there is no knowing what formerly unthinkable political possibilities, what crimes against decency, may seriously be countenanced by the administration in the future. An institutional commitment to the idea that Muslims are dangerous is inherently injurious, and reshapes our political discourse every time derogatory views are expressed or debated.44 Similarly, although the ISIS apocalypse has probably been permanently deferred, the mindset they sought to cultivate is contagious, with the jihadist fringe now fatally poisoned with the idea that a war without limits against other Muslims is totally legitimate. Cultures of extremism are now festering on either side of the divide, with the Muslim majority – especially American Muslims – caught in the middle.

 

MICHAEL PREGILL is Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University and coordinator of the Mizan digital scholarship initiative.

 

  1. “National Security Council Shouldn’t Be Politicized, Ret. Adm. Mullen Says,” NPR, February 22, 2017. See also David J. Rothkopf, “The Danger of Steve Bannon on the National Security Council,” Washington Post, January 29, 2017.
  2. See, e.g.: Jonathan Martin, Jim Rutenberg and Maggie Haberman, “Donald Trump Appoints Media Firebrand to Run Campaign,” New York Times, August 17, 2016; Jessica Roy, “What Is the Alt-Right? A Refresher Course on Steve Bannon’s Fringe Brand of Conservatism,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2016; David A. Fahrenthold and Frances Stead Sellers, “How Bannon Flattered and Coaxed Trump on Policies Key to the Alt-Right,” Washington Post, November 15, 2016.
  3. Scott Shane, Matthew Rosenberg, and Eric Lipton, “Trump Pushes Dark View of Islam to Center of U.S. Policy-Making,” New York Times, February 1, 2017; Scott Shane, “Stephen Bannon in 2014: We Are at War with Radical Islam,” New York Times, February 1, 2017; Paul Blumenthal, “Steve Bannon Believes the Apocalypse Is Coming and War Is Inevitable,” Huffington Post, February 8, 2017; Conor Lynch, “Does the Trump Administration Want a Holy War against Islam? It’s a Terrifying But Reasonable Guess,” Salon.com, March 11, 2017. Along with Bannon, noted Islamophobe and fascist sympathizer Sebastian Gorka has been profiled as one of the main players among the right-wing security hawks behind the shift in policy; see Greg Jaffe, “For a Trump Adviser, an Odyssey from the Fringes of Washington to the Center of Power,” Washington Post, February 20, 2017.
  4. “Editorial: What Bannon Shares with ISIL Leader: Our View,” USA Today, February 5, 2017.
  5. “Tucker Grills USA Today Editor over Op-Ed Comparing Steve Bannon to ISIS Leader,” Fox News Insider, February 8, 2017; Zack Beauchamp, “Fox News Host: At Least Steve Bannon Isn’t ISIS,” Vox.com, February 9, 2017.
  6. See Abhijnan Rej, “The Strategist: How Abu Mus’ab al-Suri Inspired ISIS,” ORF Occasional Paper 96, August 2016.
  7. “Gray Champions” is the title of Chapter 5 of William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny (New York: Random House, 1997). The appellation is taken from the eponymous story by Nathaniel Hawthorne describing the reappearance of a legendary “priest-warrior” from the original generation of Puritan settlers of New England at the time of the American Revolution. Strauss and Howe cast this figure as a symbolic archetype that manifests at different times in order to play a key role in major transformative events in American history; his previous avatars have included John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The implication is that after decades of spiritual decadence and economic decline, a new avatar of the Gray Warrior is due to appear to lead America through its greatest crisis yet.
  8. The most explicit discussions of Trump as messiah figure have occurred in the evangelical context, in which some have justified rallying behind a candidate so clearly lacking in Christian credentials by labeling him a contemporary Cyrus – the Persian emperor called God’s messiah in Isaiah 45:1, which portrays the king as acting as God’s chosen instrument in repatriating the Jews to the Promised Land after the Babylonian Exile. Some Israeli figures have likewise been able to reconcile the paradox of backing a leader who openly consorts with white supremacists and anti-Semites by casting Trump in the Cyrus mold, particularly appropriate given the desire by some for Trump to back (or at least tolerate) the expansion of illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories, a kind of modern equivalent to Cyrus’ repatriation program in their eyes. See Chris Mitchell, “Chaos Candidate: Is Trump a Modern-Day King Cyrus?”, CBN.com, November 4, 2016; Yardena Schwartz, “In Donald Trump, Israeli Settlers See a Message from God,” HuffingtonPost.com, March 29, 2017.
  9. Emily Bazelon, “Department of Justification,” The New York Times Magazine, February 28, 2017. Sessions has openly indulged in extreme, racist language in drumming up support for administration anti-immigration policies, predictably portraying these efforts as an existential struggle against evil: Gabe Ortiz, “‘We Take Our Stand Against This Filth’: Sessions Speech Goes Full-On White Nationalist,” DailyKos.com, April 11, 2017.
  10. Vicky Ward, “The Blow-It-All-Up Billionaires,” HuffingtonPost.com, March 17, 2017.
  11. Of course, chaos and cataclysm are not absolute prerequisites for enabling the kind of right-wing anarchist disruptions of the status quo that Bannon and his ilk seek to promote through influencing Trump. As Steven Harper’s recent multi-part essay demonstrates, virtually all of the key cabinet posts of the new administration appear to have been filled by individuals whose main agenda is to demolish the agencies and regulatory regimes they now supervise, or at least to radically transform their institutional priorities. Steven Harper, “100 Days of Deconstruction: Part 1,” BillMoyers.com, April 17, 2017; “100 Days of Deconstruction: Part 2,” BillMoyers.com, April 19, 2017; “100 Days of Deconstruction: Part 3,” BillMoyers.com, April 21, 2017.
  12. Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, “Nearly Half of Americans Worried That They or Their Family Will Be a Victim of Terrorism,” PRRI.org, December 10, 2015; Alex Nowrasteh, “Americans’ Fear of Foreign Terrorists Is Overinflated,” Time, September 13, 2016, citing his policy report “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 798, September 13, 2016.
  13. The “Extinction of the Grayzone” was the cover story of ISIS’ propaganda magazine Dabiq in January-February 2015, which celebrated the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris earlier that year and marked for death those Muslims who had made public apologies for the attacks and pledged their solidarity with the people of France.
  14. Interview on Breitbart News Daily, November 2, 2015, as reported in Fahrenthold and Sellers, “How Bannon Flattered and Coaxed Trump.” Many observers noted that Bannon’s longstanding negative views of legal immigrants provided an obvious and salient context to the administration’s rush to issue the executive orders imposing the ill-considered and impractical travel bans; see, e.g., Andrew Prokop, “Steve Bannon’s Longtime Suspicion of Successful Immigrants Is the Key to This Weekend’s Chaos,” Vox.com, January 29, 2017.
  15. Peter Beinart, “America’s Most Prominent Anti-Muslim Activist Is Welcome at the White House,” The Atlantic, March 21, 2017. Gabriel is the founder and head of ACT for America, a “non-partisan, grassroots national security organization” that regularly lobbies politicians at the local, state, and federal levels to undertake surveillance of and discriminatory legislation against Muslims. For a number of years, Bannon has openly embraced anti-Islam activists such as Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney and promoted their cause on Breitbart. With Bannon’s proximity to Trump, the Islamophobia industry completes its movement from the fringes of American politics to center stage and is granted a newfound legitimacy along with, e.g., the white nationalist factions now legitimized as the “alt-right.”
  16. Rita Katz, “ISIS Hunter: Time to Wake Up to the White Nationalist Terror Threat,” TheDailyBeast.com, March 9, 2017. 2016 was a banner year for right-wing hate groups of every stripe, according to the annual census of the Southern Poverty Law Center; the number of anti-Muslim hate groups alone tripled in 2016, accompanied by a sharp rise in hate crimes against Muslim individuals and communities: “Hate Groups Increase for Second Consecutive Year as Trump Electrifies Radical Right,” Southern Poverty Law Center, February 15, 2017. White supremacist groups have even reportedly established a significant presence in law enforcement agencies around the country: Alice Spieri, “The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement,” TheIntercept.com, January 31, 2017.
  17. Julia Edwards Ainsley, Dustin Volz, and Kristina Cook, “Trump to Focus Counter-Extremism Program Solely on Islam,” Reuters.com, February 2, 2017. The Obama-era “Countering Violent Extremism” initiative, an attempt to empower communities to police extremism at the local level, was widely criticized as unfairly singling out Muslims as the main source of terrorist violence in America when statistics demonstrate otherwise.
  18. The contrast between two reports by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University is striking. A 2014 survey of nearly 400 American law enforcement agencies by David Schanzer and Charles Kurzman demonstrated that these agencies deemed anti-government extremists a much greater threat than radicalized Muslims (“Law Enforcement Assessment of Terrorist Threat,” Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, June 25, 2015). Meanwhile, a more recent report established that violent extremism among Muslim-Americans sharply declined in 2016 – despite the high-profile case of the Orlando shooting – and that attacks by Muslims constituted less than 1% of murders committed in the United States during that year (“Muslim-American Involvement with Violent Extremism,” Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, January 26, 2017).
  19. Eric Boehlert, “Exciting the Right Wing, Trump Downplays Threat of Right-Wing Terror,” MediaMatters.org, February 3, 2017.
  20. In a personal communication to me, Juan Cole notes that the underlying commonality between ISIS and Bannon in this regard may be due to a mutual dependence on Leninism, specifically a sympathy for the strategy of encouraging polarization through fomenting violence. On this aspect of ideology as it may help to explain the Paris Charlie Hebdo attack, see his “Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda Attacked Satirists in Paris,” Informed Comment, January 7, 2015.
  21. Paul Blumenthal and JM Rieger, “This Stunningly Racist French Novel Is How Steve Bannon Explains the World,” HuffingtonPost.com, March 6, 2017; Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Bannon, Adviser Behind Travel Ban, Is Fan of Novel About Feces-Eating, Dark-Skinned Immigrants Destroying White Society,” Slate.com, March 6, 2017. In the aftermath of the controversy over his racist tweet about “other people’s babies,” Steve King likewise expressed his admiration for the novel: Osita Nwanevu, “GOP Congressman Steve King Is Now Endorsing Explicitly Racist Books, Because He’s Steve King,” Slate.com, March 14, 2017. One of Bannon’s explicit references to the novel as an explanation of contemporary events occurred in the context of an interview with then-senator Jeff Sessions in 2015, during which Sessions praised the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act that severely limited or totally blocked immigration of Italians, Jews, Asians, and Africans into the United States.
  22. Jonathan Swan, “The One Book to Understand Steve Bannon,” Axios.com, March 7, 2017; the piece was quickly picked up and recirculated by Breitbart. See also Marc Tracy, “Steve Bannon’s Book Club,” New York Times, February 4, 2017: appearing before most of the other pieces about Bannon’s radical ideology, Tracy’s article is an ironic discussion of an encounter with Bannon in which the latter spoke admiringly of David Halberstam’s 1972 book The Best and the Brightest, about the errors that drew the Kennedy administration to involve America in the Vietnam conflict. Tracy notes Bannon’s obvious interest in the work as a classic example of the failure of leadership by the traditional northeastern political elite, but observes that the larger point – the need for administrations to rely on sound judgment and expertise over ideology – seems to have been lost on him completely. A similarly sanitized presentation of Bannon’s views on immigration, the global economy, elite versus popular politics in America and Europe, and related matters appears in his long presentation to a conference held at the Vatican in 2014: for a transcript, see J. Lester Feder, “This is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World,” Buzzfeed.com, November 15, 2016.
  23. Douglas Kennedy, “The Making of Steve Bannon, from Young Navy Man to White House Power Player,” FoxNews.com, March 30, 2017.
  24. As one commentator observed, it is quite possible that the confusion caused in administrative, legal, and media circles by the hasty rollout of the first travel ban signals that it was a deliberate provocation orchestrated by Bannon, essentially trolling liberals, the Democratic opposition, the ACLU, and Muslims affected by the restrictions in order to curry favor with Trump’s base: Daniel W. Drezner, “Two Theories About Why Steve Bannon Midwifed Such a Bad Executive Order,” Washington Post, January 29, 2017.
  25. As activist and legal scholar Khaled Beydoun has remarked regarding the revised travel ban of March 2017: “government law and policy… endorses bigoted views and authorises the violence unleashed on Muslims and individuals perceived as Muslims. This dialectic, whereby the state criminalises Muslim identity or brands it suspicious by law, effectively instructs its citizens to partake in the national project of identifying and punishing ‘the terrorist outsider’” (Khaled Beydoun, “How Muslim Ban Incites Vigilante Islamophobic Violence,” AlJazeera.com, March 7, 2017).
  26. Like the travel bans, the specifics of the tech ban makes it clear that it is a symbolic gesture rather than having much substantive value in increasing security: Pamela Engel, “Tech and Terrorism Experts Question Trump’s Airline Electronics Ban: It ‘Makes Absolutely No Sense’,” Business Insider, March 21, 2017. Some reportage has suggested that there may have been a credible threat behind the restrictions, namely reports of an Al-Qaʾidah affiliate perfecting techniques of smuggling explosives concealed in laptops onto planes (Paul Cruickshank, “What Prompted the US and UK Electronics Bans?”, CNN, March 22, 2017).
  27. The executive order issued in early March that contained the revised travel ban included an explicit statement that the federal government would begin compiling and publicizing information about “acts of gender-based violence against women, including so-called ‘honor killings,’ in the United States [committed] by foreign nationals.” See Nahal Toosi, “‘Honor Killings’ Highlighted under Trump’s New Travel Ban,” Politico.com, March 6, 2017. 
  28. Dean Obeidallah, “The Terror Trial We’re Really Ignoring,” TheDailyBeast.com, February 7, 2017. Doggart was found guilty of “solicitation to commit a civil rights violation, solicitation to commit arson of a building, and making a threat in interstate commerce” (“Tennessee Man Convicted of Planning to Attack New York Mosque,” The Guardian, February 16, 2017); terrorism-related charges were not brought because current federal statutes define terrorism as actions planned or committed by foreign extremists. Doggart’s sentencing is scheduled for May 31.
  29. Timothy Snyder, “The Reichstag Warning,” New York Review of Books, February 26, 2017.
  30. While scholars of religion have interrogated the complexity of religious motivations and justifications for violence – from which no tradition is exempt – for decades, only recently has the problem of bias in associating Islam in particular with violence been discussed in the mainstream media. The Christian double standard – claiming Christians who commit violence are not acting in a Christian fashion while Muslims who do so epitomize Islam – is still commonplace. See Brandon Withrow, “Is There a Christian Double Standard on Religious Violence?”, TheDailyBeast.com, March 4, 2017, discussing the findings of a survey recently conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute: see Betsy Cooper and Daniel Cox, “Americans’ Double Standard on Religious Violence,” PRRI.org, February 16, 2017.
  31. Mainstream media coverage of the Trump phenomenon, especially his upset victory over Clinton in 2016, has focused largely on class issues, often to the detriment of cultural and religious issues; that is, basic economics have been overemphasized to the detriment of reflection upon value systems and ideology. Trump’s questionable personal rectitude and lack of credibility as a Christian candidate has meant that his engagement with evangelicals and other committed right-leaning Christian constituencies has been at most an occasional flirtation, with proxies such as Mike Pence doing the heavy lifting of securing their vote and consistent support. Once again, as in the cases of the purported terrorist and immigrant threats, religious concerns for Trump supporters are more an issue of perception than reality: among white evangelicals, a demographic that voted overwhelmingly in favor of Trump, a majority (57%) believe that Christians are subject to religious discrimination in the U.S., while only a minority of white evangelicals (44%) believe that Muslims are victims of discrimination. See Emma Green, “White Evangelicals Believe They Face More Discrimination Than Muslims,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2017, citing a PRRI survey on religious liberty issues.
  32. The complex relationship between religious, ethnic/racial, political, and cultural identity is in full view here, as it is when one interrogates the terms through which Islamophobic discourse seeks to vindicate itself within the frame of secularist politics. Anti-Muslim animosity is often justified as not racially motivated, because it singles out people who are distinguished by their voluntary association with a community. At the same time, proponents hold, it is not religious discrimination (and thus unconstitutional) either, because what they object to is Islam (or ‘radical’ Islam, poorly differentiated by those who use the term from other types) as a political philosophy or ideology rather than as a private expression of faith and devotion. These distinctions are certainly legible, and thus superficially reasonable, within the boundaries of conventional American strategies for navigating questions of religious freedom and civil liberty. Yet they lose plausibility when one considers the fact that it is still primarily people of color who are singled out for suspicion and scrutiny, by a large majority. Moreover, it is even less plausible to claim that the problem is the specifically political aspects of ‘radical’ Islam when it is not only Muslims’ views about jihad or shari’ah in public life but even such intimate practices as veiling that are commonly at issue.
  33. Reportage of this sort has been so widespread that it has become a genre of its own and even inspired satire: Alexandra Petri, “Every Story I Have Read about Trump Supporters in the Past Week,” Washington Post, April 19. 2017. Frank Rich points out the problematic presuppositions of much of this liberal ethnography of the “white working class” in “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly,” New York, March 19, 2017. Rich’s proposal that the Democrats largely write off the deep red states as irredeemably backwards or racist has itself has inspired a significant backlash. For example, Rich overlooks critical support for Trump among enclaves of more affluent white voters in communities in such places as Staten Island or Atlanta; he also overlooks the substantial efforts at democratic resistance made by women and people of color seeking to mobilize in the south, Appalachia, and the Rust Belt.
  34. Cf., e.g., Christina Cauterucci, “When People Talk About ‘Working-Class’ Voters, They Only Mean White, U.S.-Born Men,” Slate.com, April 6, 2017.
  35. Mehdi Hasan, “Top Democrats Are Wrong: Trump Supporters Were More Motivated by Racism Than Economic Issues,” TheIntercept.com, April 6, 2017. Many observers did not fail to grasp the real nature of the Trump campaign and its support among white voters sympathetic to ethnonationalist messaging when it was underway: cf., e.g., Lincoln Blades, “Call the Alt-Right Movement What it Is: Racist as Hell,” Rolling Stone, August 26, 2016.
  36. Vivian Salama, “Trump Removes Steve Bannon from National Security Council,” Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2017.
  37. “Susan Rice operationalized the N.S.C. during the last administration. I was put on the N.S.C. with General Flynn to ensure that it was de-operationalized. General McMaster has returned the N.S.C. to its proper function,” quoted in Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, and Glenn Thrush, “Trump Removes Stephen Bannon from National Security Council Post,” New York Times, April 5, 2017.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Matthew Rosenberg, Maggie Haberman, and Adam Goldman, “2 White House Officials Helped Give Nunes Intelligence Reports,” New York Times, March 30, 2017.
  40. Robert Costa, Abby Phillip, and Karen DeYoung, “Bannon Removed from Security Council as McMaster Asserts Control,” Washington Post, April 5, 2017; Bryan Bender, “Bannon’s Departure Solidifies McMaster’s Control over the NSC,” Politico.com, April 5, 2017. McMaster himself has sought to depoliticize the shakeup: Rebecca Savransky, “McMaster Downplays Removal of Bannon from Role on NSC,” TheHill.com, April 9, 2017.
  41. Christina Wilkie, “Jared Kushner Helped Push Steve Bannon Out of the NSC,” HuffingtonPost.com, April 6, 2017; Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Fires Warning Shot in Battle between Bannon and Kushner,” New York Times, April 7, 2017.
  42. Asawin Suebsaeng, “Steve Bannon Calls Jared Kushner a ‘Cuck’ and ‘Globalist’ behind His Back,” TheDailyBeast.com, April 6, 2017. Unsurprisingly, close professional and personal ties to Trump have not spared Kushner from being targeted by the white nationalist cadres that congregate virtually around Bannon and Breitbart: Arthur Delaney, “Jared Kushner Increasingly Targeted by Anti-Semites, Anti-Defamation League Says,” HuffingtonPost.com, April 10, 2017. Nor, it seems, is Trump immune to challenges from his “Bannonite” supporters, who have strenuously objected to various aspects of Trump’s policy, especially his willingness to increase American involvement in the Syrian conflict: Rachel Roberts, “Trump Faces ‘Open Warfare’ with Breitbart if Bannon is Fired, Says Former Executive of the Far-Right Website,” The Independent, April 8, 2017; Alex Isenstadt and Madeline Conway, “Trump’s Base Turns on Him,” Politico.com, April 13, 2017; Ryan Lizza, “Steve Bannon’s Nationalist Team Prepares for the Long Game,” New Yorker, April 14, 2017.
  43. Ezekiel Kweku, “Steve Bannon Isn’t a Genius,” New York Times, April 6, 2017; Helen Digby Parton, “Is Bannon Doomed? It Hardly Matters – Jeff Sessions is Much Better at White Nationalism Anyway,” Salon.com, April 13, 2017. As Parton notes, while Bannon’s role on the NSC and direct proximity to Trump gave him greater visibility, it is the rapid changes Sessions is pushing through at the Justice Department – massive increases in felony prosecutions for immigration-related offenses while canceling programs intended to mitigate profiling and other questionable law enforcement practices targeting African-Americans in particular – that will have the most immediate and tangible effects in enacting the white nationalist agenda through federal policy. Likewise, extreme anti-immigrant activists continue to find roles in federal-level agencies, and presumably will continue to do so under the Trump administration: Nicholas Kulish, “With Ally in Oval Office, Immigration Hard-Liners Ascend to Power,” New York Times, April 24, 2017. 
  44. In a bizarre recent piece in Bloomberg News, journalist Caroline Winter interviewed cartoonist and blogger Scott Adams, a noted Trump partisan, who, like many among his cadres active in social media, is convinced that Trump is a genius manipulator versed in the art of suggestion and perhaps even hypnosis. Adams suggests that Trump covertly reshaped the media landscape and even the contours of public discourse during the campaign to make his rise to power almost inevitable (“How Scott Adams Got Hypnotized by Trump,” Bloomberg News, March 22, 2017). While we might be skeptical about Adams’ contentions about Trump’s skills at mass hypnosis or the inevitability of his success, this hyperbole conceals a more profound point, which is that due to his near-monopolization of the media, every proposal, contention, and paranoid allegation Trump makes effectively enters public discourse as potentially meriting serious consideration and discussion no matter how absurd. This, more than anything else, is the effect he has managed to have on our politics, which makes his frequent flirtation with xenophobic and racist ideas all the more dangerous.

Our Apocalypse Problem from Baghdadi to Bannon (Part 2)

Between Radical Jihad and the Radical Right

Our Apocalypse Problem from Baghdadi to Bannon (Part 2)

Between Radical Jihad and the Radical Right