Monday, November 21, 2016

Alt-Right Frankness Isn't Refreshing

He's become a lightning rod of controversy in an already controversial campaign.

Yet the New York Times has yet to interview him.

Neither has the Washington Post, or CNN, or any of America's legacy news networks.

Seems the only media outlet interested in interviewing Steve Bannon has been that longtime bastion of journalistic integrity, the Hollywood Reporter.

Chalk up another big "fail" for the mainstream media.

Bannon, as you know by now, is a key advisor to president-elect Donald Trump, and a strategist behind the real estate developer's surprise presidential victory earlier this month.  Bannon has also been widely reported to be an ethnocentric bigot whose idea of making America great again involves antiquated notions of ruthless isolationism and hateful white supremacy.

Which, apparently, makes him more of an entertainment icon than an alarmingly powerful person who is helping to chart the next four years of America's presidency.  Why else the contentment of our mainstream media in letting such a stalwart of deep news as the Hollywood Reporter pick the inner crevices of Bannon's persona?

Granted, Bannon does fit the Hollywood Reporter's namesake beat.  His personal wealth has come not from politics, or even his long-ago stint at Goldman Sachs.  No, Bannon scored a big and surprising motherlode when he managed to wangle for himself some handsome royalties from the Seinfeld sitcom franchise, a television series he had no hand in creating or producing.  Bannon was merely the head of a company that advised another company to hold onto the show's residuals as an investment.

As if recognizing the ability of a hit show like Seinfeld to generate hefty profits well into syndication requires the mind of a business genius!

For most Trump supporters, who say they believe the "establishment" deprives them of an honest pay for an honest day's work, Bannon's ability to create wealth for himself on the basis of having nothing whatsoever to do with comedian Jerry Seinfeld's celebrated work is at least ironic, if not duplicitous.  But much of Trump's peculiar triumph has been hard to justify.

Some of Trump's key endorsers have tried to minimize the campaign's racially-tainted bluster by claiming it actually is designed to mock America's political establishment.  Milo Yiannopoulos, the gay flash-in-the-plan opportunist who has managed to ride Trump's coattails to erstwhile alt-right prominence, himself characterizes Trump's rise and the alt-right's apparent bigotry as mere petulance.  It's all mostly a tongue-in-cheek repudiation of the excesses of political correctness, according to Yiannopoulos.  It's conservative only in that it isn't gratuitously tolerant.  Cheeky and irreverent, and willing to suffer the optics of political estrangement as long as Yiannopoulos, Trump, and their brethren can mock the perpetuation of facades of socially fashionable respectability (their opinion of what political correctness is).

Bannon repeated that strategy of mocking the political status-quo in his Hollywood Reporter interview, saying the "darkness" with which he's portrayed in the mainstream media isn't a bad thing.  In fact, he relishes his ability to provide shock value, such as cheerfully comparing himself and Dick Cheney to, um, Satan.

But is Bannon himself a racist, like many claim?

"I'm not a white supremacist," Bannon protests to the Hollywood Reporter.  "I'm an economic nationalist."

In other words, according to Bannon, the rise of Trump is all about bringing jobs back to the United States, and to workers of any ethnicity and skin color who are legally entitled to those jobs.  To him, the fact that Trump scored as well as he did among black and Hispanic voters speaks to his campaign's relevance in our global economy.  Bannon complains about how American companies have created a vast middle class across Asia, as jobs were, in his view, pulled out from underneath the feet of American workers and shifted for pennies on the dollar to unworthy Chinese, Bangladeshis, Thais, Vietnamese, and Indians.

So maybe Bannon isn't racist against non-whites in America.  But to him Americans of any skin color are more important than anybody else on our planet simply because they're Americans.

"The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia," Bannon complains.  "The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over."

It's a version the same "American exceptionalism" conservatives have been preaching for years.  Only with Bannon and Trump, nothing else matters except our relatively small patches of global real estate, from Alaska to Hawaii to the mainland.  No wonder the alt-right is so infatuated by a real estate developer.

So all this talk about building a wall across America's border with Mexico is merely boisterous hyperbole?  It's just something audacious to spark some dialog on the issue of illegal immigration?  Because too much political correctness has stalled progress on the subject?  Trump is fully aware that Mexico has been as much of a job drain on the United States as Asia has, and part of his campaign rhetoric was Ford Motor Company's relocation of production south of the border.

If you're cool with ignoring the overt ethnocentrism of Trump's wall talk, then you're probably chuckling over Bannon's description of such hubris as snide sarcasm.  Sarcasm not against Mexicans specifically, but against the globalists who view national boundaries as archaic notions of sovereignty.  Too bad if some people take such blather seriously, but Trump and his minions know he's talking more with symbolism than certainty about building a physical, three-dimensional wall.

So it's poetic license.  Kinda.  It's snarky play-with-the-media's-sanctimonious-editorializing.  It's yank-as-many-chains-as-you-can.  Shucks, it's free publicity.  Besides, you're not saying anything hundreds of thousands - in fact, millions - of voters aren't already thinking, and saying, and grumbling about.

After all, elections aren't about issues.  They're about votes.  Elections are about attraction, affinity, and impressions.  And even though America is rapidly becoming urbanized, how many urban residents are legal and eligible to vote?  Meanwhile, how many Americans in suburbia, and out in the rural reaches of fly-over country, are sick and tired of the way coastal urban elites have been dictating America's pseudo-moralistic protocols?  Aren't there just enough fly-over folks to sway an election away from somebody like Hillary Clinton?

Sure enough, there are.  Trump didn't need to win 80%, or 60%, or even 52% of anything.  He just needed to get more Electoral College votes than Hillary.  Even if was two.  Even if he forced recount after recount, threatening to unleash his furious voters against The System if there was any doubt as to the legitimacy of his loss.  Or his win.

Hey, it's no secret:  People are angry.  Blacks and legal Hispanics, plus whites.  Old folks and a surprising number of young people.  Especially union workers in the Rust Belt.  Cubans in Florida, where President Barak Obama's normalization of relations with Cuba has been a particularly sore spot. 

Then there was the bathroom hysteria, provoked mostly by Democrats.  We really don't know what Trump thinks about gay marriage and trans rights, because he hasn't said much of anything on those subjects.  It's been perplexing to see so many gays and trans activists marching against Trump ever since the election, since there's hardly any proof that Trump would do anything to "oppose" their demographics.  The same with African-Americans.  It's mostly been distorted rhetoric from the mainstream media that has enraged younger blacks, while older blacks, desperately hanging on to their rapidly-disappearing blue collar jobs, are heaving a sigh of relief with Trump's win.

The main demographic groups who should be particularly upset about Trump's win should be women, illegal immigrants, and Muslims.  And, frankly, evangelical Christians, and anybody whose faith is important to them, since much of Trump's vitriol against Muslims centers not on whatever citizenship they may hold in Middle Eastern countries, but on their religion.  The less one holds to the notion of religious freedom, the more willing one is to endorse the idea that banning Muslims is a good idea.  Why?  Because that's a defilement of our Constitutional right for freedom of religion, but if religion isn't a key component of your life, it's more easily expendable.

Trump says he has religion, but it's not a faith in God.  It's a faith in himself.  It's a faith in his ability to schmooze, and to curry favor with constituencies from whom he wants something.  But he's not at peace with his deity - himself.  He's never actually found his niche - at least, socially.  He's a workaholic, but one reason may involve the fact that Manhattan society has really only begrudged him his space in their orbit simply because he's wealthy.  A historical and intellectual pedigree earns you gravitas in Boston and Philadelphia.  A political pedigree earns you gravitas in Washington.  And New York City is all about money.  Which Trump - regardless of how many billions he may be worth - at least can splash about quite convincingly.  But even in New York City, money alone can't get you on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or any of the other prestigious outposts on the island's staid charity circuit.

Trump has never bothered to cultivate a cultured persona.  He's always been garish and brash.  Never subtle, never genteel.  He's beauty pageants and gambling halls.  Glassy, mirrored skyscrapers, gold-colored lettering, cheesy marble veneers.  And his money?  It's not easy making friends when you sign contracts only to later file lawsuits seeking to overturn them.  He commissions contractors and then ignores their invoices.  He gloats, preens, pouts, and exaggerates.  Yet he's never been able to establish his own personal legitimacy beyond his profession.  And let's face it - being a developer of real estate isn't exactly the most righteous of professions, especially in contentious cities like New York, Chicago, and Dubai.

Trump's style is attractive to some, humorous to most, and offense to some more.  But if the alt-right is all about ridiculing convention, and Trump is desperate for self-legitimacy, the two may have discovered a common ambition:  proving that the common person deserves their day in the sun.

And apparently, that means no more Mr. Nice Guy.  No more public pretense of niceness and decorum.  After all, we've heard the anecdotes of what politicians on both sides of the aisle privately think of their electorate.  We know that political correctness is 90% posturing and 10% sincerity.  Besides, whether you're a politician or an accountant, lots of people are tired of refraining from cursing in public.  Playing to favored constituencies seems so inauthentic.  Being afraid to speak one's mind is a sign of weakness.  Leaders don't worry about offending somebody.  Diplomacy be damned; courtesy is for wimps.  Just let it all hang out.  That's what integrity is.

Fortunately for Trump, he's found the people who've been more than happy to oblige his quest for legitimacy at any cost.  The alt-right says they can have it both ways:  be brutally honest with your anti-social opinions, and brush it off as impatience with political correctness.  It's easier to blame foreigners for America's lack of decent-paying jobs, our declining standard of living, and our fears of terrorism.  Illegals can't vote (at least, not yet), so let's make them a scapegoat.  Asians we'll never meet are convenient targets, too.  And Muslims?  They're out to conquer the world.

And again, fortunately for Trump, globalism has wreaked havoc on America's middle class, at least in terms of how many good-paying low-level jobs we have.  Illegal immigration, too, has become a sprawling morass of inequity and strife that our government can't even pretend to manage.  And yes, even though we have sporadic examples of non-Muslim-involved terrorism on our shores, the majority of major terrorism situations across our planet do involve Muslim extremists.

Package it all up the way Trump has done, and it's easy to put Democrats in a box marked "damaged goods."  Especially when Hillary has the audacity to put Trump's supporters in a basked marked "deplorables."

Nevertheless, at least for evangelical Christ-followers, this Trump math doesn't add. up.  His alt-right cheerleaders love his freewheeling style, and the media loves reporting it, but just because common courtesy and decorum can be interpreted as duplicitous, that doesn't mean vulgarity and debasement are virtuous.  It's exceptionally easy for America's evangelicals to forget, but the Fruit of the Spirit remains the only way we demonstrate our love for Christ:  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

According to the Bible, the ends still don't justify the means.  Just because somebody else may be insincere with their kindnesses, and although public piety sounds more like platitudes to people who know our private opinions, does that make kindness and piety outdated or incorrect?  Maybe it seems refreshing to have a thrice-married womanizer who mocks the handicapped running the White House, but might that say more about our own faults than the appropriateness of such a demeanor in the president of the United States?  Maybe it's entertaining to have a president who apparently enjoys venting his frustrations via his Twitter account, but is that healthy for him, for his family, for us, and for our country?

Bannon made his money frivolously.  What kind of remarkable talent did it take for him to recognize the long-term worth of Seinfeld repeats?  Who among us couldn't have made the same prediction he did?  Meanwhile, how many people put in a grueling nine-hour day, day after day, year after year, for far less money?  No wonder Bannon can be so flippant.  Read enough of his quotes, and you see how cavalier he is with his deployment of the F-word.  So that makes him a refreshing change from the folks who feel constrained to keep their comments to the media family-friendly?

And what is it about being an "economic nationalist" that can be supported by facts, history, and basic capitalistic principles?  If a company can get its product made cheaper someplace else, that's what's gonna happen.  Sure, our trade deals helped to speed the exodus of manufacturing jobs from the United States, but as long as China, Mexico, and our other trading partners could offer lower-paid workers, the exodus would occur sooner or later.  It's hard for $15 an hour to compete with $15 a day - or less.  And unless America's blue collar labor force is willing to work for a fraction of what it used to, those jobs aren't coming back - especially with the era of robotization reportedly just around the corner.

So all Trump, Bannon, and their ilk have left is the public's deep skepticism of establishment politics, and our willingness to roll the dice on their hardened ethnocentrism.  Strip away the alt-right rhetoric - everybody has rhetoric - about refreshing candor and brutal honesty, and all we're left with is just another group of people longing for yesteryear and blatantly blind to the pitfalls of nostalgia.

Remember, the past wasn't perfect.  Capitalism really is about the pursuit of the bottom line.  And politicians - even disestablishment ones like Trump - are all about votes, not virtues.  The alt-right merely wants to believe there is some sort of twisted virtue in not being virtuous.

Maybe this is why the Hollywood Reporter has been the biggest periodical to date to interview Bannon.  Turns out, there's not as much newness here as people like him think there is.

They just don't have to pretend anymore.

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