author: nick giokas | contributor
To say that the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist to President-Elect Donald Trump’s White House is terrifying would be a severe understatement. It appears as though Trump supporters have taken to a strategy of wide-scale gaslighting, where they know Bannon is a fascistic, racist, anti-semite, yet refuse to admit it. He’s given terms like “conservative firebrand” or “controversial,” while his defenders cling to a thin veneer of deniability. Yet the fact remains that he has regularly used racially charged rhetoric, railed against the globalist system, and worked tirelessly to bring hate and fear into the political mainstream, but simply calling Bannon, Trump, or their followers racist and hateful isn’t cutting it. Where the media and we have failed for the past two years is that we have based all our analysis and rhetoric on the premise that calling people bigoted will get them to change their behaviour; what we’ve failed to do is look at where this hate is coming from.
In simple terms, it all ties back to the 2008 financial crisis. It was the failure of American institutions that led to the crisis, and therefore trust in our institutions slowly dwindled away. With this depleted level of trust, particularly in experts, and the rapid proliferation of Internet usage, large swathes of westerners struck out into the world relatively intellectually rudderless. Combined with the rise of social media and the Western obsession with the individual, the feeling of abandonment dealt by failed institutions metastasized and transformed itself into a societal narcissism. For large sections of Western society, a post-2008 world did not trigger desire for global betterment, but instead a supreme focus on their individual struggle. Abandoning the facts and opinions of experts, this wave of political narcissism quickly devolved into cynicism being used as shorthand for intelligence. People began to believe that a YouTube video or a blog post could carry the credibility and weight needed to be well informed on a subject. No one wants to be the dumbest person in the room, yet no one wants to work hard enough to get there. It is through this debased level of intellectual merit that the Alt-Right and Alt-Left has risen to prominence.
With an intense focus on their own issues, ignoring the circumstances of others unlike them, accompanied by the degradation of intellectual merit, it logically follows that the lowest common denominator would eventually win out. It became far too easy to isolate oneself in echo chambers, and due to the increased ideological drift these echo chambers impose and exacerbated by a lack of regard for expert opinion, these echo chambers quickly converted people into instruments of hate. In some circles of the Internet, we see the dehumanizing of those in government and the financial sector; in others we see dehumanization of minorities. These are groups that through their narcissistic worldview they see as drawing much needed resources away from themselves thereby fuelling resentment and hate.
Therefore, it is important to recognise that the followers of Steve Bannon and the Alt-Right aren’t some inherently hateful group, but rather a group that has been led down the path toward hatred by societal forces greater than themselves. This means that while getting into arguments on social media might feel good, it does nothing to shift the trajectory these people are following. Yes, hatred ought to be stood up to. Yes, we ought to decry the legitimization of bigotry. Both of these things are effective, because it allows people to rally around the common cause of standing up to hatred; but we must also recognise that there are systemic, societal factors that we must change.
Bannon being appointed as chief strategist to the White House while running the Breitbart News Network (a mouthpiece for the Alt-Right), combined with Trump’s distance from the rest of the media, makes it likely that Breitbart will become the quasi-propagandist news source of the Trump Presidency, à la Putin’s RussiaToday. The answer to this fact is not to follow the current societal circumstances. Now, more than ever, we need to refuse to sequester ourselves in our own echo chambers, refuse to focus only on the views and narratives of our own peer groups, refuse to comfort ourselves with reductionist media. Instead, we need to champion facts, expertise, and foster trust in institutions, because that is the only way we reverse this backslide into hatred and fear.