The illiberal world of Stephen Bannon

November 22, 2016 by Ben Cohen -
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In considering the furore around President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Stephen Bannon, the CEO of the hard-right news website Breitbart, as his chief strategist, let’s start with the perspective of those who have defended him…writes Ben Cohen/

On one important level, their anger over the Bannon spat is justified. It is galling to see the behemoths of the liberal left, from to The New York Times, suddenly discover the threat of anti-Semitism after showing general indifference to its resurgence in public life during the last 16 years.

Simply put, their negative feelings towards Israel got in the way of acknowledging that larger reality; but as Israel isn’t a factor in the case of Bannon, they can level the accusation of anti-Semitism safely, untainted by any association with the Jewish state or its “occupation” of Palestinian territories.

Stephen Bannon   Photo: YouTube

Stephen Bannon Photo: YouTube

On top of that, there is no meaningful record of statements or actions on Bannon’s part to convict him of the charge of being, on a personal level, anti-Semitic. And since Americans tend to understand anti-Semitism as suggestive of a character defect, it is not surprising that many people also interpreted the attacks upon Bannon as a low blow against his boss, the incoming president.

It’s at precisely this juncture, however, that the Bannon quarrel has gone awry. The issue was never really about Bannon’s own sensibilities, and in fairness, that was never the focus of the much-discussed Anti-Defamation League (ADL) statement on Bannon released Nov 13. What the ADL said is that Bannon “presides” over the “premier website” of the “alt-right,” which it then defined as “a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.”

This raised the legitimate question of whether a man with such associations is suited to one of the county’s top political appointments—whether he can be one of the unifying figures this country needs. But that is not the discussion we have had these past days; it’s all been about the personalities, and not the politics.

David Hirsh, the British academic who has played a key intellectual role in confronting the academic boycott of Israel, put forward a better standard with which to make a judgment at the ADL’s “Never is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism, held in New York Nov. 17. Bannon’s  case reminds us, he said, that “anti-Semitism is about politics, not personal moral failure.”

Our bitterly sectarian politics compromise the discussion of anti-Semitism, and more broadly racism and prejudice, in America today. In the debate about Bannon, there seems to be an assumption among his supporters that nobody as implacably opposed as he is to the progressive left—powerful elements of which have allied with Islamists, and enabled the spread of anti-Semitic discourse in the guise of anti-Zionism—could possibly share any of their flaws.

As a result, Bannon’s defenders adopt many of the same rhetorical tactics that left-wing anti-Zionists deploy when confronted with the charge of anti-Semitism; listing their Jewish political comrades or friends or relatives, decrying reputational smears without foundation, asserting their fondness for Jewish culture, and so on.

In rushing to Bannon’s aid, they overlook the deeper historical truth that anti-Semitism has always been promiscuous, finding favor on right and left. Yet in their alternative imagining, anti-Semitism is solely a problem of the political left.

Let me offer a brief explanation of why some aspects of Bannon’s intellectual universe should be of concern to anyone who cares about the basic social empathies that are needed to sustain democracy—the same empathies, I would add, that have been badly damaged by the growth of identity politics on left and right.

Take Bannon’s own ideas, insofar as they were set out in a talk he gave to a group of European right-wingers gathered at the Vatican in 2014. In his address, he outlined a vision of a world order based on “strong countries” with “strong nationalist movements.”

Bannon does not explain what he means by “strong” here, but the implications are disconcerting. Not least, it begs the question of how one defines and organises a “nationalist” politics in nations that have achieved independence.

In European nations, over the course of the last three decades, the answer has crystallised in the twin resistance against liberal immigration policies and the cross-border institutions of the European Union. The corresponding political goal is for nation states to reign supreme on trade, on defence, and—critically—on regional spheres of influence. In this climate, both liberal democracy and its American example will cease to be posited as a system superior to other forms of government.

As strong as these nationalist movements can hope to be, they will never enjoy periods of harmony or consensus when in government—unless of course they enforce it. Democratic politics will therefore become an ugly confrontation marked by terse and coarse exchanges, character assassination, rewards for doctrinal orthodoxy, retribution for dissent, and dangerous polarisation between the races and ethnicities and religions that compose our society.

Many of the world’s illiberal and authoritarian states will become our friends and trading partners, and our new-found tolerance of their norms will eventually come into conflict with the maintenance of our own. I have no doubt that voices arguing that “Russia tried democracy and it didn’t work—now we should try it their way” will grow louder and less exotic.

Is it possible to conjure up a more benign vision of a world in which the democracies are represented by Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and, perhaps, future French President Marine Le Pen, at the same time as authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan become sustainedly more oppressive? Suffice to say, this prospect is what girds the widespread apprehension over what the next four years have in store—and there is perhaps no better emblem of that, for now, than Stephen Bannon.


Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism(Edition Critic, 2014).


4 Responses to “The illiberal world of Stephen Bannon”
  1. Gil Solomon says:

    The majority of Jews the world over are, in my opinion pathetic, especially those in the US media and in establishment leadership positions. The majority of American Jews in particular are desperate to delegitimise Donald Trump and that means if they can’t attack him personally, they will criticise to death and find fault with virtually every appointee he makes. The majority of American Jews can be defined first and foremost as leftist before any other criteria. It is fortunate that Donald Trump supports Israel because quite frankly listening to this ranting babble of know it all leftist Jews (including Israelis) day in day out, he would be well within his rights to state he owes nothing to American Jews or Israel. It is a sad fact that the majority of US Jews voted not once but twice for B. Hussein Obama and this time would in the majority have preferred Hillary Clinton as President, a woman surrounded by anti-Israeli self hating Jews, a woman who would have pushed Israel, the country they profess to love, under a bus at the first opportunity. The majority of Jews these days don’t know a good thing if it hits them in the face and Donald Trump is the leader the Western world needs at this juncture and is the most genuine pro Israel President ever to assume office. It seems that Jews have some suicidal gene buried deep in their DNA. A more pathetic whingeing, whining rabble I have never seen. If the majority of them can’t say anything positive about Trump then I would suggest they simply keep their mouths shut.
    On the issue of anti-Semitism, I could imagine if one were a non Jewish American who really may not consider Jewish issues too deeply, I could see how the torrent of unjustifiable abuse hurled at Trump day in day out by the majority of Jewish media elites, could well turn any reasonable gentile into an anti-Semite. To add to the first line where I used the word pathetic I’ll finish this by adding that the majority of us are also fools and it’s time we woke up.

  2. Howard A. Levin says:

    In regard to Mr. Bannon, as long as he is a friend of Israel, that’s all I need to know. After the disastrous presidency of obama with his “secretary of state”, kerry, and their abusive treatment of the state of Israel, I am elated that Mr. Trump was elected and I leave to his judgement his selection of advisors. If Mr. Bannon is supportive of the state of Israel and the land of Israel, and if he gets along with the best leader in the free world, Prime Minister Netanyahu, that’s all I need to know.

    • Henry Herzog says:

      Love your irony, Howard: As long as Steven Bannon, who formality presided over the far right, anti-Jewish alt-right mob, is a friend of the Jewish state, you’re all for him. Just brilliant.

    • Rami Reed says:

      This is exactly the way I feel. Good post Howard. It would be better if Ben Cohen examined the anti-Semitic and virulent Israel hater, Keith Ellison, who is about to effectively be the leader of the Democratic Party. He was a member of the Nation Of Islam for many years, received backing from the Muslim brotherhood, endorsed the conspiracy theory that Israel and president Bush engineered 9/11 in order to attack Muslim states…

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