Steven Bannon seems to have a darker, more sinister, interpretation of the world than most. He speaks well of fascist writers and Leni Riefenstahl, and says things like, “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”, or, “If you’re fighting to take this country back, it’s not going to be sunshine and patriots. It’s going to be people who want to fight.”
When Donald Trump made Bannon his senior political advisor, many people were outraged. Was this indignation justified? How will Bannon’s mindset influence the president and politics in general? What does his appointment mean for the future of the U.S.? To answer these questions, let’s analyze how Steve Bannon sees the world.
Why does Steve Bannon hate Muslims?
At the core of Steve Bannon’s world view seems to be the idea that the West and Islam are in a historic struggle that can only end with one side victorious.
“I think if you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think did the right thing, because they combated this and kept it out of the world.” Steve Bannon
The forefathers that Bannon mentions are not the American founding fathers. They are the Europeans who fought several wars against the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries. Bannon extends this history to today, implying that Europeans are in a constant, never-ending struggle with Islam.
This idea is wrong, for a number of reasons:
- The Ottoman wars stretch over a short part of human history and by no means indicate an everlasting conflict.
- The first European crusade (11th century) significantly predates the first Ottoman attack, which means that it is simplistic and one-sided to say that the Ottomans attacked Europe out of nowhere and never stopped.
- Both for Europeans and Ottomans, faith was only a secondary reason for war. Primary reasons were power and wealth, which are the reasons for every war in history. There is no sense in singling out the Ottoman wars to create a supposed never-ending struggle.
- The conflicts occurred during a violent period of European history that saw many wars. Almost every country fought every other country at some point, and we could just as well make the argument that the French and Germans, for example, are enemies by nature. They have fought countless wars dating back to at least the fourth century BC and have been at peace for only the last 70 years. The German-French conflict was one of the main reasons for both world wars.
- France often supported the Ottoman Empire in its wars against Europe because the Ottoman’s mainly targeted the German Reich and the Habsburg Monarchy (Austria, Hungary), which France considered their arch enemies. The Ottoman wars were not fought by Muslims against Europeans – the situation was far more complex.
When Bannon pictures the European-Ottoman wars as an everlasting conflict of religions, he is clearly wrong. Unfortunately, his idea can have destructive consequences nonetheless.
Bannon’s worldview shows the three signs of destructive ideas:
- Division into irreconcilable groups. There is the West and there is Islam. Both have always been at war with each other and always will be. There is no chance for peace, the conflict can only end by one side winning and the other losing.
- Binary argument. There are no nuances. Every Muslim is evil and at war with the West, every Westerner is good and must defend themselves against the evil Muslims.
- Appeal to higher wisdom. History proves that the idea is true. Things have always been this way, and they always will.
The idea positions Islam as an infinitely evil threat. There is an ongoing struggle between them and us, and nothing could be worse than them winning. This reasoning justifies any action that could help us win. When immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries come to the U.S., Bannon’s dominant thought is to stop the supposed attackers. His high-moral-quantity worldview forces him to consider any Muslim – even babies – an infinitely threat that must be fought without regard to the consequences for this person.
Why does Steve Bannon hate everyone else, too?
In recent years, Muslims have been Bannon’s most popular target, but his disapproval of immigrants extends further. Bannon routinely says things like this:
“Isn’t the beating heart of this problem right now, the real beating heart of it, of what we got to get sorted here, is not illegal immigration, as horrific as that is, and it’s horrific, don’t we have a problem, we’ve looked the other way, on this legal immigration that’s kind of overwhelmed the country? When you look and it’s got 61 million immigrants, 20 percent of the country is immigrants? ”
(Bannon is wrong about this stat, too. The real number is 13 percent, and immigration has slowed over the last years.)
Despite the made-up statistic, this is an interesting statement. Bannon believes that all immigrants, by definition, will never share American values and are unable to adapt to the American way of life. Consequently, Islam isn’t the real issue. This real issue is that Bannon hates anything that is different. Islam is just the hippest example. Where does such a world view come from?
Steve Bannon suffers from the mother of all mental biases: the self-serving bias. We all interpret reality in a way that helps us feel good about ourselves. The self-serving bias also applies to where we were born. Most Germans believe that Germany is the best country in the world, most French think the same about France, and most Italians think the same about Italy. They all support their own national soccer team as the best team in the world, they think that their cuisine is the best, and that their women are the prettiest.
These opinions are largely based on where we were born. The correlation between a person’s birthplace and the place they consider to be the best in the world is simply too strong. If a proud German were to be born in France, he would, in all likelihood, be a proud Frenchmen.
Steve Bannon was born in America, so he thinks that U.S. citizens have some built-in advantage over everyone else – simply because he is a U.S. citizen, too. He says things like this:
“These are not Jeffersonian democrats. These are not people with thousands of years of understanding democracy in their DNA coming up here, right?”
Of course, no American has thousands of years of democracy built into their genes either – the U.S. isn’t even 250 years old, and most of its citizens immigrated much more recently from non-democratic countries. The high moral quantity of Bannon’s argument causes him to interpret reality in a way that confirms his argument – even if the reasoning is ridiculous.
This is why Bannon often believes in things that have been proven wrong. One of the most prominent examples is the accusation that Hillary Clinton’s winning the public vote was the result of wide-spread voter fraud. Despite thorough investigations, no evidence has been found to support this claim. Still, Bannon stands by it to 100 percent, saying things like, “There is voter fraud. I know there is voter fraud.”
Of course, Bannon doesn’t know this. He wants to know what confirms his own superiority, and voter fraud helps him with this goal.
The same applies to his other arguments. All the rhetoric about the historic struggle between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam, about inherently undemocratic Muslims, and so on – serves a single purpose: helping Steve Bannon feel good about himself.
Consequently, Bannon’s resentment extends even past immigrants. Bannon routinely unloads on all sorts of groups. Here are just a few examples:
“The baby boomers are the most spoiled, most self-centered, most narcissistic generation the country’s ever produced.”
“I think the discussion of, you know, can we put a cap on wealth creation and distribution – it’s something that should be at the heart of every Christian that is a capitalist. Is, what is the purpose I’m doing with this wealth?”
“The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country.”
When something questions Bannon’s sense of superiority, he retaliates. This is all there is behind his political beliefs.
Why are Bannon’s ideas destructive?
Steve Bannon’s desire to feel good about himself is extreme and unfiltered. Nonetheless, we all share the same self-serving bias.
We all think that our favorite bands, books, and sports teams are inherently better than all other bands, books, and sports teams. As long as we keep these ideas on the micro level – in our daily environment – they can do little harm. We might stare in disbelief when our neighbor unrolls a flag of our favorite team’s arch rival, but this disbelief will only result in a few harmless jokes. Even if we stay away from people of a certain religious faith, the results will not hurt anybody on the micro level. We will just have different friends.
When we allow the self-serving bias to influence our macro-level ideas, things get dangerous. When we think that all members of a certain faith are inherently worse than the members of our own faith (or non-faith), the only logical consequence is to support restrictions and suppression of these people. We have divided society, used a binary argument, and appealed to a superior wisdom (our own faith) – we have created a destructive idea.
When destructive ideas are institutionalized, they always create resistance. Some of the people who suffer from the repressive effects of our idea will refuse to accept them. Now the government can only decide whether to violently enforce the idea or abandon it. If it chooses the first option, it becomes a terror regime. If it chooses the second option, there is no sense in having the idea in the first place.
We see this effect many times in history:
- Socialist societies eventually all faced the decision whether to violently enforce an idea or surrender it. The first case happened in the Russian Gulags or in the many secret prisons of all socialist societies, the latter happened when the Eastern European countries collapsed.
- All segregated societies eventually faced an uprising by their suppressed members. They could only violently suppress the uprising or abandon segregation.
There is no sense in repeating this process, but Bannon’s ideology can only lead to the same result. Therefore, it is best to abandon it as early as possible. It will eventually fail anyway, and future generations will likely think poorly of those who supported it.
How can we do it better than Steve Bannon?
The Theory of Moral Duality alerts us to the fact that terrorists do what they do because they have inflated the moral quantity of their idea to the highest possible level. They think that their idea is more important than the lives of some or all people, and that they have the right to kill in the name of this idea.
The Theory of Moral Duality also alerts us to the fact that this process can happen to any idea. History has seen the moral inflation of completely benign ideas such as skin color, gender, and sexual preference, and each time, the consequences were destructive.
These statements lead us to two conclusions:
- Islam isn’t the problem, the moral inflation of ideas is the problem.
- The first step to solving the problem is keeping the moral quantity of our own ideas low.
Islam has the same destructive potential as Christianity. Both ideas have been used to justify holy wars, but the overwhelming majority of believers in both faiths are good-hearted, peace-loving people. The same applies to any other religion and any other idea. Consequently, targeting people of a certain faith will not solve the great problems of our time.
When we accept the idea of Islam as an infinitely evil threat, we automatically inflate the moral quantity of our own idea. Therefore, we create similarly destructive results as the terrorists who have inflated the moral quantity of Islam.
Interestingly, ISIS shares Steve Bannon’s view on history. ISIS, too, believes that the West and the Muslim world are in a historic struggle, and that one side must win – they’re just rooting for the other side. The difference between Steven Bannon and ISIS is not that one of them embodies the good and the other evil, they are both on the same destructive side of the conflict.
The only way to solve this conflict is by deflating its moral quantity. We must remember that we fight against a few terrorists who have perverted their religion in the same way any other idea can be perverted, and that we fight against this perversion, not the idea itself.
Bannon’s world view might be the result of his desire to feel good about himself, but it has significantly affected Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly said things such as:
“I think Islam hates us. There’s something there, there’s tremendous hatred.” Donald Trump
Such quotes are a significant change compared to earlier presidents, who were all quick to point out there is a difference between Islam and terrorism:
“There’s nothing in there in Islam that condones the kind of brutality that we have seen.” George Bush
“Our actions today were not aimed against Islam, the faith of hundreds of millions of good, peace-loving people.” Bill Clinton
“The face of terror is not the true face of Islam. Islam is peace.” George W. Bush
“We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” Barack Obama
Bannon rejects this world view:
“The second dumbest comment that one of the dumbest presidents in the history of these United States, that would be Bush 43, “Shrub,” as they called him, he made, the dumbest being that, ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’” Steve Bannon
Hopefully, this article helps point out why this idea is dangerous, and why previous administrations had a better idea of how to deal with terrorism. Otherwise, the effects will be destructive.
- Steve Bannon sees the West in a historic struggle with Islam, questions the democratic abilities of immigrants, and wants to redistribute less to poor people because he is neither poor, nor an immigrant, nor a Muslim. His self-serving bias tricks him into supporting anything that is associated with himself and devaluating everything else.
- We all suffer from self-serving biases. They try to trick us into supporting destructive ideas by adapting ideas from the micro to the macro level. This process always leads to destructive results. Even perfectly benign ideas become destructive when we adapt them from the micro to the macro level.
- To support constructive political ideas, we must keep our personal beliefs on the micro level and reserve the macro level for the few ideas for which it is suited.