Saturday, March 4, 2017

Is Steve Bannon a Nazi? Fake News and Guilt by Citation

Recently, a friend of mine casually claimed that former Breitbart editor and presidential assistant Steve Bannon and POTUS Donald Trump were Nazis. Nazis! I'd seen this type of polemic before, but I'd dismissed it as election-year hyperbole, and after the election, as extreme post-election bitterness. What struck me about this conversation was the ease and surety with which the Nazi accusation was made. There was no pause for emphasis. Calling the POTUS a Nazi wasn't even the centerpiece of the conversation. The claim came mid-thought, as if it represented a consensus point of view that could be mentioned in passing -- an established fact

Knowing that educated, well-intentioned people don't make such allegations flippantly, I stopped the conversation and asked for an explanation. When challenged for evidence, I discovered that my friend's Nazi allegations relied on claims made in the New York Times and The Atlantic. To my shock, both articles (here, and here) implied that Bannon admired the infamous Julius Evola -- the Italian philosopher of Fascism. Both articles cited a single reference to Evola from a speech Bannon gave at the Vatican in 2014. This must have been an incredibly self-incriminating statement by Bannon, I mused, for a single citation to prove he is a Nazi. 

The New York Times article, entitled "Steve Bannon Cited Italian Philosopher Who Inspired Fascists," implies that this single citation was something of a dog whistle for white nationalist groups, which Bannon "nurtured as the head of Breitbart News and then helped harness for Mr. Trump." Of course, no evidence from Bannon's writings or public statements -- even a citation --  is provided to establish Bannon's ideological connection to white nationalist groups. That's because Bannon's connection to white nationalism is "assumed knowledge" on the part of the reader. 

Nevertheless, the article does make a bizarrely contrived connection between Bannon and an actual white nationalist -- Richard Spencer. This is the point at which the New York Times' magic formula for linking Bannon to Nazism is revealed. Spencer's white nationalist credentials are impeccable. Thus, because Spencer praised Evola, as well as provided unsolicited support for Bannon and Trump in the election, and, given that Bannon cited Evola in a speech, Bannon's ideas must therefore be closely related to those of Spencer and Evola. Was this the math the New York Times and the Atlantic used to slander Steve Bannon? Sadly, yes. The writers of both articles imagine Bannon through the eyes of Spencer, and present Spencer's affinity for Evola and Bannon as evidence of Bannon's ideological transgression.  

So, what did Bannon actually say about Evola? Was Bannon's Nazi ideology really revealed in a single citation? I read the transcript myself (see the full transcript here). I was immediately struck by the fact that Bannon's speech presented Nazism and Fascism as evil, barbaric, and rightfully defeated. To my surprise, the Evola reference wasn't in the speech, but in the post-speech question and answer session. Bannon's single reference to Evola, when taken in context, simply pointed out the influence Evola's writings, which Bannon notes "metastasized" into Italian Fascism, had on one of Vladamir Putin's advisors. Concerning Putin's Russia, Bannon said it was a kleptocracy. This was hardly "evidence" of a Bannon "endorsement" of either Evola, Putin, or Fascist/Nazi ideology. 

When presented with these findings, my friend resorted to a fall-back position of claiming that Bannon and Trump might not be actual Nazis, but were nevertheless guilty of pandering to "alt-right" ideas in Brietbart and on the campaign trail. I asked how many adherents of the "alt-right" existed, or what exactly constituted "alt-right" ideas. My friend could not formulate a coherent response, but simply repeated the exercise in conflation found in the articles -- Bannon and Trump peddle the ideas of fringe white nationalist groups for political gain. I then realized that the hack journalism shown above had found a receptive audience in the echo chamber of academia, where intellectual laziness and willful ignorance allow baseless claims by dishonest journalists to become "common knowledge.

In this case, the endlessly repeated claim that Bannon, and hence Trump, is guilty of being a Nazi, rests on a single citation taken out of context.  

- The Cowboy Historian

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