Steve Bannon – Trump’s Hedgehog

As Trump moves into the White House,  it is widely assumed that he lacks any sort of well-structured political ideals and beliefs.  Thus, little attention has been given to characterized his ideology, while the focus has been on the ideology of his chief strategist, Steve Brannon. It would probably be worthwhile to provide a thorough analysis of Bannon’s worldview, but here I will simply consider his reputation as a deep intellectual.

Bannon’s “intellectualism” is often attributed to his being what Isaiah Berlin called “a hedgehog”– a person who views the world from the perspective of a single defining idea — rather than as “a fox” – a person who views the world from a variety of perspectives and considers a variety of experiences.  In short, Bannon’s intellectualism comes from his holding and consistently expressing ideas based on a  “grand theory of political history.”  He believes that there are regular historical cycles.  In his view, periods of economic prosperity and political stability inevitably are followed by challenges from those who have grievances with some element of society.  As such challenges diffuse, society unravels and becomes deeply divided, political stalemate ensues, and social and economic problems remain unresolved.  Such periods in history – which Bannon and his followers believe we are now experiencing – end with some crisis or upheaval (such as the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, or World War II).

The intellectual perspective of hedgehogs like Brannon are attractive because they capture some facets of life and appeal to our hopes and/or fears, but they are always partial and limited.  For example, Brannon’s theory of history is just one of many cyclical theories. Others are as old as Polybius’s theory that history is comprised of recurring historical stages of monarchy aristocracy, and democracy and their corrupt forms of tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule.  Other cyclical theories are more recent, such as Arthur Schlesinger’s theory that societies alternate between periods of liberalism (when public purpose is emphasized) and conservatism (when the focus is on private interests).  Other grand theories reject the presumption that history is cyclical.  Some focus on stasis (such as Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy and John Lennon’s lament that, “Nothing’s going to change my world”).  Others see inevitable progress (all the great thinkers committed to the Enlightenment, including those like Hegel and Marx who emphasize the “dialectical” nature of that progress), and still others focus on “punctuated equilibrium” (for example, much current racial theory focusing on how progress toward racial toleration, integration, and multiculturalism suffers from periodic backlashes such as that which we are now experiencing, but then progress resumes).  Clinging to any one of these views of history requires very selective “cherry-picking” of historical events for illustrating – but never confirming – such theories.  In short, Bannon is credited with being Trump’s intellectual because he is a hedgehog, but his clinging to his particular cyclical theory makes him a mere ideologue, whose partisan ideas are never limited by an appreciation of different perspectives.

So, do only Berlin’s foxes – the many intellectuals like Aristotle, Balzac, and Berlin himself who criticize grand theories – have the open-mindedness of true philosophers?  Berlin is also well-known for being a pluralist, raising the question of whether  pluralism is just another grand theory, albeit one that emphasizes the complexity, diversity, and contingencies of life.   Whether Berlin’s pluralism makes him (and other pluralists) hedgehogs  depends on what constitutes a theory.  In the social sciences, theories are usually regarded as ideas that necessarily  simplify life, reduce its diversity to manageable elements, and seek some sort of predictability, and in this they reflect the hedgehog in most of us.  But such hedgehog tendencies among social scientists and public philosophers are usually accompanied by the humility that recognizes the limits of one’s particular theory.  Pluralists like Berlin are the hedgehogs who honor and appreciate foxes.  Pluralism is not a particular theory but a general perspective that emphasizes complexity, diversity and contingency, and  it is thus  a core element of any workable public philosophy.  Bannon is the anti-pluralist who peddles an oversimplified, monistic, and determinist worldview that can only cripple effective politics and governance.