Above: President Trump speaks on the phone with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office on January 28, 2017. At far right (no pun intended) sits Steve Bannon. (Photo: Pete Marovich/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and Plains Indians.
In a recent post on Facebook, Richardson argues that President Trump's recent ban on immigration is actually the work of his assistant and chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon is the former executive chair of Breitbart News, a far-right news, opinion, and commentary website, and a political operative who has openly embraced the racist and anti-Semitic "alt-right," which the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy organization, describes as "a loose set of far-right ideologies at the core of which is a belief that 'white identity' is under attack through policies prioritizing multiculturalism, political correctness and social justice and must be preserved, usually through white-identified online communities and physical ethno-states."
Richardson also contends that yesterday's executive order was designed to throw society into chaos – something called "a shock event." This certainly aligns with Bannon's self identification as a "Leninist" whose goal is to "destroy the state." "I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment," Bannon told author Ronald Radosh in 2013.
What Steve Bannon [right] is doing, most dramatically with the ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries – is creating what is known as a "shock event."
Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order.
When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.
[Trump's] executive order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counter-terrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.
Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot.
My point is this: unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one's interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won't like.
I don't know what Bannon is up to – although I have some guesses – but because I know Bannon's ideas well, I am positive that there is not a single person whom I consider a friend on either side of the aisle – and my friends range pretty widely – who will benefit from whatever it is. [NOTE: For Suad Abdul Khabeer's thoughts on what Bannon/Trump may be "up to" with their shock event, click here.]
If the shock event strategy works, though, many of you will blame each other, rather than Bannon, for the fallout. And the country will have been tricked into accepting their real goal.
But because shock events destabilize a society, they can also be used positively. We do not have to respond along old fault lines. We could just as easily reorganize into a different pattern that threatens the people who sparked the event.
A successful shock event depends on speed and chaos because it requires knee-jerk reactions so that people divide along established lines. This, for example, is how Confederate leaders railroaded the initial southern states out of the Union.
If people realize they are being played, though, they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings. This was Lincoln's strategy when he joined together Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, anti-Nebraska voters, and nativists into the new Republican Party to stand against the Slave Power.
Five years before, such a coalition would have been unimaginable. Members of those groups agreed on very little other than that they wanted all Americans to have equal economic opportunity. Once they began to work together to promote a fair economic system, though, they found much common ground. They ended up rededicating the nation to a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
Confederate leaders and Lincoln both knew about the political potential of a shock event. As we are in the midst of one, it seems worth noting that Lincoln seemed to have the better idea about how to use it.
Related Off-site Links and Updates:
Historian Argues "Shock Event" Created Through Immigration Order – Meghna Chakrabarti and Kassandra Sundt (Radio Boston, January 31, 2017).
In Case It Wasn’t Clear Yet, Steve Bannon is Our President – Jack Moore (GQ, January 31, 2017).
Steve Bannon is Calling the Shots in the White House. That's Terrifying – Lawrence Douglas (The Guardian, January 31, 2017).
President Bannon? – The Editorial Board (The New York Times, January 31, 2017).
Hidden in Plain Sight: The Man Behind Donald Trump – Jason Michael (Random Public Journal, January 30, 2017).
Bannon’s Influence is a Threat – Markos Moulitsas (The Hill, January 31, 2017).
This is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World – J. Lester Feder (Buzz Feed, November 16, 2016).
A White House Devoid of Integrity – Elise Jordan (Time, January 30, 2017).
Trump's Muslim Ban is Dangerous and a Distraction – Suad Abdul Khabeer (Al-Jazeera via Common Dreams, January 30, 2017).
Waiting for a 21st Century Reichstag Fire – Kevin Drum (Mother Jones, January 30, 2017).
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon's Coup in the Making – Ruth Ben-Ghiat (CNN, February 1, 2017).
Steve Bannon's Obsession with a Dark Theory of History Should Be Worrisome – Linette Lopez (Business Insider, February 2, 2017).
Steve Bannon: The Strategist Behind Trump's Travel Ban – Phil Maynard and Julia Diniz (The Guardian, February 2, 2017).
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon Have Turned the White House Against America – Bill McKibben (The Guardian, February 7, 2017).
4/5/17 Update: Trump Chief Strategist Steve Bannon Removed from National Security Council – Jessica Taylor and Mara Liasson (NPR News, April 5, 2017).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• On International Human Rights Day, Saying "No" to Donald Trump and His Fascist Agenda
• On Holocaust Remembrance Day, James Martin Labels as "Appalling" President Trump's Plan to Demonize Immigrants
• "The Movement of Love and Inclusion Has Just Been Unleashed"
• Something to Think About – January 20, 2017
• "It Is All Connected"
• Quote of the Day – January 11, 2017
• Progressive Perspectives on the Election of Donald Trump as President of the United States
• Election Eve Thoughts
• Carrying It On
• Progressive Perspectives on the Rise of Donald Trump
• Trump's Playbook