Living in America is the equivalent of playing a lifelong game of intellectual and ethical limbo. The only real question is “how low can you go?” Bob Dylan once sang about “flesh colored Christ that glows in the dark,” and wondered, “Is anything really sacred?”
Recently, I saw an advertisement from the Midwest tanning salon chain LA Tan, offering a 50 percent discount on spray tan packages for all combat veterans in honor of Memorial Day. It is difficult to determine how to react to a marketing specialist who imagines a young man or woman in a wheelchair feeling excitement over lower costs for an artificial skin tan. When Chris Rock joked that soon corporate chains will launch September 11 sales (“prices are falling”), he faced outrage and scorn. He probably hit a little too close to home.
Many Americans are adrift because it is common to reduce life to the narrow pursuit of profit, but the result is typically a quiet and desperate sense of dread. The thrill of consumption, like any drug, becomes weaker and less satisfying with each fix. Eventually, the monster of meaningless invades the adrift American’s home, provoking an inquiry into the purpose or pointlessness of life.
Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s most powerful and controversial advisor, has confronted the monster. A new PBS Frontline episode, “Steve Bannon’s War,” tells only part of the story, but it provides insight into how Bannon’s transformation from Wall Street manipulator and wannabe Hollywood hedonist into a white Christian nationalist zealot not only gave the world President Donald Trump, but captures a uniquely American struggle for identity.
Bannon grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, and after graduating college, he enlisted in the Navy. He hoped that his military service would elevate him above his generational peers in the pursuit of political power. Already a bloodthirsty cold warrior who aspired to help mutilate the Red Menace, he discovered a new threat to Western Civilization in the late 1970s -- Islam. The Iranian hostage crisis signaled Bannon to, in his view, an enemy of even greater evil than communism.
Despite the intensity of Bannon’s messianic vision, his desire to save the world could not compete with his lust for wealth and fame. After his naval discharge, he enrolled in Harvard Business School, and eventually landed a lucrative position at Goldman Sachs. Then, he moved to Hollywood with starstruck dreams of joining the glitterati. Bannon became a producer on the Sean Penn film "The Indian Runner." Penn recently offered a fond remembrance: “Bannon was then, as he is now, simply another bitter Hollywood wannabe who went rogue by way of toxic narcissistic iconoclasm. But, deep in his heart, he’s just a conniving hateful bloated punk who despises mankind. And then there are also the bad things about him . . . ”
The first turning point for Bannon was the attack of September 11. The Islamic threat, or “the beast,” as he took to calling it, was worse than even he imagined. While he -- the world’s savior -- was too busy making millions, rubbing shoulders with starlets, and tormenting his ex-wife, the beast was getting bigger, and its appetite for death was growing stronger. He had wasted his life.
In an act of self-correction, he wrote and directed a few “lurid” and “apocalyptic,” to quote one film critic, documentaries on Ronald Reagan’s battle with “evil,” the impending financial crisis of doom facing the United States, and Sarah Palin’s potential to become a populist heroine in the civilizational war against Muslim fanatics, corrupt bureaucrats and treasonous secular liberals.
The films were less successful than the "Star Wars" franchise, so Bannon decided to pursue political advocacy directly at Breitbart. Economic nationalism, according to a fascinating profile in the Wall Street Journal, became central to Bannon’s worldview after his father panicked and sold all of his stock during the 2008 financial meltdown. Bannon’s father did not even graduate high school, and having no knowledge of markets, thought only of the Great Depression. It turns out that had he held onto his options, his finances would have emerged through the assault even stronger. Bannon did not reflect on his own lack of familial presence and intervention and ask the obvious question: Why was the former Goldman Sachs employee with an MBA not advising his financially illiterate father how to protect his assets? Instead, he became hostile to globalization.
Now, Bannon is President Donald Trump’s chief strategist. He reportedly works 18-hour days, living, much to the heartbreak of women throughout the nation, as a bachelor in Washington, D.C. In a rare public appearance at CPAC, Bannon explained that part of his agenda is to achieve a shift in consciousness so that Americans realize “We are not just an economy in a global marketplace with open borders,” but a “nation with an economy and a culture and a reason for being.”
In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl writes that “By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning in his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather that within man or his own psyche… It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -- be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
Bannon, with a strong streak of narcissism that Sean Penn detected, has become responsible, and like it or not, has surrendered himself to a cause. He has transitioned from a life of individualism, greed and self-advancement to a life of meaning. The fascinating element of the Bannon story is that it illustrates the danger of the politics of meaning. The world would have benefitted if Bannon had simply stayed in Hollywood, attaching himself to whatever film project would have him.
Is there any doubt that the United States government would be better with Bannon in a Hollywood mansion making millions and dreaming of an Oscar than in the Oval Office directing the president to issue a travel ban on Muslims?
People justifiably revolted by mindless consumption and the endless pursuit of profit have a tendency to romanticize meaning, because they think only of positive meaning -- the kind that Frankl found, and Martin Luther King, and Rachel Carson. The dark side to meaning, however, is that it provides many others with a sense of certainty that prevents them from weighing the human consequences of their actions. As frightening as it is to consider, the Manchester bomber likely felt that he found great meaning in his life. His sense of meaning was so powerful and profound that it erased the humanity of the people, even the children, who he felt had to die for his cause.
Steve Bannon is not a suicide bomber, and it is important not to draw that equivalence, but he does take a fanatical approach to fulfillment. It is not sufficient that he has found meaning in his life. He must impose that meaning on the entire country. Through legislation, law, executive order and the continual degradation of America’s political process and culture, Bannon is attempting to remake the United States according to his imagination.
There is always the suspicion that one’s sense of meaning is illusory. The zealot, uncomfortable with uncertainty, must convert as many people as possible and seek validation through imposition. If America becomes the country of Bannon’s dark dreams, he has not wasted his life, he is not wrong, and he is not delusional. The entire world’s stability is now at risk so that Bannon can guard his acumen through therapeutic gestures of political change.
“A reason for being” sounds wonderful until you realize that your reason differs from the person in power. “What is the meaning of life?” is the ancient question. When someone claims to have the answer, you might want to take cover.