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Breitbart, Bannon, Trump, and the Frankfurt School

A strange meeting of minds

The prehistory of Trump’s Twitter strategies comes into sharp focus as one thinks about them in relation to Andrew Breitbart and Stephen Bannon’s media politics. It was the political rise of Bannon in Trump’s inner circle that made me curious about Andrew Breitbart and the online news organization he founded, and which Bannon directed for several years. Reading Breitbart’s 2011 book Righteous Indignation and skimming Breitbart News online, I made a surprising discovery: an obsession with the Frankfurt School as te noire not just in Breitbart himself, but in the wider circles of American white supremacists and their publications.

Breitbart’s stated goal in creating the news outlet that bears his name was to attack the “Democrat media complex” with the help of the Internet and social media. Bannon, inspired by Lenin, Julius Evola (a darling of the Italian fascists and today popular with Greek neo-Nazis and Hungarian nationalists), and by anti-semite and founder of the action française Charles Maurras, embraces the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Trump’s Twitter habits and his constant attacks on the so-called fake media seem to be quite in tune with both those goals. There is method to this madness of substituting “alternative facts” for allegedly “fake news.”

What we are witnessing here is the concerted attack on the fourth estate by what one could now call the fifth estate — right-wing populist digital media politics writ large as a prerequisite for Bannon’s project of destroying the administrative state. Hannah Arendt got it right when she wrote: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world […] is being destroyed” (p. 257).

While Andrew Breitbart celebrated the Internet as the great disruptor of the mainstream media, Bannon’s intellectual and political ambitions went further. He embraced a rise-and-decline theory of 80-year cycles of American history popularized by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. Theirs is a generational theory of history, in which 80-year blocks are divided into roughly 20-year segments characterized as “highs,” “awakenings,” “unravelings,” and “crises.” These cycles run from the American Revolution to the Civil War, from the great depression and World War II to the present moment, the decade after 2008. It is now, after deep crisis and chaos, they hold, that the Phoenix of a new old America will begin to rise again. “Make America great again” is the perfect slogan for such a movement.

This historical master-narrative underlies another document in the pre-history of Trumpism: the documentary film Generation Zero which Bannon scripted and directed. It is a documentary film targeting the Wall Street elites by blaming the 2008 economic crisis and its aftermath on the 1960s generation. An implausible premise? Yes, but blaming the 1960s has been a standard trope in the discourse of a broad spectrum of American conservatism (for instance with the trope of yippies becoming yuppies, young urban professionals). But here it comes clothed in a global political prophecy that imagines itself at the cusp of a new populist movement to save America in the coming war against radical Islam.

The generational theory of history Bannon embraces is strongly reminiscent of German right-wing cyclical philosophies of history as they were articulated after World War I. In the context of current discussions of American decline, Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West comes to mind, although Untergang des Abendlandes is perhaps better translated as the ruin or downfall of the “Judeo-Christian World” rather than of the “West.” Bannon’s film recycles the conservative trope that the decline of America was brought about by a generation of spoiled narcissistic brats who drove America to the abyss of feminism, environmentalism, affirmative action, gay rights, and multi-culturalism before becoming Wall Street bankers in the Clinton age and creating the crash of 2008. It is a master-misrepresentation of history quite typical of the dangers of generational theorizing. Given his loss of influence in the West Wing and his eventual dismissal, it seems that Bannon has had his come-uppance in a cabinet of Wall Street bankers and billionaires in the middle of the swamp he was determined to drain. But his influence on Trumpism is not about to diminish as he has re-taken the reins of Breitbart News.

The recycling of old, discredited ideas as radical and new is indeed the major rhetorical strategy of both Breitbart and Bannon. When, after all, was Bannon’s “economic nationalism” last proposed? In the 1930s in Nazi Germany — and with disastrous effects. And the German connection continues to give in the most surprising way when it comes to apportioning blame for what Alan Bloom, in the context of the culture wars of the 1990s, called The Closing of the American Mind. Then it was Nietzsche, Heidegger, and their heirs (including Mick Jagger) who were blamed for the decline of American culture. Now it is the Frankfurt School. Here’s what we read in Breitbart’s book: “Critical Theory was exactly the material we were taught at Tulane. It was, quite literally, a theory of criticizing everyone and everything everywhere. It was an attempt to tear down the social fabric by using all the social sciences…; it was an infinite and unending criticism of the status quo, adolescent rebellion against all established social rules and norms … The real idea behind all of this was to make society totally unworkable by making everything basically meaningless” (113). The rise of Hitler is then given as the reason why these “boring and bleating philosophers” did not fade into oblivion: “With Hitler’s rise, they had to flee (virtually all of them — Horkheimer, Marcuse, Adorno, Fromm — were of Jewish descent). And they had no place to go. Except the United States” (114).

The obsession with the Frankfurt School and “cultural Marxism,” however, is not original to Breitbart. Nor is the bizarre counter-factual idea that the culture industry theory of Adorno and Horkheimer was developed in the service of American capital in order to control the American masses through the media. This idea goes back to Pat Buchanan and Lyndon Larouche, both of them right-wing presidential candidates in the 1990s. And it culminates in Breitbart’s claim that Obama was a Frankfurt School scholar in the Saul Alinsky mode — Alinsky being a Chicago community organizer whose pamphlet Rules for Radicals has consistently raised the ire and enthusiastic envy of the radical right. Anti-Semitism, after all, still grounds this white supremacist and racist discourse about brown, black, and any other other. The question is not whether Breitbart, whose adoptive father was Jewish, and Bannon, who is Catholic, are personally anti-Semites and racists. The question is whether they consciously encourage and nurture the right-wing fringe that has brought an outright neo-Nazi figure like “Hail Trump” Richard Spencer into the public eye, a man who wrote his thesis at the University of Chicago about Theodor Adorno and Richard Wagner.

How can we explain this crazy theory about Frankfurt School critical theory which in reality opposed everything the so-called “alt right” stands for now? Is it just the fact that an external enemy, preferably from the orbit of Cold War leftist thinking, is needed in order to raise the specter of infiltration and subversion of American innocence? Is “Frankfurt School” just another code word for Jews at a time when open anti-Semitism is out of tune with conservative politics vis-á-vis Israel? Or is it something else? What is it that draws the fringe to Critical Theory like moths to the candle? In a 2011 article, Martin Jay provided what might be an answer. There he wrote of the then-lunatic fringe that had not yet been normalized by the media into the alt-right:

In looking for a scapegoat for all the transformations of culture which they can’t abide, they have recognized the most acute analysis of their own condition. In the fog of their blighted understanding, they have discerned a real threat. But it is not to some phantasm called “Western civilization,” whose most valuable achievements they themselves routinely betray, but rather to their own pathetic and misguided worldview and the dangerous politics it has spawned in our climate of heightened fear and despair.

I think this analysis is correct. Looking into the mirror of Critical Theory and its analysis of race hatred and media domination, the white supremacists recognized themselves and their history. But in order to preserve their righteous indignation — an indignation based on pathologically conspiratorial thought — they had to make Critical Theory into a primary intellectual enemy and scapegoat. The over the top attack on the Frankfurt School in a host of white supremacist publications, including the recent confused rant by another Breitbart editor Michael Walsh entitled The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West, only points to the fact that they themselves are doing what they accuse their opponents of doing: subverting American politics and culture. For what is the difference between making society unworkable and destroying the administrative state? Between making everything meaningless and creating alternative facts and fake news? Central to this kind of inverted appropriation of critical theory is what Adorno and Horkheimer analyzed in Nazi ideology and behavior as the processes of mimesis, projection, and inversion. Leo Löwenthal and Norbert Guterman, two other members of the Institute for Social Research, put it quite succinctly in their 1949 book about fascist tendencies in the US entitled Prophets of Deceit. There they wrote that the follower of right-wing ideology “is nothing but an inverted reflection of the enemy” (117).

Breitbart never says in his book which texts of Critical Theory were central during his undergraduate education at Tulane, but his obsession with the “Democrat media complex” as major culprit suggests it was the media and mass culture theory of the Frankfurters. A theory which the alt right has turned from a structural analysis of commodity relations in capitalism into a conspiracy theory whose alleged purpose it was to control the population at large. Its evidence? The Rockefeller Foundation funded the Princeton radio project, directed by Paul Lazarsfeld, another Jewish immigrant invested in mass media research with whom Adorno cooperated in the late 1930s on radio and music research. Lazarsfeld then became professor of sociology at Columbia where he created the Bureau of Applied Social Research and worked in close proximity to the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research which had found a home in exile at Columbia in 1934. No surprise then that Columbia itself became a target of attack. According to Breitbart, Columbia’s sociology department was dying: “They needed new blood and they liked what they saw in the Frankfurt School,” he wrote (116). He holds Ed Murrow, famous broadcast journalist who later helped bring down Joe McCarthy, responsible for shipping in the Frankfurters as displaced foreign scholars, and then he concludes: “Once in the country the Frankfurt School was almost immediately accepted at Columbia University. It was a marriage made in hell” (116). Michael Walsh picked up the theme when he claimed in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace that “Critical Theory is the very essence of Satanism” (50), its only purpose being destruction, not (mind you) deconstruction. Bannon, on the other hand, embraced Satan when he said to the Hollywood Reporter: “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” Power to deconstruct the administrative state. Oh, what a tiny syllable can do for Steve Bannon.

Bannon himself does not talk about the Frankfurt School. But as close collaborator and friend of Breitbart he shares his analysis of the media and of cultural decline. And his radical critique of bureaucracy and the administered state can be directly linked to Marcuse, Adorno, and Horkheimer. As metaphor it differs significantly from Trump’s line about clearing out the swamp. But this coexistence of abstract sociological notions such as the administered state and bio-metaphors such as the swamp or parasites destroying the body of the nation from within has been a long-standing characteristic of radical right-wing language. Löwenthal and Guterman have analyzed it cogently in Prophets of Deceit, a book that has become amazingly topical again. Its sociological analysis of American style right-wing agitators like Father Charles Coughlin, radio preacher from Detroit, resonates strongly with the present despite major differences in media culture, racial discourse, political environment. Löwenthal and Guterman show us the language of right-wing agitators of their time: “Liquidate the millions of bureaucrats, kick out the top heavy Jew majority, many foreign born that NOW dictate and direct our domestic and foreign policies.” Or this against the New Dealers: “The rank and file of sober, sincere, and peaceable citizens [should] pull them out of power and lock them up, pronto, as their crimes may be proven” (114f). Remember the chant Trump fomented at his rallies against Hillary Clinton accusing her of all kinds of crimes? “Lock her up!”

In December 2016, Alex Ross published a piece in the New Yorker entitled The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming. Indeed!

Andreas Huyssen is the Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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