Democracy & Government

Government By Outburst

Tweet storms and falsehoods designed to keep us off-balance serve the same function as "black blocs."

Government By Outburst

President Donald Trump congratulates senior counselor Stephen Bannon during the swearing-in of senior staff in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The black-masked vandals who launched smoke bombs, smashed windows and set fires in Berkeley, California, the night of Wednesday, Feb. 1, share incendiary techniques with the Trump regime: They want to prevail by outbursts.

Not to be outdone, that night, the Tweeter-in-Chief known as #realDonaldTrump tweeted:

While arranging the deck chairs on board his Titanic administration, the Tweeter-in-Chief felt impelled to take the time to consign UC Berkeley to the Twitter hell where Lyin’ Ted, Khizr Kahn, Alicia Machado, Meryl Streep and CNN had already taken up their malevolent residence.

And please note that, in the rancid spirit of fake news, Trump had the gall to accuse the university of “practic[ing] violence on innocent people” — this from a White House resident who has not seen fit to mention the dozens of bomb threats called in to dozens of Jewish Community Centers during recent weeks. A reader possessed of a sense of humor might find Trump’s indignation hilarious, in the light of his hatchet man Steve Bannon’s declaration, a few days earlier, that the news media ought to “keep its mouth shut.” But it is not so laughable for Trump to threaten to crush the university by depriving it of federal research funds, which amount to 55 percent of Berkeley’s research income.

If Trump were in the habit of defending his verbal blasts — though if he did, would he have time to do anything else? — he might call attention to his question mark and insist that he was only asking his base, his audience, to vote. In this he would be following the ancient Roman practice of leaving it to the mob to condemn gladiators, or save them, by turning their thumbs up or thumbs down. More recently, government by plebiscite has been a recourse of tyrants like Hugo Chavez.

As for the so-called “black bloc,” these are the property-destroying anarchists who show up to smash things at anti-Trump rallies, fueling a boom in the balaclava business. The window smashers are vastly outnumbered by peaceful protesters, for de facto they are parasitic upon the larger crowds they cannot summon but which they can crowd out of the spotlight. In Washington, DC, on Jan. 21, the couple hundred masked superheroes who were arrested for smashing windows and setting fires numbered some 0.04 percent of the women’s marchers who clogged the Washington streets the next day. Last week, it was (by all accounts) fewer than 100 of the masked would-be superheroes who showed up among a total of more than 1,500 demonstrators outside UC Berkeley’s Martin Luther King student union, to denounce the vicious Breitbart “news” agitator Milo Yiannopoulos, that bad joke of a glib provocateur who had been invited to speak at Berkeley (among other University of California campuses) by collegiate Republicans whose scruples follow the radical Trump down the race-baiting hole where so-called conservatives go when not pretending they have principles.

European black blocs began to show up in the 1980s, starting in Germany. In America, “black blocs” numbering a few dozen rioters have been attaching themselves to much larger demonstrations since 1999, when anarchists, many hailing from Eugene, Oregon, showed up at the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization to strike blows against global capitalism by smashing Starbucks, Nike and other corporate windows. Some identified as the “Eugene Brick Throwers Union Local 666.” Another masked phalanx showed up at Occupy Oakland in 2011. Now they swim in a vastly larger sea of anti-Trump protesters. It’s likely we haven’t seen the last of them.

The black blocs know well that an equipped and disciplined handful can start riots, and that riots get their adrenaline flowing. That the firebombs and broken windows arouse the fear and disgust of others is either of no interest to them or, rather, forms part of a disastrous theory that, by inciting police violence, they can recruit more supporters and convince others that business-as-usual is untenable. Monitors who try to keep the large marches orderly sometimes try to seal the disruptors off from larger crowds, but even the best efforts of monitors often come up short when the black blocs are hell-bent on creating a spectacle. Then the media spotlight shifts to them. Video cameras put their stamp on the disrupters. They become “the story.” So it was when a few ‘60s antiwar demonstrators carrying North Vietnamese or National Liberation Front flags seized the spotlight, as did a scatter of American flag burners, even when more people carried flags than lit them afire.

Of course the black blocs do Trump’s work. They help convince bystanders that protests are dangerous, so the next time they keep people away, especially the disabled and parents of small children. They may — who knows? — include agents provocateurs in the employ of Trump’s legions, vigilantes or less responsible police departments.

Black bloc actions are predicated on stick-figure “theory” — on infantile fantasies of power and how it is attained.

But even if they aren’t fueled by anything but ideology, they send a ridiculous message. Global capitalism is not a plate glass window; it cannot be smashed. If it is ever to be superseded by a more decent system, that can only be if the radicals convince people that they can make a better life under a different political-economic dispensation. To the contrary, black bloc actions are predicated on stick-figure “theory” — on infantile fantasies of power and how it is attained. That is why no less a revolutionary than V. I. Lenin denounced “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

Beneath the balaclava is the grinning face of Trump’s strategist-partner, Steve Bannon, slashing his way through the hazy thickets of war against the media, intellectuals and the wrong kind of plutocrats. The more balaclavas and Molotov cocktails, the bigger Bannon puffs up. This is Trump’s grand vizier, the Steve Bannon who for years has been attracted to fever dreams of apocalyptic violence and thorough-going destruction in behalf of a paranoid, Manichaean view of the world. This is the Bannon who, as USA Today reports, thrills over and over to a kindergarten version of Samuel Huntington’s notion of a “clash of civilizations:”

In dozens of hours of audio recordings…of his Breitbart News Daily radio show in 2015 and 2016, Bannon told his listeners that the United States and the Western world are engaged in a “global existential war,” and he entertained claims that a “fifth column” of Islamist sympathizers had infiltrated the US government and news media.

There’s nothing casual about these references. If nothing else, he is consistent. This is the Bannon who in a 2010 tea party speech told New Yorkers: “It doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, and the winds blow off the high plains of this country, through the prairie, and lights [sic] a fire that will burn all the way to Washington in November.”

Sometimes Bannon’s comic-book operetta sounds like a sort of fascist parody of global class war in which righteously nationalist entrepreneurs lead the Western masses to take up pitchforks to assault the bastions of Wall Street. More often, however, his enemy is Islam.

These could not have been random references. Bannon’s undisguised reference to the left’s crackpot terrorists of 1969-70 tells the tale. Bannon’s game, however glossed by a sprinkling of concepts, is war and destruction. The prairie-firing Bannon is a weird rehash of the mad bombers of yore. Insofar as they had any coherent idea whatsoever, the Weathermen (later Weather Underground) wanted to “bring the war home,” forcing American troops to return home from Vietnam to police a domestic insurgency that would hook up with Maoist murderers, Guevarist putschists, and larger-than-life Black Panthers to liberate the Third World and repossess the riches of the Third World.

By partial contrast, sometimes Bannon’s comic-book operetta sounds like a sort of fascist parody of global class war in which righteously nationalist entrepreneurs lead the Western masses to take up pitchforks to assault the bastions of Wall Street. More often, however, his enemy is Islam, and the all-consuming war of our time is the Judeo-Christian “global war against Islamic fascism.” This is the war in which the kleptocrat (his word) Vladimir Putin, for all his deficiencies, will prove a heartier ally than, say, the liberal government of Tunisia. Not that Bannon is coherent. Sometimes nationalists of any kind are his good guys. “I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors,” he told right-wing Catholics in 2014. They are friends of “the church militant.” As long as there’s a culture war, Bannon doesn’t seem too particular. Total war of one kind or another is the name of the game that Bannon shares with the black blocs — except that Bannon’s troops have the guns. Anything that freaks out the liberals is good material. His muck of a Manichaean world view appeals to an ignoramus like Trump, who must gape, dumbstruck, at the bombast of the pseudo-intellectual Bannon.

This is the Bannon who, as editor-in-chief of Breitbart in 2015, gleefully published a Scot named Gerald Warner, among whose contributions was one headlined: “Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.” The full flavor of this mentality requires a lengthy quote if we are to appreciate the stench in its fullness:

The American left is in a feeding frenzy, cynically exploiting the tragic murders of nine black worshippers in a Charleston church to promote its agenda of cultural genocide against conservatism, tradition and the South…. The liberals feel they are on a roll, having trashed states’ rights by railroading compulsory acceptance of homosexual marriage through the Supreme Court. Now, they feel, is the time to airbrush out of history every tradition that is an obstacle to their new, rootless, alien society based on intolerant political correctness. The epitome of everything they detest and fear is the Confederate Flag, so that is now the target of a hate campaign so fanatical and irrational as to seem barely sane…. a tsunami of destructive liberal triumphalism. The object is to disinherit and eradicate the historical memory and distinctive culture of millions of Americans. It is a second scorched-earth devastation of the South, cultural this time rather than material. This is Obama’s March to the Sea…. While your supporters are trashing the monuments and reputations of the forefathers of so many Americans, Barack, you might just want to remind us again which state of the Union, north or south, your ancestors resided in during the traumatic years 1861-65? Or did Kenya not have a dog in that fight? The Confederacy was not a callous conspiracy to enforce slavery, but a patriotic and idealistic cause for which 490,000 men were killed, wounded or taken captive. The Civil War was not fought over slavery, but in defence of states’ rights. As for secession, the very existence of the United States derived from its secession from the British Crown. Why did the South, then, not have the right to secede in turn from a Union grown intolerable to it, with Abraham Lincoln assuming the role of George III?

This is the kind of company Bannon was keeping when Donald Trump decided to appoint him his Generalissimo.

And so, now that Trump has installed Bannon to the upper reaches of the National Security Council, who is master? For now, they share a passion, a project, and a propaganda apparatus. The White House is piecing together its own Pravda. Breitbart, paired with Trump’s tweets, is in the process of forming an all but official organ. Each man finds the other useful, although one is more tempted by outbursts than the other. Think about this: Steve Bannon as Trump’s stable twin. In the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza pointed out last week that despite the fallout over the immigration ban, the early signs are that Bannon’s influence is growing. He recently brought two former Breitbart staffers to the White House, and more Bannon people are on the way. His New York-based spokeswoman, Alexandra Preate, is expected to come to the White House and serve him in both a communications role and as his own chief of staff, a move that underscores his effort to build his own fiefdom outside of [Reince] Priebus’s control.

Who knows the future of this savage partnership? And who knows what daggers Reince Priebus has in his own scabbard?

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.