Bannon’s Deviant ‘Badge of Honor’

Stephen Bannon at the party congress of France’s far-right National Front on Saturday. Credit Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

In a speech last weekend in France, Stephen Bannon, the former top adviser to President Trump, urged an audience of far-right National Front Party members to “let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

On the face of it, Bannon’s advice is strange. After all, by any normative understanding, “racist,” “xenophobe” and “nativist” are negative words from both a moral and rational point of view. Their definitions, taken from any standard dictionary, will bear this out. Racism, xenophobia and nativism embody, in their very meanings, both irrationality and unfairness. Irrationality is considered to be a negative quality (except perhaps by Dadaists); so is unfairness.

For those of us to wish to understand the way Bannon is manipulating language here, and to what end, it is important to note what he is not doing. It is typical for far-right politicians who want to attract racist, xenophobic or nativist voters to attempt to provide at least the pretense of reasons, invariably shoddy ones, for animus against racial minorities, immigrants, or foreigners.

In the United States, President Trump regularly connects individual crimes or criminal gangs with immigration in an effort to more broadly establish a link between immigrants with crime in the public consciousness. Though studies have shown that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, Trump continues to make such claims (his statement that immigrants bring “tremendous amounts of crime” received a score of “four Pinocchios” from fact-checkers).

Similarly bizarre false claims are made by non-American far-right politicians, who also regularly engage in anti-Semitic innuendo. There is a natural next step to using innuendo and the manufacturing of reasons to justify racism and xenophobia — namely to drop the facade altogether. Bannon is urging the adoption of an irrational bias against racial minorities, immigrants and foreigners, one that does not require reasons, even bad ones, to support it. And he recommends presenting such irrationality as virtuous.

Accepting Bannon’s advice requires rejecting empathy for already embattled groups. Some might view that as acceptable, preferring to weigh only statistical arguments in deciding what to do about, for example, immigration policy. But taking Bannon’s advice also requires rejecting any recognizable practice of giving plausible reasons for holding a view or position. To proudly identify as a xenophobe is to identify as someone who is not interested in argument. It is to be irrationally fearful of foreigners, and proudly so. It means not masking one’s irrationality even from oneself.

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2018-03-13 11:00:00
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