Yesterday, I watched the online stream for the Munk Debate on the Rise of Populism. The debate featured Steve Bannon in battle with David Frum.
Bannon, as we all know, popularized Brietbart, an alt-right news website, and was a key architect in Donald Trump gaining the presidency. He also achieved fame on SNL as the Grim Reaper in the Alec Baldwin/Donald Trump skits.
Meanwhile, David Frum is a highly respected moderate Canadian and American conservative political commentator, son of the famed Canadian journalist Barbara Frum, former speechwriter for George Bush, author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, and a senior editor at The Atlantic.
Here was the debate resolution:
“Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist, not liberal.”
As you would expect, Bannon was arguing the affirmative and Frum argued the negative.
Personally, I would’ve written this resolution differently as in current form it is ambiguous between
- Descriptive Thesis: It is most likely given current trajectories that the future of western politics will be populist.
- Normative Thesis: Going into the future, the best prospect for western politics will be populist.
We can proceed on the assumption that the debaters were concerned with the normative thesis. With that in mind, the point of the debate resolution is to pit two political philosophies — liberal democracy and (populist) economic nationalism — against one another.
Unfortunately, neither view was explicitly defined by debate participants. To be sure, the attentive viewer could cobble together two relatively serviceable definitions but no doubt it would’ve been helpful for the non-policy-wonks to have clearer definitions at the outset.
I think Frum clearly won the debate. (But then I would think that, right? Debates rarely change opinions.) He succinctly and passionately stated his position in his opening statement: “Populism is a scam, it’s a lie, it’s a fake, it has nothing.” He then backed that striking statement up with evidence: for example, he pointed out how Trump had exploded the deficit, how he had utterly failed to deliver on a promise of healthcare for all, how the tumultuous markets of October 2018 portend the failures of Trump’s economic policies, and how Trumop’s revision of NAFTA failed to address critical topics like the digital economy.
For his part, Bannon tried self-deprecation seasoned with folksy charm, but that couldn’t mask the absurdity of several of his claims. For example, his insistence that Trump is not Islamophobic because his first foreign visit as POTUS was to Saudi Arabia elicited incredulous laughter from the audience.
Bannon’s strongest card in the debate was to point out that countries like the United States have socialism for the wealthy and capitalism for everyone else. He’s right, and the 2008 bailout of investment banks remains controversial for just that reason.
However, it truly is delusional to suggest that Donald Trump presents a solution: just look at the scandal-ridden nature of his administration (e.g. Tom Price; Scott Pruitt; emoluments clause; Ryan Zinke …). Indeed, the scandal and corruption of this swamp-ridden presidency is unprecedented. Set against that backdrop, one can hardly accuse Frum of hyperbole when he observed:
“If people acted like the President the place [America] would be Gotham City.”
Hence, my conclusion: Frum effectively demonstrated that while Bannon’s populism does effectively exploit dissatisfaction at the status quo, in terms of positive solutions, it does indeed have nothing.
The Fascist Snowflake
Now I come to the thing I really want to talk about: the opposition to the event itself.
The debate was delayed by close to an hour because of angry protesters in the streets who were harassing arriving audience members, screaming at them that they were supporting fascism. (Did you get that? Simply attending the debate apparently makes one a supporter of fascism.)
Inside the hall, one protester unfurled a banner as Bannon began to speak — “No hate. No bigotry. No platform for Bannon’s white supremacy.” The moderator invited her to stay on the condition that she would extend the courtesy of remaining silent so the debate could proceed. She refused and instead kept shouting until she was removed by police.
On Twitter, I defended the importance of this kind of debate:
One minute into #SteveBannon's opening remarks, a protester is already trying to shout him down. Police officers are now removing the anti-free speech snowflake from the auditorium. You defeat Bannon's ideas by debating them, not shouting them down. #MunkDebate
— Tentative Apologist (@RandalRauser) November 2, 2018
Some people didn’t appreciate my tweet. Apparently, many people believe shouting at is preferable to debating with.
One gentleman took issue with the fact that I called these protesters snowflakes. But the fact is that the slang term snowflake refers to individuals who are driven by an emotional response and unable to tolerate the opinions of others. If you scream at people who only want to hear a formal debate between thought leaders from the two most significant socio-political forces in the western world, then yeah, you’re a snowflake.
Another response on Twitter was particularly revealing. One lady replied to my tweet as follows:
“Oh. We@fought WWII all wrong then. We should have sent debaters to Normandy.”
“I see, so you advocate using military force and violence to suppress *ideas*? Which economic theories, philosophies, and political movements should be suppressed by violence? Can you provide a list?”
This lady retorted that she doesn’t advocate violence. So, I guess she just advocates for inflammatory rhetorical excess (Normandy?!)? I then replied with a pointed question:
“So how should we respond to ecnomic [sic] nationalist movements apart from labeling them fascist and not debating their thought leaders?”
Well, not exactly crickets. In her tweet, she did suggest following the path of Iceland:
“marching to parliament and putting those who trashed country in jail.”
I see, so the answer is simply “Lock them up!” Hmm, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
And that’s the problem. So much of the opposition to nationalists like Steve Bannon consists of little more than bullying tactics to silence others with shouts and epithets and rhetorically excessive calls for forcible suppression (e.g. violence and imprisonment). And that brings us to the ironic conclusion that these angry protesters with their rage-fueled tantrums exhibit some of the classic hallmarks of the very fascism they claim to oppose.