Debate Won’t Save You: Some thoughts on the Steves.

Ever since Buzzfeed published a transcript of a speech Stephen Bannon gave at the Vatican, there has been an ongoing effort to understand him through what he reads and what he writes. The New York Times, alone, has published parts of a hip-hop opera Bannon wrote about Compton based on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a fine piece by Marc Tracy about his chance encounter with Bannon in an airport and the ensuing conversation they had about David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest,” and a lengthy dissertation by Jason Horowitz on how the philosopher Julius Evola might have influenced Bannon’s thinking. These exist, of course, because Bannon, himself, has effectively walled himself off from any sort of public scrutiny. Outside of picking up the phone to yell at Times reporters, Bannon does not give interviews, he does not publicly proclaim ownership over anything his boss does which leaves the rest of us to take his healthy archives and play something of a matching game between prior ideology and what might be coming out of the White House on any given day.

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself becoming something of a Bannonoligist as well. The fragment that most captured my attention was a short interview Bannon gave with his hometown newspaper in Richmond, just a few weeks after the election. Excerpt below:

This, I believe, is the core of the story Bannon, and by extension, Stephen Miller, want to tell America, one that was reflected in Bannon’s calls at the Vatican for a return to “Judeo-Christian capitalism.” Boiled down, the story says that men like Marty Bannon bought into a middle class dream of America, one that provided steady employment for an American company in a city like Richmond. If the Marty Bannons of America placed their faith in the company and in American capitalism, they could retire with dignity. This dream, Bannon argues, is the core of American society, one that was gutted in 2008 when the Democrats decided to bail out the banks. Liberal politics, with all its divisive conversations about identity and its obsession with equality, had turned around and stabbed middle class Americans in the back to bail out the super wealthy ‘coastal elites’ and the media and entertainment complexes in Los Angeles and New York turned a blind eye and went back to their work of dismantling the middle class and dividing up the spoils between themselves and all the clueless minorities who were stupid enough to believe liberal politics had their best interests at heart.

You don’t have to dig very far to find both the racism and anti-Semitism in this narrative. When Bannon says “coastal elites,” he almost certainly is talking about Jews and his past comments, in which he complained about the disproportionate amount of Asian and East Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley, show that his vision for a Christian capitalism is one where minorities, if they exist at all, play a supporting role. But those critiques don’t really rebut Marty Bannon’s narrative, at least not directly, because his son is not speaking to coastal elites or to minorities. He, instead, is appealing to a purely nostalgic vision of American careerism, one that was nearly impossible for Hillary Clinton, with all her scandals, however invented, to rebut. Who doesn’t want to believe in a country where a person can invest in a company that in, return, invests in them? And who can look at the 2008 bailouts and not feel a flicker of righteous anger that the banks continued to prosper while men like Marty Bannon were left holding the bill?

In a vacuum freed from morals and the realities of the economy, Marty Bannon’s narrative is stunningly broad and unassailable, so much so that it got a huckster like Donald Trump elected to the presidency. It, ironically enough, overlaps with the vision of American capitalism that brought millions of immigrants to the United States. There are reports in Washington that Trump will soon start reaching out to working class, documented immigrants. I have no idea if this is true or not, but if Bannon had been able to suppress his racism and reached out to these legal immigrants during the campaign, his candidate certainly would have seen major gains amongst the Asian and Latino working class, many of whom also blame undocumented immigrants and “coastal elites” for everything that ails them.

I do not think Stephen Bannon is a genius or that he has been playing some 4-D game of chess with both his boss and the American public. But he is an avid reader and a dramatist obsessed with grand politics and Shakespeare. His close ties with David Horowitz and his Freedom Center think tank provided him both the theory and the support he needed to enact his father’s story into the bloated theater of the presidential election. And his anger is the touchstone for every ugly thing that has come out of the first days of the Trump administration. Bannon may very well be cast aside by Trump as he stumbles around to recover his battered image, but the story of Marty Bannon has already captivated half the country. How could it not?

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For most of us who grew up in wealthy communities, attended top-rate schools and spent weekends working on the student newspaper or attending debate tournaments or plotting diplomacy at Model UN, Stephen Miller should cut a familiar figure. His rise to power, which meticulously detailed last June by Julia Ioffe in Politico, told of a kid who grew up in a liberal household in liberal Santa Monica. By the time he reached puberty, Miller had become something of a right-wing pundit prodigy — he was a frequent call-in guest on the conservative Larry Elder talk show, where he railed against the plague of political correctness amongst the students and faculty at his school and he wrote a regular column.

Just as Bannon’s literary leanings have captivated critics, Miller’s pedigree has done the same with journalists, many of whom grew up in similarly insulated areas of liberal privilege. I split my own childhood between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Chapel Hill, North Carolina and came across a lot of people who, like Miller, responded violently to the upper middle-class liberal consensus that dictated their lives. I mostly met these kids on the national debate circuit which, in the late nineties, was rife with passages from Charles Krauthammer and Francis Fukuyama. They, like Miller and I, almost all went to excellent schools within liberal enclaves. One’s upbringing, of course, should not determine one’s politics — I do not doubt that many of the debate kids I knew who chose the hard right did so out of some sincere realization they had with the world — but I do think it does shape how one enacts his or her new worldview. It will almost always be more oppositional and more knowing and it will always track back to their childhoods: I know these fuckers, the thinking goes, and let me tell you everything that’s wrong with them.

Journalists, especially ones who come from Miller’s background, tend to pump up anything that reminds them of themselves. But I don’t think that’s what has happened with Miller. His background is, indeed, important. Horowitz, himself, writing in Breitbart last week, laid out Bannon’s childhood like this:

Later, Horowitz says…

Over the weekend, the Times published a revealing portrait of Miller’s time on Capitol Hill. Published with the headline “Stephen Miller is a ‘True Believer’ Behind Core Trump Policies,” it told of how Miller, then an aide for Senator Jeff Sessions, would spam the press and Republican lawmakers with lengthy e-mail diatribes about the evils of immigration.

This passage, in particular, struck me, and, I believe, goes back to the idea of an unassailable narrative.

“Stephen was the kind of guy who would make a passionate ideological argument to a roomful of people who were there to make pragmatic decisions,” said Alex Conant, a former aide to Mr. Rubio who remembers squaring off against Mr. Miller at a routine Republican messaging meeting that turned into a full-dress immigration debate.

For Miller, the mechanisms and all the micro-dealings in Washington were unimportant. What mattered more was a broad, moral vision of the country that focused on all the damage immigrants had done to the American working class. This, I believe, was the learned response of a contrarian who has been arguing with liberals since the age of thirteen.


As I read the Times article on Sunday morning, I was reminded of a debate argument that also ended up captivating its small, insular world. It started with the Malcolm X debate team at the University of Louisville who began to subvert policy debate with something called “project” or “performative” debate. Before Louisville, policy debate was the most expensive form of the activity. For the uninitiated (and thank the lord if you are), in a policy debate, the affirmative side comes up with a specific policy-based plan that affirms the resolution. So, for example, if the resolution is, as it was in 2014–2015, “The United States federal government should substantially increase its non-military exploration and/or development of the Earth’s oceans,” the affirmative team proposes a plan to do just that and the negative tells you why this is a bad idea.

This process requires mountains of evidence (the term, more or less, for clippings of newspaper articles, law reviews, books and academic studies) and if you wanted to be competitive in the late nineties, you had to have, at minimum, access to a Lexis/Nexis account or a university library, attend a school that was willing to let you travel around the country for tournaments and the money to attend summer institutes at schools like the University of Michigan, Dartmouth, Emory or Wake Forest. This massive cost of entry meant that the list of the best teams just reflected the nation’s best, and most expensive schools across the country, whether public or private: Glenbrooks North and South, New Trier, Georgetown Day, St. Marks, Head Royce, the College Preparatory School, Montgomery Bell Academy, etc.

Louisville’s innovation was to turn the focus of the debate away from the resolution and onto the activity of policy debate, itself, with all its inherent hierarchies and biases. The debate round no longer was a referendum on whether the United States should send submarines to explore the Spratley Islands, but rather what it meant that a team of underprivileged, minority students at Louisville were asked to conform to standards of debate that only benefitted more privileged students at, say, Dartmouth or Northwestern.

(A lengthy explanation can be found in Dana Roe Polson’s dissertation on performance debate which I have excerpted here.)

another clip from Polson’s paper.

Back in my own short-lived debate coaching days in the mid-aughts, I judged a round between a public high school in Long Beach and a private, Catholic school from Orange County. The Long Beach team argued that as young, black students within a white supremacist activity, their life stories had been ignored and marginalized. They proposed that we abandon the privileged, nihilistic world of a policy debate and share our own personal narratives so that we could better understand how privilege worked, not as an abstract idea, but amongst the five of us in the room. My role, as the judge, was to use my ballot as a transformative tool — if the narratives/performance model kept winning, more of these sorts of conversations could keep taking place across the country. The team from the Catholic school, I recall, wasn’t really prepared and spent most of the round trying, unsuccessfully to steer the conversation back to whether or not the United States should cancel its extraordinary renditions program. Whenever they’re presented with an argument, debaters, myself included, have a moment where we try to clear away any moral or even practical baggage and examine the thing as a purely rhetorical weapon. The team from Long Beach, I realized, had created an almost unassailable position and replaced the usual nihilistic bean counting of policy debate with a big fucking story.

In 2013, Ryan Walsh, a queer, black student from Emporia State University, a small, Division II school in Kansas, and his partner Elijah Smith made the prestigious NDT Finals and beat a powerhouse team from Northwestern. They, like Long Beach and Louisville, scrapped the resolution and the workings of debate, in general, and turned the focus on the activity itself. The news of Emporia’s win created an odd moment for policy debate in the national conversation — old debaters who worked in the media weighed in on whether or not this form of debate was good, or, perhaps more telling, “fair” to Northwestern. Radiolab even did a full segment on the Emporia State team.

Here’s the video of the round.

Much of the backlash against performance debate smacked of the condescension that plagues much of the national conversation about race and narrative, especially around awards season. The critics, whether Rebekah Curtis in the Federalist or Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, argued for a strict formalism — debate should just be about the issues and not about political correctness — and that the whole thing was just a trick that allowed black debaters to play on white guilt to win debate rounds. But white guilt alone rarely leads to any sort of sea change, especially within an activity as besotted with privilege as policy debate. The reason why it worked, aside from the fact that the debaters were really good, was because they were able to pull back away from the minutia of the round, itself, and provide a damning vision of the debate world and all its contradictions. The effect was powerful — I teared up the first time I watched the Emporia versus Northwestern final, as did many others I know in the debate community. Performance debate is a part of every tournament now and anyone who tries to steer it back to the old days will be quickly written off as a pedant, or worse.

Bannon and Miller, I believe, are practicing their own form of performance debate. Nearly every moral calculation has been flipped on its head and the terms, of course, are fundamentally different, but at its core, they are arguing that the media, Washington and Hollywood have fundamentally corrupted politics and that before we have any policy conversation, the whole damn system must go. Politics, the entire civic system, no longer matters — all those things are the mechanisms of a fake world that propped up the wealthy, privileged coastal elites. Miller and Bannon, as lead writers, only have to keep pulling any debate back to the corruption of powerful, liberal institutions who robbed Marty Bannon of his American birthright.

Debaters, myself included, tend to reduce everything down into the basic structures of rhetoric. Whether something is true or false matters less than how it was delivered (this is probably why so many of us end up as lawyers or in politics). So, I do want to say here that it _does_ matter that the critique of policy debate by the performance teams was fundamentally true and that what Miller and Bannon have been selling is patently false. We haven’t all been subsumed into some Borges story yet — the skeletons are still where we left them.

But the power of performance debate lies in its ability to rebut anything the other side might bring up with more performance debate. If you can convince someone that everything is corrupt, it follows that everything the system produces, whether from the Times or from CNN, can be cast off as “fake news.” The beauty of narrative debate was that it narrowed all the annoying, pedantic minutia of a policy round into one big, moral and pressing question about framework: What did the debate mean and could it mean more? For Bannon, the answer is both ideological and psychologically predictable: He wants to destroy the state and rebuild it in the image of his father. Miller, I imagine, spent most of his time on Capitol Hill sending out long, ideological diatribes via email because he understood, at some level, that if he won the framework debate, he wouldn’t have to follow it up with anything of substance. I don’t think any of this means that Miller is some dark genius — far, far from it — he was successful on the campaign trail because it’s not particularly hard to tell the story of Hillary Clinton’s corruption. Now that he’s been asked to say something more than his lifelong chant of “libs are stupid and corrupt,” he’s predictably floundered.

All this brought us to this moment: <adam curtis voice>

Trump’s inauguration speech was a ringing retelling of that story, one that had obviously been written by Bannon and Miller. And had their boss allowed them to stick to that story over the next few months, I have little doubt that they could have eventually passed through everything from a more carefully written version of the Muslim ban to full-scale deportation squads. Their story would have been enough because the opposition would always be arguing the old terms. But through their swift, clumsy action, they allowed their opposition to prop up, almost by accident, the only powerful narrative they had left. Over the past three weeks, all the things that Trump and his supporters might cast off as “snowflake” pedantry have been subsumed by a spontaneous solidarity rooted, oddly enough, in the idea of an equitable and humane multicultural society.

This version of multiculturalism is old, corny and breaks down every time its brought to an intersection, but its the corny story that has pulled millions of people into the streets to protest. The Women’s March, the Bodega Strike in New York and the dozens of airport and deportation protests have provided a stirring rebuke to so-called liberal thinkers like Columbia professor Mark Lilla, who, after the election, wrote an op-ed in the Times calling for the end of what he called “identity liberalism.” At airport terminals around the country, people sang “This Land is Your Land” and cheered as Muslims who had been detained at airports were released to their families. Those images, more than any rhetoric or political talk, have exposed all the ways in which Bannon’s unassailable argument was merely cover for white nationalism and any opposition should start and end with the spontaneous solidarity that has broken out around the country.