By Joseph Orosco (February 7, 2017)
Sales of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are booming across the country and websites are publishing lists of dystopian literature that might help to make sense of life under the Trump administration.
Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols have provided us with what might be called the Bannon syllabus–a guide to the works that seem to underly the worldview of Trump’s white nationalist advisor Steve Bannon. They suggest that the works that seem to motivate his political ideology are ones that harbor a dark apocalyptic vision of a world in need of deep shock therapy to shake off a delusion of superficial satisfaction created by out of touch beauracratic elites:
“Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years—a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history.”
If this is the reactionary imagination that lies underneath Trumpism–a need to shock and dismantle layers of technocratic and elite ideology that prevent genuine and authentic progress and social evolution–then it seems to me that the best story to make sense of our political moment is not the one of Winston Smith’s resistance against The Party, but the one of the white, neurotic, middle class Narrator who changes his life by transforming in Tyler Durden: Chuck Palahniuks’ Fight Club.
Fight Club, of course, is the story of a nameless Narrator who feels trapped by the American capitalist dream of forever working to achieve middle class success and prosperity. He yearns for living an life of authentic (heterosexual) manhood. He finds this in the underground world of fight club: a space in which men gather to unleash punishing violence on one another, expressing the dominance they are denied in real life and in their relationships with women. They soon decide to take their ideas and turn them from a mere lifestyle choice into an alternative political movement (defined by an anti-corporate and anti-materialist stance) which they call Project Mayhem. The 1999 movie version of Fight Club ends with the group enacting a terrorist bombing of the global financial system, erasing the records of debt held by individuals, and potentially releasing all of us from the grips of the parasitic bankers to begin reconstructing our lives.
I’ve always found it interesting how popular this novel is with the many of the young white men I’ve taught over the years, particularly those attracted to right libertarian philosophies. But reading a little bit of the ideas that fascinate Steve Bannon, its seems to be that Fight Club might be the work we want to look to understand how, all of a sudden, the rage and anger of the neo Nazi (alt right) movement crept up and captured the fascination of so many Americans enough to vote for Trump. It may also explain the eagerness of the Trump administration to dismantle so many of the government programs that we have come to take for granted in modern life.