I wasn’t familiar with Steve Bannon, the White House’s chief strategist, before the Trump campaign, but his reading list feels awfully familiar:
Bannon, described by one associate as “the most well-read person in Washington,” is known for recommending books to colleagues and friends, according to multiple people who have worked alongside him. He is a voracious reader who devours works of history and political theory “in like an hour,” said a former associate whom Bannon urged to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. “He’s like the Rain Man of nationalism.”
Bannon’s 2015 documentary, “Generation Zero,” drew heavily on one of his favorite books, “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book explains a theory of history unfolding in 80- to 100-year cycles, or “turnings,” the fourth and final stage of which is marked by periods of cataclysmic change in which the old order is destroyed and replaced—a current period that, in Bannon’s view, was sparked by the 2008 financial crisis and has now been manifested in part by the rise of Trump.
Many political onlookers described Trump’s election as a “black swan” event: unexpected but enormously consequential. The term was popularized by Nassim Taleb, the best-selling author whose 2014 book Antifragile—which has been read and circulated by Bannon and his aides—reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insurgency.
It’s a broadside against big government, which Taleb faults for suppressing the randomness, volatility and stress that keeps institutions and people healthy. “As with neurotically overprotective parents, those who are trying to help us are hurting us the most,” he writes. Taleb also offers a withering critique of global elites, whom he describes as a corrupt class of risk-averse insiders immune to the consequences of their actions: “We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.”
Curtis Yarvin, the self-proclaimed “neoreactionary” who blogs under the name “Mencius Moldbug,” attracted a following in 2008 when he published a wordy treatise asserting, among other things, that “nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth.” When the organizer of a computer science conference canceled his appearance following an outcry over his blogging under his nom de web, Bannon took note: Breitbart News decried the act of censorship in an article about the programmer-blogger’s dismissal.
If Taleb and Yarvin laid some of the theoretical groundwork for Trumpism, the most muscular and controversial case for electing him president—and the most unrelenting attack on Trump’s conservative critics—came from Michael Anton, a onetime conservative intellectual writing under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus.
Thanks to an entree from Thiel, Anton now sits on the National Security Council staff. Initial reports indicated he would serve as a spokesman, but Anton is set to take on a policy role, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. A former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush’s National Security Council, Anton most recently worked as a managing director for Blackrock, the Wall Street investment firm.
Hiring Anton puts one of the key intellectual forces behind Trump in the West Wing. In his blockbuster article “The Flight 93 Election,” a 4,300-plus-word tract published in September 2016 under his pseudonym, Anton strikes many of the same notes as Taleb and Yarvin. “America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad,” he writes. He blasts conservatives as “keepers of the status quo” for refusing to take account of the need for “truly fundamental” change—especially a crackdown on immigration that he argues is promoting “ethnic separatism” and risks entrenching a permanent Democratic majority.