At a presidential campaign debate in September 2020, Trump was asked if he had any message he wanted to send to groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers — basically the white supremacist, prone to violence contingent. Trump did, he said: “stand back and standby”. When the Senator from Missouri Josh Hawley gave a clenched fist salute to the violent insurrectionists at the US capitol on January 6th, it was a visual metaphor for “standby.” And, when Steve Bannon surrendered to DoJ just a few days ago he had a message for his shock troops from the steps of FBI HQ. Standby.
Standby in modern usage is a military term that means “be ready.” Implicit in the meaning is to be ready for something that will occur soon. Units are not put on standby for something that will take place in a few months. It seems clear that “standby” is being used by elements of the far right in America as a code word for impending violent action against the government or civilians. Bannon is methodically preparing his mob to commit violence at his direction and at the right time and place to create maximum impact. Bannon is slowly bringing them to a boil. Many of these people fetishize the military and some groups, like the Oath Keepers, have memberships that include large numbers of current or former military and law enforcement. The overtly martial language and militaristic trappings that Bannon uses are no accident. He’s playing to their military fantasies.
Trump is, literally, a moron. He has no policy objectives, no end game, no strategy. He is unread and incurious. A malignant narcissist in this to feed the gaping, unquenchable need that churns within him. The term of art that best describes Trump is “useful idiot.” Bannon knows this. He’s only using Trump to motivate and activate a subset of the Republican base. Bannon on the other hand is a committed ideologue. He has studied political movements, knows exactly what he wants and has a plan to get it. Our system is ill-equipped to deal with a Steve Bannon. We enshrine due process, free speech, minority rights and the presumption of innocence. Bannon is using all of this to destroy the system that protects him. Perhaps the best historical analogue for what may be coming is the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s where another committed ideologue, Francisco Franco, joined an authoritarian coup against the Spanish state. The ensuing civil war lasted nearly 4 years and killed between 250,000 and 750,000 (estimates vary widely). Early in his career Franco was not that into politics and served in the Spanish Republican Army to the rank of brigadier general. But he was influenced by fascists movements in Italy and Germany and eventually became an avowed fascist himself. A fascist describes someone with extreme right-wing authoritarian views. Fascists also tend to emphasize nation, religion, language and ethnicity (race). Bannon is marshalling his forces, using his many platforms to stoke fear and resentment, which he will turn into anger, and anger will metastasize into rage, and rage into violence.
The stars are aligning. Events are in motion that can’t be stopped. Investigations into the many abuses of power during the Trump administration, particularly the House Select Committee investigating the 1/6 insurrection, may be what sets off the explosion. Congress has little choice but to move forward. If they stop, there will be no accountability for people in positions of trust who tried to end our democracy. But, if they continue, they are handing Bannon the pretext he is looking for. To paraphrase Shakespeare, Bannon will soon cry havoc and let loose his dogs of war. We seem destined for this coming calamity; I don’t think either side is going to blink.
It’s not just polarization, it is a broader devolution of American civil society. A rejection of reason and science…a rejection of objective reality. The signs are there. Churches worshipping guns. Parishioners chanting thinly veiled epithets at Joe Biden during Sunday service. Heavily armed non-state militias dispensing street justice with our police abetting them. Drive through large parts of this country and you will see the billboards, the yard signs, the bumper stickers. These people are a minority, but they are a passionate minority. And a violent one. They have been prepped and primed — ready to go up like a wildfire of hate. Bannon and others of his ilk are holding a match to the pile. They’ve sent the coded message: standby.
It won’t be long.