the Hedgehog vs. Bannon the Honey Badger
By Bret Stephens
New York Times
October 19, 2017
It isn’t hard to guess who John McCain had in mind when,
speech on Monday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia
— the finest speech of his storied political career — he denounced the
“half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find
scapegoats than solve problems.”
It’s easy to guess, too, the names of the Senate and
House Republicans Stephen Bannon had in mind when, at a Values Voter Summit in
Washington over the weekend, he declared “a season of war against the G.O.P.
McCain and Bannon are the antipodes of the Republican
Party. The institutionalist versus the insurgent. The internationalist versus
the America Firster. The maverick versus the ideologue.
Above all, the hedgehog versus the
The hedgehog, said the Greek poet Archilochus, knows one
big thing. McCain knows honor. He refused early release from prison camp in
Hanoi to save his honor. He reproved Republican voters for calling Barack Obama
an Arab in 2008 to save his party’s honor. He championed the surge in Iraq
when it was least popular, to save the country’s honor.
He paid for all of it and will be remembered as a giant
among dwarves because of it.
Right now, McCain, his allies and their ideas appear to be
a waning force in the Republican Party. They are RINOs, cucks, and “globalists.”
Many of them, like Tennessee’s Bob Corker, will retire rather than face
bruising primary challenges from the ever-farther right. On Monday McCain called
America “the land of the immigrant’s dream,” and said: “We live in a
land made of ideals, not blood and soil.” To a large and growing segment of
the G.O.P., which thinks magnanimity is for losers, these statements amount to a
form of treason.
The honey badger, by contrast, will do anything to get what
it wants. It is wily, nasty and has as much use for honor as a pornographer has
for dress. In the 2016 presidential campaign, according to biographer Joshua
Green, Bannon treated white supremacists as useful fellow travelers and urged
Donald Trump to persist in what seemed to many to be his use of anti-Jewish
tropes. Later he waged a smear campaign against H.R. McMaster on the grounds
that the national security adviser was anti-Israel.
For the honey badger, it’s whatever works: anti-Semite
one day; Israel’s make-believe champion the next. Bannon is the most revolting
operator in American political life since Roy Cohn. He is also the most
In his speech, Bannon asked of the Senate majority leader,
Mitch McConnell: “Who’s going to be Brutus to your Julius Caesar”? Caesar
was stabbed 23 times on the floor of the Roman Senate on the 15th of March, 44
B.C. John Wilkes Booth also invoked Brutus from the stage of Ford’s Theatre
after he had assassinated Lincoln, the father of the Republican Party. This is
what now passes for acceptable speech among the G.O.P.’s “values voters.”
Bannon thinks he can get away with this because he already
has. He did so to spectacular effect last year with Donald Trump, and again last
month in Alabama with Judge Roy Moore. He will run this play as often as he can,
whether his candidates win or lose. The goal isn’t to win elections but to
purge the party and remake it in Bannon’s image. He wasn’t kidding when he
told historian Ronald Radosh in 2013 that he’s a “Leninist.”
It also helps Bannon that the Roll-Over Republicans who
might oppose him lack the political courage to do so. Winston Churchill said of
the neutral countries in World War II, “each one hopes that if he feeds the
crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.” Think of Paul Ryan as the
moral equivalent of Norway.
What might stop Bannon? Nobody should expect G.O.P.
invertebrates to ever gain a spine. But Judge Moore is in a dead
heat with Doug Jones, his Democratic opponent, in what should be the
easiest Republican cakewalk of the season. Even the stupid party might remember
its Senate nominations of Delaware’s Christine “I’m not a witch”
O’Donnell and Missouri’s Todd “legitimate rape” Akin.
But parties need more than just the spur of defeat to give
voters a sense of moral belonging and political purpose, and in his speech
Monday McCain did that:
“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We
are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have
done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have
become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation
to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves
if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are
absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
This is the finest expression of the American cause uttered
by any major political figure in a generation. It could yet serve as a rallying
point for a Republican Party that can save itself from dishonor, win its share
of elections, and stand up to the honey badgers who mean to pillage it.