Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
On college campuses across the U.S., one finds a distinguished breed of student that I have (pithily) dubbed the Self-Proclaimed Undergraduate Public Intellectual, or SPUPI. The SPUPI is often referred to as “that guy,” and, yes, it is almost always a guy. You know that guy: He has the gall to ask questions in a 200-person lecture hall and treats your seminar discussion like an extended soliloquy.
SPUPIs would be fine, I guess, if their intellectualism was earnest. But the SPUPI’s one goal is to impress others with his knowledge. He’s never read a word of Sartre, and probably never will, but he’s “casually” mentioned the philosopher three times during dinner. In the interest of full disclosure, at my worst I can be a SPUPI, although I really try not to be.
SPUPIs eventually leave the campus and, if they’re lucky, might convince some people they’re sharp. Sometimes, these folks are pretty successful. In fact, one SPUPI-like character, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, sits comfortably at a desk right near the Oval Office.
Within a White House staff that would make the fully activated Hulk look like Plato, Bannon has emerged as President Trump’s intellectual spirit. Political reporters are obsessed with his reading habits. The New York Times ran a story about how a reporter once saw Bannon read a book in an airport and Politico wrote a piece quoting someone describing Bannon as “the most well-read person in Washington.” But Bannon is no intellectual heavyweight; he uses all the classic tools of a SPUPI to conceal his phoniness.
His faux-intellectual con was on full display during a 2014 interview with the Human Dignity Institute. In this interview, he introduces fluffy abstractions and doesn’t define them. Bannon mentions the “Judeo-Christian West” eleven times during this interview.
He’s also partial to “enlightened capitalism,” which he explains is at odds with “jihadist Islamic fascism” and “the immense secularization of the West.” Bannon never clarifies what makes “enlightened capitalism” enlightened, or what values and institutions constitute the “Judeo-Christian West.” We are also not told what distinguishes jihadist Islamic fascism from plain jihadism. For a SPUPI and for Bannon, this sort of confusion is a tool. The casual listener hears a string of concocted “isms” and, instead of wondering whether the speaker has said anything of substance, is impressed with his intellect.
Bannon also takes personal credit for inventing ideas that already exist. Bannon’s particular verbal tic is the phrase, “What I call.” With regard to Vladimir Putin, Bannon talks about, “What I call Eurasianism.” But Eurasianism is a Russian philosophy pioneered in the 1920s, far before Bannon was born. Bannon describes the threat to “enlightened capitalism” as “What I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist school of libertarian capitalism.” Aside from the fact that Rand opposed the libertarian movement of her day, Bannon is not the first person to refer to Rand’s followers as Objectivist. Rand was the first person to refer to her followers as Objectivist. To conclude his remarks, Bannon implores his audience to “do what I call a gut check,” apparently taking credit for the creation of a common English idiom.
Admittedly, it’s a bit unkind to judge a man by his verbal tics. But saying “what I call” is textbook SPUPI behavior. Authentic intellectuals must absorb information and come up with new ideas. Bannon convinces others he originated old ideas.
Finally, Bannon references thinkers he either hasn’t read or doesn’t understand. Bannon explains that Putin has been influenced by “Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism.” Presumably, Bannon isn’t willing to publicly endorse Italian fascism (I hope). But he does subsequently endorse both traditionalism and nationalism, especially in Russia.
But Evola’s traditionalism was both anti-Semitic and anti-Christian. He criticized Christianity for being a movement “born to a Jew,” which, if you’re already super anti-Semitic, is apparently a big insult. Bannon said Putin champions Evola-inspired traditionalism. So, when he explains that, “we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what [Putin’s] talking about as far as traditionalism goes,” he seems to be suggesting that Jews and Christians ascribe to a movement that despised both Jews and Christians. Or maybe Bannon doesn’t know much about Julius Evola at all.
SPUPIs don’t deserve public scorn. They’re just insecure college kids, and they’ll probably grow out of it. But Bannon has used SPUPI tactics far into adulthood. He isn’t the philosopher-king of nationalism. He’s an intellectual fraud and should be treated accordingly.
Max Foley-Keene is a freshman government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.