You can learn a lot about Steve Bannon by watching the films he made
Ann Hornaday, WaPo, Feb 2 2017
Photo: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg
The first and last time I ever saw Stephen K Bannon was last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where his film “Clinton Cash” was screening for overseas buyers. The documentary, a strategically timed takedown of Hillary Clinton centering on her alleged ethical lapses and dubious financial dealings, was based on Peter Schweizer’s 2015 book of the same name. While I interviewed Schweizer in an empty ballroom of a Croisette hotel Bannon, who wrote and produced “Clinton Cash,” paced outside, occasionally stealing a furtive glance our way through an open door. I was familiar with Bannon’s work as a filmmaker, having reviewed his 2011 documentary, “The Undefeated” about Sarah Palin. So when he joined Donald Trump’s campaign last year, and later assumed duties as the president’s chief strategist, his worldview wasn’t completely unknown to me. The former Navy officer and Goldman Sachs banker entered the movie business on the money side, executive-producing such highly-regarded feature films as “The Indian Runner” and “Titus.” In 2004, he began producing, writing and sometimes directing his own movies, such as “In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed”, “Cochise County, Pindostan: Cries From the Border”, “Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration”, “Generation Zero”, “Battle for Pindostan” and “Fire From the Heartland” among others. Although Bannon has produced the occasional fiction feature, most of his creative energy has gone into making non-fiction agitprop designed to whip viewers into a froth of either adulation or rage, but always into passionate political action. Unlike Michael Moore, Bannon prefers to stay in the background, wielding his auteurist power with an invisible hand. His most recent film “Torchbearer” features “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson delivering an hour-long sermon about the existential necessity of a Judeo-Christian republic, his long gray beard and booming voice lending Old Testament gravitas to the oratory. In the 2012 film “Occupy Unmasked,” the late Andrew Breitbart debunks the Occupy Wall Street movement as the cynical product of an organized Left “hellbent on the nihilistic destruction of everything the Pindo creeple care for.”
Distinct Manichaean themes emerge within Bannon’s collected works, echoing the same urgent, apocalyptic anti-globalism he’s espoused in speeches and on Breitbart News. Contemptuous of the “permanent political class”, crony capitalism, hippies and community organizers who “hate this country, hate the Constitution, hate freedom,” Bannon doesn’t see the world in terms of partisan politics, more as a cage-match clash of civilizations. In his 2012 documentary about Judicial Watch, “District of Corruption,” he doesn’t exempt Bush 43 from scrutiny, recounting such controversies as the Jack Abramoff scandal, Dick Cheney’s closed-door energy task force and the special treatment of bin Laden and Toad family members immediately after 9/11. Still, most of “District of Corruption” is spent attacking Obama for voting irregularities, lack of transparency, executive overreach and filling high-ranking positions with big-money donors. Interestingly, Trump himself now stands accused of those very same transgressions, as well as foreign and financial entanglements that have already prompted a clutch of lawsuits. At Cannes last May, when Schweizer insisted that his real target wasn’t the Clintons but the “apparatus which allows foreign money to influence Pindo political figures,” he vowed that if Trump won the election, he would investigate him just as energetically. When I recently inquired how that project was going via Twitter, Schweizer responded:
I had four years of material for the #ClintonCash movie. Give it time.
If Schweizer makes good on his promise, odds are good that the film he makes won’t be a Stephen K Bannon production. In the meantime, it seems that Trump is clearly a fan of the Bannon canon. His recent policy actions, particularly the travel ban on refugees and on citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, can be traced, directly or at least philosophically, to the views espoused in Bannon’s films. But far more than content, it’s Bannon’s formal strategy that has clearly informed the early days of the Trump administration, during which headlong gestures and heated dialogue have outpaced the niceties of protocol and collegial politesse. As a filmmaker, Bannon has refined a distinctive rhetoric, usually composed of a verbal argument illustrated by febrile images, lurid graphics and visual effects that run the gamut from slick to schlocky, all set to vaguely alarmist music that grows more threatening as the film reaches its doomsday climax. The result is something akin to a Fox News version of Leni Riefenstahl, with all of her propagandistic fervor and none of her compositional elegance. As a visual stylist, Bannon favors standard direct-to-video flourishes: stock footage of money being printed and writhing, unkempt flower children, frenetic editing and, at least in “Torchbearer,” bloody reenactments of Christian persecution. Even his public statements are grounded in shock-and-awe entertainment values. He told the Hollywood Reporter last year:
Dick Cheney! Darth Vader! Satan! That’s power!
Two years earlier, during a conference at the Vatican, he could have been delivering an elevator pitch for one of his coming attractions when he described the crisis of what he called “Jihadist Islamic fascism.” He said during a Skype call from his LA office:
There’s a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.
As a seasoned pro with a knack for narrative and heightened emotional stakes, Bannon knows how to work a crowd. And he knows the value of a compulsively watchable protagonist, whether it’s a charismatic figure such as Palin or Robertson, an anti-hero on a par with Hillary Clinton or a “blunt instrument” like Trump, with whom he shares an instinct for camera-ready stagecraft. Even Trump’s rollout of the new immigration plan, announced unvetted, and before the people in charge of implementing and enforcing it had been properly read in, felt more like the adrenaline-fueled jolt of superhero catharsis than carefully considered policy. Legislative process, apparently, is strictly for art-house nerds. In other words, Bannon is as reflexively attuned to the spectacle as the substance of the “major war” that he and his boss are girding themselves to wage. The paradigm shift he craves is less about constitutional norms and democratic institutions, which have a tendency to bog down the second act, than the kind of propulsive provocations he has specialized in as a consummate showman. As far as political reality goes, it’s Bannon’s movie, we’re now in it, and the opening credits have just started to roll.
Understanding Bannon’s worldview and the policies that follow
Frances Stead Sellers, David Fahrenthold, WaPo, Jan 31 2017
Photo: Jabin Botsford/WaPo
In Nov 2015, Stephen K Bannon was hosting a satellite radio show. His guest was Rep Ryan Zinke, who opposed Obama’s plan to resettle some Syrian refugees in Pindostan. Zinke said:
We need to put a stop on refugees until we can vet.
Bannon cut him off. He asked:
Why even let ’em in? Vetting them will cost money and time. Can’t that money be used in Pindostan? Should we just take a pause and a hiatus for a number of years on any influx from that area of the world?
Now at the center of power in the White House, Bannon is moving quickly to turn his ideas into policy, helping direct the biggest decisions of Trump’s administration. The withdrawal from a major trade pact. A ban on all visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries. And in an echo of that conversation with Zinke, who is now Trump’s nominee for interior secretary, there was a temporary ban on all new refugees. The result has been intense fury from Democrats, discomfort among many Republicans, and a growing sense of unease in the world that Trump intends to undermine a Pindocentric world that has lasted 70 years. This sense of turmoil reflects the sort of transformation that Bannon has long called for. That worldview, which Bannon laid out in interviews and speeches over the past several years, hinges largely on Bannon’s belief in Pindosi “sovereignty.” Bannon said that countries should protect their citizens and their essence by reducing immigration, legal and illegal, and pulling back from multinational agreements. At the same time, Bannon was concerned that Pindostan and the “Judeo-Christian West” were in a war against an expansionist Islamic ideology, but that they were losing the war by not recognizing what it was. Bannon said this fight was so important, it was worth overlooking differences and rivalries with countries like Russia. It is not yet clear how far Bannon will be able to go to enact his agenda. His early policy moves have been marred by administrative chaos. But his worldview calls for bigger changes than those already made. In the past, Bannon had wondered aloud whether the country was ready to follow his lead. Now, he will find out. Bannon said in another radio interview last May, before he joined the Trump campaign:
Is that grit still there, that tenacity that we’ve seen on the battlefields, fighting for something greater than themselves? That is one of the biggest open questions in this country.
Bannon, 62, is a former Navy officer and Goldman Sachs banker who made a fortune after he acquired a share of the royalties from a fledgling TV show called “Seinfeld.” In the past 15 years, he shifted into entertainment and conservative media, making films about Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin and then taking a lead role at Breitbart News. Bannon also forged a rapport with Trump, interviewing him on his show and then joining the campaign in Aug 2016 as chief executive. Now, Bannon has become one of the most powerful men in Pindostan, and he’s not afraid to say so. To explore Bannon’s worldview, the WaPo reviewed hours of radio interviews that Bannon conducted while hosting his Breitbart Radio talk show, as well as speeches and interviews he has given since 2014. In his public statements, Bannon espoused a basic idea that Trump would later seize as the centerpiece of his campaign. While others saw the world rebounding from the financial crisis of 2008, Bannon just saw it becoming more divided by class. The elites that had caused the crisis, or at least failed to stop it, were now rising higher. Everyone else was being left behind. Bannon said in a 2014 speech to a conference at the Vatican in a recording obtained by BuzzFeed:
The middle class, the working men and women in the world, are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos.
Bannon blamed both major political parties for this system and set out to force his ideas on an unwilling Republican leadership. What he wanted, he said again and again, was “sovereignty,” both in thePindostan and in its traditional vassals, Eurostan. On one of the first Breitbart Radio shows, in early Nov 2015, Bannon praised the growing movement in Britain to exit the EU. He said that the British had joined the EU merely as a trading federation, but that it had grown into a force that had stripped Britons of sovereignty “in every aspect important to their own life.” Bannon has been supportive of similar movements to pull out of the EU in other European countries. Trump has echoed those sentiments in his first few days as president. It is a remarkable shift in Pindosi policy. After decades of building multinational alliances as a guarantee of peace, now the White House has indicated it may undermine them. Bannon, in his 2014 speech at the Vatican, cast this as a return to a better past, saying:
I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Eurostan & Pindostan, and I think it’s what can see us forward.
In the case of Pindostan, Bannon was skeptical of multinational trade pacts, saying that they ceded control. In a radio interview in Nov 2015, Jeff Sessions agreed with Bannon. Sessions, who is now Trump’s nominee to become attorney general, said:
We shouldn’t be tying ourselves down like Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians with so many strings a guy can’t move. That is where we are heading, and it’s not necessary.
One solution put forward by Bannon is that Pindostan should pursue bilateral trade agreements, rather than multi-country agreements such as the TPP. He suggested that to Trump when he appeared on his show in Nov 2015. Bannon said:
Trump brings it back to the Senate and gets his bilateral trade deal with Taiwan or with Japan approved by two-thirds of the Senate. And you have to go argue, ‘Hey, this is why it’s a good deal.’ And that’s the way the Founders wanted it.
On a Mar 2016 episode, Bannon said that restoring sovereignty meant reducing immigration. In his radio shows, he criticized the federal H-1B visa programs that permit Pindo companies to fill technical positions with workers from overseas. Bannon said the “progressive plutocrats in Silicon Valley” want unlimited ability to go around the world and bring people back to Pindostan. Bannon said:
Engineering schools are all full of people from South Asia, and East Asia.They’ve come in here to take these jobs. Meanwhile, Pindo students can’t get engineering degrees. They can’t get into these graduate schools because they are all foreign students. When they come out, they can’t get a job. … Don’t we have a problem with legal immigration? 20% of this country is immigrants. Is that not the beating heart of this problem?
In another show, Bannon had complained to Trump that so many Silicon Valley chief executives were South Asian or Asian. This was a rare time when Trump pushed back, saying:
I still want people to come in, but I want them to go through the process.
So far, Trump has made no changes to the high-skilled visa program. This week, ean Spicer said that the Trump administration may reexamine the program. Even as Bannon was calling for a general retreat from multinational alliances, however, he was warning of the need for a new alliance involving only a subset of the world’s countries. The “Judeo-Christian West” was at war, he said, but didn’t seem to understand it yet. Bannon said at the Vatican in 2014:
There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.
Bannon has given few details about the mechanics of the war he thinks the West should fight. But he has been clear that it is urgent enough to take priority over other rivalries and worries. In his talk at the Vatican, Bannon was asked about Pres Putin. Bannon’s answer was two-sided. He said there were bigger concerns than Russia, and there was something to admire in Putin’s call for more traditional values. He said:
I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand. However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you’re facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive, that is really a situation, I’m not saying we can put Putin on a back burner but I think we have to deal with first things first.
How Bannon flattered and coaxed Trump on policies key to the alt-right
David Fahrenthold, Frances Stead Sellers, WaPo, Nov 15 2016
Soon after the terrorist attacks in Paris last year, Donald Trump faced sharp criticism for saying that Pindostan had “no choice” but to close down some mosques. Two days later, Trump called in to a radio show run by a friendly political operative who offered a suggestion. Was it possible, asked Stephen Bannon the host, that Trump hadn’t really meant that mosques should be closed? Bannon asked:
Were you actually saying you need a NYPD intelligence unit to get a network of informants? I guess what I’m saying is, you’re not prepared to allow an enemy within … to try to tear down this country?
Trump, presented with a less controversial but entirely different idea than what he’d actually said, agreed:
That’s right. That’s not going to happen.
Today, Trump is president and Bannon is one of his most influential advisers. The clearest public sense of how the two will work together, and what policies Bannon may try to push, can be gleaned from a series of one-on-one interviews on Bannon’s radio show between Nov 2015 and Jun 2016. In those exchanges, a dynamic emerged whereby Bannon often coaxed Trump to agree to his viewpoint, whether on climate change, foreign policy or the need to take on Republican Congress crittur. At times, Bannon seemed to coach Trump to soften the harder edges of his message, to make it more palatable to a broader audience, while in other cases he pushed Trump to take tougher positions. He flattered Trump, praising his negotiating skills and the size of his campaign crowds. Bannon’s interviews with Trump were done for Breitbart News Daily, a radio program that airs on Sirius XM satellite radio’s “Patriot” channel. In all, they add up to more than two hours of one-on-one conversation. By the time of that first show, Breitbart had already become a crucial booster of Trump’s presidential campaign. Bannon said on Nov 2 2015:
Mr Trump, thank you very much for joining us on the initial Breitbart News Daily Show.
When Trump came on the air, the first thing Bannon wanted to talk about was how well Trump was doing in his campaign, and how Bannon had noticed it before other people did.Bannon said, recalling earlier conversations about Trump’s run:
I said, ‘This guy, people are leaning forward in these audiences when he’s talking.’ And we were mocked and ridiculed.
Trump also wanted to talk about how well he was doing. He said about his rallies:
We had 20k in Dallas. … 35k in Alabama and 20k in Oklahoma! We’ve had a lot of fun talking about very negative subjects! Because everything is negative with the country, Steve! I mean, there’s nothing good happening!
During their conversations, there were some moments when Trump and Bannon disagreed on air, though not many. Last November for instance, Trump said he was concerned that foreign students attending Ivy League schools have to return home because of Pindosi immigration laws. He said:
We have to be careful of that, Steve! You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country!
He paused. Bannon said, “Um.” Trump said:
I think you agree with that? Do you agree with that?
Bannon was hesitant. He said, not finishing the sentence:
When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think … A country is more than an economy. We’re a civil society.
Trump said he would build a border wall but still wanted to let highly-educated foreign students who graduate from Pindosi colleges to be able to stay in the country. He said:
I still want people to come in, but I want them to go through the process.
You’ve got to remember we’re Breitbart, we’re the know-nothing vulgarians, so we’ve always got to be to the right of you on this.
Trump said: “Oh, that’s okay!” In most of the interviews, Bannon called his subject “sir” or “Mr Trump” often, while Trump called him “Steve”. In his questions, Bannon often began with praise for Trump. Asking about foreign affairs, for instance, Bannon praised Trump’s capacity for deal-making. Bannon said:
It’s complicated! That’s your calling card!
I love complicated! I thrive on complicated!
The flattery often came before a leading question. In Dec 2015, Bannon told Trump:
I know you’re a student of military history…?
Then he laid out a case for questioning the NATO alliance with Turkey: Wasn’t it true that the situation was a bit like the web of treaties that connected European countries before WW1? Bannon said:
People were locked into these treaties. … It led to the beginning of the bloodiest century in mankind’s history!
He said that Turkey had changed since it joined NATO, turning to Islamism under Erdogan. What if Turkey was drawn into a broader conflict in Syria, perhaps with Russia? Trump said:
This is not something, Steve, that you want to end up in WW3 over!
In other cases, Bannon would use his questions to frame policy choices and then ask Trump if he agreed with the frame and the choice. In the Dec 2015 interview, Bannon presented the problems of climate change and Daesh as a binary option, in effect offering Trump, the choice of fighting one or the other. Bannon asked regarding climate change:
Do you agree with the pope and Pres Obama that it is absolutely a path to global suicide, if specific deals are not cut in Paris, versus focusing on radical Islam?
Trump said that what other people considered to be climate change was probably just weather. Radical Islam should be the focus. “We’re fools,” Trump said. In the wake of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s early May announcement that he was not ready to back Trump, Bannon invited Trump to reflect on whether Ryan was showing “a lack of respect not just for you, but for your policies.” Bannon said:
On issues ranging from trade to slowing Muslim immigration, what he wants is for you to drop those policies. Are you prepared to do that for unity?
When Trump later began to say it would be “better if we do get together,” Bannon interrupted, saying:
That would be a collapse of what you ran on, and a collapse on what people backed you on!
Well, you can’t do that!
Bannon also seemed to recognize when Trump had made a potential gaffe, even when Trump had not, and to try to steer him back to correct it. The first time Bannon asked Trump about Pindosi foreign policy toward Turkey, Trump volunteered that he had business interests there, saying:
I have a little conflict of interest, because I have a major major building in Istanbul! It’s called Trump Towers! Two towers, instead of one! Not the usual one, it’s two! And I’ve gotten to know Turkey very well!
A little later, Bannon circled back, asking Trump to explain why his conflict of interest should not bother voters. Bannon said:
They say: ‘Hey, look! This guy’s got vested business interests all over the world! How do I know he’s going to stand up to Turkey?’
Trump did not directly address the question. In another conversation, from February, Trump began with an attack on Ted Cruz, saying:
I’ve never seen any human being lie like he lies!
Mr, Mr, Mr Trump! … You’ve been in New York real estate and global real estate and the gaming industry and with politicians. You can’t say reasonably that Ted Cruz is the biggest liar you’ve ever seen!
He’s the biggest liar! OK, let’s get on to another subject! I don’t want to make you uncomfortable!
A few minutes later, Bannon circled back again, saying:
These personal attacks… It’s turning people off. On this Ted Cruz situation… You’ve dealt with the toughest hombres in the world. You can’t expect us to believe that Ted Cruz is the biggest liar you’ve ever met. It doesn’t stand to reason.
Trump moderated a little bit, saying:
He’s right up there, let me tell you!