Steven Bannon is rapidly emerging as the most complex and compelling character in global politics. He speaks frankly, he speaks off-message, he does not seem to shovel clear bullshit, and there is something endearing about it. But, let’s be under no illusions: Steve Bannon is a bad guy. Anyone who is the architect of Breitbart news is a bad guy. This is a news organisation which literally must, somewhere in its HQ, have a document explicitly stating that their MO is to stoke and then exploit prejudice and bigotry. But when Bannon himself speaks, he does not speak in the odious voice of Breitbart. He speaks lucidly, candidly, vividly and he does not patronise by expecting anyone to swallow self-serving propaganda. This is the man who tells it like it is.
Donald Trump rose on the back of playing on the fears of simple-minded folk who have only ever met their own kind. These people have for years been thinking; well that foreign Muslim couple killed so many people in San Barnardo, so I don’t want more foreign Muslims coming to live in my town. They are dangerous. But these Washington elites don’t listen or even care about my concerns. Why do we have to be so politically correct all the time? They may also think that, as black people commit so many violent crimes, I don’t want black people living in my area. And then Trump came along, said or insinuated that all Mexicans are rapists and all Muslims are terrorists and these people thought, finally, someone in politics who is saying what I’m thinking. Welcome to Trump’s base. They think that this is a man who will not only push their socially conservative, Christian agenda, but he will reflect their views on race and immigration, and in exchange for that they are willing to overlook his financial misconduct, alleged sexual assaults, unstable personality, sexism, racism and chauvinism, and general unfitness for the presidency.
But Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Of course not. He is the number one exponent of telling it how it best suits him, absolutely regardless of the factual veracity of his statements. This is highly documented. The reality of the Trump administration is distorted by two key factors: one) the Republican media guard, which will always protect and shore up one of their apparent own, and two) the simple fact that people are simply unable to process the decadent incompetence of this administration, having been accustomed to a presidential institution that has always had an incumbent who – regardless of whether you agree with his politics – was relatively fit for the job. If and when it all comes crashing down, afterwards people will say ‘well of course’. But, now, at the time? If you point it out, you are a bitter, sore-loser Democrat.
The polarisation of American politics has eviscerated any meaningful impartiality and objectivity in American political life. There were howls of anguish at the administration of George W Bush, but no one actually questioned his competency (well, not seriously), his comprehension of the job and the constitution, nor accused him of flagrant corruption and nepotism (although it came close regarding Haliburton). When Vladimir Putin tried to curry favour with Bush by offering to find a lucrative job for a friend of his, Bush was dumbfounded. That’s not how we do things.
The politics of Steve Bannon could be termed ‘regressive de-enlightenment’, and a return to tribal groups. This goes beyond a reaction to reasonable complaints by the losers of globalisation, to something far more ideological. If an individual from a given western country finds that their town or neighbourhood they grew up in is demographically transformed by mass migration by a single national group in a short span of years, they might think, ‘hang on, I’m not comfortable with this’. This does not mean they are racist and xenophobic. They think might that immigration should be handled better, to avoid this specific outcome. Bannon goes beyond all that. And he stokes ignorant prejudice and bigotry to further his agenda, via the medium of Breitbart.
Yet, when he speaks, he does not speak in this voice. He speaks like a man who respects the intelligence of who is listening. He does not try to sell his own propaganda. His appearance is dishevelled and unkempt. He’s happy to excoriate those that he could easily suck up to to further his purposes. This is a man who gives the impressions of not giving a shit and being above so much of the political circus. He does not try to win through deceit. It’s almost like he’s an honest bad guy – if, of course, you take his agenda to be harmful and malignant. He’s happy to be quoted expressing that the Trump administration had three likely outcomes; impeachment, removal under Amendment 25, or limping through to a 4 year term. This is an endearingly honest appraisal, but it must also be said that by coming from him, it endorses its legitimacy, and makes each outcome more likely (and a successful 8 year term less likely). The sad fact of self-serving propaganda is that it can serve to mould perceptions and outcomes. After all, in the fable, no one realised that the emperor was naked because everyone agreed it was inconceivable.
Of course, perhaps this article is too indulgent of Bannon. Perhaps he is happy not to insult the public’s intelligence, and not partake in self-serving propaganda, because he believes the Trump eco-sphere has taken his agenda as far as it can, and the next stage of his journey involves burning them and forging new alliances. In which case, it is still self-serving. Perhaps it was just a strategic decision that may have backfired, given that he appears to have been cut loose by his benefactors, the Mercer family, and lost the support of ‘the base’. On the other hand, Trump got to where he is now by basically not giving a shit and expecting to lose. Bannon, the evil mastermind, might have taken note. Either way, he is a complex and compelling character.