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12 September 2018

What Steve Bannon really believes in

A clash with the New Yorker magazine has led to Trump’s former strategy chief being called a fascist. But what is the driving force behind the arch-nationalist?

By Sophie McBain

For President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, the invitation to headline the New Yorker festival next month must have been a high point in an otherwise rough year. In August 2017, six months after he had glowered from the cover of Time magazine alongside the headline “The great manipulator”, Bannon lost his White House job. In January this year he lost his position at the helm of the alt-right website Breitbart and the patronage of the rich and powerful Mercer family.

Granted, the New Yorker might be the apotheosis of what Bannon terms the globalist, opposition party media, but an interview with the editor David Remnick would cement the idea that the 64-year-old propagandist film-maker and former naval officer and investment banker is neither a political has-been nor simply a right-wing attack dog, but rather an influential thinker whose ideas should be interrogated by one of the most respected journalists in America.

As it was, on 4 September Bannon was dropped from the programme after several New Yorker writers objected and a number of other speakers pulled out of the event in protest. “I don’t think an advocate for Isis would have been invited to the festival. I don’t think a literal Klansman would’ve. But Bannon was, reflecting an implicit judgement that what Bannon believes lies on the acceptable side of some unspecified but clearly real moral boundary,” the staff writer Osita Nwanevu tweeted. In a statement, Remnick said he had intended for the interview to put pressure on Bannon’s views, but that after consulting with staff he had reconsidered and believed it would be more appropriate to interview him in a “more traditionally journalistic setting…and not on stage”.

“In what I would call a defining moment, David Remnick showed that he was gutless when confronted by a howling mob,” Bannon responded – though no doubt it suits him to be considered too dangerous for the New Yorker and its affluent liberal readership. “Darkness is good,” Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter in 2016. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”

Bannon, who is obsessed with history and has been described by one ally as a “walking bibliography”, was one of the most ideological members of the Trump administration and pushed some of its most hard-line and contentious policies, including the so-called Muslim ban. He describes himself as an “economic nationalist” and a “Leninist” who wants to “deconstruct the administrative state” and foment a populist revolt against the political elite. Bannon believes America’s identity as a nation rooted in “Judaeo-Christian values” is under threat and he is anti-immigration and anti-Islam, which he views as fundamentally at odds with Western civilisation.

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Although he avoids using overtly racist language himself, he is unapologetic about courting white supremacists and neo-Nazis. In March, he told members of Marine Le Pen’s National Front (now the National Rally) in Lille: “Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists, wear it as a badge of honour.” He tends to dismiss accusations of racism as evidence of media bias.

“When they can’t beat you on the facts they’ll beat you back with the same parlour trick they’ve always had… they’re going to call you racist,” he said in an interview this month with the Australian broadcaster ABC – the “they” presumably referring to the media and political elites, whom Bannon likes to call the “party of Davos”.

Bannon has nevertheless retained a presence on the speaker circuit. In March he was interviewed on stage by Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, at the FT’s Future of News conference and later this month he will take questions in New York from the Economist’s editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes at the magazine’s Open Future event. He has also recently given several interviews, in which he has shown a consistent ability to deflect attempts to challenge his political world view by attacking the question as a typical example of “opposition party media” bias and dishonesty. (Bannon’s press contact did not respond to my requests for an interview.)

When he was forced from the White House, Bannon claimed it was liberating. He would “go to war for Trump” by mobilising the president’s populist nationalist base and taking on the Republican establishment. In January, however, he experienced a major setback. Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, in which Bannon was quoted as questioning Trump’s mental fitness and describing the president’s son Don Jr’s meeting with Russians as “treasonous”, enraged Trump and cost Bannon the support of the Mercer family and his job at Breitbart, the website he described as his “killing machine”.

Since then he’s been trying to rebuild his influence domestically. He has made a film called Trump @ War about the president and his supporters’ heroic confrontation of the media and political elites. And last month, he announced that he was launching a new group called Citizens of the American Republic aimed at energising Republicans to vote in the upcoming midterms and prevent the expected wave of Democratic victories that could turn Congress blue. It’s unclear how much financial backing the group has, and Bannon appears to over-estimate his ability to influence elections. In the 2017 special election in Alabama, Bannon threw his weight behind the right-wing Republican Roy Moore. Moore lost to a Democrat after being accused of sexually assaulting a teenager. Bannon also, crucially, remains out of favour with Trump. Bannon once described Trump as a “blunt instrument” but is now almost comically effusive in his praise of the president as a “historic” and “transformational figure”.

“Bannon’s trying to do two things,” Joshua Green, the author of the bestselling book about Bannon, Devil’s Bargain, told me in an email. “First, raise his own profile, after Trump stomped him to little pieces back in January… and second, re-ingratiate himself to Trump by being an outspoken supporter no matter how outrageous or offensive the latest Trump scandal happens to be. I think he recognises that any influence he might have over Republican politics depends on the impression he’s in good standing with Trump, and right now he isn’t.”

Bannon’s waning influence in America may also explain his current focus on supporting right-wing parties in Europe. He has long been a staunch opponent of the European Union. He was a co-founder of Cambridge Analytica and used Breitbart’s UK bureau to attack the EU and build his relationship with Nigel Farage. This July, Bannon launched the Movement, a network that he said aimed to create a far-right “supergroup” by providing campaign support and acting as a “connective tissue” for populist parties across Europe ahead of the May 2019 European elections. On 7 September Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister and head of the League, a far-right, anti-immigration party, announced that he was joining the Movement. Bannon has held numerous meetings with politicians across Europe that John Lloyd described in this magazine as the “Illiberal International”, an embryonic alliance of populist, anti-immigration parties. Bannon has met with far-right parties from France, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and says he considers Europe at the forefront of the global “populist-nationalist revolt”.

Political analysts are expecting a resurgence of popular support for the far right in the European elections in May, but they are doubtful of Bannon’s influence in Europe or his ability to unite disparate nationalist movements. “It’s hard to see what Bannon could contribute. The attempt to form and constitute a transnational far right has failed many times before,” Ruth Wodak of Lancaster University told me, emphasising that beyond a shared anti-globalisation, anti-immigration stance the European right has very diverse concerns. Robert Paxton, a historian of fascism at Columbia University, described Bannon to me as “totally deluded about his own capacities”.

In May, when Channel 4’s Matt Frei suggested that by promoting the politics of fear and loathing, right-wing populism in Europe raised the spectre of the 1930s, Bannon dismissed the comparison as a “classic globalist put-down” and refused to engage. It’s easy to hear echoes of 1930s fascism in the language of Bannon and his international allies, but there are differences. “Steve Bannon makes use of a lot of the emotional appeals that fascism also appropriated from the general culture, their use of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, feelings of victimhood, worries about decline – a lot of those emotional appeals reappear in Bannon’s talk and language. But the fundamental intentions of fascism were quite different,” Paxton said. While classical fascists wanted to create militaristic, regimented, highly unified nation states, Bannon “seems to be a disrupter. I don’t think he has any interest in unifying the US or any other country.”

Bannon is undoubtedly an ideologue, but the only way to understand the extraordinary trajectory of his career – from naval officer to financier to far-right film-maker and media chief to presidential adviser to right-wing rabble rouser – is by recognising his ruthless drive for personal advancement. “He’s an adventurer, a private freebooter, and a pirate who relishes breaking things up, and I think he’s doing it for private gain and private satisfaction,” said Paxton. His renewed interest in the European far right is unlikely to prove decisive.

Sophie McBain is correspondent for New Statesman America, the New Statesman’s new international website

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This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism