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20 August 2020updated 04 Oct 2023 9:39am

Steve Bannon and the art of the con

How the arrest of Trump’s former adviser on fraud charges highlights a wider culture of political manipulation.  

By Emily Tamkin

Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former adviser who was fired from the White House three years ago this week, was arrested for fraud on Thursday (20 August). Federal prosecutors charged him and three others for allegedly defrauding donors who gave over $25m to a campaign purportedly supporting Trump’s border wall with Mexico but were instead funding personal expenses, despite assurances to the contrary. Bannon pleaded not guilty and told reporters “this entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall”.

The arrest is far from the first time questions have been raised over 66-year-old Bannon. In 2018, he derisively used the term “globalists”, which is widely considered to have anti-Semitic connotations, and his ex-wife has alleged he didn’t want his daughters to go to school with Jewish children, which he has denied. During his time at the head of Breitbart News, a right-wing website he co-founded, the publication contained a tag for “black crime”. He was reportedly an architect of Trump’s travel ban against individuals from several Muslim-majority countries, and has repeatedly cited The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel about migrants invading Western civilisation, in relation to increased immigration into Europe during 2015 and 2016. He is, in his own words, “a Leninist” who wants to destroy the establishment.

But the most salient thing about Bannon is not any of that. It is that he is a con artist.

Bannon had American voters convinced that he, a former Goldman Sachs banker who flew in a private jet, was some sort of anti-elite populist. He also had people who believe themselves shrewd observers of international politics and society thinking that he was someone with ideas worth listening to.

He was invited in 2018 to argue against David Frum, senior editor at the Atlantic, at the Munk Debates, a semi-annual policy discussion in Toronto, Canada. The same year he was invited and then disinvited to speak at the New Yorker festival with editor-in-chief David Remnick (and after Remnick disinvited Bannon, citing social media backlash, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece titled, “Now Twitter Edits the New Yorker”). He spoke at a European media conference, co-hosted by the BBC, in Edinburgh, where he described populist nationalism as “the exact opposite of racism”. Foreign Policy put him on its list of Global Thinkers. The president listened to him for a time, yes, but so, too, did self-styled intellectuals and members of the media.

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[see also: Twitter, the New York Times and why cancel culture is not about free speech]

The reason that Bannon was able to do this is the same reason that he was able to convince voters, pundits and politicians that he was committed to the idea of “draining the swamp” (a Trump campaign slogan promising to tackle the influence of Washington lobbyists). It is that he is a con artist, and con artists are good at deception.

In all likelihood, none of this will matter in the upcoming election. Despite the fact that Bannon was his campaign CEO and then White House adviser, the president has already distanced himself from Bannon’s border wall scheme, despite the fact that his eldest adult son, Donald Trump Jr, was caught on camera lauding it. But as we have seen from the cases of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, that the president’s former allies are alleged to be involved in corrupt machinations doesn’t impact the president or make people change their minds about him.

That’s a shame, because this allegation, potentially Bannon’s most transparent con, gives the rest of the game away. The people who donated to him and his cohort apparently felt passionately enough about a wall to keep out migrants and asylum seekers that they gave money from their own pockets to this cause. The state now accuses these four men of drawing on these donations for their own use.

But that’s the whole point of courting and being courted by politics like Bannon’s. Someone promises to make you feel better by giving language with which you can, if you choose, openly hate people who are different, and in exchange you give them power. You feel more emboldened and they, in turn, become more prominent and more powerful. Maybe they can even enrich themselves. That you aren’t any better off, that the swamp isn’t actually drained, that the forgotten man and woman are still forgotten, isn’t the point. It never was.

[see also: Donald Trump has declared war on US democracy. Can he be stopped?]

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