Steve Bannon's Sad, Desperate Crusade
More than a prophet or a mastermind, Trump's strategist is just an angry, bitter dreamer.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The world is a pitch-black graveyard and only Steve Bannon can save you. This is the man's fantasy. He dreams of terror so there can be vengeance, of rubble so there can be a man pulling people from it, of conspiracies and cabals of diabolical elites so that he can expose them, one by one.
You can hear it in the death rattle of an inauguration speech he wrote for Donald Trump, you hear it in his bigoted wolf howls from the fringes years ago, the website he operated like a haunted hayride, the hip-hop themed Shakespeare adaptation about gangs and pornographic descriptions of handguns.
You hear it in all the trash movies he made before he became White House advisor. Generation Zero, Bannon's delirious 2010 documentary about the decay of American ideals, features, within its first six minutes: scenes of robbery; fiery plane crashes; heavy rain; emoji-faced men with their tongues wagging at money; handshakes in back alleys; incinerated houses; the boat sail-sized dorsal fin of an approaching shark. A sun explodes, and then, a Black Panther flag, flown proudly. The advancement of black people, you see, is analogous to the death of a solar system.
The black people in the documentary are shown looking either militant or shirtless, seething menaces or tribal caricatures. Women in aprons are revered; women dancing provocatively are admonished. In Bannon's vision, family dinner tables, spaceships, and foxholes are the only honorable places in the world; everywhere else is a pit of hedonism and laziness. Social freedoms will bring us to ruin if we let them go any further. Over an ominous orchestra, accompanied by footage of Vietnam War protests, one interview subject denounces the 60s as a "therapeutic movement that with enough education, with enough good intentions… the world as we knew it had no limitations, that we could have internal peace, internal beauty, internal niceness everywhere." (Bannon himself was a "Jerry Brown liberal" and a Grateful Dead fan in college. For what that's worth.)
Happiness is a poison, destruction is purifying. We must aspire only to the calluses of war, and the quaintly conservative morals of women pouring whole milk for men loosening their ties. In his America, there are no participation trophies; your only reward is a hard-earned sigh and a shit sofa.
These are Bannon's purest impulses and juvenile hypotheses wrung into a bucket and left to ferment.
Bannon wants all of this to play with the majestic terror of an avalanche, but it feels instead like your uncle holding a flashlight under his face telling ghost stories. It is ethno-nationalist bathroom stall graffiti shined up to look like crystal-ball prognostication. Even his attempts at a lucid thesis (title cards before each segment; "experts" in bowties offering weak corroboration) are drowned out by bombast, clumsy musical cues, and frenetic celebrations of the apocalypse.
It is an incoherent film, even as racist evangelism goes, but it is instructive in this way: These are Bannon's purest impulses and juvenile hypotheses wrung into a bucket and left to ferment. Maybe you'll say, "You dope, that's the point, this is a manipulation, don't you see?" But it is not even a sales pitch—no one could be converted or persuaded by this; this is a tirade, a mantra as prison tattoo.
None of this would be remarkable were Bannon not, through his own orchestration and the public fascination with dangerous men, being made into a kind of wicked, mythological shaman. He uses five-dollar academic words with an oh-this-old-thing? nonchalance, he cites obscure philosophies, he proudly references little pockets of pseudo-intellectual radicalism. He mentions Satan and Darth Vader as aspirational models. He assigns his transition team books to read.
The New York Times, in a piece that marveled at his "abrasive brilliance," could barely contain itself. He plays an "ideological game of chess," "three dimensional chess," he's an intellectual conman. TIME poses him on its cover like Rodin's The Thinker, if the Thinker ate only beef gristle and condensed milk.
Even pieces of ostensible criticism reach, almost unfailingly, a passage of barely hidden astonishment, writers gazing at his references to the ancient Roman working class or Thomas Cromwell like they just peeked inside the Matrix. He is, in a way, a journalist's dream prompt: His mysterious biography invites investigation; his mongrel-like appearance a paradise for vivid similes; his appetite for literature just like theirs. So what should be an attack on an irredeemable charlatan instead becomes something closer to fascination. Writing about Bannon tends to be studiously impartial, analytical, even as his worldview is dismissed as an absurdity.
This is wrong. Bannon can be a disheveled maniac and only that—there doesn't need to be a revelation or nuance or anything beyond a bloodshot sack of demented ambition, no matter how high he ascends. He is not a Svengali, he's a shipwrecked banker who washed ashore and wound up the president's ventriloquist. Hate is still just hate, no matter how intricately ornamented it is with Ronald Reagan idolatry. Bannon is like if the tire mud flap with the giant-breasted silhouette got a library card.
Watch VICE News's interview with white Nationalist Richard Spencer:
"He wants to be the intellectual, strategist bomb-thrower," Newt Gingrich once said of Bannon.
But there is a problem. None of this genius is evident in practice; none of it at all. He talks with boot-stomping bluster about fighting jihad, pulling apart the European Union, and generation-defining infrastructure projects, but it's a lie, a myth, an infomercial scam, uprising at a low-low price. He is not a seer or a policy savant or the Wizard of Oz. He is capitalizing on a storied American tradition: acquiescence to angry white men trying to rid a sacred land of immigrants, Jews, and women who don't meet medieval standards of obedience. He is politics as banging-on-a-locked-bathroom-door.
Trump's most Bannonesque executive orders were crafted with crazed delusions but in toothless, vague language, and then passed to Trump with no counsel from relevant agencies. The "travel ban" was vicious in its intent, but so poorly designed it resulted in bedlam countrywide before it was ultimately halted by federal judges. (According to one report, Bannon welcomed the chaos and protests, which seems less like a tactical maneuver than the cackle of a madman.)
Everything he does feels reckless and improvised, wired to blow, the pandemonium fallout of a lunatic trying to operate a complex machine. He outlined a plan to "deconstruct the administrative state" in late February, but then privately urged Trump to reconsider the Affordable Care Act repeal, realizing such a move's catastrophic political ramifications. Inside Bannon's White House there are rampant leaks, paranoia, cellphone confiscation, and in response, only toddling incompetence or indiscriminate rage. This is not the work of an architect, but a vandal after he's sped over the edge of a cliff but before the stolen car smashes into flames at the bottom of the canyon.
He's a symbol not of American strength but American grievance, the most prominent of a gang of has-beens and vigilantes and huckster losers.
While at Breitbart, Bannon said, "It's war. Every day, we put up: America's at war, America's at war. We're at war." And last month, reveling on stage at CPAC, he said of Trump's underdog victory, "We were outgunned, out-manned."
When Bannon was in the Navy, his ship was never once involved in combat, and now he rhapsodizes about war like it were a woman who loved him once. He's a symbol not of American strength but American grievance, the most prominent of a gang of has-beens and vigilantes and huckster losers, men like revenge fantasist Michael Anton, who once compared the 2016 election to the Flight 93 passengers who rushed the cockpit on 9/11. (Anton, a former George W. Bush official, now works in the Trump White House.) Bannon is a man who in the daylight carries himself as a sophisticate, making offhanded remarks about William Jennings Bryan, but then he says, "We're clearly going into, I think, a major shooting war in the Middle East again."
He is a chest-thumping nativist as aroused by aggression as anyone he's ever classified as barbaric. No one talks like he does besides high school football defensive coordinators, Sergio Leone henchmen, and horny 24-year-olds. He is selling tantrums as a revolution, a venom-belching mercenary imagining himself as a pioneer, regurgitating something about Fourth Turnings and New World Orders as if they were literal prophecy. Talking erotically about battle strategies against China doesn't make you a brilliant warrior; sometimes it just means you're a punk riding a helicopter.
He strokes his chin and tries to make calculated judgments like, "(Traditionalists) believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions." But that's only an academic pose. In emails, he writes, "I've got a cure for mental health issue(s): Spank your children more." His frequently-used justification for limiting immigration in America is a 70s novel about a fleet of 800,000 impoverished Indians, led by a man named "turd eater," who he eats actual shit, seeking refuge in France. He carries himself like a noble avatar of Old American ideals, but he spent the three years before he allied with Trump dodging landlords, income tax, and claims of voter fraud.
Speaking to the crowd at CPAC this February, Bannon recapped Election Day in one barely-punctuated sentence: "The campaign was the most chaotic—by the media's description, most chaotic, most disorganized, most unprofessional, had no earthly idea what they were doing, and then you saw them all crying and weeping that night on—on the eighth."
These are Bannon's obsessions, made clear in every word about him that burbles from Washington, in every years-old unearthed interview, in the narratives of his documentaries that play like histrionic cartoons. He is a man who revels in the torment of his enemies and in Wild West provocation, Bannon bare-chested piloting a chariot to save mankind, men descending from rope ladders draped in American flags, belting Christian hymns, a violence he can sell as divine and romantic and essential, because it is a violence he only needs to participate in theoretically, in his dreams, an ego-drunk invention.
Sand off the affectations, and what is left? Here is a man in the final act of his life with nothing to show for it but hysterical propaganda. So he makes a new war. He makes another movie. This movie is real, though, and this is like lava in his veins now. He gets to play his fantasies out and he's fallen in love with demolition, and the president is a man who just wants to have his name in flashing neon above the wreckage. He thinks he's some mix of Socrates, Rambo, and Sun Tzu, but instead he comes across like someone who might be wondering, at any moment, What if we microwaved that stray cat over there?
There is nothing more dangerous on this planet than a man who is terrified that people are laughing at him, that his intrepid walks on runways do not look triumphant but instead like he missed the last train. He waited his whole life for this moment, to look grizzled on television—grizzled in that regal, Norman Rockwell, smells-like-an-old-baseball-mitt way—but he just looks like a scavenger, old and beaten. Sometimes what looks at first like the weathered wrinkles of a wise man is really just a layer of grime that you could spray off with a hose.
He is like every other man with a wine-glass delicate ego, fighting with Tyrannosaurus fury against the possibility that his reach has exceeded his grasp. America is not in peril, but he is, and there's nowhere left to hide now.
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