Often unshaven and underslept, his hair messy and unwashed looking, 63-year-old Steve Bannon doesn’t look his age. In an attempt to hide his oversized stomach, he wears two layers of untucked, large shirts. Bannon it seems still wants to appear a rebel, a nonconformist, a dude. “A mile-a-minute talker who thrums with energy, his sentences speed off ahead of him and spin out into great pileups of nouns, verbs, and grins,” Joshua Green, his biographer, described him.
But his marginal political stature morphed into a bronze statue once the country learned it was he who put Donald Trump into the Oval Office, propelling him from Breitbart newsroom to chief strategist in the White House. Before long, the other generals within the ranks of the government pushed him out–first out of the National Security Council, then out of the White House. Regardless, Steve Bannon’s posture remained intact; his raggamuffin appearance belies a military mind, conservative Catholic values, and staunch nationalism.
It was because of his rapid, controversial ascension to power that Bannon, after the 2016 election, became the center of the media’s attention. But there was another reason. Among a government girded by clan members, billionaires, and generals, to the liberal America that lost the election Bannon was the only person who had the air of an intellectual, who might have some sense of the meaning of Trump in power. He was the only one who could, from the inside circle, explain the disruptive and dramatic change America was choosing over the political establishment that has been in power from the end of WWII.
The change did not come overnight. Joshua Green in 2015 profiled Steve Bannon and called him the most dangerous political operative in America. At that time, Bannon was directing Breitbart News, “the crusading right-wing populist website that’s a lineal descendant of the Drudge Report and a haven for people who think Fox News is too polite and restrained.” In his piece, published by Bloomberg Businessweek, Green reveals how Bannon, three months after Trump announced his candidacy for president, already had a plan to down both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, the frontrunners of the two parties.
The assault group that now worked for Breitbart had really spent the previous two decades as professional anti-Clinton operatives. For long years, Bannon was looking for a person who could embody his nationalist and populist ideas. In the meantime, he was building a war machine, something he learned when running a video game company in Hong Kong. Backed by Goldman Sachs, Internet Gaming Entertainment would hire people to play video games and win prizes in the game that they would then sell to people in the real world so that they could be more powerful and more successful through gaming. When Bannon moved to Breitbart News in 2010, one of his goals was to track these people and radicalize them politically.
But it was meeting with Andrew Breitbart that for Bannon was like coming home. “I come from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats,” explained Bannon in an interview. “I wasn’t political until I got into the service and saw how badly Jimmy Carter f—ed things up. I became a huge Reagan admirer. Still am. But what turned me against the whole establishment was coming back from running companies in Asia in 2008 and seeing that Bush had f—ed up as badly as Carter.” Bannon served as a naval officer and an investment banker in entertainment and media industry. He produced 18 films, but it was from politics that he wanted to derive his power.
“We were screening the film at a festival in Beverly Hills,” Bannon recalls in Devil’s Bargain, “and out of the crowd comes this, like, a bear who’s squeezing me like my head’s going to blow up and saying how we’ve got to take back the culture. I didn’t really know who he was.”
Breitbart immediately became Bannon’s guru. When they met, Breitbart was starting his web site, explaining that he wanted to change the political narrative, meaning that he was not interested in trying to influence Washington but was rather going after the institutions that he believed shaped the narrative of the existing establishment. These words could be Lenin’s, and yet they were coming from a right-wing media organizer, trying to steal back “the culture.” By crashing the existing institutions, his logic went, they’d deconstruct the entire system.
I can hardly imagine what it means exactly to get back the culture. In Europe, after liberation from the Nazis, the extreme right was banned, the intention being to prevent another Nazi horror. With the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, Europe drew a red line, designated a taboo that could no longer be crossed or touched. Decades later, after the cold war, when many social values had been chilled by the breeze, the question of the cultural hegemony of the left surfaced. I remember an intense discussion in Italy, where the resurrection of the neo-fascist movement raised the issue in a way similar to Breitbart. In attempts to define what the right wing culture was, new publications and media were created.
But culture cannot be built overnight. And it is not clear what exactly Breitbart intended with his appeal. What part of the culture did he have in mind? There was no cold war, no ideological polarization in America as was so evident in Europe after WWII. Nobody was trying to silence the right wing’s right to cultural expression. It seems that there were no lasting ideological disputes, no need for ideological cleansing in a country where patriotism was the prevailing thing. The contrast between Democrats and Republicans was codified and patented; the split managed and guaranteed. What’s the need to blow the whole thing up with demands for a long-gone belief system?
It wasn’t as long-gone as we thought. There are some serious and objective reasons why this populist “call for the jungle” appeared on the American right and the left at the same time. There is nothing wrong with the assertion that the American system is stagnating; it’s corrupt and therefore becoming dysfunctional. Just think of the election system, its financing, and never-ending election campaigns. There are many things that should be changed, like taking guns from the streets, demilitarizing society and replenishing the increasingly stratified middle class, that social block that keeps the political debate alive. None of this was within the Breitbart agenda. Nothing of it did Donald Trump, now the 45th President, see useful for the nation’s changing direction, its greater evolution. Bannon instead, who leads Breitbart since the founder died, announced the bulldozing of the existing system, fencing off the country, cutting the navel cord with the rest of the world, declaring war on globalization. All in the name of the holly working class, to create the jobs white America lost in the invasion of the immigrants who have composed the lifeblood of this country since its founding. Who can believe in these nativist, “American first” words, when the billionaires and their clans are the ones running this country?
On a more concrete level, it is the political fight for pragmatism and votes that counts. And there is something that we tend to forget, something that besides Bannon’s evil oath to keep the immigrants away and his manipulative strategy in puppeteering Trump, was very concrete, pragmatic and real. It is something that contributed most significantly to Trump’s surprising victory: playing to the fears of a relatively small, specific root of the electorate.
One should remember the first and second Obama victory. The data the Obama campaign was using for the survey of undecided voters was detected and extracted by the electoral machinery built by people like Jim Messina and David Plouffe and David Axelrod as strategists. By the year 2012, this machine was perfect, since the Obama campaign knew exactly who in the such and such district in the swing states was still undecided. It was first this data, and the mobilization of grassroots volunteers, that in 2012 brought the voters out in Ohio while Romney’s team still had no idea they existed. It would be interesting to know how much of this impressive data Team Obama collected via social media, then passed onto Hillary Clinton. Jim Messina, who was at the very head of this project, definitely did not work for her.
None of the other Republican candidates had a monstrous organization resembling Obama’s. But Trump got it. Or better, they got it for him. It came as a gift from Robert Mercer, a reclusive Long Island hedge-fund manager who has become a major force behind the Trump Presidency, as Jane Mayer describes in her long investigative piece for the New Yorker. Besides buying Breitbart…
Mercer also invested some five million dollars in Cambridge Analytica, a firm that mines online data to reach and influence potential voters. The company has said that it uses secret psychological methods to pinpoint which messages are the most persuasive to individual online viewers. The firm, which is the American affiliate of Strategic Communication Laboratories, in London, has worked for candidates whom Mercer has backed, including Trump. It also reportedly worked on the Brexit campaign, in the United Kingdom.
So what is the surprise? We all know that elections are now the matter of mastering high technology and voter-quantifying databases. It makes me shiver to think how easy it would be for Mark Zuckerberg to run for president. To prevent this, this country should change legislation which currently enables billionaires to buy the presidency via financial contributions to campaigns and the lobbying of those campaigns’ initiatives in the Congress with billions, sometimes trillions, of dollars.
As far as Cambridge Analytica is concerned, the Observer published a much more alarming piece, claiming:
It is not just a story about social psychology and data analytics. It has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. Us. David Miller, a professor of sociology at Bath University and an authority in psyops and propaganda, says it is “an extraordinary scandal that this should be anywhere near a democracy. It should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it’s not transparent or open where it’s coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not.
And it was Facebook that made it possible. It was from Facebook that Cambridge Analytica obtained its vast dataset in the first place.
Bannon is now back in the seat at Breitbart, which owns and runs this electoral machine with sinister efficiency. So when he, just a few days ago, declared war on the GOP establishment–threatening to run his own populist candidates against the Republican–an old image came back to me. I thought of Radovan Karadjić, who, following Milosević nationalism, with his troops besieged Sarajevo in 1992 and from the hills around the city started killing swaths of the city’s cosmopolitan population. As Paolo Rumiz wrote in his book “Maschere per un massacro,” it was the revenge of the rural against the urban. Steve Bannon might be pursuing a similar goal, as his high school classmate John Pudner explains in The Devil’s Bargain:
We were a right-wing military Catholic high school. We were very small, just four hundred kids at the time. It was a very close-knit community. We were all taught that Western civilization was saved five hundred years ago in Spain when Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Moors. The lesson was, here’s where the Muslims could take over the world. This is how Catholicism survived. I think that shaped all of us. But what Steve took away, I think, was the belief that you got to be willing to identify the threat. When we were growing up, the threat was the atheists, Communist Soviet Union… Now Muslims are trying to blow us up.