Steve Bannon, like the proverbial hedgehog, understands one and only one thing well: how to use media to drive the political conversation. I say media, as opposed to “right-wing media” or “alt-right media”, because he grasps how even the mainstream media is susceptible to manipulation.
Over the holiday (or is it now Christmas?) break, I read Joshua Green’s essay-turned-book about Steve Bannon, Devil’s Bargain. Like the Guardian review I linked to, I found the book “snappily written” and often riveting, but Green’s penchant for gossip and intrigue and quotability — essentially, Game Change-style political reporting — often gets in the way of a deeper understanding of Bannon or of his actual contributions to the Trump campaign. (Green seems to believe that Bannon was indispensable to Trump’s victory, but the evidence he provides is inadequate at best.)
What Green adds to the conversation is not insight, but Bannon himself: we get to hear straight from the horse’s mouth. (And, yes, I realize I’m mixing my animal-based metaphors.). Although Bannon is often full of self-serving bullshit (in the immortal words of Anthony Scaramucci, “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock”), I found his discussion of how the media works and how it can be manipulated fascinating.
Andrew Breitbart famously said that “politics is downstream of culture”, meaning that the most effective way to change politics is not (just) to attack politicians, but (also) to attack the cultural institutions they rely upon — to direct one’s fire at Black Lives Matter and Hollywood and female gamers, not just Obama and Clinton. There is a parallel idea in right-wing circles, related to Breitbart’s adage but clearly distinct, that one must not let facts get in the way of a good story. Or, as former Breitbart “reporter” Ben Shapiro expressed it: “Truth and veracity weren’t [Bannon’s] top priority at Breitbart. Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth.”
These two ideas intertwined beautifully (if you’re a Republican) in the Breitbart/Project Veritas investigation of ACORN. If you recall, right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe released excerpts of undercover “sting” videos, later shown to be misleadingly edited, of ACORN employees apparently countenancing sex trafficking and other crimes; the obvious narrative that coalesced around these videos was that ACORN, the recipient of billions of dollars in federal funding, was using that money to promote the kind of bad behavior you might see in Rush Limbaugh’s fever dreams. Although numerous investigations at least partially exonerated ACORN, the organization was forced into bankruptcy not long after, and its voter registration efforts with it. As Breitbart said, culture drives politics, and as Bannon said, narrative truth supersedes factual truth. Or, put more pithily: in politics, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” By the time ACORN explained itself, and non-partisan investigators looked into the explanations, the battle was already lost. (In 2013, four years after the story had come and gone, O’Keefe paid $100k and penned an 11 page apology to a former ACORN employee in a defamation lawsuit settlement. I’m sure Breitbart viewed that as money well spent.)
The same playbook was applied to taking down Hillary Clinton. (In one of the most frightening passages of Green’s book, Bannon explained that attacking Clinton was not necessarily meant to help Trump win: “our backup strategy is to fuck [Hillary Clinton] up so bad that she can’t govern. If she gets 43 percent of the vote, she can’t claim a mandate.”)
The lesson Bannon claims to have learned from the 1990s assault on the Clinton president was that the right-wing failed because the mainstream media didn’t take them seriously. Green reports,
“Back then”, [Bannon] says, “they couldn’t take down Bill [Clinton] because they didn’t do that much real reporting, they couldn’t get the mainstream guys interested, and they were always gunning for impeachment no matter what. People got anesthetized to outrage.” What news conservatives did produce about the Clintons in the 1990s, such as David Brock’s Troopergate investigation on Paul Jones in The American Spectator, was often tainted in the eyes of mainstream editors by its explicit partisan association. Now Bannon had found a “business partner” in the same media outlets conservatives had long despised. His intuition about the reporters on the investigative desks of major newspapers was also correct: they weren’t the liberal ideologues of conservative fever dreams but kindred souls who could be recruited into his larger enterprise.
David Brock himself, who renounced conservatism and became a key liberal strategist, fund-raiser, and Clinton ally was one of the few Democrats in 2015 who saw clearly the threat that the emerging Clinton Cash narrative posed to Hillary Clinton
“If you were trying to create doubt and qualms about Hillary Clinton among progressives, the Times is the place to do it.” He paused. “Looking at it from their point of view, the Times is the perfect host body for the virus.”
To provide some context, Clinton Cash (with the ominous subtitle The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich) was a book conceived by Bannon and Peter Schweizer, president of Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute (GAI). (GAI, which devotes itself to right-wing opposition research, was funded by nutjob billionaire Robert Mercer.)
Green reports that Schweizer and his assistants mined the “Dark Web” for dirt on Clinton, and found a lot of it. There were “tax filings, flight logs, and foreign-government documents” which, taken together, revealed “a slew of unreported foundation donors who appear[ed] to have benefited financially from their relationship with the Clintons”. These formed the raw materials for Clinton Cash. Bannon then turned to Wynton Hall, another GAI employee who made a career as a “celebrity ghostwriter” (America, what a country!). According to Green, “Hall’s job is to transform dry think-tank research into vivid, viral-ready political dramas.” In other words, it was the “narrative truth” what would sell the mainstream media on Clinton’s corruption, not just the “factual truth”.
Bannon, Schweizer, and Hall succeeded wildly. The Times bought the narrative, liberal complaints about “factual accuracy” and “bias” be damned. And in exchange for Breitbart giving the Times exclusive access to the book, the Times promised to “pursue the story lines found in [it]”.
As Bannon foresaw, the mainstream media essentially laundered a right-wing hit job to the rest of the media and the American public.
“Once that work has permeated the mainstream — once it’s found a “host body”, in David Brock’s phrase — then comes the “pivot”. Heroes and villains emerge and become grist for a juicy Breitbart News narrative. The story takes on a life of its own. Hillary Clinton became the biggest narrative of all, even though none of the GAI reporting went directly to Breitbart. It didn’t have to. “With Clinton Cash, we never really broke a story”, said Bannon, “but you go to Breitbart, and we’ve got twenty things, we’re linking to everybody else’s stuff, we’re aggregating, we’ll pull stuff from the left. It’s a rolling phenomenon. Huge traffic. Everybody’s invested.”
I read this stuff and think: if our politics is stupid, it’s because our media is stupider. (I suppose that’s just a depressing way of restating Andrew Breitbart’s idea that politics is downstream.) The Times fell for the Clinton Cash story, the ACORN story, the Shirley Sherrod story, the Iraq WMD story, and, perhaps most infamously, the Clinton emails story. It’s gotten so frequent that you wonder whether the Times is being duped or is part of the con instead.
One of the especially pernicious lies that Bannon has told is that he believes in “economic nationalism”, a sort of doppelganger of the Bernie Sanders high-tax, pro-infrastructure, anti-trade and, to a lesser extent, anti-immigration policies. According to Bannon, his come-to-Jesus moment occurred during the financial crisis:
He said that Marty Bannon, his ninety-five-year-old father, a devout Catholic whose education ended at the third grade, had, like his father before him, worked at A.T. & T. for half a century, rising slowly from a blue-collar job to a white-collar one; his loyalty to the company was so great that he put all his savings into A.T. & T. stock. Then, in October of 2008, he was watching Jim Cramer on the “Today” show, and heard Cramer say that it was time to sell—so he did. Poof, a hundred thousand dollars of painstakingly accumulated savings were gone, even as the financial institutions that perpetrated the crisis were being bailed out. Bannon told the Journal, “Everything since then has come from there. All of it.”
Bannon told the [Wall Street] Journal, “The problem we’ve had is that in the ascendant economy—Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood—the Marty Bannons of the world were getting washed out to sea, and nobody was paying attention to them.”
Besides the apparent factual problems with Bannon’s story (like the chronology being completely wrong), it’s strange to hear a Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood filmmaker complain about Wall Street and Hollywood. It’s doubly strange that someone with Bannon’s supposed beliefs would place his faith in a man like Donald Trump. And it’s even stranger that to read Joshua Green report that, “for years, Bannon had been searching for a vessel for his populist-nationalist ideas, trying out and eventually discard Tea Party politicians such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann”.
(This is the same Michele Bachmann who blamed FDR for exacerbating the Great Depression by passing the “Hoot-Smawley Act”, which raised tariffs. For the sake of “factual truth”, let me point out that it was actually Hoover, not FDR, who passed the bill, and it was actually the “Smoot-Hawley Act”, not the “Hoot-Smawley Act”. But, regardless, wouldn’t a supporter of economic nationalism be in favor of tariffs?)
It’s tough to reconcile Bannon’s professed economic ideology with his support of dummies like Palin, Bachmann, Trump, and [later] Roy Moore; as Ross Douthat noted, “[Trump] lacks the mixture of intellectual curiosity, mental creativity, seriousness of purpose and personal discipline required to actually make any set of policy ideas his own in the way that a successful populist president would need to do” — and of the four, he’s probably the most ideologically coherent of the bunch!
There is an answer to this riddle, though, and it’s to recognize that Bannon is a hedgehog — he knows only one thing. When it comes to policy and ideology, as opposed to media, Bannon is just as ill-informed as the politicians who became vessels for his ambitions. Matt Yglesias in Vox lampooned Bannon for calling for the “deconstruction of the administrative state”, saying, “He presumably meant that he wants to destroy the administrative state, not apply literary theory inspired by Jacques Derrida to it. Which would just be another way of saying that he’s a Republican Party political strategist who favors less regulation, just like all Republicans for the past 40 years.” And reading about how Bannon “is a voracious reader, who sometimes stays up until dawn powering through books, obscure journals, and news articles, scrawling notes in a pocket-size green diary as he goes” and riffs about “Thucydides” and “J.D. Vance” reminds me that Bannon is about as much an intellectual as I was in high school, when I read Ayn Rand and Bill Kristol and pontificated about Hegel and quantum mechanics.
The media has puffed up, and continues to puff up, many right-wing figures far beyond their merit. Karl Rove was a “mastermind” and “Bush’s brain”, until he wasted hundreds of millions of his donors’ dollars in 2008 and 2012. The New York Times called Ben Shapiro (the “narrative truth” guy) the “cool kid’s philosopher” and a “brilliant polemicist”. Shapiro once philosophized that “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage”. And let us not forget Paul Ryan, the wonk’s wonk, the man with such a deep-seated devotion to balancing the budget and reducing the debt that he passed a 1 trillion tax cut (er, “tax reform”).
What so many of the portrayals of Bannon as an “economic nationalist” or a “great manipulator” get wrong is that it takes two: the manipulator, and the manipulatee. What does it say about American politics that mainstream journalists continue to fall for Bannon’s bullshit, while even Donald Trump, dunce-become-king, eventually wised up?