Steve Bannon and the Politics of Bullshit
A profile of the Trump ally on the eve of the January 6 Committee Hearings raises ominous questions about what's lurking on the rightward fringes of American politics
In my inaugural post, I talked in a high-minded way about the importance of using empathetic imagination to feel ourselves into the outlook of those attracted to the right.
I also wrote about the importance of making distinctions. Above all, we need to do the work of placing various figures on the right into categories. In one camp, there are people whose words and deeds are broadly continuous with prior forms of center-right politics. In another are those who seek to break from these traditions in some respects. Finally, there are those who aim to go much further, potentially plunging American democracy as a whole into something much darker and more dangerous.
This is a post about someone who firmly belongs in the last group—but also someone with whom empathy is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, because he says next to nothing about what he ultimately hopes to achieve. By all appearances, he is a nihilist, a person who wants to watch the world burn, who hates the present state of affairs so much that he’s willing to empower any force that promises to tear it all down, confident that whatever follows the conflagration will be an improvement over the status quo—at least for himself.
I’m talking about Stephen K. Bannon—former White House Chief Strategist, Senior Counselor to President Donald Trump, and a consummate practitioner of the politics of bullshit.
Bannon in Political Context
Bannon has been on my mind these past few days for two reasons: first, because the January 6 Committee Hearings are about to begin; and second, because of Jennifer Senior’s tour de force profile of Bannon in The Atlantic.
The piece is filled with smart observations and elegant turns of phrase. It’s also quite funny. But having read it twice, I think it’s accurate to say that Bannon remains something of a mystery to Senior. For much of the lengthy feature, Bannon comes off like a needy, self-deluded moron. Yet Senior also asserts that he’s “attempting to insert a lit bomb into the mouth of American democracy.” People can attempt all kinds of bad things. The question is whether they’re competent enough to have a serious shot at being successful. Is Bannon?
We have plenty of reason to wonder. In the years since Trump took over the Republican Party, debate and discussion on the America right about its future has been extremely lively. To name just a few of the factions jostling for influence:
There are holdovers from the Reaganite past—those who mainly want tax cuts and a pro-business regulatory climate, a soft-peddled social conservatism, and a hawkish foreign policy. Then there are those who are on board with most of this list but diverge in an area or two—maybe scrapping the tax-cut obsession, or favoring a less interventionist foreign policy, or adding in a harsher position on immigration. This captures the positions of most members of the Republican caucus in the House and Senate.
Then at the elite level of writers and intellectuals, we get a lot of additional variation and detail. There are those who want a pro-family policy agenda. And those in favor of increasing state capacity for conservative and nationalist ends. And the Catholic integralists, who go further in this direction by explicitly calling for a greater role for religion in enforcing morals using the powers of the administrative state.
Meanwhile, many ordinary but highly engaged voters and activists (most influentially, Christopher Rufo) define themselves mainly in opposition to the cultural left, standing against critical race theory, gender ideology, intersectionality, and various other trends associated with progressive-activist priorities. They’re primarily motivated by the desire to keep these tendencies from gaining a foothold in schools, government agencies, and even private companies. Several of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination in 2024, most prominently Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, push this anti-woke position, as do a number of right-wing websites, including the Washington Free Beacon, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, and the Claremont Institute’s many spinoffs.
I’ll have occasion to write about all of these factions in this newsletter. Each prefers a somewhat different future for the GOP and the country. Whether you or I agree with what any of them wants is less important in the present context than recognizing that they each have something they aim to achieve, some vision of the common good that animates what they say and do in politics.
Conjuring a New Future
Does Steve Bannon? I honestly don’t think so. There’s certainly no evidence that he does. And this despite the fact that he clearly grasps something important about the character of radical politics as such.
Non-radical, “ordinary” politics can be a pretty prosaic affair, as different parties compete for the chance to make incremental changes hemmed in by public opinion, which acts as a fixed limitation on the possible.
But radical politics is different. It’s a form of idealism, in the sense that it imagines a very different future and motivates people to bring it into existence by telling a compelling story about the possibility of remaking the world of the given. Communism was born through this kind of process, and to this day the most ambitious and self-aware people on the left are keenly aware that it’s sometimes possible to conjure a new public that’s eager to bring forth a whole new reality and future order of things.
Bannon grasps this, too, which is why he once half-trollingly referred to himself as a Leninist. He understands the possibility of remaking the world. But to what ends? There things become obscure.
Bannon knows what he hates. Liberals. Progressives. The left. China. But what’s the alternative? It can’t be anything that resembles the Republican Party of the past, because he hates that, too. What then? He can’t really say. In place of a vision of a better world, he offers only negation. His “ideal” future is one of leveling destruction—like the skyscrapers collapsing, one after another, in the final scene of the movie Fight Club. What comes after the skyline has been reduced to rubble, Bannon hasn’t a clue. All he knows is that he wants to be the one to place and detonate the TNT.
That’s why the most illuminating passage in Senior’s profile comes during and just after she recounts something from Errol Morris’s 2018 documentary about Bannon, American Dharma. In this segment, Bannon talks about realizing that gamers create heroic alter egos of themselves online that sometimes feel more real than their real-world selves. Once he absorbed this fact, he combined it with his instinct to build out the comments section while running Breitbart News, so readers could create anonymous avatars of themselves that were more radical, abrasive, unrestrained, and violent than they were in real life. Over time, Bannon came to realize that those militant online personalities could influence the real people behind the digital façades.
Speaking of a hypothetical gamer named Dave who’s a paper-pusher in his actual life but plays a ruthless warrior online named after a mythological hero from Greek mythology, Bannon divulges his goal to Senior: “I want Dave in Accounting to be Ajax in his life.” As Senior notes, this is precisely what happened on January 6, 2021: the militant political dream of fighting the enemy spilled over into the world. As Senior puts it, “The fantasy and the reality had become one and the same.”
Master of Bullshit
But again, what precisely is the content of the fantasy to be made real? What’s the better world Bannon hopes to birth with his current main project, the streaming program/podcast War Room, which spins one unverified conspiracy after another seemingly designed to keep viewers/listeners in a state of maximal, agitated indignation?
The answer, I think, is that Bannon has no vision of a better world to offer. The only discernable characteristic of the world that might follow our own is that it’s not this one. Which means that Bannon’s vision is entirely negative, and that justifies him saying absolutely anything, pumping whatever epistemic sewage he can conjure out of his head into the body politic in the hope that the toxins will ultimately succeed in flattening the skyline, come what may.
The tip-off is the sign propped up on the fireplace mantle behind Bannon in the room where he broadcasts the show (and visible in the large photo accompanying Senior’s profile).
but there are
—Stephen K. Bannon
That’s the man in a nutshell: Spreading conspiracies with abandon while explicitly denying, right over his shoulder, that conspiracies even exist—while also endorsing, in the form of a quotation attributed to himself, what amounts to an alternative definition of conspiratorial thinking. (To believe there are no coincidences is to presume nothing happens by chance, which is a powerful inducement, or at least an invitation, to conspiratorial (over-)thinking.)
It’s thoroughgoing BS.
The Trump Connection
Those of us who devoted ourselves to making sense of the Trump administration frequently struggled to nail down precisely what was so unnerving about his presidency. Was it the policies he pursued that were unusual for a Republican president? Or his furious combativeness? Or the corruption that swirled around him and his family? All of those things were troubling, and some were terrible.
But far worse and more dangerous was the bullshit.
It began before Trump launched his presidential campaign, with the “birther” conspiracy about Barack Obama. It leapt to prominence early in his presidency, when, a day after his inauguration, Trump insisted before a throng of employees and reporters at CIA headquarters that the crowd gathered the previous day on the Washington Mall was the largest ever for such an event, despite photographic evidence definitively proving otherwise.
There’s a reason the word “gaslighting” entered the working vocabulary of reporters and citizens during the Trump years—because the president made a habit of telling lies that every American could see were lies, and that most people had reason to suspect Trump himself knew were untrue as well. It was a presidential-level display of indifference to the very distinction between truth and falsehood, a demonstration that he resided in and sought to drag the rest of us into a twilit world in which the very difference between fact and fiction ceased to hold up or even make sense.
And that was before he shot out the lights entirely with a constant stream of BS about a conspiracy to deny his own re-election. (Bannon’s precise role in encouraging Trump’s behavior leading up to and on the day of the riot on Capitol Hill remains murky and looks likely to remain so as long as he resists complying with the subpoena from the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack.)
Whether Bannon learned how to hock bullshit from Trump, or Trump picked it up from Bannon, or (more likely) it was a mutual fondness for weaponized BS that drew them to each other, doesn’t really matter. (Trump may well admire Vladimir Putin in part because he recognizes in the Russian president a fellow polluter of the information space.)
What does matter is that Bannon has spent the 17 months since Trump left office continuing to spread and reinforce the former president’s bullshit about how the 2020 election was stolen. That makes him one of America’s foremost disseminators of epistemic nonsense, whipping people up into a frenzy of rage on the basis of unproven and even demonstrably false claims.
Does Bannon believe his own BS about the last presidential election? Senior says she spoke to several people, and quotes a few, who know Bannon and say he doesn’t buy it. But of course when Senior asks him directly about this, Bannon asserts, “I absolutely believe it, to the core of my being.” Which is exactly what you’d expect an accomplished bullshitter to say.
Where the Bullshit Ends
The ultimate consequence of spreading BS far and wide is a gradually rising tide of chaos—epistemic, moral, and political. Hannah Arendt rightly saw it as preparing the way for totalitarianism in general and fascism in particular.
I’m not calling Bannon an outright fascist. His positive vision is too indeterminate to be pinned down with any precise ideological label. Yet it’s also undeniable that one potential outcome of the politics of bullshit could be a revolution or coup in which a strongman (perhaps along with a cadre of needy, self-deluded morons) seize power amidst intentionally cultivated confusion about just what the hell is going on.
In that case, the chaotic insurrectionary events of January 6, 2021 could well come to be seen as a dress rehearsal for the real deal—with Steve Bannon once again standing on the sidelines or even in the center of the action, encouraging the mayhem and cheering it on with ample quantities of Grade A bullshit.
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Bannon is uniquely dangerous in that he's smart and charismatic. Should he partner with someone who is smarter than Trump (not hard to do as Trump is so profoundly ignorant), we will be in real trouble. I hope he is convicted for his refusal to comply with the congressional subpoena and put in jail for the longest possible time.
Well. That was depressing. I completely agree with your second-to-last paragraph and appreciate your restraint is using The F Word, but I think it's correct to identify Bannon and the like as potential or likely precursors.