How Bannon constructed ‘a people’

Stephen Bannon has been instrumental in the rise of right-wing populist politics in the US and Europe. His aim: to bring such politics into the mainstream and to push progressivism into the dustbin of history.

Daniel Smith
5 May 2017
Pool/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Pool/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.“Darkness is good: Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.” The shocking election of Donald Trump in November 2016 was in no small part due to the work of Stephen Bannon, who offered this quote in a post-election interview. Bannon, who took over Trump’s campaign in August, pioneered Trump’s winning strategy by focusing on Mid-Western states and engineering an advanced social media campaign that spent $150 million on targeted Facebook ads in the weeks before the election. Although few had heard of him before he took over Trump’s campaign, Bannon had long worked toward his goal of building a right-wing populist movement in the United States and around the world.

Born in Virginia in 1953, Bannon worked for the Navy, Goldman Sachs, and in Hollywood before beginning his political activities. In the 2000s, he produced documentaries about Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin, painting them as conservative heroes. Bannon’s films, were “peppered with footage of lions attacking helpless gazelles, seedlings bursting from the ground into glorious bloom;” Bannon was once described as “the Leni Reifenstahl of the Tea Party movement”. His 2010 film, Generation Zero, is replete with such evocative imagery. It offered a historical explanation of how the Financial Crisis came about, and argued that the present crisis was part of a historical cycle of crisis, resolution, complacency, and decline. David Kaiser, who was interviewed for the film, would write in an op-ed after the 2016 election, “In 2009, when Bannon and I met, I hoped that Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress would use the economic crisis of our own age to revive the values of the New Deal. Bannon obviously had other ideas about where the crisis would lead.”

While working in the film industry, Bannon met and befriended Andrew Breitbart, conservative media pundit and outspoken critic of the ‘liberal mainstream media’. The two were kindred spirits, with similar aims; Bannon once said that, “Our vision – Andrew’s vision – was always to build a global, center-right, populist, anti-establishment news site.” After the death of Andrew Breitbart in 2012, Bannon took the lead in turning Breitbart into a tabloid-style website with allegiance to right-wing populist movements worldwide. Sensational headlines have allowed for the viral spread of Breitbart articles on Facebook, which, according to Bannon, has been instrumental in the growth of Breitbart during Bannon’s tenure; the two billion page views Breitbart.com received in 2016 beat the Washington Post, Fox News and Huffington Post. Bannon resigned from his role at Breitbart before working for the Trump campaign, and has since severed ties with the site. However, Bannon left his mark before leaving Breitbart. Ben Shapiro, a former editor of Breitbart, wrote that, “[Bannon] turned [Breitbart] into Trump’s personal Pravda.”

The populist, anti-establishment news site was meant to serve as the voice of a burgeoning political movement that Bannon hoped could overthrow what he described as a “compromised political class” which engaged in “crony capitalism” to the detriment of regular people. Political elites, for Bannon, are responsible for the current crisis and should be vilified for their actions. Bannon described the “global Tea Party movement” as a “reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington D.C., or that government is in Brussels.” Opposition to centralized government, and the elitism that it purportedly leads to, is “The central thing that binds – together – a centre-right populist movement of the middle class, the working men and women of the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos.”

Bannon’s speeches, like his films, paint a picture of a world on the edge, in which he and other patriots were the only hope for the salvation of Western Civilization. In a 2010 speech to the Liberty Restoration Foundation, a Tea Party organization, Bannon expounded on the view presented in Generation Zero by saying that the present crisis was comparable to other crises in American history. At the end of this speech, he spoke directly to the audience, saying:

“I know all of you guys read history books since you were kids, and you all think, “Hey, if I was there during the Civil War, I'd be right in the middle of it. Or if I was in the Revolution, I would be right there. Or World War II, or the Great Depression. I would be there, in Normandy, I'd do all that." We have that opportunity today, right? They're gonna look back at these ten years, fifteen years -  it's gonna take us that long – but we can do it.”

Bannon continued, saying that, “[if the United States is to survive the present crisis] and it takes 20 years to get through this, it's gonna be because of guys like you. And if you quit, we are done. We're gonna be something very different on the other side.” He repeatedly emphasizes the historical significance of the audience’s actions in supporting the Tea Party and the burgeoning conservative-populist movement, calling them “the thin blue line” that could save the West. At one point in the speech, when describing his trips around the country giving speeches, he noticed that, “It's always the same hundred guys, men and women, every time I go. That’s the scary thing. You are the guys that are really gonna save us.”

When describing the popular force behind the Tea Party movement, Bannon spoke of ‘Walmart Nation’: “They're the ones that hold our social organizations together, build our cities, run our little leagues, fight our wars. It’s the backbone of this country. And they’re enraged.” Bannon went on: “The anger of the tea party; it’s not racism, they’re not homophobes, They're not nativist. What they are is practical, common-sense, middle-class people that understand that they're paying for their own, and their children's own, destruction.” In response to allegations that such politics were based in racist or xenophobic sentiments, Bannon argued that they are “washed out” of the movement over time, saying that, “when you look at any kind of revolution – and this is a revolution – you always have some groups that are disparate. I think that will all burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement.” The characterization of his populist movement as centre-right, rather than far-right, shows Bannon’s long-term aims.

The theoretical concept of ‘hegemony’, originally conceived by Antonio Gramsci in the early twentieth century and later developed in the work of political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, is valuable in understanding the political work of Bannon in the rise of right-wing populism in the United States and Europe. Gramsci, a leader of the Italian Communist Party and Marxist theorist who worked in the 1920s, offered his theory of hegemony as a way of understanding how capitalism persisted despite being based on the exploitation of the majority by the capital-owning class. Capitalism was justified and perpetuated by the dominance of liberal ideology, based on the ownership of private property and the moral virtue of entrepreneurship and private enterprise. This ideology was accepted by the working class, creating a system in which domination by the majority was exercised through consent rather than coercion. Liberal hegemony, in the time of Gramsci, had evolved to accommodate the demands of early social democratic parties which sought to represent the interests of workers in parliament. By offering concessions to these parties, rather than the structural reform of capitalism that would help them to achieve true equality, liberal hegemony could fend off the revolutionary movements which sought its destruction.

The concept of hegemony was incorporated into the theory of populism developed by Laclau and Mouffe in the late twentieth century. According to their theory, a populist political movement required the construction of an antagonistic relation between the “People” and an exploitative “Elite.” This antagonism could take many forms: in Marxist discourse it was between the proletariat and capitalists, and in right-wing discourses it is between an ethnic people and invasive foreigners. Laclau, in his essay Toward a Theory of Populism, wrote that, “The emergence of populism is historically linked to a crisis of the dominant ideological discourse which is in turn part of a more general social crisis.” The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was, according to thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, the beginning of a political era that had gone “beyond antagonism.” The problems of such thinking were apparent to Chantal Mouffe, who argued that the Third Way approach to governance ignored the essentially antagonistic nature of politics. Despite the defeat of western liberalism’s primary ideological opponent in the Soviet Union, the fundamental antagonisms that constitute society still existed, and would bubble under the surface of neoliberal hegemony until a breaking point was reached.  

After the Financial Crisis of 2008, Europe and the United States were ripe for a new narrative, a counter-hegemonic project that could explain, on its own terms, the reasons for and solutions to the Great Crisis. Well aware of the opportunities that the crisis made available, Bannon went about constructing a ‘People’ that would be the core of his right-wing populist project. Economic anxieties were blamed on political and economic elites who collaborated to enrich themselves at the expensive of everyone else. ‘Others’ posed a threat to the Judeo-Christian values on which Western Civilization was based, which had been passed down as a part of the “Burkean compact” for 2,500 years. A return to ‘economic nationalism’ would revitalize the economy, bring jobs and prosperity to the American people, reunite the American people around traditional values, and save the American project from the grasp of the insidious ‘globalists’, whose policies of open borders and free trade could be blamed for the marginalization of the (white) working man. In an era of economic uncertainty and cultural division, the appeal of such a simple explanation for the crises of the day cannot be understated.

David Kaiser, the historian who wrote about his involvement in Generation Zero after the election, concluded his piece with the following observation: “Apocalyptic rhetoric and apocalyptic thinking flourish during crisis periods. This represents perhaps the biggest danger of the Trump presidency, and one that will bear watching from all concerned citizens in the months and years ahead.” By building alliances between different parties and political groups around the world, constructing an ideological worldview which can underpin their various political projects, and disseminating this worldview through Breitbart, Bannon has been instrumental in the rise of right-wing populist politics in the United States and Europe. His aim is, above anything else, to bring such politics into the mainstream and to push progressivism into the dustbin of history. Those on the left who wish to offer their own alternative to right-wing populism ought to consider why right-wing parties have risen to power in recent elections, while social-democratic and left-wing parties have floundered. The strategic tools employed by Bannon and his allies may be useful to those who wish to unite people around opposition to social and economic injustice, rather than around fear of outsiders and change.

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