Well before the National Day of Patriotic Devotion, on which the 45th president's inauguration was cheered by a crowd of dozens of admirers, it had become clear that despite his mortifying inventory of moral, ethical, and verbal deficiencies, Donald Trump was only the second-worst thing about the Trump administration.
Steve Bannon is the latest and most alarming exponent of a long political tradition: advisers who not so secretly do all the thinking for lightweight Republican presidents. Ronald Reagan had the trifecta of James Baker, Edwin Meese, and Michael Deaver under the stage direction of the first lady (and, apparently, her astrologer). W. had Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.
Trump has Bannon. And so do we. And it's a major problem for the whole world on a scale we've never seen before. While his predecessors were also skillful manipulators who loved power, they weren't hardcore ideologues who definitely believe in biblical prophecy, have intense affinities for Sun Tzu and Julius Evola, and explicitly yearn for an apocalyptic holy war with Islam they say has already begun.
So, as long as we're having an endless national nightmare anyway, it's probably worth shifting the energy of those sleepless, anxiety-swaddled hours away from parsing the inane mendacity of the commander in chief and toward cracking the code of the man who packs his ideological lunch.
Though the early weeks of unconstitutional executive orders, warnings to the press to "keep its mouth shut," and chilling pronouncements about the "deconstruction of the administrative state" offer no shortage of disheartening insight, and his Breitbart archives offer even more ("Hillary Heckled in Buffalo: 'Benghazi, Benghazi—You Let Them Die'"), the most direct path into the fascinating disgrace of Steve Bannon's mind comes from watching his films.
From 2004 to 2016, Bannon produced 16 documentaries, usually in conjunction with Citizens United Productions, "a 501(c)3 tax-exempt non-profit dedicated to informing the American people about public policy issues which relate to traditional American values: strong national defense, Constitutionally limited government, free market economics, belief in God and Judeo-Christian values, and the recognition of the family as the basic social unit of our society."
How central are films like this to the Citizens United mission? On the eve of the release of Bannon's Obama takedown, The Hope and the Change, CU's president/chairman, David Bossie, went on Fox News and told Sean Hannity (who called the film "the most powerful documentary I have ever seen") that "we went to the Supreme Court and fought the Federal Election Commission for the right to do this."
On nine of the films, Bannon was writer/director as well. (He also has executive producer credit on the independent narrative movies The Indian Runner, Titus, and Sweetwater, which indicates that he put the financing together.) The titles don't tell you all you need to know about the filmmaker's purpose, but the heroic language says a lot. Generation Zero. Fire from the Heartland. Battle for America. The Undefeated. Torchbearer. In the Face of Evil: Reagan's War in Word and Deed.
Okay, that last one tells you all you need to know. And if it doesn't, here's how the voice-over introduces Reagan: "The only true outsider elected in the century, a radical with extreme views on the role of government, the size of the state, taxes, and how to confront the beast."
It will surprise no one that the cinema of Steve Bannon consists entirely of conservative nationalist propaganda tracts designed to advance the values of the Tea Party movement, unacknowledged contradictions and all: small government, low taxes, militarism, isolationism, Christianity, self-interest, patriotism, contempt for America, everyone who disagrees with you is an elitist, immigrants are a threat, outsiders are the only real heroes, free-market capitalism is essential, regulation is tyranny, society is too permissive, Wall Street is corrupt, Democrats are hypocrites, liberals are fascists, Barack Obama is a fraud, and Bill and Hillary Clinton are worse than a thousand Hitlers. But above all, liberty. Always liberty.
The films aren't too hard to find. Amazon has a few on its VOD service, one is currently on YouTube (with more than 200,000 views), and you're welcome to purchase all of them on DVD directly through Citizens United. His ode to Sarah Palin, The Undefeated, had an extremely limited theatrical run in 2011. In proto-Trumpian mode, Bannon bragged about its box-office performance, though the Atlantic published an account of an empty auditorium in the heart of conservative Orange County, California, on opening night.
All nine works that bear the credit "A Film by Stephen K. Bannon" are constructed identically: a chaotic introductory collage of archival news clips, on-the-nose stock footage (blood dripping down stacks of money, for example), and Bible verses cut and dissolve while chopped-up voice-over competes with a loud score to describe a moment of crisis in contemporary America.
In Occupy Unmasked, it's the "heated national debate" of 2011 that followed "the historic Tea Party victory in 2010" about raising the debt ceiling. In Generation Zero, it's the financial collapse of 2008 hitting home while ineffectual Democrats offer no solutions. In Torchbearer and The Undefeated, it's the hysterical chorus of elitist media mockery that greeted the public fall of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson and the public rise of Sarah Palin, respectively.
From there, the barrage continues, modulated only by the insertion of portentous chapter headings like "THE WILL TO POWER" and "THE UNRAVELING" and "ACT 3: PRESENT AT THE CREATION." The formula never varies: An unending torrent of words from multiple voices, arguing for this or that calumny from the left, this or that tribulation for "the forgotten man," this or that heroism from Reagan, Palin, Robertson, this or that threat from the swarming hordes of Islamic fascism. Much of Bannon's imagery is so literal that you can't help wondering if you're meant to receive it as a formal satire.
A 2015 profile in Bloomberg caught it exactly: "In the Bannon repertoire, no metaphor is too direct. His films are peppered with footage of lions attacking helpless gazelles, seedlings bursting from the ground into glorious bloom." (The lions are liberals. The gazelle is Sarah Palin. Et cetera.)
Bannon's friend and colleague Andrew Breitbart, founder of Breitbart.com, appeared frequently in these films. (Bannon became the executive chairman of the site after Breitbart's death in 2012.) In that same profile, Breitbart referred to Bannon "with sincere admiration, as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement."
The comparison is perfectly apt... unless you've ever seen a Riefenstahl film. Her 1935 Triumph of the Will is a chillingly effective work of Nazi propaganda. It's also a staggeringly beautiful, poetic piece of cinema—a visual distillation of the cryptomythological rhetoric that served as a smoke screen for the thoroughgoing horrors of Adolf Hitler's ethos. It's effective as propaganda because it is aesthetically beautiful.
That beauty is obviously complicated and mitigated by the reality of its message, and by its existence as a vehicle to glorify the indefensible. This contradiction has led to 80 years of passionate debate about the nature of aesthetic beauty, the morality of cinema, and the value of her entire body of work.
It's safe to say that in 80 years (presuming Bannon hasn't engineered a holocaust of his own), no one will be engaged in such debate about District of Corruption, Clinton Cash, Occupy Unmasked, or Fire from the Heartland. That's because these films are ugly, root and branch. I don't mean their politics (although those are ugly, too). I mean their conception and construction. Watching Stephen K. Bannon's entire filmography—I'm not the first to attempt it, nor even the second—is a nauseating experience. (The K clearly stands for K hole.) His oeuvre is less Leni Riefenstahl and more Oliver Stone (without the technical deftness poetic aspiration) or Michael Moore (minus the wit).
Bannon films are blunt instruments, crudely assembled, felled by curious sound design (unless the intention was for the score to drown out the droning commentary, which is plausible, actually). They're intended not to flatter, seduce, or persuade, but to bludgeon with an overload of semiverifiable assertions and insinuations.
Whether you're inclined to accept or dispute the specific charges mooted by any given film, they eventually all blur together into a foreboding superargument of permanent outrage. That condition is at the heart of Bannon's success as a political agitator and deceiver, and you'd think it would make him a natural born propaganda filmmaker. But it doesn't. It makes him a ranter with a copy of Final Cut Pro.
Another big problem: Most damningly, there is not a moment of humor to be found anywhere near these films. Bannon makes his attitude toward levity clear in the first 30 seconds of Torchbearer, when the snide voice of Jon Stewart, making fun of the then-fresh Duck Dynasty scandal, is interrupted by a blast from Phil Robertson's shotgun.
Why so glum, chum? Partly it's because the films are anointed with solemn purpose. But mostly it's because a sense of humor represents a form of sophistication, which is kin to elitism—and elitism, even more than Saul Alinsky, Hillary Clinton, or radical Islam, is Bannon's true enemy every single time.
Reagan bucked the elitism of the left and the right to rid the planet of the scourge of communism. Wall Street became drunk on elitism while elite politicians lined their pockets allowing them to do it. The Clintons' elitism let them think they could fool America into enabling their criminal empire, and Obama leveraged elitist nostalgia for that same elitism to con America into voting for him—twice!
Meanwhile, out there in the fiery heartland, a new generation of radical conservative women like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Ann Coulter arrive on the scene to show the world a new brand of female independence, and what do you suppose happens?
You're absolutely right: The elites (who are supposed to be so tolerant and feminist) attack them savagely.
Though Bannon's definition of "elite" is elastic, it generally means anyone who thinks modernity is in some way more desirable than antiquity. In Generation Zero, which might be called his most "personal" film, Bannon attempts to thread an almost impossible needle, blaming the financial collapse of 2008 on the Woodstock generation's narcissistic abandonment of god. Over footage of naked hippies bathing in a fetid pond, a writer named Richard Miniter seethes about the "self-indulgent wealthy elite that's decided to become a bunch of modern-day bohemians and rewrite the rules of our society."
Another speaker sneers at the way "the media elite rushed in to give it cosmic significance." Another coughs out disdain for "the rise of youth culture, taking advantage of the fruits of the American free enterprise system." Still another hatefully mocks the naive hippie notion that education and egalitarianism might lead to "eternal peace, eternal beauty, eternal niceness everywhere." These observations are larded with palpable contempt—this wasn't a cultural differential, it was a betrayal. It was treason.
To make his affinities plain, Bannon then smash cuts to a scene from Leave It to Beaver. Literally.
Ward: Wally, does the story of Pandora's box have any particular significance for you? You know, her curiosity, and doing things she was told not to do?
From there, "girls who had been taught by their mothers to be modest decided to flaunt their sexuality," then "substantive issues were superseded by a wallowing in narcissism," then Abbie Hoffman, Angela Davis, and Saul Alinsky, and before you know it, we're heading for the four recurring stages of societal collapse—the fourth and most dire, "THE CRISIS," was ignited by the 2008 financial collapse and will likely include "war, a lot of genocide, a lot of killings."
Thanks a lot, Woodstock generation.
Bannon's antipathy for lefty narce is so thorough that even the Latin motto of his production company, Victory Film Group, alludes to the importance of humility: "Vincit qui se vincit" translates to "He conquers who conquers himself." In other words, as he told the press, keep your mouth shut.
Bannon's films contain many absurd logical leaps, but the unacknowledged contradictions are far more damning. While shaming Wall Street and Washington for crony capitalism and unchecked greed, the film also argues for less financial regulation. It decries the malign influence of lobbyists and campaign finance corruption while bearing the stamp of Citizens United Productions. In the Face of Evil venerates Reagan for telling a Soviet graduating class that "freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things" while expressing glowing disgust for the "entirely destructive force" of lefty protesters at Occupy Wall Street. Moreover, it credits Reagan's strategic funding of the mujahideen against the Soviets but hesitates not a moment in ending on images of Osama bin Laden—who was trained and armed and essentially activated by that very strategy—and 9/11.
Best of all, after scolding Obama and the Clintons for accepting improper financial contributions, outlandish personal spending at taxpayer expense, and a reliance on executive authority beyond the scope of the office, and despite abominating elitist narcissism above all else, who does this documentarian up and go to work for?
These films are best read as functions of Bannon's yearning to seize and reframe the historical narrative to better reflect his idiosyncratic, apocalyptic MO. For all his antipathy toward Saul Alinsky and his influential book Rules for Radicals—they get shouted out and shouted down in several films—the auteur clearly took at least one bit of advice from the old leftist. In Generation Zero, Bannon shows the book's introduction, in which Alinsky offers an "over-the-shoulder acknowledgement to the very first radical... Lucifer." But on the same page, there's a short parenthetical aside that may as well have been the filmmaker's permission slip: "Who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins—and which is which?"
Bannon's history is dependent on mythology.
Torchbearer, the most lavishly photographed of his films, is basically a travelogue that features Robertson in his comedy beard and camo standing in front of various sites of historical significance to evangelical Christians (the Colosseum, the courthouse where the Scopes "monkey trial" was held) preaching a ludicrous gospel of biblical literalism.
Quoting G.K. Chesterton's famous line about how people who don't believe in god are willing to believe in anything, Robertson is on a quest to vindicate himself against the politically correct elites who cast him out just because he said homosexuality is sinful. In Bannon's frame, Robertson isn't a defrocked reality TV clown but a noble martyr. The films posit Reagan and Palin not as bought-and-paid-for figureheads of political machines operating at the height of cynicism but as genuine rebel heroes, two variations on the last best hope for America.
The only real question is whether Bannon really means this shit or if he is just extraordinarily committed to the act of pandering to people who will. Which part of his complex soul is the dominant one—the kingmaker, the polemicist, or the abject apparatchik flatterer of inferior masters? The Undefeated was produced in an effort to push Palin into a presidential campaign in 2012, but the world clearly wasn't ready for the heroic rebranding of someone who had been so thoroughly discredited by the world outside the Tea Party. So Bannon sucked it up, waited a few years, changed a few pronouns, and applied the exact same narrative to Donald Trump.
Talk about being willing to believe in anything.