The Real Lesson of My Debate With Steve Bannon

I argued against the false promise of what Trump's former strategist bills as populism. Then events took a strange turn.

Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters

Tickets sold out within 15 minutes after Toronto’s Munk Debates announced that I would debate Steve Bannon on its platform. The negative reaction arrived more slowly, but it was just as emphatic. A few days before the debate, a member of Parliament for Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party called for its cancellation. The rest of the party—the third-largest in Parliament—later signaled agreement with the no-platform demand.

The Munk Debates hold a special place in Canadian public life. For more than a decade, they have brought the learned, the preeminent, and the notorious to Toronto’s 2,800-seat symphony hall to test controversial ideas before a highly informed audience. Never before, though, had they ignited the fierce controversy that exploded around the scheduled debate between Bannon and me.

Over the next hours, I took calls from television and radio bookers: Would I come on their show to defend the debate?

I declined, again and again. I’d written an answer, and I wanted to deliver it once—at the debate itself. Some did not want to hear that answer or any other. They decided to shut down the debate by force and threat. They tried to block the entrance to the debate venue, then harassed attendees as they sought to enter. One police officer was punched in the face. Fear that protesters would slip into the event obliged the organizers to search every bag and wand every entrant—delaying the start time by 45 minutes. Even with that delay, many ticket holders were unable to take their seats. One protester nevertheless noisily managed to disrupt Bannon’s opening statement, before being drowned out by audience applause and removed by police.

Forceful interruption of public events is almost always wrong. If I see you reading a book that I dislike, I have no right to grab it from you. In a free society, there can be no equivalent of the Saudi religious police, monitoring public behavior and discourse and interrupting things of which they disapprove.

Yet the illegitimacy of violent interruptions of debate in general does not by itself justify any particular debate in specific. In 1860, Oxford University invited the biologist Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce to debate Darwin’s theory of evolution versus God’s design of the universe. No secular university would or should do such a thing today.

So no, I personally would not accept an invitation to debate “Resolved, husbands should be allowed to beat their wives,” or “Resolved, the white race is the best race.” I would strenuously object if any organization in which I had a role proposed to mount such a debate. If your group undertook to do it, I’d of course pay the taxes for your police protection, but I would not be happy about it, and I would not think you were contributing anything except mischief to our public life.

Obviously, I did not think I was doing anything like that in debating Steve Bannon. Bannon is not a marginal figure. He is a central personality in the history of our times, who helped to elect a president of the United States and is now advising competitive political parties across Europe. If you think his—and their—influence is pernicious, well, that influence does not become any less pernicious if you refuse to argue why it is wrong.

The debate in Toronto focused on a prediction: whether the future belonged to populist politics (the polite term for the politics of Donald Trump and the many Little Trumps in power or competing for power across our Earth) or to liberal politics, in the broadest sense of the word liberal. As I told the audience, I’ve spent my life as a conservative, but what I’ve sought to conserve is not the Spanish Inquisition or the powers of kings and barons. I’ve sought to conserve the free societies that began to be built in the 18th century and that have gradually developed and strengthened—with many imperfections and hypocrisies and backsliding—in the 250 years since. When I was young, the most important challenges to those free societies seemed to come from Communists and Marxists. When I was not so young, the most important of those challenges seemed to come from Islamists. Today, they seem to come from—again, speaking politely—populists. The vector of the challenge changes, but the thing to be cherished and protected remains the same.

Why share a platform, then, with Bannon, one of the most adept and successful of the challengers to all I hold dear?

I told the audience in Toronto that I hoped to speak to three groups of people.

I hoped to speak, first, to the small numbers of the genuinely undecided, to those who might imagine that populism offers them something. This is not true. The new populist politics is a scam and a lie that exploits anger and fear to gain power. It has no care for the people it supposedly champions and no respect for them. It will deliver nothing—not only because its leaders are almost invariably crooks (although they are), but because they have no plans and no plans to make plans.

I hoped to speak, next, to the many people who see populism for what it is—and who resist it. Since the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 and the euro-currency crisis that began in 2010, the so-called populists have won election after election in this country and in Europe. Even when the anti-populists have won, as they won in France in 2017, they have won by dwindling margins. Countries that formerly seemed secure against populism, like Germany, have been trending in ominous directions. But hope is not lost. On Tuesday, the American electorate has the opportunity to set the limit: This far have you gone; you will go no further. The tide turns here. What’s most urgently needed now is courage and confidence, and I hoped from the platform to do a little part to inspire even just a bit more of each.

I hoped to speak, finally, to those who see populism for what it is—and support it. I hoped to look in the face of their most self-conscious and articulate champion, Steve Bannon, and tell them: You will lose. You will discover what so many thugs, and bullies, and plunderers, and people who elevate themselves by subordinating and humiliating others have discovered before you: Liberal democracy is tougher than it looks. The cruel always believe the kind are weak. But human decency and goodness can also move human affairs. They will be felt. And today’s “populists” will follow their predecessors into what President George W. Bush so aptly called “history’s graveyard of discarded lies.”

Yes, the populists spoke to authentic concerns: about the aftershock of the Great Recession and the euro crisis, about the dislocations of mass immigration, about failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the frustrations of the middle class, about the selfishness and irresponsibility of financial and political elites across the developed world. Demagogues succeed by talking about things that people authentically care about, not things they don’t.

Bannon and I had met once before, a decade ago. He interviewed me for one of his films back in 2009. We shared then a perception that something had gone terribly wrong with both the American system and conservative politics. To me, that perception called for a constructive program of reform and renewal. It equally seemed to me that Bannon had seen an opportunity to bring dangerous people and ideas to a power that they could never use for good.

As a debater, Bannon proved engaging and entertaining. When one of his lines gained lonely applause from a single audience member, Bannon quipped, “Thanks, Mom.” That lit up the room.

But the longer Bannon spoke, the clearer it became how empty the populist program is. It could observe and exploit the failures of the past 15 years. Trump in 2016 promised that he would provide better health insurance to all Americans at lower cost both to individuals and to the government. That promise has been dishonored. When asked to explain why, Bannon could only point to Paul Ryan and say, “His fault.” Ditto for Trump’s failure to keep his promise to cut taxes for middle-income people by raising them on the financial industry. Ditto for the broken promises to build infrastructure and save lives from opioid addiction. Ditto for the fact that illegal immigration and trade deficits are rising under Trump, despite his emphatic promises to lower both.

The populists identified real concerns—but their answers amount to a fraud and a scam. The failures of a basically good system do not justify overthrowing it and replacing it with something evil.

So I argued, and as I argued, I believed that I carried the room with me. But the room had a trick up its sleeve.

Like many public-debate series, the Munk Debates measures results by tallying support and opposition for the motion at the beginning of the evening and then again at the end. The winner is the side that most moves the room. I once took part in a debate at the Intelligence Squared series in London. At the start of the evening, 80 percent thought my side was wrong. At the end, 60 percent thought my side was wrong. My side won the evening even though, of course, the room still decisively rejected our point of view.

At the November 2 debate, the Munk Debates introduced for the first time electronic voting in place of paper ballots. The new devices offered the promise of a faster and more certain tally.

At the start of the evening, the 2,800-capacity hall voted against the resolution—that is, for the liberal rather than the populist side—by a margin of 72 to 28 percent. The numbers flashed on large screens above the stage.

Taking advantage of the rapid-fire capability of the new technology, the moderators then asked a follow-up question: Are you open to changing your mind? The audience said it was, 57 to 43 percent. The numbers again flashed on the screen.

Ninety minutes later, after the final exchanges, the room voted again. And the result was stunning: Bannon had triumphed, crushing my side of the argument, 57 to 43 percent.

The hall gasped. As an attendee told me later, people looked at their neighbors with surprise and fear. Bannon grinned in triumph. We shook hands; I congratulated him on his upset victory: “Just like 2016,” I said. Inwardly, though, I felt dismay. The room had not applauded or laughed any more approvingly at the end of Bannon’s presentation than at the start. He had not carried his hearers. Through some horrible fault of my own, I must have lost them.

But that loss, although my fault, was not my problem alone. I had by my apparent failure confirmed every criticism of the debate. I had helped to provide a platform in an inhospitable city and country to Bannonism—and instead of offering hope, I had contributed to despair. I had lent my name and my energy to powerfully disseminating and legitimating exactly what I had hoped to expose and refute. I had undertaken a great responsibility and had somehow bungled it.

Worse, I could not even diagnose how I had bungled it. Speak from platforms often enough, and you develop—or believe you develop—a sense of a room as acute as your sense of sight or smell. Through the evening, I had felt the room was with me, and in growing numbers, too. Yet obviously, I had gotten that wrong. I had not only failed, but been blind to my own failure.

You’ve probably already guessed what happened, but in the tumult and upset it took the event organizers somewhat longer to recognize the truth. They had reposted the second vote as if it were the third.

As for the actual third vote, it’s not clear whether it had been counted at all. The organizers announced that the final tally was again 72-28, exactly the same as the first. No change: a draw!

Or was it? Because of the delay caused by the protests, many people who had been admitted before the exterior doors were closed took their seats only after the first vote had already happened. It’s theoretically possible that the larger audience at the end of the debate voted in exactly the same proportion as the smaller audience at the beginning. But the precise replication of the first tally is not confidence-inspiring.

Of course, as so often happens in our age of fake news, the false report traveled faster—and will travel further—than the correction. I have remained in Toronto on other business for a few days after the debate, and continue to encounter people who watched some or all of it, and had heard the first wrong result, not the later amended one. And of course, many people who have heard both the false report and the correction will choose to believe the false report, because for one motive or another, it suits them better.

Scrolling through the online and social-media discussion of the debate, I’ve had to accept that the false report will never be entirely overtaken. Even if through no fault of my own, I’ve still been party to spreading discouragement rather than—as I believed—sparking faith and hope.

The story ends, then, in a great irony. Integral to the liberal project, again in the broad sense of the word liberal, is confidence in the power of reason. Words and arguments can overbear ignorance and prejudice. Over the long term, words and arguments can even overcome oppression and violence. That’s why liberals in the broad sense are so uniquely horrified by official lying: How can reason prevail unless words connect to reality? How can we argue against people who will spread fictions, if serviceable to them, without a qualm?

Illiberals and anti-liberals, on the other hand, appreciate the dark energy of human irrationality—not merely as a fact of our nature to be negotiated, but as a potent political resource. People do not think; they feel. They do not believe what is true; they regard as true that which they wish to believe. A lie that affirms us will gain more credence than a truth that challenges us. That’s the foundational insight on which Trump built his business career. It’s the insight on which Trump’s supporters built first their campaign for president and now their presidency itself.

It’s the foundation that I had hoped to expose in Toronto. By a cunning plot twist, I did expose it—but in a way that may have strengthened that foundation rather than attacked it.

The formal portion of the debate between Bannon and me was brought to an end by a stroke of the clock. But the strange result ensured that the actual debate continues. Can we reason our way out of the political nightmare into which unreason has led us? That question remains open still.