Read: The United States versus Steve Bannon
Now that Bannon has been indicted for fraud, it might be worthwhile to provide a short history of his get-rich-quick schemes. They run the whole gamut of entrepreneurial sleaze. Go to where the money is and siphon it off: the biosphere, a self-contained ecosystem supported by oil-rich Texans; cryptocurrencies, a form of digital gold-mining without the Klondike; fantastical multiplayer digital games; Breitbart and right-wing punditry; and ultimately, politics. Here, Bannon hit pay dirt. Donald Trump as the ultimate carny-barker hustler, a feckless television star with a talent for relentless self-promotion. Bannon helped him construct the pretense of being the vanguard of a populist revolution. But what kind of populism could this be?
What I took away from my five or six days on a film set with Bannon was a feeling of his destructive impulses. His is not an ideology of making things; it is an ideology of pure destruction. As such, it gets to the heart of Trumpism. The xenophobia, the racism, the overwhelming hatred of others. Maybe of everything. That was how I ended American Dharma, burning down the Quonset hut from Twelve O’Clock High juxtaposed with a scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. John Wayne is burning down his dream house in a drunken act of desperation. Because he realizes he has lost everything. The love of his life, his future. There is nothing left. It is a supremely romantic gesture, but also a hopeless one. John Wayne burns down his dream house, but Bannon burns down the American dream.
I had just about finished American Dharma. We were recording some additional dialogue. Correcting some mispronunciations. Bannon was in the studio relaxing over a book on the Great Wall of China. I thought to myself, Gee, he must really like walls. So, I said, “You know, it worked. It really worked.” Bannon has a limited sense of humor in general and no sense of humor about himself. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “No Mexicans in China.” He looked at me with contempt.
We now know the nature of Bannon’s populism. Not so different from Trump’s populism. Self-enrichment. A version of Louis XIV: The people, it is me.
I consider Trump to be Bannon’s most successful enterprise. There’s nothing like the Oval Office to provide a platform for personal gain. You get a drinking mug with the seal of the U.S. president, or maybe a dinette set.
White House money. Bannon has always been keenly interested in creating his own currencies. A modern form of alchemy—the transmutation of some base metal into gold. Take something of questionable value and promote it as a panacea or a ticket to untold riches. After the failure of a number of enterprises, he stumbled on World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online role-playing video game set in the mythical world of Azeroth, a land of winged creatures, trolls, and dwarves, where contestants compete to accumulate armor, weapons, and yes, of course, gold. Not real gold but game gold. Bannon developed a racket—there is no better way to describe it—of paying Chinese gamers to sit in some Hong Kong digital sweatshop and accumulate game gold that could be sold to first-world citizens for real-world money. Ironic that while railing against using cheap Asian labor at the expense of American workers, he had a history of doing just that.