Nothing says more about Steve Bannon than his choice and his analysis of movies. I knew from Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain that Bannon’s favorite movie is Twelve O’Clock High. And when faced with the challenge of interviewing him for my film American Dharma, I thought, Why not put him in his favorite movie—in his favorite military dream? The Quonset hut where Gregory Peck (General Savage) addresses his troops, who are on the verge of mutiny. This is World War II, in the early years of the air war against Nazi Germany. “I don’t have a lot of patience for this ‘What are we fighting for?’ stuff,” Savage says. “We’re in a war. A shooting war. We’ve got to fight … Consider yourselves already dead.”
Twelve O’Clock High had been assigned to Bannon’s class at Harvard Business School. General Savage’s exhortation to his troops was taken as an example of how to motivate a group of men, men whom you are sending into combat. Is this the perfect model for business, American business? A world devoid of morality or ethics, where the only concern is group cohesion and winning. It makes perfect sense in war, but how about in peacetime? I assumed that the winning is for American principles and ideals, but it is unstated. I asked myself, Could this be a Nazi film? What about the movie tells me that the war is a fight to preserve democracy or even American values? Not much. I couldn’t decide whether I was more horrified by Bannon’s love of the film or the idea that it embodied the values being taught at Harvard Business School.
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.
After the World of Warcraft scheme was shut down, Bannon moved on to cryptocurrencies. And now? The World of Wallcraft. Am I surprised? Wall-money. Wall-bucks. Money backed by one of the most senseless, absurd, utterly stupid projects imaginable. Hard-wall currency. It turns out that people are willing to monetize anything—and are infinitely credulous.
The wall continues to fascinate me. Because it’s so stupid. I sit in my home in Vermont and look out over the New York border. A heavily forested landscape. Would I like to see a 20-foot-high concrete wall festooned with cyclone razor wire erected along the border?
It would be an abomination. It would look bad and whatever it was designed to do, it would never work.
World of Warcraft provides a template for Bannon: Create your own history. In American Dharma, Bannon tells the story about the funeral of a digital character. Who do people care more for? Their imaginary avatars or their real-world, flesh-and-blood selves? For people like Bannon, there is a historical snatch and grab. Pick through the leavings of history to construct whatever you want. I have read a number of attempts to explain Bannon’s fascination with various proto-fascist theoreticians, such as René Guénon and Julius Evola. What are their ideas? I could spend a couple of thousand words describing them, but why bother? It’s warmed over Hegelian/Spenglerian nonsense. Cycles, repetitions, turning wheels, endless recurrences. It’s easy to construct a history in reverse. There is no need for cause and effect. No need for anything. Just select a number of dates at random and string them together.
It’s a game for sloppy thinkers. Pick some historical event. The parting of the Red Sea, the death of Abel at the hands of Cain—for Bannon, it’s the destruction of the Order of the Knights Templar in 1314 or the fall of Constantinople in 1453 or the Peace of Westphalia in 1646. The spiritual decline of the West. It’s a return to the 14th century. The specter of Muslim hordes invading the halls of Christendom. One of Bannon’s favorite books, The Camp of the Saints, vulgarly recapitulates this theme, depicting a flotilla of Indian peoples descending on the French Riviera. It’s a NIMBY’s worst nightmare.
Bannon never saw an atavistic idea he didn’t like. It’s as if he saw The Da Vinci Code and never got over it. He’s starring in a Mel Gibson movie in his mind.
Look at the dozen movies that Bannon made during his stint as a Hollywood producer. They’re nonsense. Total and complete nonsense. Before our interview, I asked Bannon to pick his favorite movies and some of his favorite scenes from each. I love all of the films he chose, but I was endlessly fascinated by his choice scenes. The Searchers is a moving family story with race as a central plot element. When asked to pick his favorite scene from the movie, Bannon selected John Wayne’s racist speech in a trading post. Wayne is looking for his niece among women and children who had been captured by American Indians. He eyes a woman cooing over a rag doll. “Hard to believe they’re white,” the warder says. John Wayne replies, “They ain’t white—anymore. They’re Comanche.”
In John Ford’s movie we are given complexity. In Bannon’s suggested scene, just racism.
We don’t like to address the not-so-hidden racism in American movies. After all, they’re American. How could they be racist? These days it’s harder and harder to ignore the conclusion that there is racism everywhere. All it takes is a demagogue to lift up the rock, and racist bugs scamper out in all directions.
On set, the wardrobe, makeup, and hair stylists had their own theories. Like on why Bannon always wore several layers of collared shirts. I asked the wardrobe person, “Why the three shirts?” She said, “To hide the tail.”