How Steve Bannon Makes People Believe Total Bullshit
Phenomenology and Existentialism
In politics, it’s tempting to elevate friends as brilliant and dismiss enemies as stupid.
The political left, in particular, has developed the lazy habit of caricaturing everyone on the right as stupid—forsaking the reality that there are some evil geniuses out there who should be taken seriously, if not always literally.
Steve Bannon should be at the top of that list.
A recent profile in The Atlantic hit this point home for me. Despite Bannon being instrumental in securing the election of Donald Trump, and creating a nascent populist-nationalist movement in America, he still can’t get no respect in some quarters. Although author Jennifer Senior treats Bannon as a serious (if dangerous) player, many of the people she interviewed do not.
One public opinion strategist dismissed Bannon as “Rasputin with a digital show,” adding that “Rasputin was knifed.”
OK. Rasputin was knifed. But he recovered. Then, he survived being poisoned. And then he survived being shot multiple times before finally being killed (or so goes the legend).
Rasputin was able to go from country bumpkin/Siberian peasant-mystic to the czar’s inner circle. He also brought about a revolution—at least, according to Russian revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, who said: “Without Rasputin there would have been no Lenin.”
For those hoping to preserve liberal democracy, this Bannon-Rasputin-Lenin connection should not bring comfort.
The comparison gets even more on the nose. “Lenin,” Bannon has reportedly said, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Bannon is not a fool. This man studied people playing multiplayer online games and figured out how to incorporate that same psychology into a political weapon. He also encouraged his followers to infiltrate politics at the precinct level (we’re talking election inspectors and school board members), saying, “We’re gonna give you democracy shoved up your ass. OK? We’re gonna give you a democracy suppository.”
To paraphrase Frank Pentangeli in The Godfather Part II, I respect Steve Bannon. I just don’t trust Steve Bannon.
Some people must think these things (distrust and respect) are mutually exclusive. They either naively trust Bannon, or blithely take him for granted. Both responses are dangerous.
“[Bannon] lives off other people’s money—Andrew Breitbart, Bob Mercer, a Chinese billionaire. How is he any different from a kept woman? He’s a 68-year-old kept woman,” an ex-colleague tells The Atlantic.
Go read Paul Johnson’s famous book Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky. These brilliant men introduced radical, paradigm-shifting ideas that rocked the world. Aside from being almost universally bad human beings, the one thing these intellectuals all seemed to have in common was that they ruthlessly used people. They pretty much all had generous family, friends, and patrons—and most of them gave little to nothing back. Again, this criticism of Bannon does not bring me any relief.
“I built up this immunity over decades of interacting with these sorts of people (including Bannon) in the political world. It strikes me that many conservatives have not had occasion to develop this same level of tolerance.”
Conservative writer John Podhoretz says Bannon is “an emperor and he has no clothes.” I disagree. Bannon does indeed have clothes—in fact, he has so many clothes that he wears multiple layers. The point is that smart people keep overlooking the obvious. They keep underestimating people like Bannon.
It’s a problem that I suspect many of Bannon’s fans share. If liberals are too quick to dismiss Bannon as full of shit, conservatives are probably too quick to be impressed by Bannon’s dishonest, manipulative, and yet charismatic schtick.
It took me years to learn that it was a mistake to conflate energy and intelligence with wisdom—that it was a mistake to defer to brilliant and confident people (confidence men?) and their manic charm.
It makes sense that some cautious and prudent people (read conservative), would be wowed by someone who is, conversely, bursting with energy and confidence—especially when he cites some obscure book. (Or, as one source put it, when called out on his dangerous mistruths, “He just starts talking about Confucius and Alexander and all this fucking shit.”)
Experience has shown me that people like Bannon—intimidatingly intelligent and provocative—are often wrong but never uncertain. This is not to say they are always wrong about everything, just that their track record is really no better than the rest of us, and that their big swings often result in collateral damage.
Nowadays, whenever I meet one of these types of people, I enjoy their charisma from a distance, but I don’t fall prey to their spell. I built up this immunity over decades of interacting with these sorts of people (including Bannon) in the political world. It strikes me that many conservatives have not had occasion to develop this same level of tolerance.
If you’re a conservative reading this, please know that I share much of your philosophy and many of your political and cultural frustrations. But please know that the revolution this Rasputin (or Lenin, if you prefer) is inciting is far from conservative. He’s also lying to you and using you.
During the reporting portion of her Atlantic piece, Bannon told Jennifer Senior that when it came to the Jan. 6 effort to intimidate then-Vice President Mike Pence into not certifying the 2020 election, “We would’ve lost… Definitely lost. But you would’ve had it in an official record, right? That could be debated later on.”
But did Bannon level with his followers (some of whom were, no doubt, inside the Capitol) that they were on some fool’s errand that was destined to fail, ostensibly for the purposes of moving the Overton Window? I certainly don’t recall that.
In the old days, there was a major penalty for getting things wrong publicly. The gatekeepers were also scorekeepers.
That’s no longer the case, and so, the brilliant guy who generates a million bad ideas gets away with bragging about the three ideas that actually worked.
The Atlantic piece also reminds us that, back in late March, Bannon went on his War Room podcast and declared, “I’m taking out [Sen. Lisa] Murkowski today and forcing her to vote NO on Judge Jackson.”
But Sen. Murkowski didn’t vote no. And (so far) she has not been taken out. How many of Bannon’s other big promises did not come to pass?
It is true that you miss all the shots you don’t take. And as long as memories are short and there is little cost (legally or reputationally) to being wrong most of the time, there’s really no disincentive to (as Bannon might say) “flood[ing] the zone with shit.”
This may sadly work in the long run (at the macro level), but the problem with shit is that it always flows downhill. And if you’re one of those low-level lieutenants in Bannon’s plan to shove democracy up our ass, now you know what is barreling your way.