In Gabriel Sherman’s new profile of Steve Bannon for Vanity Fair, Bannon deflects the explicitly true suggestion that he has encouraged white supremacist and Nazi groups with an interesting anecdote.
“These guys are beyond clowns,” he told Sherman. “It’s the left media that makes them relevant because 25 of them show up, and it’s like a hundred cameras. They’re losers.”
Setting aside the unexamined fact that Bannon has used this precise phraseology to diffuse such questions in the past, the anecdote he uses is interesting because it seems to pretty accurately describe the media’s relationship with Steve Bannon. He necessitates covering—but carefully, and not always.
Bannon is a fascinating and scary subject, sure: a Red Bull-chugging Leni Reifenstahl fan with skin that’s practically falling off his face, he commands a huge audience through Breitbart.com, a disgusting amount of capital through his patrons in the Mercer family, and significant, if reportedly waning, influence over the policies of the President of the United States. As his former boss reminds us daily, one doesn’t need to be a mastermind to inflict lasting damage; it’s tough to make the argument that reporters should ignore him simply because he seeks their attention.
But if there is one sure thing about Steve Bannon, aside from his gleeful sociopathy and his exhaustingly rote obsession with the Peloponnesian War, is that he uses the mainstream media as a launching pad to build up his own myth—the myth of Steve Bannon as some kind of well-read warrior-god on a mission to defeat the “elites” (a dubious picture, considering his notable lack of electoral success). Should some effort be put forth to avoid assisting him in this, particularly since—as the Vanity Fair piece notes—he already has an entire website dedicated to the cause?
Bannon has been given the opportunity to insert his perspective, both on background and on the record, into countless pieces of mainstream political reporting over the past year. The New York Times, for example, recently featured a pointless interview with Bannon as a centerpiece on the website’s homepage, accompanied by a second link, “Key Takeaways from Steve Bannon’s Interview With the Times.” (Among the key takeaways: Bannon’s statement that the anniversary of Trump’s election was “celebrated today in the Trump movement as MAGA Day. Right? A high holy day.”)
Olivia Nuzzi, reporting for New York at a party at the “Breitbart embassy,” nodded toward the oddly large presence of mainstream journalists, “some of whom were there under the pretense that the party was off the record.”
“The Breitbart Embassy of yore had been a fringe enclave; but in 2017, it’s a venue for Bannon to showcase his unusual, if overstated, political power,” she wrote.
Sherman, in his report, also points to this arrangement.
In August 2015, I received an e-mail from Kurt Bardella, who at the time handled Breitbart’s public relations. “Thought I’d reach out and just say that if you ever wanted to talk with Bannon on background, I think he’d def be willing to touch base with you,” Bardella wrote. I was shocked by his note—and also intrigued. For the previous three years, Bannon had tried to destroy my professional reputation. During this time I was researching a biography of the late Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. A legendary paranoiac, Ailes waged an elaborate campaign to discredit my book that included having me followed by private detectives and commissioning a 400-page dossier about my life. Bannon and Breitbart played a crucial role in the effort.
A few days after Bardella e-mailed, I met Bannon for lunch at the Bryant Park Grill in Midtown Manhattan. I found him at an outdoor table, wearing an untucked shirt and cargo shorts. His hair was a tangled nest of platinum gray and it looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. If I didn’t know him I’d have thought he just rolled off a bus at the Port Authority. Bannon shook my hand graciously. He told me he enjoyed my book on Ailes. What about all the hit pieces he published? “Ha! Those were love taps, dude. Just business.” We proceeded to have a highly entertaining lunch swapping media and political gossip.
As much as I wanted to loathe Bannon—the Breitbart attacks were genuinely terrifying—I found myself liking him. He was strange and charismatic and slightly unhinged, and he possessed a sophisticated and encyclopedic knowledge of the modern political-media landscape. He personally knew the players, from the on-air talent and programming executives to the candidates and billionaire donors. And he was a gifted talker. He exaggerated but didn’t quite lie (at least most of the time). And during conversations he fired off laser-accurate descriptions of famous people that would make the best insult comics proud.
Here, Sherman is using a personal anecdote to demonstrate Bannon’s charismatic abilities. He is also acknowledging that this tactic worked quite well on him, despite his personal history with Bannon (and, though it goes unmentioned here, despite Bannon’s own history with racism, bigotry, alleged domestic violence, etc.). This “canny ability to cultivate mainstream journalists,” as Sherman puts it, should probably be the entire story; beyond it being far and away the most useful insight to be gleaned from Steve Bannon, it seems to undercut every other piece of information he offered up.
We hear, for instance, that Bannon “didn’t quite lie (at least most of the time)” after reading about a number of incidents inside the White House as characterized by Bannon (“You’re a fucking liar!” Ivanka Trump told Bannon, according to Bannon, in an Oval Office dispute about leaks; Bannon says he called Ivanka “the queen of leaks”). We also get quotes from Bannon describing who he would like people to think he is (“I’m a revolutionary”) and various other half-baked pronunciations about 9/11 and the “resistance” and “the hobbits” (meaning Trump supporters).
There’s good stuff in this report, too, of course—there are some striking lines about his feelings on Jared Kushner’s “maturity level,” and the fact that Bannon was in “high spirits” after Moore’s loss seems noteworthy, at least in that it clarifies precisely how insane this man is.
“Dude you don’t know the firestorm that’s coming,” he told Vanity Fair. “The civil war will go to an even higher, more intense level.” If you say so!
But this profile, and every other profile of Steve Bannon, doesn’t need to be overtly flattering of its subject to provide a compelling argument against the model of access journalism it’s based upon. The fact that it exists is an inflation of the usefulness of Bannon’s insights.
It’s telling, too, that the most compelling quotes from Sherman’s profile on Steve Bannon come from other people. One Republican operative characterizes Bannon’s political moves as the instinctive reflection of his own bottled-up rage issues, which makes a lot of sense within the context of the Trumpist movement he’s helped build—a movement that’s less about economic populism than it is about fucking things up and infuriating the libs.
Stuart Stevens, a veteran of five Republican presidential campaigns, told me that Bannon is “an odd, strangely repulsive figure who is trying to use the political process to work through personal issues of anger and frustration.” He added, “like many people in their first campaign, he confused his candidate winning with the fantasy voters supported him.”
A prominent Republican described Bannon’s crusade as a vanity exercise doomed to fail. “I think there was a lot of rage when he was in the White House,” the Republican said. “Steve had to subsume his ego to Donald, who Steve thinks is dumb and crazy. With Steve, it’s not about building new things—it’s about destroying the old. I’m not sure he knows what he wants.”
He may not have fully fleshed out his Nazi world domination plan yet, but what Steve Bannon clearly does want is legitimacy, and influence. And he’s been getting that in spades.