Lessons from ‘The Brink’ With Steve Bannon

Issue 245

Mark Read Mar 28, 2019

Over the course of Alison Klayman’s new biopic The Brink, Steve Bannon utters a number of chilling lines, but perhaps the most unnerving came during a particularly contentious interview with veteran journalist Paul Lewis of The Guardian. “It’s all right, no matter what I’m gonna convert 20 percent of your audience,” Bannon quips with a smile.

Bannon is a charming, smart, reasonable-sounding, rogue-ish, unpretentious ethno-nationalist. He can say things like “We are working on building an old-school Christian democracy” to an audience full of liberals and you almost don’t notice the implications of what he’s saying: the purge Muslims from the western world.

He lands this line between a series of self-deprecating jokes about how much he’s hated and keen observations about the very real concerns of people left behind by the global economy. It’s an astute performance and a perfect encapsulation of the dangers of giving Steve Bannon a platform.

The challenge even extends to writing this review. See how I’ve already lavished praise on Bannon, extolling his intelligence and personal charm? Bannon chose to allow the filmmakers to shadow him for two years despite the fact that he knew they were hostile to his political views. He is that confident in his own abilities to convert that 20 percent. In deciding to make this film vérité style, Klayton has largely ceded the floor to Bannon and given him a giant microphone in the process. This was a real risk. So who made the right choice, Bannon or Klayton?

In the course of the two years that they spent as flies on the wall, Klayton and her crew were able to gather material that punctures the carefully crafted image Bannon has fashioned for himself, of that there is no question. What is less clear is whether they were able to convincingly expose the genuine threat that his ideas pose to liberal democracy as a whole, and to vulnerable populations within them in particular.

This film reveals Bannon’s astute assessments of the current culture in which these political battles are taking place and the weaknesses of the left in navigating the terrain. Bannon views left populism, as embodied by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, as the only real threat to the right-wing populism he himself is promoting. We would do well to pay attention to Bannon’s assessments.

While the image he projects of himself as a mad genius of rogue politics who helped install Donald Trump in the White House falls apart over the course of this 90-minute film, his poetic waxings offer insight into the gains the right has made where the left continues to falter. In the long run, this is the film’s most valuable contribution.

The filmmakers had the good fortune of following Bannon during the time of his fall from power and his increasing desperation. He has already been fired from the White House and just as the film begins, he has been let go by Breitbart, the online media platform with millions of readers that he helped build and dropped by the billionaire Mercer family, his longtime benefactors. Trump is savagely attacking him via Twitter and has by this point largely driven him out of U.S. politics altogether.

Watching Bannon repeatedly sing the praises of Trump — a “genius,” a “transformational president,” a “great man” — while simultaneously suffering the president’s abuse brings a special kind of pleasure. It also signals to us a basic kind of dishonesty in Bannon and a lack of courage.

Bannon pivots toward Europe in an attempt to pull various far-right groups there into what he calls simply “The Movement.” His efforts are disturbing but ultimately unimpressive. Bannon is all posture and bluster, trying to talk something into existence that he really doesn’t have the juice to create.

He returns to the United States as a gladiator in the fight to elect Roy Moore in the Alabama special election for Senate, a campaign that goes down in the flames as a sex scandal and Moore’s own lunacy engulf the candidate. Things just get worse and worse for Bannon as he sinks deeper into irrelevance, the worst form of hell for someone with his colossal ego. He’s just sort of a loser, in the end. His image is exposed as a thin charade, a con. The filmmakers didn’t need to do a lot here and they wisely chose not to. They adeptly and methodically chart the fall and take us along for the ride with excellent pacing and studied patience.

But it’s Bannon’s comments on the left, and on the current political terrain writ large, that I found most compelling. Even though it came at a tremendous personal loss to Bannon, he knows how to make an impact. Here are a couple of lessons he offers: 1) outrage is today’s most important political currency, and 2) never shut up. It’s politically effective both to stoke the outrage of one’s own followers and the outrage of your enemies. The former ensures loyalty, the latter ensures that you are the topic of conversation. Social media is especially conducive to the production of outrage and if you can be its master you will win.

The left is vulnerable on topics like immigration because it lacks a coherent stance. Racist and xenophobic as it is, “build a wall” it is a clear mission people can get behind; saying walls are immoral and calling for open borders isn’t.

Along with immigration, identity politics is another battleground Bannon sees as advantageous terrain for the far right. Once you write off the white working class as a basket of deplorables, with whom will you build a winning coalition, the white ruling class?

Left wing populism only wins if it foregrounds the shared political and material interests of working people of all races and backgrounds. Building movements requires some uneasy alliances. That’s coalition politics. It is by its nature impure.

Bannon understands this better than most left activists do, and he relishes every opportunity to play the left against itself because doing so will keep left populism on the margins while the right takes power. He has set his will to the task of winning. We cannot let that happen. That is the lesson of this patient, well crafted, and deeply unsettling film.

Illustration by Charlyn Alexis.

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