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How Steve Bannon Set the Stage for Donald Trump

And what his documentary filmmaking can tell us about the Trump administration’s worldview.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“People have said I’m like Leni Riefenstahl,” filmmaker, former Breitbart executive, and President Donald Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. Let’s clear the air: Bannon is not like Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl made propaganda for Hitler, while Bannon has been making propaganda in search of a strongman. Her propaganda films are technically accomplished storytelling; Bannon’s are a derivative apprenticeship at most. Bannon himself explained the distinction later in the same interview, when he called himself a student of the Third Reich’s gifted hypewoman. That’s more accurate, at least.

Bannon also called himself a student of liberal documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. “The first thing to remember is that there is, or rather should be, no cinema other than agit-cinema,” Eisenstein wrote in 1924’s The Montage of Film Attractions. I suspect Bannon has internalized that message. While reality television producer Mark Burnett confectioned the glossiest, most wholesome Trump commercials, Bannon created proto-Trumpist agit-cinema — an alternate universe in which America is on the brink of total societal and economic collapse, in desperate need of a bold revolutionary to radically revert it to a lost greatness. Burnett groomed the puppet, Bannon helped build the stage. Bannon doesn’t simply whisper into the president-elect’s ear, he has already composed Trump’s ideological playbook. You can see it, if you don’t mind watching movies on YouTube.

Bannon, an ex–Goldman Sachs banker, has been a producer of 18 films, including some pulpy crime dramas (Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner) and at least one Shakespeare adaptation (1999’s Titus). Bannon’s wider industry credits reveal an ideological flexibility that may be unexpected. “Ten years ago, Bannon oversaw the distribution of independent films released by Wellspring Media, a company that supported a wide range of international cinema as well as gay-themed and other ‘transgressive’ titles,” IndieWire reported last November, noting that movies released by Bannon included “the experimental LGBT documentary” Tarnation and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, a “pro-Kerry documentary that opened during the 2004 election.”

But I want to discuss the movies that Bannon wrote (or cowrote) and directed himself. Bannon’s personal oeuvre begins with 2004’s In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed and continues through 2016’s Torchbearer; all nine films are politically motivated and oddly titled. Citizens United president David Bossie is a frequent Bannon collaborator; he produced six of Bannon’s films, and his Citizens United Productions served as the production company for the same movies. None of the nine films had wide theatrical releases, and many had no theatrical release at all. According to Variety, even the glossy 2011 Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated, which had a $1 million budget and limited theatrical release, grossed less than $120,000 during its theatrical run. Some of these nine documentaries are available for rent or purchase through Vimeo, Google Play, Amazon Video, and other streaming services; others are either found for free on YouTube or are only available for purchase on DVD.

While these films have so far found only small audiences by Hollywood standards, they worked as laboratories to hone a message successfully delivered by Trump. These films can be understood as prologues, of sorts, for Bannon’s Trump Doctrine. In the Face of Evil presents the career of Ronald Reagan as an unmitigated triumph over evil. The most recent, Torchbearer, stars erstwhile Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson as a sort of reverse Mephistopheles, touring global sites of horror to show viewers why they need God. Together, these films reveal recurring Bannon motifs. The Great Men in both films scoff at godless communists and secularist elites; each film uses montage and ominous narration to pin the blame for a host of historical atrocities on a wide-brimmed bucket of heathens: Nazis, yuppies, materialists, hippies, baby boomers, feminists, socialists, both Leninists and Stalinists, and extremist Islamic nationalists are all condemned as equally abhorrent. They glorify forthright, ideological warriors as they diagnose supposed cultural rottenness.

Trump is not a character in any of Bannon’s docs, but the films embody the messaging hammered again and again by the Trump campaign: an embrace of nationalism, disdain for progressive causes, and confidence that it takes only one straight-talking populist to bring back a better, more “traditional” America.

Bannon’s films fall into two categories: hagiographies and warnings. The hagiographies rely on the Great Man archetype, while the warnings are centered on perceived corruption, but the two types are united in their ideological bluntness. These films do not attempt or admire cohesiveness of worldview; they are unbothered by contradiction and deeply bored with nuance. Their binary — where people and ideas are either heralded as the “best ever” or dismissed as literal demons — is the same black-and-white perspective embraced by Trump.

In the Bannon canon, the progressive movement is the source of society’s worst moments. In Occupy Unmasked, a 2012 film about the Occupy Wall Street movement, Bannon argues that the violence and mass killings of the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero were caused by 1970s American organizers because their demonstrations against foreign war made the Ford administration nervous about angering hippies through humanitarian intervention. (The film also intercuts snippets of Bernie Sanders and Van Jones speeches with slither-dancing cobras. This is one of Bannon’s subtler visual tricks.) In 2010’s Generation Zero, a film about the recession’s dire implications (and one of the films financed by Citizens United), Bannon argues that the civil rights movement directly caused the subprime mortgage crisis because — according to the film — white lenders felt too worried about getting called racist if they denied poor black people predatory mortgages. In Torchbearer, Phil Robertson tours Auschwitz and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham jail cell as he argues that the root of all social atrocity is atheism. The same film splices images of pro-choice advocates with images of Adolf Hitler.

These montages, designed to overwhelm and horrify, make it easy to overlook the careless, often incoherent narration. “Ronald Reagan — a riddle wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma,” the narrator of In the Face of Evil intones at the film’s open. Later in the film, she describes Russia thusly: “Russia — Churchill called it ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’” But the intended effect on the viewer is achieved regardless of repetitive dialog and cognitive dissonance. The narratives move quickly and are calibrated for shock, so it’s hard to notice the nonsensical arguments amid collages of gruesome mass killings and intonations of impending doom. As spectacle, the films are effective, and the amateur flourishes only serve the aura of authenticity Bannon is keen to cultivate.

Bannon’s documentaries aren’t against any particular thing so much as they’re against everything except the Judeo-Christian, 1950s-fetishizing nationalistic fever dream. “These are films that ache for an America that a certain portion of the population feels has slipped away, or is in the process. Beneath all of their bluster and bombast and lunatic aesthetic choices, these are deeply nostalgic, fearful, and melancholy pictures,” film critic Jeff Reichert wrote in a Film Comment essay on Bannon’s oeuvre. Reichert said that the most striking through line in Bannon’s work is how sad they are in their misplaced nostalgia for the Greatest Generation.

Bannon’s films long for a white-picket-fence past that never existed. He sells the philosophy of Donald Trump’s America by pining for June Cleaver’s suburbia. In Generation Zero, he does so in the most literal sense — by juxtaposing images of Cleaver and Cleaversque scenes of domesticity with footage of various global atrocities. (I cannot imagine it is a coincidence that the time period sentimentalized in Bannon’s films was a time period in which leftist writing, filmmaking, art, and activism was stifled by McCarthyism.)

Over the course of his moviemaking, Bannon befriended Andrew Breitbart and eventually took over the right-wing pundit’s web empire after he died unexpectedly in 2012. At Breitbart, Bannon oversaw a right-wing blogging factory with the same bombastic, antagonistic thrust as his films; its posts work best as provocations and often not at all as arguments. Under his control, the site went from a kookier, fringe Drudge Report to a high-profile Trump-boosting outlet. (This transition was not without internal strife. Former editor-at-large Ben Shapiro, who resigned in protest after Breitbart staffer Michelle Fields was manhandled by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, publicly complained that Bannon had turned Breitbart into “Trump’s personal Pravda.”) As Fusion pointed out, ComScore indicated that this summer Breitbart’s web traffic had similar reach to that of Politico. In this way, Bannon has helped spread the ideology from his lesser-known films further onto the internet and out into the world. Bannon has also proved himself deft at mainstream media when the need arises. Take his 2016 documentary Clinton Cash, which is a more restrained, investigative approach to the Clinton Foundation’s work in Haiti. The book that preceded the film, written by Bannon’s colleague from the Government Accountability Institute Peter Schweizer, became the basis for a New York Times report on the Clinton Foundation’s ethical challenges. (Bannon is also the cofounder and executive chairman of the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit that investigates politicians and produces fact-based takedowns.)

Bannon’s handprint extends beyond Breitbart, and you can see his stamp throughout Trump’s campaign, even before he officially joined in August 2016. Watch this video of the “USA Freedom Kids” from a rally in early 2016.

Enemies of freedom face the music, c’mon boys, take them down
President Donald Trump knows how to make America great
Deal from strength or get crushed every time

Pure Bannon (with a dash of Pyongyang). The wholesome cheerleaders promote war among men as the only way to protect American ideals — and characterize Trump as the Great Man in a unique position to lead.

“Make America Great Again” could be the tagline to any one of Bannon’s films. It’s an imperative and a plea to return to an idealized version of the past. As a command, it tells people they are capable of this reversal, if only they follow the leader. As a plea from a crowd, it’s an affirmation that Trump must rule.

“Trump is not [Bannon’s] idea of a good president of the United States. Trump is his guillotine,” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote before the 2016 election. After watching the films Bannon wrote and directed, I agree with this assessment.

Bannon is a happy Trump propagandist now, but he is not a disciple. He wants to stoke outrage against progressivism because that is his profitable niche. I believe he has chosen Donald Trump as his preferred avatar because Trump has proved himself the most successful vector for the worldview Bannon pushes.

Many of Bannon’s films, and in particular Generation Zero, loop back on the idea that the world is careening into chaos, and elites are profiting from this plummet. Bannon has spoken about the opportunity this sort of entropy offers: “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up.” The idea that abject tumult is the best circumstance to impose a new world order is certainly not unique to Bannon; left-wing author Naomi Klein wrote an entire book — The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism — arguing that elite politicians have stoked conflict to exploit the ensuing disaster. But what is unusual about Bannon, as an American politician, is how gleeful he has been about the prospect of literal revolution. “I’m a Leninist,” he reportedly told a Daily Beast writer in 2013. “Lenin 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.” (After joining Team Trump, Bannon later said he had no recollection of the conversation.)

Historian David Kaiser appeared as one of the talking heads in Generation Zero, but he recently wrote an opinion piece for Time explaining why Bannon’s apocalyptic worldview and tactics alarm him. “More than once during our interview, [Bannon] pointed out that each of the three preceding crises had involved a great war, and those conflicts had increased in scope from the American Revolution through the Civil War to the Second World War. He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect,” Kaiser wrote. “I did not agree, and said so. But knowing that the history of international conflict was my own specialty, he repeatedly pressed me to say we could expect a conflict at least as big as the Second World War in the near or medium term. I refused.”

Becoming the most notorious propagandist for what he calls the “center-right revolt” may have been personally meaningful to Bannon, or maybe he’s a complete cynic. I cannot pretend to know his innermost motivations, but looking at his history, his on-the-record interviews, and his filmography, it is apparent he has been tinkering diligently with this ideology and casting about for the person to lead this movement for over a decade. It’s also apparent that Bannon had to make some adjustments to his espoused worldview when he glommed onto Trump — specifically his emphasis on evangelical Christianity as the underpinning of morality, since the president-elect is not an evangelical. This combination of persistence, nimbleness, and hawkishness makes me think that Bannon will be a durable and terrifying discourse-shaper in the Trump White House.

The New Republic has characterized Trump’s knack for contradictory arguments as a modern version of what Derrida called “kettle logic,” in which “mutually incompatible concepts are fused together at the same time.” It’s cultural-theory vocabulary for Trump’s strategy of delivering untruths, half-truths, and demented hyperboles with unimaginable velocity. And while Trump’s dumb duplicity predates his relationship with Bannon, Bannon’s films are a moving encyclopedia of kettle logic: Protesters are silly idiots, but the system they’re protesting must be dismantled; big bankers colluding with big government caused the financial crisis, but also so did white guilt; belief in God is the one thing that can prevent evil but one of the main examples of modern evil is from fervent believers in the same God.

“Darkness is good,” Bannon told The Hollywood Reporter the week after the election. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” This was not an endorsement of Satanism. It was a wink from the ringmaster.