Errol Morris’ American Dharma, which is a documentary about Steve Bannon, is probably the most elusive film ever produced by a major filmmaker. Although it premiered at film festivals in September 2018 and received a great deal of press (most of it negative) at the time, it was impossible to see for over a year thereafter. The distributors refused to bring it to theaters, it wasn’t shown on television, and you couldn’t find it streaming or on DVD. It wasn’t even pirated online anywhere. One couldn’t help but wonder, what was it that made this film too dangerous to be shown?
The answer, as it turns out once you see it, is nothing. Morris finally found a distributor which was able to get the film into brief showings at a few arthouse theaters here and there last autumn, and just in recent weeks, it’s appeared on a few streaming services, including Amazon. But now that it’s out in the open, one can’t really see what all the fuss was about. Was it because Morris had hidden a brainwashing signal in it that would compel viewers to carry Tiki torches and vote for Trump? No. And in fact, there’s really nothing in the film that hasn’t been known about Bannon from other sources for years, or that Bannon himself hasn’t said in his many other interviews. The explanation here is rather that it is yet another example of deplatforming.
Morris, who is of New York Jewish background, is a well-established documentary filmmaker who has produced many celebrated features over the past forty-two years, including Gates of Heaven, Vernon Florida (still one of my personal favorites), The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Morris’ most acclaimed film — and rightfully so — is 2003’s The Fog of War, which is a series of interviews with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara focusing on his involvement in the Second World War and the Vietnam War. American Dharma could be seen as the third part of an unofficial trilogy focusing on major American political figures, beginning with The Fog of War and continuing through 2013’s The Unknown Known, an examination of Donald Rumsfeld and his role in the Iraq War in particular.
I cannot recommend The Fog of War highly enough; it’s simply one of the best films about politics and war that’s ever been made, something which McNamara helps by being so reflective and forthcoming about his errors of judgment and failures (no doubt aided by the fact that nearly forty years had passed since his tenure ended). The Unknown Known is worth seeing but doesn’t rise to the level of the former, not due to any fault of Morris’ but because Rumsfeld refuses to concede that he ever did anything wrong.
American Dharma is also about a major American political figure, and follows the same style and structure as the previous two, but it’s still quite different and less effective — I think due to the fact that it was made while Trump is still in office, and the events discussed in it are still in motion, thus offering no ability to reflect on their consequences. As a result, it ends up being more about the future than the past — and it’s here that it holds some interest for viewers. Unlike the others, Morris is also unable to resist the temptation to let his own opinions interfere with his presentation of the subject, something which definitely weakens it and which I will discuss more later.
So how could a director with such stellar credentials end up getting his latest film very nearly memory-holed? The negative press which American Dharma has received mainly accused Morris of either glorifying his subject or at the very least of being insufficiently confrontational with Bannon. This is clearly nonsense, as Morris works to undermine his subject’s statements throughout the film; only the same sort of people who regard Trump as literally Hitler could possibly see it as pro-Bannon — hardly a surprise since these critics are part of the same elite media establishment that has been trying to undermine Trump’s presidency and the Dissident Right from Day One. Their real beef with Morris seems to be that he spoke to Bannon at all — just as with the Right more generally, in their view, it’s no longer sufficient to merely debate with the opposition (in that Morris reveals himself to be a quaint, old-style Leftist), but one has to silence them altogether. Hence the waves of deplatformings that have victimized the Dissident Right over the past three years as America marches inexorably forward into neoliberal totalitarianism. And even Morris, one of their own, was not exempt. In an interesting recent interview, Morris uses this word to describe his predicament:
For all those people who thought that I was promoting Bannon — maybe I assumed too much. . . I was shocked, actually, surprised by the extent of the nastiness. It’s not entirely unexpected but surprised by the extent of it. This word has started to appear: deplatforming. Bannon should be “deplatformed.” It is a kind of wet dream, deplatforming.
Welcome to the club, Errol.
The most interesting thing about this film is its reception. I wouldn’t even call it the best film about Bannon that’s been made; last year’s The Brink, in which a camera crew follows Bannon around while he goes about his work without much commentary, gives you a better sense of the man and what he’s doing. Morris, it’s true, tries to go deeper into understanding Bannon’s worldview, and if you’re interested in Bannon and the populist Right more generally, American Dharma is still worth a view.
I’ve been fascinated by Bannon since he came to national prominence in 2016. His views are quite clearly more Alt Lite/civic nationalist than Alt/Dissident Right, despite the fact that the mainstream media continues to describe him as a “leader of the Alt Right” — something which he bears part of the responsibility for, given that in August 2016 he famously referred to Breitbart under his tenure as “the platform of the Alt Right” (and which was no doubt news to many people who regarded themselves as Alt Right at the time). I imagine that he regrets saying that now; it’s difficult to remember that before November 2016, Alt Right simply meant anyone of the Right who dissented from mainstream conservative views, but the term quickly came to carry a lot of baggage. Nevertheless, Bannon is certainly no typical Republican, and he’s certainly gone further than any other Dissident Right figure ever has — and I do regard him as “one of us,” in the broader sense. His stated interest in Traditionalism also piqued my interest — not much is known about that now, but a book that will be published in April, War for Eternity by Benjamin Teitelbaum, will focus on Bannon’s relationship to Traditionalism and the influence of Traditionalism on the contemporary Right more generally, and for which yours truly was interviewed. (Stay tuned.)
Bannon remains an interesting figure to me despite the fact that basically everything he has done since acting as Trump’s campaign manager in 2016 has ended in failure: His tenure as Trump’s Chief Strategist came to an inglorious end after seven months; he was unsuccessful in securing Roy Moore’s victory in Alabama’s Senate special election in 2017; he was dismissed from Breitbart following his importune comments about Trump to Michael Wolff in 2018; his attempt to bolster the expected wave of Right-wing populist victories in the European parliamentary election last year bore little fruit; and the government closed down his monastic school for populists in Italy. Thus, to date, Bannon has one big win and a string of failures. His main activity these days is as a pundit, and in that he still has value — given Bannon’s connections and reputation, he’ll likely remain a prominent figure in the populist Right for years to come. And his vision still remains deeper, more incisive, and more interesting than most of what you’ll usually find in those circles — perhaps because his conservatism is rooted in his Catholicism rather than merely in civics and economics (an aspect of his beliefs that Morris ignores).
Thus, I was curious to see what Morris could ferret out of Bannon. American Dharma’s running theme is Bannon’s fascination with the 1949 Gregory Peck film about an American bomber group during the Second World War, Twelve O’Clock High (also highly recommended, as it’s a classic about leadership and several cuts above most war films of the period), and which is frequently referenced. In what was probably the biggest expense in the production, Morris had the hangar in which most of the film’s action takes place painstakingly reconstructed, and all of his conversations with Bannon are set there — Morris seems to intend this as a metaphor for Bannon’s ongoing attempts to organize the common people in his war against the elites.
Indeed, cinema is the underlying basis of the entire narrative. On several occasions Morris and Bannon discuss the meaning of scenes from films that Bannon chose as his favorites: John Ford’s The Searchers and My Darling Clementine, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. This was a unique approach to the subject and a welcome one for a cineaste such as myself. Bannon identifies the common characteristic of all these films as featuring outsider characters who become reluctant heroes and then pursue their goals relentlessly, no matter what — which is clearly an apt metaphor for how Bannon sees himself.
This is not surprising given that, among his many careers, Bannon himself has been a film producer since the 1990s (not many people know this, but he was one of the producers of the excellent Titus film featuring Anthony Hopkins from 1999), films which seek to reduce the complexities of politics in the postmodern world to simple good-versus-evil conflicts for ordinary American audiences. In an excerpt from Bannon’s film about Ronald Reagan, In the Face of Evil, included in American Dharma, the narrator informs us that the reason that the classic Westerns from the mid-twentieth century were so important for America was that they translated the classic Western myths and its ideals of manhood into simple stories that anyone could understand. Bannon’s approach to populism, which as he constantly reiterates is rooted in culture, clearly attempts to follow in this same mold. Bannon’s intended audience has never been the intellectual elite, but rather the ordinary citizen.
Appropriately, then, we learn in American Dharma that Morris and Bannon originally met at the Telluride Film Festival in 2003, when Morris was showing The Fog of War, a film which Bannon (rightfully) praises and which was apparently crucial in his decision to participate in this project. Bannon explains his fascination thusly:
You see in McNamara the personification of globalization. It’s that scientific, engineering, managerial elite . . . everything’s a set of math to them. . . His rationality can’t save us, didn’t save us, actually buried us into Vietnam much, much deeper.
Fog of War crops up again later in the film, when Morris mentions that he voted for Hillary instead of Bernie in the 2016 primary. In one of the more interesting moments, Bannon seems to be genuinely shocked (and I share his reaction), asking, “How could you make Fog of War and Known Unknowns and vote for her?” Indeed, those two films strike at the very heart of the damage that American interventionism has done both to this country and abroad — and one of the few positive things you can say about Trump at this point is that at least he hasn’t started any new wars, whereas it is well-established that as Secretary of State Hillary was behind all of the disastrous regime-change adventures perpetrated by the Obama administration. Morris sidesteps having to deal with this contradiction by answering simply, and predictably, “Because I was afraid of you guys. I still am!” This sums up the Left’s entire irrational reaction to Trump, populism, and the Dissident Right more generally: We are afraid of you because we think you’re scary and because you don’t fit into the preconceived narrative we’re all supposed to be following today, never mind what you actually stand for or have to say.
In his own words, the entire basis of Bannon’s revolt against the establishment is his disdain for the elites that are behind globalization and his lionization of ordinary working people. He explains how he developed this attitude:
The reason I’m a populist, I’ve gone to the elite institutions . . . And here’s what I can tell you. If you gave me the choice between being governed by the first hundred people that show up in red ballcaps at a Trump rally versus the first hundred guys that walk in at Davos [where the World Economic Forum meets annually] with their tickets, I’d take the working-class people, because they have more humanity, they understand the world, they have grit and determination, and they’ve had to deal with all the world dumps on ‘em.
The solution, according to Bannon, is to unseat these elites by any means necessary:
The permanent political class that control our country is going to stay exactly like it is until you have true disruption. It can’t be a pillow fight. You need some killers. You get some killers, you’re going to see some change. We all know what the problems are. Do you have the guts to do it? Trump had it, and that’s why he’s President of the United States.
If the elites aren’t overthrown, and if those who oppose populism don’t come to recognize the truths of the problems populists recognize, Bannon asserts that the results will be catastrophic:
You may hate my guts and you may hate what I stand for, but if we don’t allow some way for this system to spread the wealth, we’re going to have a revolution in this country. It is coming, as night follows day.
In order to accomplish this, however, he believes that those who are resisting globalization and the elites have to recognize that it is their dharma to fight this war; he defines dharma as “the combination of duty, fate, and destiny.” Bannon’s repeated use of the word “dharma” points toward his interest in Eastern religions and Traditionalism, although Morris doesn’t get into this with him (perhaps because it doesn’t fit with his conception of Bannon as a racist). Elaborating, Bannon makes what is his most “Traditionalist” statement of the film:
Modernity is based around emotionalism, what you think is helping everybody, but in fact is now allowing them to fulfill their destiny, fulfill their fate, even though that fate and that destiny may be their own personal destruction.
Bannon makes a good observation about our times here, that politics and culture are now more a matter of sentimentality than they are about reason or values — i.e., we have to let in millions of Third World “refugees” because we feel guilty and sorry for them, never mind that it will lead to the suicide of our civilization. The man of Tradition recognizes that the happy course is not always the right one, either for others or for himself.
As in his previous films, after introducing his subject and his views, Morris offers a brief overview of Bannon’s life: his Irish Catholic working-class Virginia background, his attendance at military school, his education at Georgetown and Harvard Business School, and his multiple careers as a US Naval officer, a Goldman Sachs executive, a Hollywood producer, and finally Breitbart — first as a board member, and later, following Andrew Breitbart’s death, as its Executive Chairman — and his role in the Trump campaign.
Bannon tells us that he first came to understand the horrors of globalization at Harvard Business School, where he saw how the corporate elite are trained to think of the world strictly in terms of money and numbers. He says this was particularly brought home for him during a visit to his daughter, who was a cadet at West Point, in 2008. His daughter was on the girls’ volleyball team, and had just received new uniforms. When Bannon saw the uniforms, he noticed that the label on them read “Made in Vietnam.” When Bannon thought of the many working-class families he had known as a boy in Virginia that had been torn apart by the Vietnam War — for nothing — not to mention all the American jobs that were being lost overseas, he was incensed. He calls it an “incredibly clarifying moment.”
Bannon identifies the origins of present-day American populism in the Tea Party movement, and describes his first encounter with Andrew Breitbart, who was fond of saying that “culture is upriver from politics.” Breitbart’s ability to influence politics, Bannon claims, came from his knowledge of culture and how to make use of it. He recounts how Breitbart first came into possession of Anthony Weiner’s infamous dick pics and was able to use them to destroy Weiner’s political career, which first elevated Breitbart himself into the media spotlight.
Morris also briefly delves into the period when Bannon persuaded Goldman Sachs to invest in Internet Gaming Entertainment, which attempted to exploit the currency that World of Warcraft players use in the world of the game to buy equipment as an actual alternative currency — something which worked until the game’s administrators blocked all the fake accounts. But the real lesson Bannon took away from it, he says, was understanding that for the players, their lives in the game are in many cases more important to them than their actual lives, as they are looking for the sort of cohesive community that is lacking in postmodern existence. Bannon says he attempted to apply this lesson to the comments section at Breitbart, where he understood that readers would come to identify with the community of like-minded commentators as a surrogate for what they were missing in their everyday lives.
Much of the film, of course, focuses on Trump’s 2016 campaign, and there isn’t much here that people who have been following events won’t already know, although it’s interesting to hear what Bannon claims was his input. Bannon says that when he became campaign manager, he based his strategy on the idea that America’s elites needed to be cast as the enemy, with Trump as the agent of change that Obama had failed to be — something which he says was crucial, as there were an enormous number of undecided voters who didn’t like either candidate, but who came to be persuaded that Trump could be the instrument of genuine change (which I think is correct, based on my own experiences). He claims that Trump’s election and Brexit were inextricably linked given that they relied on the same three thematic pillars: stopping mass immigration in order to recover the nation’s sovereignty, bringing manufacturing jobs back, and ending the pointless foreign wars.
Bannon calls Hillary’s infamous speech about the Alt Right in August 2016 a trap that she walked into, claiming that he knew that if Hillary went down the path of identity politics and that Trump continued to preach populism, there was no way he could lose. “They [the Democratic Party] don’t understand what the election is about,” he says. I’m not sure that is accurate, but more on that later.
Morris also discusses the crisis surrounding Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape with Bannon at length. Bannon claims that while Trump’s other advisors, such as Chris Christie, were telling him to go the usual route of issuing a public apology, he advised Trump to give no apology and hold a rally instead. The compromise solution was for Trump to give a TV interview explaining himself, but he ended up holding an impromptu rally with his supporters in the street in front of Trump Tower instead, which began to undermine the opposition’s narrative. Bannon also takes credit for the idea of bringing Clinton’s own sexual abuse accusers to the debate. Although he says that the crucial factor in the final days of the campaign was his linking of the discovery of Hillary’s e-mails on Anthony Weiner’s computer — and hence of Hillary’s campaign to the Weiner scandal — in the public’s mind. In summarizing the reason for Trump’s success in 2016, Bannon says:
[Trump] understands that the modern world, particularly the modern political world, has become media. The medium is the message, and he understands that. That’s why he can speak in a very plain-spoken vernacular, not in political-speak.
The film also dwells at length on the Russian collusion investigation, for which Bannon has no real insights and mainly just reiterates Trump administration talking points. This is the most dated part of American Dharma, but to be fair, Morris had no way of knowing that his film would be delayed by over a year and that by then, the Russia investigation would be a memory and that Ukraine would be the Big Deal. Bannon does make one interesting claim — namely, that he advised Trump against firing James Comey, believing that the scandal would peter out in the public eye if Comey had simply been allowed to conduct the investigation. He also makes the following perceptive comment regarding “Deep State” allegations:
It calls into question the institutions of this country and the establishment. There has been from the beginning a nullification project on the 2016 election. If they can’t nullify it, at least question his legitimacy so much that he can’t govern. People say, oh, this is the Deep State, Deep State. It’s not the Deep State. That’s the in-your-face state. It’s not the Deep State, it’s sitting right there on the surface.
This reflects my own feeling that the goings-on of the US government in the open are just as disturbing as any conspiracy theory cooked up on the fringe.
Morris also, naturally, confronts Bannon with Charlottesville, showing many scary montages of violence and the death of Heather Heyer. Bannon doesn’t end up discussing the rally itself (or if he did, Morris doesn’t include it), and he just talks about how there are good people and bad people among those who want to preserve the Confederate monuments. He does, however, make his stance on neo-Nazis clear:
You go down to these next guys, these neo-Nazis or whatever. Those guys, they have no standing, okay? And when they show up, they should be shut down. They’re bad guys, okay? And they’re a creation of the opposition party media. They’re meaningless in the Trump movement, they’re meaningless in the populist movement. They’re totally, completely meaningless. It’s not conservative media that’s giving them a platform, it’s the Left media, it’s MSNBC, and Huffington Post.
Morris angrily cuts Bannon off at this point, and we get a montage of shots of Left-wing news sites accusing Bannon of making Breitbart an Alt Right platform. It’s never made clear if Bannon is talking about all of the people who marched at Charlottesville, or just some of them, or if he’s talking about other groups entirely. Nevertheless, his point remains valid that those groups which make use of Nazi and fascist imagery remain politically irrelevant and merely fill a convenient role in the mainstream’s narrative that the US is on the verge of a Beer Hall Putsch — but I’m hardly the first to make this claim.
The last event covered in any depth is Bannon’s departure from the White House. To underscore its significance, Morris shows a scene from Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, which is about Shakespeare’s Falstaff character, specifically the one in which the elderly Falstaff attempts to greet King Henry V, whom he had mentored as a young man, in an amicable matter after his coronation, and Henry rebukes him for his unbecoming familiarity by saying, “I know thee not, old man” (in Henry IV, Part II). Morris draws a parallel between this and Bannon’s own dismissal from Trump’s circle of confidantes, and Bannon concedes that he can see it, too, although while Morris sees the scene as depicting Henry’s betrayal of his old friend, Bannon counters that he believes Falstaff understands why Henry did so, and sees it as part of his own dharma.
Given that the interviews were conducted sometime in late 2017 or early 2018, American Dharma doesn’t have much to say about Bannon’s post-White House activities (see The Brink for that), other than alluding to his ill-fated project to unite the European populist parties under one banner.
As mentioned earlier, Morris attempts to undermine Bannon’s statements at every turn. In many instances, things he says are followed by long montages showing clips from hostile mainstream media outlets which either contradict Bannon or else allude to the alleged negative consequences of the realization of Bannon’s beliefs in American politics. To cite just one instance of this, after Bannon praises Morris’ Fog of War, Morris shows a clip from the other film in which McNamara stated that he didn’t believe that American power should ever be used unilaterally, and then shows us a series of headlines about Trump withdrawing from climate change and international refugee agreements and so on. Morris seems to intend this as a “gotcha” moment, and surely people who despise Bannon will see it as such as well — despite the fact that McNamara was clearly referring to the unilateral use of American military power, not international treaties.
Likewise, Morris has a habit of confronting Bannon and then not showing his response. For example, on one occasion Morris questions him on how throwing DACA recipients out of the US relates to populism. This leads to the following exchange:
Morris: Is this populism or something much uglier?
Bannon: Uglier being what?
Morris: Serving big business and the rich. It’s anti-populism. . . That’s what makes me think you’re crazy!
Bannon (unfazed): And why?
Morris: Why? Because I think there’s an inherent contradiction in the views that you hold. Do you just want to destroy everything?
We don’t get to see Bannon’s answer, even though I feel quite confident that he doesn’t see himself as fighting for big business and the rich. Likewise, Morris ignores the fact that Hillary was very much in bed with “big business” herself, and he doesn’t explain how allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the US serves the interests of working people (is it contradictory to stand up for the American working class while not wanting America to be a home to anyone who happens to show up on its shores?). Morris just declares himself the winner by shutting Bannon down.
This happens again when Morris refers to Trump as “the fuck you President,” describing it as, “You want health care? Fuck you! You want clean drinking water? Fuck you!” As before, I am certain that Bannon is not opposed to people getting clean drinking water — but we don’t get to find out what he thinks about it, thanks to Morris.
The most telling instance of this is when Morris brings up the travel ban that Trump enacted in the first week of his term. The following exchange ensues, against a backdrop of images of crying Muslims at airports:
Morris: There’s a certain kind of meanness and racism at the heart of this.
Bannon: You think it’s racist?
Morris: I do believe that this whole thing about walls and immigration isn’t really about economic populism, I think it is about racism. Do people think that this border wall is suddenly going to provide jobs for them? No, I think they don’t like Mexicans, or they don’t like Arabs, or they don’t like Jews.
The scene cuts away yet again before Bannon can answer, although Morris does himself in here by showing that he doesn’t understand the real issues at stake. How is protecting Americans from illegal immigrants and terrorism racist? Even more importantly, Morris brings up the other old baseless canard about the Trump administration, that Trump’s policies are somehow stoking anti-Semitism — despite the fact of his administration being the most radically pro-Jewish one in American history. But since Morris gives himself the last word, people who think the same way he does will simply nod their heads in agreement and think that he’s scored another point against the nasty white guy.
Morris does deserve some credit, however, for calling Bannon out regarding his denial that identity politics has anything to do with populism:
Morris: But why channel people’s hatred of the other?
Bannon: Your assumption is that it’s something of the other. It’s not about the other. Everything that we’ve been focused on is about American citizens. It’s not about the other. This is about maximizing the value of your citizenship.
It is amusing that in his answer, Bannon falls back on the very same sort of economic lingo for which he condemns the globalists (“maximizing the value”). While Bannon is absolutely correct that people looking to protect their borders and embrace some sort of genuine national identity are not racist, he’s wrong to think that race and ethnicity don’t play any role in populism and that it all boils down to economics and civic nationalism. It’s crystal clear that ethnicity is one of the most important aspects of Right-wing populism. Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, in their book National Populism, demonstrate using survey data that ethnic identity is at the foundation of the success of today’s populism — and Bannon is too aware of what’s happening in the world today not to realize this. The reason why he doesn’t acknowledge it is obvious: If he started talking about white Americans, he would very quickly find that he isn’t able to hobnob with bigwigs in the Republican Party and in Europe. And perhaps we shouldn’t blame him for this, as he simply understands the rules of the game he is playing, and surely his brand of politics, like Trump’s, is at the very least implicitly aimed primarily at the interests of whites. Nevertheless, we have to see the populist Right’s silence on this matter as one of its flaws.
There is one occasion when Bannon manages to nail Morris, and it’s worth recounting:
Morris: In the twentieth century, we decided that these individual nation-states at war with each other would produce disaster, and that some solution had to be contrived.
Bannon: What do you mean, we? We didn’t decide that at all. . . . It wasn’t the common man that got us into World War I, into World War II, into Vietnam, and all the other wars that have been fought. It’s Monahan’s son [a man Bannon knew as a boy whose son died in Vietnam] that’s always the recipient of all the crap. When you say “these nation-states,” it’s the elites that got us into that mess, and then they came up with some sort of supra-national apparatus that’s gonna take care of it. No, no, no. I disagree one hundred percent. They are the ones that drove the destruction of the twentieth century.
Bannon certainly underscores one of the weaknesses of the contemporary Left’s arguments here, that in claiming to be in favor of peace and justice, they inevitably end up on the side of state and elite power — i.e., supporting the Woodrow Wilsons, George W. Bushes, George Soroses, and Hillary Clintons of the world, and all the bloodshed and injustice that flows from them.
The end of the film returns to Bannon’s prophecy of what will happen if populism isn’t allowed to take root in the American establishment, against a backdrop of the reconstructed Twelve O’Clock High hangar being burned to the ground — apparently Morris’ visual interpretation of Bannon’s claim that it will mean the end of America. “People say I’m apocalyptic, I think I’m just a rationalist,” Bannon says regarding his dark vision of the future. “[Trump] wasn’t unexpected, it was as clear as daylight.”
“You have to tell the establishment, go fuck yourself,” Bannon says of what he wants for ordinary Americans.
What the little guy wants is the fuck you to the establishment. I’m on a mission to remake the Republican Party into more of a workers’ party, and some days we have good days, and more days we have bad days. It’s not easy, because the money and the power is on their side.
It’s difficult to reconcile this position with Morris’ claim that Bannon is on the side of the rich and powerful (and curiously, Bannon’s words reflect a statement Trump made in May 2016 — months before Bannon came on board — that his vision for the future of his party was as a “Republican workers’ party”; it’s unclear who is echoing who). Morris says that he is reminded of John Milton’s famous words from Paradise Lost, in which Lucifer says that it is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” when considering Bannon’s worldview, and Bannon responds that he frequently makes use of that quote himself. And indeed, who on the Dissident Right today wouldn’t prefer living in a country that may be weaker and poorer but which has regained sovereignty and values over living in a decadent country more resembling a Third World plantation for its ordinary citizens than a superpower?
The last exchange in the film, which is worth quoting at length, is as follows:
Bannon: You may be better fed, better clothed, in better shape than eighteenth-century Russian serfs, but you’re nothing but serfs. You’re not going to own anything. They’ve got you in this consumer environment where you’re always paying off your credit cards. They’ve destroyed thrifts so you can’t save anything. Saving doesn’t make any difference. And then digitally, they’ve taken all your rights, they’ve taken all your personhood, and they’ve written these algorithms to treat you like a hamster. You’re totally controlled. . . . You can’t fulfill your dharma. You’re nothing but a serf. You voted for that. And you’re a reflective, smart person, you actually thought about it and made a conscious decision. Why? Oh, “I fear you. I fear Trump.” It’s bullshit.
Morris: Just to clarify, my fear is that Trump represented nothing.
Bannon: There’s going to be a revolution in this country. It’s coming. We can’t kick the can down the road like this. We can’t. We’re going to have another financial crisis that everybody that’s smart sees is coming.
Morris: What would revolution mean?
Bannon: A complete rejection of the system. It’s gonna cut like a scythe through grass. It is coming.
This is why American Dharma is ultimately a film about the future rather than the past, because unlike with McNamara and Rumsfeld, where we already know the outcomes of their actions, we don’t know where the current that Bannon represents — and which far transcends him — will ultimately lead us. Although certainly most people on the Right today have the same sense that Bannon has: Things must change, or they will end in disaster.
For people on the Dissident Right, American Dharma may be worth a view, even if there’s little new in it for them. The populist Right, as represented by Bannon, differs in many significant ways from the more “radical” Right — but to be fair, it’s much easier to stand for purity in the intellectual realm than it is for those who actually participate in the political process. Nevertheless, I feel the Dissident Right shares more in common with Bannon than where they part ways. The contours of his vision are more or less the same as ours. And it’s rare to find a man so accomplished in so many different fields who chooses to take up this fight. We need people who know how to function in the world of business and realpolitik.
In the final analysis, however, I think there is a contradiction in Bannon’s worldview, even if it’s not the same one that Morris claims to see. Bannon is clearly more radical than the average Trump supporter. He grasps that lower taxes, prayer in schools, opposing abortion rights, libertarian social policies, and constitutional fundamentalism aren’t going to save America. And yet his chosen mode of action has been to work with groups and individuals that aren’t nearly as radical as he is. Trump’s Republican Party, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — all examples of successful Right-wing populism in recent years — remain firmly embedded within the very same globalist system that Bannon wants to overthrow, and yet he defends and courts them uncritically. These are not going to be the parties that will carry out truly revolutionary change — which is not to say that they’re not worth supporting, given that they are still preferable to the liberal Left and mainstream conservatism — but ultimately, their programs fall far short of what is really needed to save the West.
It is not enough to merely want to stop illegal immigration while still allowing in large numbers of legal immigrants — and pretending that this somehow makes a difference — while also claiming to want to solve our demographic crisis and defend workers’ rights. You can’t claim to stand up for the little guy and oppose globalization and dehumanization while simultaneously praising Big Tech for being MAGA (as Trump did earlier this month). You can’t claim to be a non-interventionist who only wants world peace while arming, supporting, and giving Israel a free hand to do as it likes in the Middle East. Perhaps Bannon prefers to work with these groups in the hope of influencing them rather than having to go to the trouble of starting from the ground up, and admittedly, the Dissident Right remains firmly on the margins while the populist Right has been able to take the center stage in global politics today. Or perhaps he recognizes populism’s shortcomings and sees it rather as an agent of chaos that will bring about the very same revolution he claims to want to avoid, but which would surely bring the elites he despises to an end. Whatever the case may be, his choice is understandable, but it also underscores the need to continue pushing for more genuinely Right-wing alternatives than are currently being offered — not in the sense of being more “racist” or violent as liberals like Morris imagine, but in being more willing to question the underlying assumptions of today’s societies than the populists are doing.
I’ll have more to say about Mr. Bannon when the aforementioned War for Eternity is published in April. However, it does seem strange to me that he has been relying solely on others — and often hostile others — to get his message out there, often through awkward and confrontational interviews. It’s high time for him to have his own book written, or his own documentary made, presenting what he understands as his dharma to the world at large. I suppose he’s simply been too busy to manage it, but to this reader, it would be most welcome.
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