Last night, former Trump strategist and co-founder of totally insane right-wing website Breitbart, Steven Bannon, was interviewed on Four Corners, a big current affairs program on Australia’s national, publicly funded broadcaster.
Later that night, America’s New Yorker media outlet announced Bannon was headlining their annual speakfest, and a few hours later, after a backlash, announced that they’re dropping him. He’s still scheduled to appear at The Economist’s ‘Open Future’ festival. In July he spoke at CNBC’s ‘Delivering Alpha’ conference.
Bannon may avoid declaring white supremacist or nationalist concepts too directly, but he was pivotal in pouring fuel on a racist fire — one that is currently burning through America, with a real human cost. Trump’s rise is closely linked to Bannon’s influence. This is a thing that he does. He likes breaking things.
“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed.
Shocked, I asked him what he meant. “Lenin,” he answered, “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 was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.
Bannon has since left the White House, but arguably, he broke exactly what needed to break in the GOP and in America’s already-cracking culture. Now, he wants to break more things.
Bannon’s 2018 Sensible-Centrist comeback tour seems sudden and intentional, and I suspect he’s spied a rift among progressives that he aims to exploit — specifically around censorship, ideas and ‘free speech’.
The two factions roughly align to:
- No ideas should be excluded from civil, organised debate and discussion, even if we personally abhor those ideas or those people
- Some ideas should be excluded, and fought back against with collective pressure, because they hurt individuals and society
My bet: Bannon understands that all he needs to do is grab a few invites, drop a few muddled and coded appeals to white nationalism, sit back, and watch two factions bare their teeth at each other, instead of toward a common enemy.
It’s already playing out on Twitter. His presence is enough to break things, and surely, he knows it.
I align with the second of the two ‘sides’ on this — Bannon crosses a predictable line, and stern, good-faith questions don’t denature his appeals.
This has happened before. In late 2009 to 2014, climate deniers presented themselves as good-faith participants in a scientific debate, but operated with bad-faith unreason during ‘civil’ discussions.
In parallel, Breitbart ran (and still runs) vicious hit-pieces targeting climate scientists and decaying trust in science through misinformation and confusion.
Denialism was given space due to the belief a questioner can counter a shifting mass of confusing and emotional flutterings with hard, uncompromising queries, and that audiences, upon hearing the two sides of the climate ‘debate’, would side with whoever was victorious in word battle.
So, yeah, that didn’t happen. The prominence of climate change deniers as the ‘other side’ of a civil, well-mannered debate about science just made things worse. Australia’s public acceptance of climate science only began increasing when we stopped interviewing deniers on television for ‘balance’.
Like climate denial, the mere act of taking white nationalism seriously is more than sufficient. Presence, and the ensuing civil war about free speech, are the end game, not victory in verbal sparring. Whether it’s proved wrong or right is an irrelevant afterthought — it doesn’t matter whether the questions are tough or soft.
It is through this vector that Bannon spies opportunity. Getting a feel for the outcomes of ‘tough questioning can be achieved simply by looking at how white nationalists understand and frame his interview with Australia’s Four Corners:
Steve Bannon’s ex-protégé, Milo Yiannopoulos, is a wreck. His career is in tatters, and he’s largely untouched by festival organisers and public broadcasters. His most recent Australian tour ended with a spectacular self-own, as he was charged a $50,000 bill for police resources used at his event. There is no platform for him, save for the literal ones he hires.
Both Milo and Bannon had their day, but Milo flew too close to the white supremacist sun, and a big part in his downfall was Twitter deciding that the safety of the community outweighed Milo’s ‘free speech’, banning him from the platform after he instigated the xenophobic mobbing of an actor.
It worked: he’s washed up, vengeful and he’s gone from commanding vicious mobs of anonymous xenophobes on Twitter to drinking cheap, acidic sparkling among tiny gatherings of floating Australian racists. Twitter’s ultimate decision, after all the hand-wringing, worked in the favour of the community.
Bannon treads with more care. He’s successfully identified an open wound, and he’s here to make it worse. An ex-Breitbart editor said, of Bannon’s early 2018 lull:
“Accepting fate or defeat is not in his DNA…He will try and reinvent himself. He will try and finish what he started.”
There are a few simple ways to buttress against Bannon’s new trajectory of sabotage.
- Choose interviews with people who tend to use evidence, and who tend to be correct, and stop granting a platform to those who are often wrong, and acting in bad faith.
- Make Australia’s media industry more diverse. A better reflection of the community would make the harms of white nationalism a factor in decision making around broadcast.
We already accept that people who advocate harm through pseudoscience or discrimination don’t deserve a platform — for the most part, those advocating fewer rights for women, or for the anti-vaccination lobby, aren’t given a platform on the grounds that their views can be civilly argued against. They’re just ignored. Adding the expansion and encouragement of racial hatred should be added to this collection.
Whatever happens, Bannon smells blood, and he’s made up his mind about Australia. He told Four Corners that:
“I absolutely see Australia is going to be a hotbed of populism. Just knowing the cussedness and grit of the Australian people. This revolution is global … it’s coming to Australia.”
If we don’t start interrogating his intent, and the mechanics of his tactics, he might be right, and it’ll be the most vulnerable parts of Australia’s community that pays the price, in his new-found playground for breaking things.