To Understand Bannon, Think Hollywood

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By Joe Lowndes (January 29, 2017)

As Steve Bannon’s central role in the White house becomes increasingly clear, we are struck by panic about who he is and how to understand his power. I increasingly think the source of it is to be found neither in his Huntingtonian worldview nor his self-described Leninist orientation toward power, but rather Hollywood.

Screenwriter/producer was only one of Bannon’s previous careers, but it is the one most on display right now. The WH directives he has been responsible for over the last week have been neither careful nor coordinated. They have made the new administration look chaotic in many cases, and forced endless explanations and walk-backs from various players.

But Bannon’s moves have been very bold and dramatic – cinematic really. Beginning with Trump’s inaugural address and text on the revamped official White House website, followed by the mix of Executive Actions and Executive Orders, have thrown opponents back on their heels repeatedly – regardless of their ultimate enforceability – and have drawn millions of us into the streets. Bannon’s new position on the NSC promises to reproduce these epic battles internationally as well.

Bannon’s provocative style was further honed at Breitbart News, where opening the door to neo-nazis, conspiracy obsessives, and a new form of social media sadists he was able to frame politics as epic manichean struggles for glory in novel ways.

But this Hollywood orientation is also the source of Bannon’s greatest vulnerability. He can stage conflicts and invite the backlash they create, but there is no guarantee that he can win. Indeed, the more he attacks, the more energetically we respond.

As Thom Mount, the former president of Universal Pictures, told the L.A.Times about his time in the film industry:

“He was constantly telling stories about great warriors of the past, like Attila the Hun, people who had slain empires. It’s one thing to be interested in the triumphs of military history, it’s another thing to obsess over them. Victory at all costs is a dangerous way to look at the world.”

Bannon can make Trump into Bane from the ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, but he does not realize that broad political transformation is not dictated by superheroes and supervillains duking it out while we watch from our seats, but by hegemonic struggle. That’s where we come in.

1 Comment

  1. Rachael Sotos

    “But this Hollywood orientation is also the source of Bannon’s greatest vulnerability. He can stage conflicts and invite the backlash they create, but there is no guarantee that he can win. Indeed, the more he attacks, the more energetically we respond.”

    Your post lead me to think about the weakness of Bannon’s aesthetic strategy in a way that extends your thought, I think. Bannon likely misreads the support that Trump has in the face of resistance from the left, but also from his core supporters. Much of Trump’s appeal was his authenticity as a kind of jester truth-teller, a figure like Aristophanes’ Sausage-Seller in the Knights. He claimed parresia (unfettered free speech for himself) in the way that an entertainer can. (Aristophanes famously said that he had the most parresia of Athenian citizen). But the degree to which the average citizen has the stomach for the cruelty and subversion of institutions is another question. I suspect that a lot of folks where thinking that Trump would behave when president. They thought “he is rich and knows how to behave with powerful people.” They did not take him “literally.” Indeed the Muslim ban was resisted among many. The wall too was interpreted “figuratively.” Now that it is put into practice literally — and is opposed — he delegitimates what made him attractive as a figure of parresia. The president cannot talk like the Sausage-Seller, even for ordinary folk.

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