7 September 2018

Why Bannonism can’t happen here


Steve Bannon is not as clever as he thinks, but he is good at attracting attention. At Breitbart News, Bannon fashioned effective propaganda, becoming an essential aspect of the right-wing media system – in America and, latterly, across the world.

Breitbart attracted politicians, such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, and in turn it – in its own way – sought to aid them.

When Bannon began to work for Donald Trump, and later, when he prowled the corridors of the White House, his star seemed ascendant. Overexcited profiles declared him a sinister intellectual and grey cardinal. Magazine features analysed his reading habits and unlettered writerly output. The journalist Joshua Green even suggested that Bannon’s was the hidden hand propelling Trump to victory, and that the agreement between the two on which buttons to push represented a “devil’s bargain”.

Not long after Green’s book appeared, Bannon left the White House in disgrace. He appeared – a paranoid obsessive – in Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s gossipy account of the Trump administration, for which Bannon seemed to be the primary source. Trump, meanwhile, took to calling Bannon “Sloppy Steve”, and Bannon left Breitbart, the former seat of his power and influence. That put paid to so much of the frantic commentary.

But Bannon, even without status or steady work, is good at one thing: causing a scene. And a new scene of his creation played out this week, when Bannon, after online near-hysteria, was disinvited from an event hosted by the New Yorker.

The scandal helps Bannon because, once again, it gives him coverage. It allows the old myths of his brilliance to make unwelcome reappearance.

It makes him seem dangerous, something to be contained, rather than a political actor like any other, who could, with careful interviewing, be tripped up by his own words.

The campaign to rescind Bannon’s invitation was prompted by a fear of the disembodied fascism some see stalking the United States, of which Bannon is the representative on Earth. In the background is the more tangible idea that Bannon is in the process of creating a far-right international.

Pieces have consistently appeared of late to suggest that Bannon is targeting Europe. He has certainly made Hungary and its illiberal leader Viktor Orban his allies. There is talk of a movement (cunningly called “The Movement”) sweeping the European parliament elections. This talk seems overheated.

Britain is on Bannon’s mind. He claimed Brexit as a precursor to Trump and has spent much time in his country of late, giving interviews in which he attempted to appear both Svengali and Cassandra.

That Johnson and Rees-Mogg reportedly met Bannon was greeted with alarm, followed as it was by a column of Johnson’s in which he was perceived to have made dog-whistle criticisms of Islam – and particularly Muslim women – by disparaging the appearance of those who wore niqabs.

But this is a false diagnosis. Bannon has not converted British politicians, and Bannonism will not succeed here.

Bannonism is rigid and ideological. It is almost apocalyptic. Trump’s chaotic style contained aspects of its messaging, but in office, Trump lacked the focus and belief to translate it into policy.

Johnson’s niqab column, despite the row it stoked, shows he can be no Bannonite.

A true radical controversialist would have believed Bannon’s message that being called racist was a badge of pride. Such a person would have revelled in the controversy and stoked it further, not chosen to write comically about wildlife, as Johnson did with his next column – which he dedicated to otters.

Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, is a man whose views are rigid enough to sustain ideology, but whose ideology is not even slightly Bannonist. He has no time for the apocalyptic notes Bannonism sounds when in full flow.

Any hope political also-rans such as Arron Banks and Nigel Farage have of success in mainstream politics in the Bannonist mould is also limited; for them to become anything more than end of the pier entertainers and disk jockeys would take more than the intervention of a fervent foreigner with a mixed record of success.

Europe is another question, to an extent. The Hungarian example would perhaps be pertinent had Orban’s electoral coalition and tactics not predated the 2016 wave – which Bannon rode and glories in – by decades. Perhaps Sweden’s coming elections will give pause for thought. Otherwise, one can only conclude that fears of far-right ascendancy in Europe are, for a while at least, overdone.

James Snell is a British writer whose work has appeared in National Review, Prospect and History Today.