The holiday season this year brought competing versions of reality into focus. Hallmark-lite invocations of Peace and Joy stubbornly proliferated. Bezos and Co. will likely establish new milestones for online shopping. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” (which she first released in 1994) was the number one song in the world this week. And over at Instagram, scrolling addicts in the millions replayed Tom and Zendaya’s every adorable interaction.
With omicron tearing across the country, airlines shutting down, and intensive care units filling up disproportionately with the unvaccinated, Republicans continued to complain that Democratic efforts to protect public health and safety are an attack on personal freedom and a veiled attempt to further the interests of big government. Senator Joe Manchin went on Fox News to stymie the Biden agenda and oppose the extension of the child tax credit, making a strong case for excluding millionaires from public office and perhaps himself from the Democratic Party. Across the aisle, North Dakota’s conservative Senator Kevin Cramer went on Fox News to argue that Manchin had in fact saved the Democratic Party, estimating that Manchin had protected three to four senators by his actions. The pope gave his annual Christmas message to a socially distanced audience, calling for more dialogue.
You could argue that all this amounts to normal media fare, at least by present-day standards. But there does seem to be a significant shift in the media’s fairly recent and heated coverage of the fragility of democracy. Newsweek trumpeted that the idea that people would take up arms against an American election “is no longer farfetched.” CNN reported the findings of a CIA researcher that the United States is “close to a civil war.” Foreign Affairs argued, again, that the rise of authoritarian states and reactionary populists is the real threat to democracy.
In a widely touted article for The Atlantic, Barton Gellman cited the electoral rules changes recently put in place by state Republicans who “have been building an apparatus of election theft.” The Atlantic piece built on Jonathan Winer’s reporting in this publication on the Republicans’ use of the State Legislative Doctrine to justify consolidating control over the outcome of elections (see “Roadmap for a Constitutional Coup,” October 2021).
Gellman explores why seemingly rational people have adopted such unshakeable adherence to the false narrative of the stolen election and the illegitimacy of the current administration. (As with so many aspects of the Trump era, one feels here the sharp pang of recognition with conditions in wartime Germany, when ordinary people—neighbors and childhood friends—fell in thrall with authoritarianism and committed atrocities.)
There are many factors that explain the passion of Trump’s admirers and the alternate realities they inhabit. Gellman demonstrates more clearly than ever how right-wing, fringe, and extremist groups have successfully deployed the internet and its vast realms of conspiracy-mongering and unvetted content to bypass traditional news media and shape the hardened views of their followers.
Arguably the most influential and surely the most resilient of the internet extremists is Stephen Kevin Bannon, whose astonishing biography includes a seven-year stint in the Navy (including several years as special assistant to the chief of naval operations at the Pentagon), Georgetown (where he received a master’s in national security studies), Harvard Business School, Goldman Sachs, Hollywood film producer, co-founder of Breitbart News, CEO of Trump’s 2016 campaign, and chief strategist to POTUS. Bannon was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering in connection with the We Build the Wall campaign, but Trump pardoned him before his trial. Bannon’s Twitter account was suspended after he recommended that Anthony Fauci be beheaded, and he was indicted by a federal grand jury on two criminal contempt charges after he defied a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6.
Bannon’s ties to white supremacist groups in the United States and far-right Catholic extremists in Europe and Latin America may make him seem easy to dismiss, but given his strong ties to Trump, the extremist drift of the Republican Party, and the uncertainties surrounding the upcoming elections, he remains a dominant figure in domestic politics.
These days, Bannon is trading cryptocurrency and presiding over two to three tapings a day of The War Room, his political talk show and top-ranked podcast, which are translated into Chinese and Japanese and carried over a mishmash of cable and streaming services since his banishment from Twitter. I listened in on Episode 1,472, recorded this past December 9, when his guest was Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, the self-styled firebrand from the Florida panhandle.
Several themes with a direct bearing on the near-term future of democracy emerged from their exchange, but the starting point was clear. Much as these two felt the need to genuflect to the memory of Bob Dole, the Republican Party of Dole’s era—a “party that won elections and lost the country”—is dead.
Not content with burying Dole, Bannon gratuitously goes after David Brooks, whom he pictures “with the wire-rimmed glasses, crying about the end of conservatism and the end of Edmund Burke and all that.” Bannon speaks in rapid bursts, stepping on his sentences, spitting out words and phrases in a way that is sometimes hard to hear or unintelligible. Still, everything he says is carefully chosen and stems from or works toward a point in his framing.
Early in their conversation, Bannon introduces his ground strategy, in language that is sprinkled with the military metaphors he uses interchangeably when talking politics—the “little platoons” that go to the school board meetings, or “the little platoons that are becoming precinct committee men.”
“This is the rise of the American laobaixing.” Bannon embellishes his commentary with esoteric terms that send you racing to Google; this last reference is a Chinese word meaning “everyday, regular people.”
Then he lays it out, putting chilling words in Gaetz’s mouth that reflect Bannon’s overall analysis and, at the same time, signal the teacher-and-pupil hierarchy in the relationship. “If you want to control the administrative state and the apparatus, you have to engage in combat with it, right?” (There are echoes here of Trump’s public comments, in which, presumably with Bannon’s encouragement, he frequently employed the language and imagery of warfare.) Bannon turns to Gaetz, “Walk through what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Gaetz is up, and quickly runs through a litany of ineffectual attacks on Democrats, their “addled” president, and legislative leaders “that would have a hard time winning elections for block captains.” He singles out Hakeem Jeffries as the most talented Democrat, and Bannon oddly interjects that Jeffries is the next Speaker after Nancy Pelosi.
Gaetz spends a few more minutes scrambling for Bannon’s approval, while reinforcing the impression that he is self-absorbed and delusional. “Democrats have to threat-construct around a series of political villains. And I’m willing to shoulder that burden,” he continues. “If Republicans need to know how to be led. . . . I’ll show them how to do it, so will Marjorie Taylor Greene.” Yikes.
Then Gaetz hits his stride. “We will staff our committees with Republican leads who are not just there to engage in this theater of legislating with bills that will just be vetoed.” Bannon concurs: “Hey, I was in front of these guys. It’s all theater up there. It’s performative.”
There is an investigation that is teed up, at least one for every single committee. I don’t want a head of the Education and Labor Committee who wants to go and do an interesting little education bill, another version of No Child Left Behind. I want somebody who’s going to expose the Chinese Communist Party ties to the Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania. In Ways and Means, I don’t want someone who’s going to go carry water for the lobby core on K Street for another little carve-out or exemption. I want somebody who’s going to go after an IRS that is targeting our people. In the Armed Services Committee, I don’t want someone who’s just primarily focused on getting a bill passed. I want to expose the way that they have targeted our military service members who don’t share the woketopian view of the world.
To get a better feel for Matt Gaetz and his approach to his job in Congress, it is worth watching an episode of C-Span’s coverage of the House Judiciary Committee. He stands apart from his colleagues and disrupts the hearings to the maximum extent allowed by the rules of the committee. He reads from prepared texts on topics unrelated to the hearing underway. Chairman Nadler is unfailingly courteous in the face of these outbursts; he indulges Gaetz’s requests for rulings on minor parliamentary matters, he calms the frustrated members on both sides who are eager to proceed and embarrassed by Gaetz’s theatrics. These are the finely tuned leadership qualities the junior congressman from Florida apparently wishes to transfer to his Republican colleagues.
Returning to the podcast, Bannon takes back control of the discussion. “I want MSNBC to understand this.” He adds, “What we’re trying to explain to folks is that you have something that’s impervious to elections, and that’s this massive administrative state. And for all the limited-government conservatives, you won a ton of elections and you never got serious.”
“I think this is brilliant, and it’s never been done before. This is what Matt Gaetz says: Every committee’s an oversight committee.” Bannon finishes with a flourish: “All the apparatchiks are going to be in the dock.”
Although Bannon refers frequently to MSNBC, it feels like he is using the term to cast a wider net, a catchall that includes his adversaries not just at the liberal cable news network and Microsoft but also Twitter and Google, and the banks, and the universities—in fact all of what for these purposes and in his mind would be considered liberal capital.
Gaetz follows with another salvo, this time aimed at “the people who are imposing the vaccine mandates, who are enriching themselves and who are selling out the country.” (Can he mean the Frontline Doctors, the right-wing group of ersatz medical professionals that promotes and profits from fake cures for Covid-19? Probably not.)
Bannon then goes for the jugular. “This is a theory of governing, right? And it’s fresh and new. This is Trumpism in power . . . the 4,000 shock troops we have to have that are going to man the government, and get them ready now, right? We’re going to hit the beach. You have landing teams and beachhead teams. [Who is he talking to?] No more Trey Gowdys [the former Republican congressman from South Carolina], no more powder-puff derby. This is going to be hard-core accountability at every committee.”
The twin forces that shaped Bannon’s formative years were Catholicism and the military. He grew up in an Irish Catholic household and attended an all-male Catholic military school in Richmond, Virginia. What additional influences led him to embrace white nationalism and develop a taste for the language, imagery and tactics of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party is grist for a more ambitious biography.
Gaetz again: “And we’re going to start at the Department of Justice and the FBI. That’s the job I want. Send me over to the Judiciary Committee, and their sphincters will tighten because they’ve been doing a lot of corrupt things over there. The FBI and Department of Justice have become the enforcement wing of the Democratic Party.”
And Bannon adds: “They understand it. MSNBC understands that we’re coming for them, or that we’re going to come for this.”
Bannon—and Gaetz, too, though to a lesser extent—is saying here that the goal is not modest reform of the intelligence agencies but a wholesale revamping of the intelligence apparatus that is the Deep State. In their conversation, Bannon calls for a Church Committee–style investigation of the intelligence community, which Gaetz unguardedly dismisses, perhaps because he’s too young to recognize the implication.
Bannon then synthesizes the ground strategy with the new theory of governance. “I want everybody to understand that when you’re out there at a school board meeting, when you’re running for a county clerk, county commissioner on the elections, when you’re trying to volunteer, or you’re volunteering to be an election official or a poll watcher, or if you signed up to be a precinct committee member, we need you to do that. This is how it all ties together, OK? It ties together in a theory of governance that we are going to take on.”
Before the last segment with Gaetz begins, there’s a paid announcement that is worth citing, an ad for In Trump Time, by Peter Navarro who served in the Trump White House as assistant to the president.
[Prerecorded voice-over, Peter Navarro] In Trump Time is the definitive insider’s account of the Trump White House. Spoiler alert: Fauci lied. Americans died. Pence betrayed Trump. China spawned the virus. CNN has blood on its hands. And I’m just getting started. In Trump Time, my White House journal of America’s plague year. Buy In Trump Time today on Amazon, and find out what really happened on November 3, January 6, and in a Wuhan bioweapons lab.
That ad is followed by one that Bannon reads on the air, on behalf of MyPillow.com and its founder and CEO Mike Lindell, a right-wing activist and ardent Trump supporter. Bannon even manages to get off a homophobic shot at Pete Buttigieg during the ad. He’s talking about delivering the pillows in time for Christmas and says, “And here’s the beauty of it, Pete Buttigieg does not have to come off parental leave to make sure that your gifts, that Santa’s gifts, arrive.”
Bannon opens the last segment with a roundup of his grievances:
They [the liberal establishment] also control high culture, pop culture, low culture, Hollywood, the media, the universities, culture, the internet, cultures, the oligarchs in Silicon Valley, the world corporations, all of Wall Street. You know, it’s . . . the billionaire donor class now supports it. So they control everything.
Who are we? It’s the American laobaixing, old hundred names [another Chinese term, also meaning “everyday people”], right? And now, but they’re taking over school boards, they’re taking over the election officials, they’re taking over the Republican Party, and you got Matt Gaetz and a handful of cadre members out throughout the country saying, we’re actually going to have another theory of governance.
They’re depressed, and Joy Ann Reid [the on-air program host at MSNBC] says, last night, “We don’t have any sense of urgency.” Matt Gaetz is going to have a Star Chamber.
I.F. Stone memorably observed that you can get all the information you need to cover the seat of government simply by going to the hearings on the Hill or reading the Congressional Record. In just this one short podcast featuring the brilliant tactician and key political adviser to the Trump administration in exile, and a half-cocked but easily underestimated right-wing agitator from the Florida panhandle, you can find large swaths of the pathology and strategy of the extreme right in American politics.
It’s reactionary populism mixed with the politics of retribution: The stance is aggrieved, anti-establishment, and resentful of elites; the program is to purge the Republican Party, take over the mechanisms of democracy—from school boards to the oversight of elections—and convert the congressional committees into Star Chambers to prosecute political and cultural adversaries.
As detached from reality as the content of this program may seem, it is not some sideshow at the margins of American politics. These men and their ideas are driving a movement that is currently favored in the polls and poised to assume the reins of the Republic.
Hamilton Fish is the editor of The Washington Spectator.