Everyone has been asking me how Donald Trump can possibly thrive politically once his voters discover that what he said on the campaign trail was categorical bullshit. I respond by pointing out that people only know what they know, and what they know about Trump will be determined by a campaign of White House disinformation to rival Joseph Goebbels, abetted by a political media willing to serve uncomplainingly as its transmission belt. For instance, when the CIA reported its conclusion that the Russian government intervened to try to seal Trump’s victory, his transition team responded with a statement that said: “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.” The Washington Post quoted it verbatim, like it was precipitation data from the National Weather Service—though in actual fact Trump’s Electoral College margin was in history’s bottom quartile.
Our media gatekeepers act like they’re unaware that our president has chosen as his chief strategist a fellow who’s made disinformation his political vocation, whom no less an authority than the late Andrew Breitbart once labeled the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party.” Though maybe I shouldn’t be so self-righteous. Until not too long ago, I’d forgotten that I’d seen Steve Bannon’s Triumph of the Will. Then I remembered, and watched it again—and my respect for anyone who’d take this White House on good faith plummeted below Dante’s ninth circle of Hell.
It happened this way. Covering the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, I decided to test my theory that at any Republican convention, the true face of the party is revealed outside camera range. After braving a security gauntlet far tighter than the conventions, I visited a gleaming white air-conditioned tent devoted to showing movies produced by Citizens United, the organization made famous by the 2010 Supreme Court decision that green-lighted the laundering of unlimited corporate funds to finance propaganda like I was about to witness: a film called Occupy Unmasked, written and directed by one Stephen K. Bannon.
The name meant nothing to me then. The experience, however, was indelible. I tried to record the soundtrack on my phone. An undercover security operative swooped down and made me erase it. That might have been for the best, I wrote at the time, because “the distinguishing feature of Occupy Unmasked’s soundtrack was an unceasing, loud, dull, dissonant . . . well, you couldn’t call it music. It was more like a deep rumble, the aural equivalent of a laxative to loosen one’s critical faculties.” Upon reflection, I couldn’t be sure that the similarity with the cinematic technique described by George Orwell in 1984 (about the Two Minutes Hate) was intended or accidental: “The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room.” What I do know is that if I knew then that the man responsible for this sickening Orwellian conflagration would 29 months later be running the White House, I might have considered doing what I never dreamed of during George W. Bush’s reign: getting my emigration papers in order. Which maybe we should all be doing right now.
The film begins silently, an innocuous epigraph filling the screen—
Following the historic tea party victory in 2010
The nation is in a heated debate
On raising the debt ceiling.
President Obama’s approval rating
Sinks to an all-time low:
—then comes a windshield’s eye view of a gorgeous California coastline. An unpromising overture for a political thriller.
Until—a car plunges over a cliff, followed by a frenzy of images: worried politicians, newsmen narrating the looming fiscal crisis, a bank machine sorting bills, blindfolded children boxing (and then Senator Barbara Boxer, her voice horrifically distorted); sheets of hundred dollar bills rolling off a printing press, then piling to the sky—the car arcs downward—a racing clock, hundred dollar bills behind a beeping EKG, a man on his hospital deathbed, a little girl batting a piñata, Where is the leadership of this White House to guide the country out of the debt mess we’re in?—Then piles more money and a cardiologist’s paddles on a heaving chest, a racing “debt clock” and credit cards, and a braying Chris Matthews and panic and panic and more panic. The American people are going to pay the price and the EKG flatlines and the car hits the rocks and bursts into flames and Anderson Cooper announces the downgrading of the nation’s credit.
Which resolves into an image of Barack Hussein Obama in the Oval Office to render plain the reason for the frenzy: “An organizer,” words begins spooling “must stir up dissatisfaction and discontent. . .”—and then the letters S-A-U-L and A-L-I-N-S-K-Y emerge, with the “A” in the villain’s last name filled in when the familiar red anarchist-A in a circle stamps itself onto the screen.
Andrew Breitbart appears, explaining, “The battle for the soul of America took an interesting turn in September of 2011, when out of the blue, according to the mainstream media, one finds a group called ‘Occupy’ occupying town squares, city halls, and Zuccotti Park. Who were these people?” [The screen shows a foul dreadlocked, doo-ragged white guy with an “Occupy” fist pinned to his coat.] “Are they just college students that matter-of-factly just show up in Zuccotti Park?” [A ragged tent city, pocked by garbage bags, from which a woman pulls out a shoe.]
“Are these just mom and pa, coming like they did at the Tea Parties?”
“No, no. No, no. This is the organized left.” [The camera lingers on a sign reading “Workers World Party.”] “The Occupy movement is the organized left.”
The plot that follows defies summation. We learn how in August and September, 2011, thanks to the Republicans, the nation was finally verging toward fiscal sanity until the Occupiers appeared just in time to sabotage the whole thing. We learn how the conspiracy was planned in a 2011 email chain that included an MSNBC personality and the political editor of Rolling Stone, where “kids learned how they could orchestrate a movement from scratch,” tutored to be “as amorphous as humanly possible,” the better to “draw in as many naïve people as humanly possible.” But also that it was orchestrated a year earlier “by the SEIU.”
But also that the conspiracy was planned in 2008, at the Republican National Convention.
What American citizens know about Trump will be determined by a campaign of White House disinformation to rival Joseph Goebbels.
And, yet more diabolically, in the ruins of New Orleans in 2005: “To most people Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster,” one of the film’s stars explains. “But to the far left, Hurricane Katrina was about the occupation of the Ninth Ward. It was the first time all of these different groups came together under one banner to work together. You had the eco-terrorism group under Scott Crow; the Animal and Earth Liberation Fronts. . . . You had Code Pink; you had the Black Panther Party. . . . You had different movements from around the world coming in. They saw it as a means to work together, finally, for the revolution. . . because people were mad at the U.S. government.”
“And from that, those same people, those same dollars, those same funders, those same leaders—they started the Occupy Movement.”
The insults to linear logic only enhance the film’s effect: this is sense-rape, meant to disarm critical faculties. But if the storyline is, well, as amorphous as humanly possible, the characters are etched sharply. For that is what this game is all about.
There are bad guys, like a man in a bank in a suit. “He’s texting,” one of the story’s narrators explains footage of a scene where filthy marauders invade a Bank of America. “I say, ‘Do you work for the bank?’ And he says, ‘No, I work for the United Autoworkers.’ So the unions are choreographing things, and they’re obviously texting back and making sure it’s going right. But who ends up getting arrested are the students.”
The students: those useful idiots. A fellow holds a sign reading “THROW ME A BONE, PAY MY TUITION.” He’s asked by a Breitbartian why he believes himself to be exploited by elites. “We get taxed more than they do,” he answers. “That’s not true,” the interviewer comes back, matter of factly. The kids responds, incredulous: “That’s not true?”
The faceless, pillaging marauders—some in Guy Fawkes masks, the movie’s main visual motif, others wearing black hoodies, or bandanas over their faces, staving in windows, assaulting cops, dancing by the light of the flames.
The media, some of whom are Occupy puppet masters in disguise—like a writer named Natasha Lennard, who covered the movement freelance for The New York Times, then got radicalized and noisily quit the straight media, but whom under Steve Bannon’s directorial gaze is rendered both a walking, talking embodiment of the Gray Lady herself, sent out to pull the strings of the media’s useful-idiot contingent, like Bill Maher, shown enthusing “Everyone was extraordinarily well-behaved” over an image of a man shitting on a car.
President Obama, that most useful of idiots. (He delivers what the film calls his “Occupy State of the Union” in 2012, his voice distorted like a zombie: “No American company should be able to avoid paying its fair share of taxes. . . . Restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot.” You thought these words were innocent. You are so, so naïve.)
The good guys are the film’s narrators: former members in good standing of the left, who’ve seen the conspiracy from the inside and have emerged to tell the tale.
There is a young man named Lee Stranahan, identified as “Former Writer, Huffington Post, Daily Kos.” He explains, “I actually trace some of the roots of Occupy back to Saul Alinsky and the 1930s . . . his mentor was Frank Nitty, the enforcer of the Capone gang. . . What had happened was, Prohibition had ended, so the mob needed a new way of making money. So what they did was, they moved into—labor. They moved into the unions. So the BSEU was one of the unions they were involved with, and that became the SEIU.” [Cue picket sign: “HEALTHCARE WORKERS / WE’RE PART OF THE 99%”] “The thing that ties in the anarchist movement, and the Obama administration, are the unions.”
A woman named Pam Key, who has been to hell and back: “I was there with them, getting fed some poached salmon, when I was with some anarchists doing ’shrooms discussing whether they were going to assassinate people and when that might happen.” She explains that “They are holding back violence until it is going to work at its maximum capacity,” and that—onscreen, Oakland occupiers take over a vacant warehouse: coming soon to a suburb near you—“that’s the next step, to occupy properties, and homes.”
Brandon Darby, who infiltrated the 2008 RNC protests for the FBI: “. . . the same old far left players who are part of what happened in New Orleans, the same old far-left players who are part of what happened in Seattle . . . arson . . . terroristic acts . . . Gaza flotillas . . . the convergence of all these disparate groups, let’s attack the United States strength through environmental policies, let’s attack the United States law enforcement, let’s attack the criminal justice system—everything came together for Occupy.”
Anita MonCrief, an African American woman who used to work for ACORN, explains why this list does not, yet, include any black people: “Because they’re being readied for part two. And that is race warfare.”
Now you, my dear fellow member of the Reality Based Community, remember what Occupy actually was: a lightning strike, a miracle, and a tragedy—the kind of uprising the left had been dreaming about for years after the banking system crashed itself then got the government to rescue it (that was why Bannon was able to collect so much footage of left-wing leaders saying Occupy-like things before the event); but which soon spent its promise by fetishizing the absence of organization and the controlling of public space as a perverse end in itself. Which was what allowed some of the encampments to become crime-riddled shit piles, a process hastened, in New York’s Zuccotti Park, when police began directing homeless people to camp there.
Ah, but that’s what they wanted you to believe. Here’s David Horowitz, the New Left leader turned right-winger. The left, he explains, “wants to create chaos. Because out of chaos, they can get power.”
Thus does the film palpitate toward its frenetic conclusion: Epileptic cross-cuts between the chaos of the late-stage Occupy marches and encampments and the violence in cities like Oakland, alternating with images of Stalin, Che, Fidel, and Mao; riots in, perhaps, South America; and the Black Panthers braying that it is “time to pick up the gun,” followed by a screaming 1960s SDSer: “We gotta build a strong base, and some day we’re gonna knock those motherfuckers who control this thing right on their ass.”
Then comes Horowitz again to explain how it is all going exactly according to plan. “The left learned one thing from the 1960s—from its failures in the ‘60s. And that is: don’t telegraph your goals. Don’t tell people that you want to overthrow the government, that you have been working to overthrow American civilization for 40 years. You pretend to be interested in issues. . . . Your goal has always been the same: to destroy a society that you’re alienated from, that you basically hate.”
The film ends with the testimony of a small businessman, “barely making ends meet,” who had the bad luck to get in the revolution’s way. You’re next.
To read it on the page in front of you, it can only seem perfectly ridiculous. You have to fill in the violent chaos of images in a way that—well, as Orwell did when he described the televised “Two Minutes Hate” in 1984.
The Hate rose to its climax. The voice of Goldstein had become an actual sheep’s bleat, and for an instant the face changed into that of a sheep. Then the sheep-face melted into the figure of a Eurasian soldier. Who seems to be advancing, huge and terrible, his submachine gun roaring, and seeming to spring out of the surface of the screen . . .
That movie ended with the words:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
This one ended with Andrew Breitbart crying with heroic earnestness to the riffraff all around him, “Stop the raping! Stop the raping!”
Andrew Breitbart is dead now: long live Andrew Breitbart. Donald Trump is Lord, and Steve Bannon is his prophet—with the U.S. Treasury at his disposal to tell fairy tales like this about anyone who dares cross him.
Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.