Politics & Policy

Steve Bannon’s Next Act

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon af a conference of Swiss weekly magazine Die Weltwoche in Zurich, Switzerland, March 6, 2018. (Moritz Hager/Reuters)
After an unceremonious fall from grace, the former Trump strategist pivots to the silver screen.

Remember Steve Bannon? After being forced to step down as White House chief strategist in August 2017, Bannon returned to Breitbart News, which he ran before taking over the Trump campaign. In the intervening months, his relationship with the president soured. Trump referred to his former employee as “Sloppy Steve” after Bannon called Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians during the 2016 campaign “treasonous.”

Having lost access to the White House, Bannon spent a few months in Europe organizing what he called “the Movement,” an initiative to bolster nationalism across the continent. Though populists saw gains in France, Italy, the U.K., and Hungary last year, most declined Bannon’s help in the 2019 European parliamentary elections. One of Bannon’s most stalwart allies, Marine Le Pen, said he “was playing no role in [her] campaign.” After discovering that most European nations bar foreigners from polling and contributing to campaigns, the Movement has since scaled down its operation. Meanwhile, Bannon attempted to start the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a right-wing answer to George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The plan went awry after Italy’s ministry of culture revoked the group’s lease on its intended headquarters, a monastery outside Rome. The group is challenging the decision in court.

Following these setbacks, Bannon has returned to the silver screen, familiar territory for the banker-turned-revolutionary who bankrolled his first film in 1991. Last year, he produced Trump@War, a documentary aimed at consolidating support for Republicans ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Last Saturday, his newest production, Claws of the Red Dragon, premiered on One America News Network, which Bannon calls “President Trump’s new favorite network.”

The film dramatizes the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei and daughter of its chief executive. Its 54 minutes revolve around a Chinese-Canadian Vancouver Post reporter covering the Meng arrest. It is an unmistakably low-budget affair, wherein members of the Chinese Politburo hatch schemes in dark, sparse rooms; a Canadian Huawei employee turns a blind eye to the company’s malfeasance in order to win a promotion; and Meng’s case gets delayed while she lives lavishly, out on bail. But it comes at an inflection point in America’s perception of China. Last week’s revelations of Chinese Communist party influence on American corporations — including the NBA, Disney, and Apple — have drawn the ire of the political class and the public at large.

This context partially explains the fawning reaction from the audience at the film’s private premiere at the Walt Disney screening room in New York on Thursday. But they didn’t exactly need convincing. Bannon boasted that those in attendance comprised “hawks and super-hawks.” (At least one-third were reporters.) Sporting his usual garb — a field jacket over two dark dress shirts — Bannon prefaced the film with remarks on America’s “economic war” with China.

In the two years since he left the White House, his rhetoric on China has not changed. America’s confrontation with China represents the “great geopolitical struggle of the 21st century.” Trump is not simply pushing to reform Chinese business practices; he is “defending the Westphalian nation-state system.” Referencing Thucydides, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great, Bannon argues that the Chinese have moved to “control the Eurasian landmass, control the naval chokepoints, and control the rim of Asia.” For the duration of the screening, our would-be Hephaestion clutched Unrestricted Warfare (1999), a book by two People’s Liberation Army colonels who outlined China’s strategy for military predominance.

After the film, Bannon emphasized the importance of using entertainment for political ends, quoting the late Andrew Breitbart’s mantra that “politics is downstream from culture.” Before becoming CEO of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, he produced a number of documentaries on what he sees as an epochal fight between the West and its enemies. The enemies include illegal immigration, Islam, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and now China. Bannon waxes poetic about galvanizing a popular movement against China, though it is not altogether clear how a 54-minute Canadian production gets us there.

After the film, Bannon courted a group of journalists. I asked him about Trump’s progress with China, the latest development of which is a partial deal that sidesteps America’s most pressing grievances. “I’m not a supporter of doing a small deal,” he says. Bannon believes that unless the president pushes for a complete victory, the Chinese will continue to renege on agreements. “As soon as [Chinese authorities] get back, the first thing they say is, ‘Well, we don’t know if we’re gonna do the purchases or not, we need the December tariffs removed, and we need another meeting,’” he argues, citing the preliminary stipulations of Friday’s agreement.

Bannon nonetheless wholeheartedly supports the Trump administration, claiming that the president has invigorated the American public and political class alike in the nation’s standoff with China. But underlying his rhetoric, and the tone of the film, is a rift between himself and policymakers larger than many onlookers realize. The president is the self-styled master of the deal, telling the press last week that an agreement “is going to be just fantastic for China and fantastic for the United States.” This would be a nightmarish outcome for Bannon. “For the hawks, we hope it’s not moving forward,” Bannon tells me. “We want to drive a stake in the ground.” In this Manichean, global struggle, there is a winner and a loser — nothing in between.

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