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December 19, 2018

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The Devil in Steve Bannon

Ejected from the White House, Steve Bannon won’t fade away. Not just yet.

He is in France, finding uncommon cause with Marine Le Pen. He is in Italy, cheering for an amateurish, fraudulent strain of populism there. He is in Hungary, whispering sweet nothings to Viktor Orban.

And he is in a Quonset hut in Boston, holding forth to Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris.

Morris’ new movie, “American Dharma,” is essentially one long, transfixing interview with Bannon, a key force in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and an intellectual godfather of Trumpism. The Quonset hut is a set constructed in homage to one of Bannon’s favorite movies, “Twelve O’Clock High,” about the efforts of U.S. pilots against the Nazis toward the start of the United States’ involvement in World War II.

Bannon has made his own documentaries — for example, “In the Face of Evil,” a tribute to Ronald Reagan, and “The Undefeated,” lionizing Sarah Palin — and was drawn to Morris partly out of admiration for his work. “American Dharma” uses Bannon’s commentary about movies as a framing device. He mentions that he first saw “Twelve O’Clock High” in business school at Harvard, that cradle of Davos-bound elites.

“American Dharma” will have its debut in a few weeks at the Venice Film Festival and should be more broadly available later in the year. Morris gave me a sneak peak of it, after which we talked. These are edited excerpts from our telephone conversation on the morning after Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s guilty plea.

How many hours did you spend with Bannon?

The interview itself was roughly 16 hours. But, of course, I spent other time with him shooting visuals.

And was he utterly available and happy to cooperate?

Yes.



Did he try to feel you out at all about what political perspective you’d be coming from or have any fears about that?

I don’t think that he had fears about that. He’s a honey badger.



Sorry?

Honey badgers don’t care.



I also had the feeling, watching him in the movie, and I’ve had this feeling watching him elsewhere, that he’s a creature of extraordinary vanity, and you were giving him a microphone. Is that fair?

I think that is more than fair.



Is Steve Bannon an earnest ideologue or is he a cynical and grandiose opportunist?

It’s the big question. And everybody, including myself, wants a pie graph. They want to be able to say what percentage is ideologue, what percentage is snake-oil salesman. And I’m not sure I can answer the question. We all know that being an effective salesman is coming to believe in what you’re selling. You know, I like to think that the human capacity for credulity is unlimited, unfettered. But the human capacity for self-deception — the ultimate self-credulity — is also unfettered, unlimited. I look at him and I think to myself: You can’t really believe this stuff. And yet, for all intents and purposes, he does.



Which stuff do you find it hardest to believe he believes?

I find it hardest to believe that he thinks that Donald Trump is an honest man. I find it hard to believe that he thinks that Donald Trump is enabling populist programs. How is this tax cut or the attempt to roll back capital gains taxes — how does that benefit the people? Is allowing all kinds of industrial pollution populism? I could go on and on.

I try making fun of him. You know, he was reading a book about tariffs and China and the Great Wall. And I said to him, “You know, the wall really worked in China.” He said, “How’s that?” I said, “No Mexicans.”



Did he laugh?

That time he didn’t. Once, I told him I was in favor of the wall during our interview. And he said, “How’s that?” And I said, “Because I’m planning to leave this country, and the wall is the only thing that is going to keep those crazy American killers and rapists out of Mexico.”

I shouldn’t talk this way, but I have such underlying contempt for so much of this.

“Build the wall.” Do you really, really think that the wall is going to be a solution to unemployment for the middle class? Do you really, really, really think that’s the panacea for what ails us?



Did you — and I ask this sincerely because the verb has many meanings — enjoy your time with Bannon?

Yeah. I’m appalled by Bannon, but I like him.



Explain that paradox.

It gave me the opportunity to read a lot of stuff and watch a lot of stuff and think about a lot of stuff. I mean, I went to the set one day. Set decorators always have odds and ends that they keep in order to scatter around a set to make it look more realistic. Example: old books. And one of the old books was a copy of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” And I started reading it on set between takes. I finally said to him, “You know, I’ve been reading ‘Paradise Lost’ again. And that Lucifer character — he seems Bannon-esque.”

And he starts laughing with enormous pleasure. And he says that Lucifer is the most interesting character in “Paradise Lost.” And then I quote him the line, “Better to reign in Hell,” and he finishes it for me, “than serve in Heaven.” How many people that I interview embrace a comparison of themselves with Satan?

He’s well read. He is obviously smart. But when you examine the philosophy, it’s just — calling it incoherent or inchoate is too kind. It’s just a mess: a mess of stuff from here, from there, a little bit of the Crusades, a little bit of Thucydides there, some crazy, Catholic, right-wing theology. Add a dash of movies.



Your framing device of using those different movies and having him look at them and comment — why that?

Bannon picked these movies. I did not. Bannon picked “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Bannon picked “Chimes at Midnight.” Bannon picked “Twelve O’Clock High.” All of those movies are movies that he wanted to talk about, and I obliged.



I find myself surprised that he was introduced to “Twelve O’Clock High” at Harvard Business School and reveres it so, because it seems like everything else about Harvard Business School, he detests. Am I missing something?

It’s hard to believe. I mean, how many times have I heard this phrase, “the party of Davos”? “The party of Davos wants this.” “The party of Davos wants that.” “The liberal elite wants this.” “The liberal elite wants that.” Well, he’s part of it. He may pretend that he isn’t, but he’s part of it, clearly.



I feel like if we had a nanny cam on his past, we would see a moment when there was some sort of humiliation or rejection by that liberal elite that would help us understand better his fury. Do you feel that way?

I agree completely.



Do you have a better sense today than you did, say, a year and a half ago of what went wrong for Democrats and Hillary Clinton in 2016?

Yes, I do. I did not have an understanding of the degree to which Hillary Clinton was hated, most certainly by the right, and how hard they were working to undermine her campaign. Again, it’s like a perfect storm. Bannon, talking about the Clinton campaign’s neglect of American workers — I think he’s right. He makes a big speech about jobs versus identity politics. I think he’s right.

And then this strange confluence of events involving Huma Abedin, James Comey, Anthony Weiner — it’s like bad Shakespeare.

It’s such a twisted, twisted election. That’s such an understatement. I have my own — and I got into an argument with Bannon about this — view of history. Call it my perverse view of history. I don’t see great wheels turning and endless repetitions of cycles. My version of history is a history of caprice, a history of unintended consequences, of horrendous results from very minor antecedents or seemingly minor antecedents. My version of the 2016 election: Who would have thought that one man’s irrepressible desire to photograph his penis and to share that with women on the internet could destroy Western civilization?



You are speaking of Weiner?

None other. Who would have thought that such a thing could end the world as we know it?



You really think it’s ending the world as we know it?

Time will tell. But the world seems in pretty ragged shape at the moment.

The question is: How resilient is our democracy? Was de Tocqueville right that we would just disappear into silos of self-congratulation and self-interest, or can we hope for something better?



Do you think, a couple of years from now, Bannon’s going to be this very curious footnote, this sort of one-off? Or do you think we’re going to be reckoning with what he’s peddling and what he represents for a good, long while?

I have to distinguish what I hope for versus what I really think will happen. I hope all of this is a very bad memory soon: Trump, Bannon, national populism, etc. In one respect, I do agree with Bannon. And I told him so. I grew up in the ’50s. My mother was an elementary school teacher. My father died when I was 2, and my mother brought up my brother and myself. She took care of everybody, having practically no money, no insurance money from my father’s death.

And I often think, “Could she have done that today?” And the answer is no. I don’t think she could have. There is greater and greater inequality, economic inequality, income and otherwise, in the United States. And I think it’s a very, very bad thing. And I think Bannon is right — that it will have terrible consequences in the long run.

So what do you do about it? I don’t think you do what the Trump administration is doing, because that’s not addressing any of this stuff. It’s a joke.



So he’s got his finger on the right problem, he’s just not offering the right solution?

He has his finger on one of the right problems but is offering no solutions. I mean, his solution, more or less, is a destructive, malicious solution. Burn it down. Destroy it.



After spending all this time and thinking harder about him than most of us, how scary do you find him, and in what ways?

I find him very scary because of his seeming appeal to people, if only to various autocrats around the world; his ability to get attention for himself (and, admittedly, I’m part of it); the idea that he can just say all of these things and be taken seriously, even halfway seriously.

Here he is around the world peddling this stuff — sovereignty. “Let’s get our sovereignty back,” whatever that means. Saying things on one day and saying the absolute opposite on another. Claiming he’s not a racist or none of these policies are racially motivated and yet appearing with Marine Le Pen saying: Wear your xenophobia, your racism, your nativism, as a badge of honor. And he can say that this isn’t racism, but I think it is.



If you had to sketch out the trajectory of this presidency moving forward — after the guilty plea by Michael Cohen and verdict on Paul Manafort — what’s your best guess?

That things are going to change. I can be hopeful about midterms and 2020.

I don’t care about the 2016 election anymore. I do care about the future, and the future of this country. Why did I make the movie? Because I wanted to contribute something to the political debate ongoing. I’m worried but hopeful.



What made you decide to focus it on Bannon?

Because, like Lucifer in “Paradise Lost,” he’s the most interesting character.

You know, I asked him: “No Bannon. No Trump?” And, of course — of course — he agreed. That’s the story. The story is how Stephen K. Bannon put Trump in the White House. That Trump was this — the terms that he uses, “this blunt instrument,” “this armor-piercing shell.”



The terms for Trump, you mean.

Terms for Trump, who had no ideas, really, but ideas that Bannon poured into this vessel.

I was just thinking — talking to you about the 2016 election, I could see how it happened. What I can’t really understand is what happened to America after 2016 and the election. I can’t understand the wholesale abandonment of American values by so many, many, many, many people. That I can’t understand. And that I find horrifying and depressing.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.