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Great White Hype

A rising pundit class makes Bannonism sound respectable

The late-career arc of Steve Bannon, Washington insider, was by any measure a supreme anticlimax. Bannon, you may recall, was unceremoniously nudged out of the White House back in the late summer, and in lieu of easing into a lucrative lobbying job or academic sinecure he resumed his prior office as head of the right-wing nationalist website Breitbart News. Given the speed of his ouster, and that the fallback gig for a once-trusted presidential adviser was editing his old crypto-fascist blog, it would be easy to forget that the press only recently stopped treating him like an evil supergenius. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that Time magazine described him as “the great manipulator” and asked in a long cover story whether he was “the second most powerful man in the world.”

By the time Bannon graced Time’s cover in February 2017, references to his capacious reading list had already become mandatory in any profile of the man. But Time editor-at-large David Von Drehle was relatively succinct in his overview of the Bannon library, confining himself to a couple of paragraphs about how his subject had been “captivated by a book called The Fourth Turning, by generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe.” Von Drehle did not mention, as others have, that Bannon reads Thucydides. Nor did he assemble an entire syllabus out of books that Bannon has mentioned or been associated with; he left that to Politico and the Washington Post.

Thanks to the hard work of such publications, the most frequently reported Steve Bannon fact is that he reads a lot of books. More important, he reads a lot of dense, challenging, highbrow books. Did you know, for example, that Bannon has read “an esoteric Italian philosopher” named Julius Evola? Or that his familiarity with Roman history is such that he feels comfortable making a “fairly obscure reference” to the Gracchi? Did you know that through his fairly esoteric consumption of fairly obscure literature, Bannon has come to see politics and policy in terms of their place in the broader arc of history?”

Bannon has a professional showman’s gift for cultivating this aura of profundity—a reliable calling card for pseudo-intellectuals of the right ever since the similarly ill-starred rise of Newt Gingrich to the summit of legislative power in the mid-1990s. And as was the case during that long-ago, almost quaint-seeming “Republican Revolution,” the explanatory pretensions of our national press have proven a critical resource for on-the-make blood-and-soil big thinkers of the Bannon ilk.

Bannon assuredly will be far from the last professional bigot to reap unearned intellectual cachet from a revenue-starved and idea-deficient media. That’s why his methods demand close attention: they’re an object lesson in how crackpot racism can acquire elite respectability, and even scholarly gravitas, if properly framed for credulous pundits. Even now that the Trump administration has sloughed off Steve Bannon, a legion of pseudo-Bannons and mini-Bannons are scrambling to replicate his success. And the man himself, absent state power, continues to garner the sort of press most of his colleagues only dream of; case in point, Bannon and his crackpot white-nationalist shtick recently headlined Politico’s list of the “50 Ideas Blowing Up American Politics.”

So how did this particular great white bloviator manage to sell himself as an ideas man of the first order? As Trump’s campaign manager, and later top adviser, Bannon liked to pepper his on-the-record interviews with grand generalities about history and the state. He spoke elliptically, as if concealing something important yet beyond the understanding of his interrogators. And he frequently invoked a wide range of historical figures—Lenin, Franz Ferdinand, Thomas Cromwell, the Gracchi brothers—with a studied casualness.

The results, to judge by early Trump administration coverage, were stunning. Perhaps Bannon’s most successful foray into media respectability was a deep tissue massage of a profile from Michael Wolff in The Hollywood Reporter shortly after the 2016 election. It was in this sycophantic piece that Bannon famously compared himself to Darth Vader and suggested the president-elect’s narrow victory had been the result of a brilliant strategy of misdirection and non-linear warfare—executed, of course, by Bannon himself. To Wolff’s credulous eyes, even the chaos of the transition appeared to have been part of a fiendishly clever master plan. That’s why the Darth Vader analogy sort of works: in the eyes of his admirers (reluctant and otherwise), Bannon draws his power from both secret knowledge and ineffable coolness. In this sense, and in this sense alone, he really is a jedi of the dark side.

We can draw some hope, though, in noting that the most comprehensive work to date on Bannon’s relationship with Trump mostly avoids this trap. Though publicity for Devil’s Bargain, the fine book from Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Joshua Green, has leaned hard on the Bannon-as-mastermind narrative, and Green himself occasionally exaggerates the power of his subject, he never indulges in the hyperbole of more credulous Bannon-ologists. The worst that can be said of Green is that he somewhat overdraws the distinction between Bannon’s “populist nationalism” and the more overt white supremacism of his fellow travelers.

In the main, though, Green manages to chip away at some of the Bannon mystique. Yes, Bannon has read books, and yes his ideological quirks turned out to be surprisingly effective in the context of a presidential campaign; but he has also aligned himself with obvious crackpots like Sarah Palin and engaged in a succession of failed business ventures. Plus, the turbulent early months of the Trump presidency demonstrated that he “seemed to run out of magic tricks once Hillary Clinton was no longer a target.” The reference to magic tricks is revealing; the protagonist of Devil’s Bargain is less a genuine sorcerer than a talented huckster with a gift for felicitous timing.

The Hateful Pedant

As other writers have observed, Bannon’s greatest magic trick—captivating reporters with his command of Western history, philosophy, and literature—isn’t even all that impressive. Far from a renaissance man, Bannon is a gifted fraudster who patched together just enough half-remembered graduate coursework to enchant those around him. The Gracchi are only “fairly obscure” to those who don’t know anything about late republican Rome; and when Bannon called himself a Leninist, it was impressive mainly to those who have only the most superficial acquaintance with Lenin.

The quintessential distillation of Bannon’s intellectual approach comes from a quote he gave to the New York Times Magazine back when he was still in the West Wing: “What’s that Dostoyevsky line: Happy families are all the same, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique ways?” Not only did Bannon misattribute (and slightly disfigure) the first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but it’s unclear why he felt the quote was necessary in context; its only intended purpose seemed to be reminding everyone that the speaker is familiar with works of Russian literature.

Bannon’s pyrotechnic displays of fake learning belong to a genre one might describe as Wikipedia white nationalism: the padding of moronic, hateful beliefs with the minimum of erudition that can be gleaned by skimming a Wikipedia page. It’s a common tic among stupid racists who fancy themselves scholars (see also: Iowa Rep. Steve King’s natterings about the Ottoman Empire, the NSC memo that got Bannon ally Rich Higgins fired, and Sebastian Gorka’s entire doctoral dissertation). But Bannon, who is not quite stupid, is a true master of the form—and his success in hoodwinking the national political press offers an instructive parable about pathologies of the news industry that will, alas, long outlast Bannon’s own tour in the national political spotlight.

As a media impresario in his own right, Bannon is a talented enough self-promoter to instinctively grasp what journalists want from him. He was also smart enough to recognize their favorite tropes, and so he fashioned a public image to fit them.

Bannon’s methods demand close attention: they’re an object lesson in how crackpot racism can acquire elite respectability, and even scholarly gravitas, if properly framed for credulous pundits.

Small wonder, then, that in Bannon’s first major post-White House press interview—with the terminally impressionable Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes—the incorrigible press-baiter said he feels the media’s coverage of him as “a streetfighter” who rose to national prominence was “pretty accurate.” Bannon knows when his uncritical press rivals have been good and gulled. As Green put it in a July interview with Slate: “The public image of the dark Oz figure behind the curtain is something he knowingly cultivates.”

“The dark Oz figure” is a good way of describing Bannon’s public persona. A kindred descriptor would be the mystical philosopher: someone who has imbibed special, esoteric knowledge about the inner workings of the universe, and therefore exists on a higher plane of understanding than other mortals. When mystical philosophers speak publicly, their remarks often seem either elliptical or downright incomprehensible; they cite books that you, the reader, have never read. These occasional lapses into obscurantism, in addition to demonstrating how brilliant they are, give them a certain eccentric magnetism. Needless to say, almost all mystical philosophers are white men.

And while an Oz figure is a humiliated fraud, more or less by definition, mystical philosophers occupy an honored—if also a squishy-to-shady—position in the ecosystem of ideas. Indeed, there is, for similarly on-the-make journalists a comforting familiarity to the figure. The mystical philosopher is similar in many respects to the wonk, though the latter tends to fetishize data rather than metaphysical ruminations. Still, both tropes are useful to journalists for overlapping reasons. These labels may not accurately describe real human beings, but they make it easier for writers to engage in a complicated dance of social positioning—one that validates both mystic thinkers and their media interlocutors in the court of public opinion.

The Status Anxiety of the Lonely Twitter Drone

Being a journalist—especially one who works in online political news—is inherently awkward. To survive the digital opinion jungle, one must be able to project sage omniscience even in the face of professional irrelevance. Structural shifts in the industry have left a large and growing number of writers in something close to a perpetual identity crisis. Their work has become both high status and ruinously devalued; it relies on the appearance of authority, but journalism has no formal accreditation process to screen for expertise. The social economy of journalism is based on fame, but even the most successful practitioners tend only to be “famous” among their peers. And though many of the journalists who cover national politics came from relatively privileged roots, they tend to be downwardly mobile. They’re the Ivy League philosophy majors who didn’t go to law school.

Yet there is always the specter of professional reinvention within the porous boundaries of journalistic work in the digital age. The richer, more accomplished cousin of the journalist is a social type we’ll call the thought leader—and it can be a restorative half skip on the career ladder for journalists themselves to acquire thought-leader status. This explains the otherwise thoroughly baffling renown of a wide array of journalistic pseudo-thinkers, from Thomas Friedman and David Brooks to Fareed Zakaria and Joe Scarborough.

Mystical philosophers and wonks are both thought leaders of sorts. Like journalists, they are knowledge workers, broadly speaking; they also tend to come from a similar class background. But the work of the median thought leader is more prestigious than that of the median journalist, and the rewards tend to be greater. That’s because journalists are merely expected to be proficient in a subject area, whereas thought leaders are thought to be masters. To be a thought leader is to be an expert—even if like, say, Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, you are leading nothing more than an enormous storehouse of overvalued capital.

Being a thought leader is also more remunerative, on average. Greater prestige means greater career stability. It also means book deals, speaking gigs, consulting fees, and tenure. The pace of the work is often (though not always) healthier.

To be sure, “thought leader” is a blurrier label than journalist. The latter term refers to both a social category and a profession; the former describes a social category that encompasses people in many professions. In fact, many thought leaders inhabit the top socioeconomic tier of the journalism industry. Others dabble in journalism, one project for them among many.

In fact, the porous boundary separating thought leaders and journalists is what renders each profession susceptible to cross-infiltration. Given the right combination of hard work, canniness, and luck, it is possible for a journalist to graduate to thought-leader status. This usually means becoming a pundit or commentator— someone like Ezra Klein (a journalist-wonk) or the late Christopher Hitchens (a journalist-mystic). Here Bannon’s own professional saga is once more instructive. He first rose to prominence in the media industry and has now returned to it since his ignominious departure from the Trump administration—albeit with a renewed dedication to the project of waging political “war” against his own White House detractors.

Of course, as a bona fide thought leader of the right, Bannon long ago won a war that still roils the careers of many ambitious journalists. Very few journalists can truly describe themselves as members of the thought-leader caste, and the competition to join its ranks is nothing short of vicious. This has become doubly true in the long hangover from the recent digital media gold rush. During that boom, a panoply of news startups turned recent college graduates into career national politics reporters—only to close up shop and force them onto the open labor market a few years later. Never before have so many people described themselves as journalists while scrambling to occupy a dwindling share of jobs in the field.

From Platform to Pedestal

But as the news media has consolidated and the role of thought leader has fallen even further out of most writers’ grasp, something strange has happened: new publishing platforms and editorial strategies have made it easier for even the most status-poor journalist to play at thought leadership. For that, you can thank the advent of blogging and, later, microblogging on Twitter.

By making it possible to find an audience and publish content without the oversight of an editor or employer, blogging platforms created a whole new set of professional incentives. Once, journalists could only build a professional reputation once they were employed in the field; now they can cultivate a following, establish a valuable brand, and, with luck, convert that asset into a job.

Given the right combination of hard work, canniness, and luck, it is possible for a journalist to graduate to thought-leader status.

The most effective brand curation tactic involves finding a unique “voice”: a set of distinctive stylistic markers and personalized opinions.

Thus the game that thought leaders have always played in order to magnify their own influence has turned into a strategy that lay practitioners can use to secure recognition or employment in the knowledge economy. At the same time, more publishers and entrepreneurs came to realize that “voice” was among the news industry’s most cost-effective traffic drivers, especially when it wasn’t confined to the opinion pages. In some cases, a compelling voice and an hour of work could yield more unique impressions on a post than weeks of dogged reporting.

This shift has proved crucial, for one simple reason: blogs and social media have changed how journalists conceive of their audience. It turns out that on platforms like Twitter, the most powerful way to disseminate content is by getting “influencers”—usually other journalists—to share it with their considerable followings. This leads journalists to write, essentially, for each other. The profession has long had an insular, guild-like quality to it, but competition to gain retweeted renown within that insular network has now become a de facto business model for any journalism outlet seeking to maximize its traffic. For an aspiring thought leader, the ideal product is a tweeted aperçu that cements his own intellectual credentials while also providing some second-hand reputational benefits to colleagues who retweet it.

This is where the tacit social contract of Bannonite co-dependency comes into play. The challenge for a journalist who aspires to thought leadership—besides persistent economic insecurity—is that he (and here again, it is, with depressing predictability, almost always a “he”) usually doesn’t have the expertise to critically engage with difficult subjects, much less craft novel arguments about them. He’s best served if he can attach himself to the work of others, and position himself as someone who can interpret that work for a wider readership. In that way, he demonstrates his mastery of the source material to his bosses and colleagues alike, who will then use his content to bolster their own positions within the knowledge economy.

The thought leader, and especially the mystical philosopher, is at the center of this project. He provides the material that journalists can rework to their own purposes, in a social dance that assumes a handful of different forms. A journalist might try to present himself as a sympathetic equal of the mystical philosopher or a devoted apostle. Alternately, he might cast himself as the mystic’s worthy nemesis. Or he might simply endeavor to explain the thought leader’s gnomic pronouncements, as if he alone is learned enough to unpack them. In any case, he draws intellectual capital from the mystical philosopher in exchange for popular recognition and the credibility that accompanies it. The journalist holds up a flattering mirror to the thought leader; and then he flatters himself by pretending to see his own distorted reflection in his subject.

Watching this dynamic play out is tedious, but it also has the potential to be genuinely dangerous. When journalists treat men like Bannon as if they are serious thinkers, they lend undeserved public legitimacy to a racist, conspiratorial, anti-democratic ideology. Intentionally or not, they allow themselves to be used as a white nationalist recruiting tool. And in the process, they inadvertently empower thugs like the man who murdered Heather Heyer during last summer’s “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville.

A key part of fascism’s appeal is its aura of mystique: the sense that its adherents have won some esoteric knowledge about the way the world really works. By fitting Bannon into this mystical philosopher trope, journalists implicitly testified to the truth of the sales pitch. To his all-too-genuine political influence, they added an intellectual allure that was never anything more than clever branding.

The Milo-High Club

Usually the transactional nature of these exchanges is discreet and implicit. So credit is due to Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein, who in October published a series of emails between Bannon, his crypto-fascist-chic protégé Milo Yiannopoulos, some overt Nazis, and a handful of ostensibly more mainstream journalists like Mitchell Sunderland, then a senior staff writer for Broadly, Vice’s section aimed at women readers. (Sunderland was fired not long after the Buzzfeed story went live.) Bernstein’s story was a tremendous piece of reporting; it demonstrated how Yiannopoulos solicited ideas and editorial input from outright neo-Nazis, diluted it enough to merit publication on Breitbart, and cultivated the affection—or at least approval-seeking acquaintanceship—of wannabe thought-leaders at outlets with liberal readerships. Yiannopoulos, unlike Bannon, can’t convincingly feign blinding genius, so he relies more on bad-boy insouciance; but in most other respects his emails with reporters at Broadly, Slate, and elsewhere were emblematic of how people like Bannon seduce the intellectually insecure. And of course, the emails in Bernstein’s story show Bannon behind the scenes, shaping the efforts of Yiannopoulos to translate white supremacist ideas into something that can slip into more respectable publications.

More marginal figures like Richard Spencer have also had some limited success at this game. Though he could never match Bannon for good press—his more overt white nationalism foreclosed that option—credulous journalists nonetheless treated him like a far more influential and serious figure than he actually is. His vanity project, the National Policy Institute, routinely gets described as a “think tank” even though it appears to have virtually no staff.

Even more insidiously, the warm glow of mainstream praise can provide some major hatemongers with bona fide crossover appeal, provided they’re savvy enough to limit their white nationalist pronouncements to dog whistles.

When journalists treat men like Bannon as if they are serious thinkers, they lend undeserved public legitimacy to a racist, conspiratorial, anti-democratic ideology.

Thus, in an ill-timed flourish of hate-enabling, the center-left pundit Peter Beinart wrote a piece for The Atlantic in July that applauded Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show as extraordinary” and “intellectually interesting,” even as the cable news host was going out of his way to air commentary that earned the approbation of white supremacist figures like David Duke. Given Carlson’s vile response to the bloodshed in Charlottesville (“What will [the left] feel empowered to destroy next,“ Carlson thundered after a historically illiterate survey of slave ownership in the West), one wonders if Beinart still finds him extraordinary. Neither Spencer nor Carlson is a mystical philosopher in the strict sense, yet they both aspire to a certain amount of intellectual cachet, and find their efforts rewarded with alarming frequency.

The Krein Game

Last—and almost certainly least—is poor Julius Krein, the fresh-faced Harvard philosophy major who launched American Affairs in February to give “intellectual heft and coherence to the amorphous ideology known, for lack of a better term, as Trumpism,” as a warm writeup in the New York Times arts section once put it. For a few months after the journal’s launch, it seemed that Krein might have staked out valuable social real estate as the pro-Trump intellectual who could make himself palatable to New Yorker subscribers. But his attempt to mix Tucker Carlson’s politics with Hendrik Hertzberg’s social respectability soon proved untenable; he could only elide the white supremacist overtones in Trump-style nationalism for so long. After Charlottesville, he wrung the last droplets of publicity out of his shtick by publicly breaking with Trump in an op-ed for—where else?—the New York Times.

Luckily, Krein’s only marks had always been the denizens of the Manhattan cocktail party circuit. People like Bannon and Carlson are more dangerous because their market share stretches far beyond the ideal-type of the comfortably indulgent Manhattanites who can spend their Friday evenings at debates between rival political journals—or their Sunday mornings pondering the alleged excesses of identitarian liberalism in the company of bad-faith critics like Mark Lilla.

But in playing at the insidious conversion of professional racists into thought leaders, the Paper of Record is, like the media industry at large, subverting its own democratic mission. Which is why we can be quite confident that, wherever Steve Bannon may land next, his progeny will remain above the fold in the Style section.

It is possible to take white nationalism seriously as a malignant force and accurately chart its ideological tributaries without granting its pretensions to intellectual sophistication. That’s exactly what groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center do. And some journalists have done an excellent job of accurately classifying Bannon in particular. Case in point: Ezekial Kweku’s deconstruction of the “evil genius” mythology that surrounds him, and Quinta Jurecic’s analysis of Bannon as an internet troll. Perhaps coincidentally, neither Kweku nor Jurecic is a white man.

But taking the measure of savvy operators like Bannon is hard. It requires a level of cognitive exertion that doesn’t always come naturally when deadlines are looming and a precooked narrative is already at hand. And it demands at least a small measure of social fearlessness: the willingness to stick with prosaic reality, even when that does little to advance one’s position within the fierce status game that has come to define voice-driven political coverage. In effect, it requires a different idea of what journalism is supposed to be. The question facing journalism’s practitioners is whether they want to perform honest yet undervalued work, or keep clawing their way toward membership in a privileged fraternity that will probably never admit them.