The new Frontline “Bannon’s War,” debuting on Tuesday night on PBS, looks at the rise and future of Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, who is the source of a new term in politics: “Bannonism.”
The documentary’s director, Michael Kirk, uses the term to describe the original travel ban, which led to a weekend of confusion and chaos, as well as the more pugnacious and even apocalyptic elements of President Trump’s speeches, starting with his reference to “American carnage” in his inaugural address.
The documentary shows how Bannon parlayed a career in Hollywood finance and later documentary filmmaking to that of building Breitbart News Network into an influential force in right-wing politics and later in the election of Trump.
Bannon’s stock fell for a bit, as Trump gave a Wall Street Journal interview in April in which he seemed to minimize Bannon’s role and there were reports of discord with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser. But Kirk says that Trump’s speech in Harrisburg, Pa. on April 29, Trump’s 100th day in office, was a signal that Bannon was on the rise again. The speech had the feel of a campaign rally, rousing the president’s loyal following with a series of attack lines. Whether Bannon has a long or short future at the White House, he’ll have a lasting influence on the Trump presidency.
Kirk talked to Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM recently about the making of “Bannon’s War.”
We seem to have a White House in crisis, in terms of all of the investigations. Where do you see Bannon in all of this, in terms of advising the president?
One of the things that we learned in the making of the film … is the extent to which there is kind of a ‘Bannonism,’ it is kind of woven through the fabric of this White House. And Bannonism, one element of it is ‘fight, fight, fight.’ Hit them a hundred times harder than they hit you. If ever there was a time when Bannonism was being called upon, it is right now in the face of these crises, both started by the White House and coming at the White House.
If you watch carefully, Bannon’s life story, always looking for crisis, really about disruption as this sort of heart and soul of what he wants to do, and certainly what drove him to Trump, and Trump to him, as these two fighters who love the idea of disruption as a sort of modus operandi. Well, boy, they have certainly accomplished that in what one person in our film calls the ‘kamikaze mission’ that Steve Bannon
was on in the earliest days of the White House. This is all about disruption, fighting and chaos, which is kind of his way of saying to Trump’s base, ‘This is what you brought us to town to do, and that is what we are doing.’
Some in Hollywood who worked with Bannon in the 1990s didn’t even see him as all that ideological. Where do you think it comes from?
He feels that the world is involved in a civilizational struggle, a sort of Muslim versus the JudeoChristian ethic. He really does see it in those black and white terms, and so the first thing I wanted to know where does that come from? A guy who grows up in Richmond, Va., and goes to Catholic school but his dad is a working class guy and they voted for Jack Kennedy — where does it all come from? And I think that some of it comes from his time in the Navy. He was in the Gulf of Oman when the hostages were taken in Iran. He saw Jimmy Carter, from his point of view, blow it, and the rescue mission failed and he adopted Ronald Reagan as his kind of hero. He made a documentary about him back in the Hollywood days. Then 9/11 came along and it just crystalized that feeling that he had going back to the Persian Gulf, and the moment with Iran that there really is this giant struggle. He had been reading a lot. He is a very bookish guy, reading dark, kind of apocalyptic books, and I think all of it kind of came together after 9/11, and he just decided he had to do something about it.
Did you ever have contact with him?
I have never met him. We often don’t interview the subject of our documentaries. We do these character-driven documentaries. We talk to as many people as we can who knew him, who were around him and of course some people have written books and cover him on a daily basis.
Meeting Steve Bannon is something I would really would like to do. I had hoped that we would at least be able to sit down and talk before we made the film but it didn’t turn out. He told one of our producers that he didn’t want to do it because he just knew that what the press was going to make him the Darth Vader character in any film that was made about him. I don’t think we did that, but it is hard not to do it given some of the things that have happened in his life and some of the things that he has caused to happen.
You even talk to one of his partners in making some of the documentary movies, and she was kind of surprised at the end result.
Julia Jones, she was his co-writer on a few of the films and worked with him and is a friend of his. She was just absolutely candid about how surprised she was to watch this metamorphosis happen to him. Everybody says he’s just incredibly charismatic and charming, and one could imagine that to be true, but the firming up of his politics as it moved further and further to the right, especially out in Hollywood, where there are all kinds of factions.
One of them was this sort of Andrew Breitbart world of a much more conservative group of people who were really all about the culture clash in Hollywood. When Bannon first moved in to that world from the movies and then across to Breitbart, and brought Brietbart to Washington to make it more politically focused, that transformation occurred, and Julia watched it happen….For her, she loves the guy, but at the same time he started to go to this really dark place and she was surprised by it.
Bannon struck me as very media savvy. Why don’t we see more public appearances?
You will see in the film what happened to him when he finally stepped out in Washington. He goes to the Conservative Political Action Conference. It is like he is taking a victory lap after that first month in the White House. And he gets a lot of press for it. We show scenes from “Saturday Night Live,” the cover Time magazine, essentially saying he was the president. A lot of tweets calling him President Bannon. And he saw, and so did everybody else in this White House, what happens when you eclipse or draw the spotlight away from Donald Trump the president.
After Trump selected him as chief strategist, there was a lot of focus on what Bannon had said and done and whether they had racial overtones or were anti-semitic. Do you think that was unfair?
We deal with some of it in the film, to try to get to the bottom of it.
Certainly Breitbart, when [Bannon] was running it, started to do a lot of things that you could argue were not politically correct. They had sections about black crime that focused on criminal behavior by black people. They had the same for what they called illegal aliens. Those comment sections, and we run some of them in the film, are very, very harsh and racist.
We talked to a lot of people who said Steve Bannon doesn’t seem to be overtly racist and anti-Semitic when you are with him and when you talk to him, especially if you spend some serious time with him, The Jewish people who worked for Breitbart told me … that they never saw any anti-Semitic behavior when they heard from Steve. On the other hand, others say the site he ran all this stuff, and the question is to what extent are you responsible for anti-Semitic and racist remarks that appear to be stoked by the headlines and the sections of a website that you run. That is really the fundamental question about Steve Bannon’s belief system, racist or non-racist.
Why do you think Bannon and Trump hit it off — are they a lot alike?
They are both extremely similar. They see themselves as self-made men, Bannon contends he made millions of dollars out in Hollywood. Trump likes that. They have swagger. They are fighters. They really hit it off in all those ways. And Bannon’s response is what Trump wants to hear: Hit them 100 times harder. After the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape it was Bannon who said, ‘Let’s get Clinton’s women. The people who said that Clinton had raped them and other horrible things.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Trump was 100% there, and I think every time, like now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Trump is relying on Bannon.