A Q&A with journalist Jennifer Senior about her new profile of Trumpism’s key propagandist — and where things may be headed next.
If you had to rank the people most responsible for the Trumpist turn in American politics, Steve Bannon would land pretty high on that list.
Bannon hasn’t been in a position of formal power since the summer of 2017, when he stepped down as Trump’s chief strategist (or was fired — it depends who you ask), but he still lurks in the shadows of President Joe Biden’s Washington. Just this week, he set off push alerts when he announced that he would be willing to testify in front of the January 6 House committee — a proceeding that he has relentlessly hammered for weeks.
A few years ago, Steve Bannon was the subject of plenty of media fascination. He went from running the conservative propaganda website Breitbart News to becoming the CEO of the first Trump campaign in August 2016. He then served in the White House as chief strategist but lasted only seven months in that role.
Since 2019, he’s been hosting a podcast called War Room, and it is hugely influential. Every day, from the basement of a Washington, DC, townhouse referred to as “the Breitbart Embassy,” he broadcasts his thoughts, live and unedited, for four hours a day. He has been one of the most effective propagandists for Trump and the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Bannon speaks, and a ton of people listen — which is why Bannon has become a person of interest for the January 6 committee, and why I believe we can’t fully understand this political moment without also understanding what he’s been up to.
That’s why I invited Jennifer Senior onto a recent episode of Vox Conversations to discuss Bannon. Senior is a Pulitzer-Prize winning staff writer at the Atlantic and the author of a recent feature on Bannon and his influence called “American Rasputin.” She was given plenty of access to Bannon and his associates — so much so that, in the piece itself, she wonders: Am I being used?
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Let’s start with a basic question: Who is Steve Bannon really?
Steve Bannon was, if you were going to assign responsibility to anyone, I would say the most responsible for getting Trump elected. He came in in 2016 and took a floundering campaign at the 11th hour and he made the campaign viable. No one thought he could do it. I’m not sure he thought he could do it.
What he also is is the guy who has given intellectual texture and firmness to a Trump philosophy, because there never really was an articulated Trump philosophy. He’s given it its contours. He’s done the best job of articulating what Trumpism is, which includes sweeping in the Big Lie as one of its foundational ideas, but also a kind of economic populism, an economic nationalism.
And I think he’s a dangerous force in American politics, in that he is the number one roaring outboard motor of disinformation in the United States right now.
So you do buy this idea that this whole Trump era, this national nightmare, wouldn’t be possible without Bannon laying the foundations for what would become Trumpism with sites like Breitbart?
I mean, others would certainly have done it. I think he gives everyone the best, crispest talking points. He’s the best at capturing Trumpism distilled, giving everyone the songs to sing, the hymns to sing from.
We ignore him at our own peril, if for no other reason than what he does is, he’s really in the business of moving the Overton window and mainstreaming unacceptable ideas. And he’s very, very good at that.
We’re obviously talking against the backdrop of these January 6 hearings. I am curious what you think the significance of that event was for Bannon. Was that kind of like the culmination of his work, of all the foundation-laying he’s been doing over these last several years? I was listening to some clips of his podcast on January 5. I don’t know to what extent he was involved in preparations or planning or plotting or whatever, but he knew what was coming, and he clearly welcomed it and celebrated it.
So, I might eat my words, but what I would say is that he often speaks with a lot of machismo and extra habanero about “all hell is gonna break loose,” “this is gonna be epic,” ”our people are ready!”
But then he means that they’re ready to man the phones. And that they’re ready to tweet. He’s such a dervish of chaos that I don’t know if I would necessarily say that he was responsible in any logistical way for January 6. But he was one of the architects, surely, of the legislative insurrection, which he was very invested in. And more to the point, I think he was responsible for organizing the energy behind it.
Right. That’s what I’m thinking of.
Yeah. In that way, I do think that you can.
So Steve Bannon’s podcast is really interesting, in that it’s not entertainment. It is a show that is explicitly aimed at energizing the Trump base. And it’s there to inflame. He’s there to be a televangelist. And he does things that televangelists do. He rouses his audience and he sort of gets them going through a mixture of praise and attaboys and attagirls and inspirational messaging.
And he says to them, “You can make a difference. Use your agency.” He has all these little catchphrases. “Put your shoulder to the wheel.” “Be a force multiplier.”
And every single guest who comes on his show provides their own testimonial, their own success story: “I didn’t think that I could be a local activist, but then I discovered that I could. And here’s how, and here are the phone numbers to call.” And at the end of every segment, he ends by saying, “How can our audience reach you? How can they find you? What’s your Twitter handle? What’s your Gettr handle? What’s your website?”
And what we learned from January 6 is you don’t need that many people to breach a capitol. A few thousand people can create total havoc. So the fact that Steve Bannon might not be as popular as say, Ben Shapiro, or Joe Rogan, is not what matters in this case. It’s how motivated his audience is, even if it’s smaller.
Well, it’s interesting that you use the word televangelist there. When I think of a televangelist, I think of a bullshit artist, I think of a religious entrepreneur.
Do you think he is just a complete grifter? I mean, I honestly don’t know if he’s a revolutionary or just a well-financed shitposter. I guess I’m asking if you think he really believes in what he’s doing. I think he knows when he’s full of shit, but the question is, does he see it as a means to some noble end or is it just the grift and nothing besides?
It’s the best question. And it’s what I set out to answer.
The problem is that when somebody is as practiced at bullshitting as he is, the answer in some ways has to be both. Because you can’t have two sets of books for very long without, in some way, trying to intellectually reconcile them, so that you’ve only lied once. And then afterwards you believe your own lie. I think that that might just be the psychology of grifting.
We know that he’s living very lavishly, thanks to others. He’s got houses all over the place. He’s partial to nice hotels. When he was trying to get the European populist nationalist movement off the ground, he stayed in all these fabulous luxury suites financed by others. He takes private jets that are owned by others. The Mercers underwrote him.
So I think it’s kind of not a choice. It might be both.
What is interesting is, if you ask anybody around Steve, if you ask the people who know him and who like him, does he truly believe that the election was stolen? The number who will say, yes… Did anyone say yes to me, now that I think about it? Oh my God. I mean, so many people, if they’re trying to protect him, they’ll say they don’t know.
No smart people, no people who live within the Beltway who know how politics works, no one who really knows anything about elections believes this election was stolen. That’s the bottom line.
And the January 6 hearings played this out.
To your credit — and this is something I’ve wrestled with, because I’ve written about Bannon — I wonder if people like you and I have made him appear more important than he really is. If merely by talking about him, we’re doing his bidding.
You play with the idea that Bannon was using you in your piece. And I mean, on some level, the answer has to be, yes, because he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t think he was getting something out of it. Now, maybe he’s wrong about whatever he thinks he’s getting, but he must think he’s getting something out of it.
What do you think he got out of this? What do you think he thinks he got out of this, out of allowing you that kind of access?
Honestly, I think that he, in some ways, he has the same desire for mainstream coverage and mainstream respectability as his boss. It’s as simple as that. He’ll take any opportunity to own the libs. He keeps his television [on] all day long, all it runs is MSNBC.
He can claim that we’re all very obsessed with Donald Trump and that he lives in our heads, rent-free. But the problem is we live in his head rent-free, too. He’s obsessed with us. He really is. And having MSNBC on all day long is really evidence of something quite profound. He thinks the Atlantic is an important destination, and that it’ll sort of widen his ambit a little bit.
And let me just say this: I don’t feel like I’m doing something dangerous in platforming him. We’re a little bit past that naive argument. Exposure is not an endorsement. Exposure is journalism. And Steve Bannon is doing what Steve Bannon is doing whether we pay attention to him or not, whether we stick our fingers in our ears and cover our eyes or not.
What he is doing is providing the most radical set of talking points for the Republican Party. He is a font of disinformation. And he’s got a very active audience that will go out and use this disinformation.
And most important: He’s very committed to the precinct strategy. He is getting people precinct by precinct to become election monitors, to become parts of school boards so that they can control the curriculum. If you become a precinct captain, eventually you can have a great deal of power within elections. And you can be quite consequential.
Democrats would do well to take note of this strategy. And let me say one thing to this point about, “What are you doing handing him the microphone?” By listening to him, he has been saying for months that the second the Republicans take over, they ought to impeach Joe Biden and that the first article of impeachment ought to be “failure to protect and defend,” because there are so many undocumented immigrants coming over the border from Mexico.
And sure enough, a poll came out not that long ago, saying that 70 percent of all registered Republican voters now think that the first thing the House Republicans should do when they take control, which they will in 2023, is impeach Biden. So, maybe they would’ve done it without Bannon. But he is part of that right flank that is mainstreaming these ideas.
He strikes me, in a very weird way, as a deeply religious thinker, in the sense that he is obsessed with apocalyptic decline and order and rebirth.
This is an important point. You could argue that this plays into some part of him that is a seeker. And fundamentally kind of itinerant. Can’t stay at any organization for very long. He has embraced all kinds of spiritual practices. He’s got a Zen bench.
He’s dabbled in Hindu traditionalism. He’s super into the work of Gurdjieff, this obscure-ish Russian mystic and philosopher. I think what one genuinely detects in Steve Bannon is a restlessness. That’s absolutely there. And I don’t think it’s horse shit that he wakes up every morning and has some kind of spiritual practice.
The fact that he’s bounced from one to another is interesting. Right? I mean, that alone suggests that there’s still a promiscuity to his practices. He’s still working it out, that he hasn’t found what he’s looking for yet.
Or he’s a seeker who became a zealot. And a monomaniacal one at that.
I do think that this spiritual dimension of Bannon’s seems authentic to me. It does feel genuine.
Okay, so, he wants to sweep away the whole edifice of decadent, modern, liberal democracy in order to — what?
This is the problem. It is content-free.
Right. I mean, content-free is a good way to put it. For me, it’s just, it’s pure negation, right? It’s a giant “No.”
And so it may be content-free, but there is a strategy. And a very formidable one at that. You’ve mentioned misinformation and disinformation a few times in this conversation. And I wrote a piece about this idea of flooding the zone with shit. And I credit Bannon in large part with introducing that, and what I have said before, and I’ll say it again, is that he understands the political press better than the political press understands itself.
I think he very successfully hacked the media. And the idea here was always pretty simple, right? The press is set up to mediate a functioning liberal democracy. We’re supposed to sift fact from fiction, and we give the public the information they need to make enlightened political choices. You know, at least that’s the fantasy.
But Bannon just said no, no, I’m going to short-circuit that process by flooding the ecosystem with misinformation and overwhelm the media’s ability to mediate. So he just lies repeatedly and shamelessly and watches the press fumble over itself, attempting to debunk all those lies and actually just reinforce them with their coverage.
He’s been a kind of mastermind at that.
This is Hannah Arendt territory, right? What you do eventually is just exhaust people. You numb them.
Yeah. Do you think I’m giving him too much credit there?
No, no, no. I think that he takes pride in being a propagandist. Andrew Breitbart called him the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement.
And I asked him how he felt about that. He said, well, setting aside Leni Riefenstahl’s politics, I take that as a compliment, essentially, because she was a very good propagandist.
What does the next January 6 look like, Jennifer? As you described in the piece, as you’ve described in this conversation, he has this podcast called War Room. And really, this entire approach to media that cultivates an atmosphere of emergency, that instills in the audience very self-consciously a sense of besiegement. That game, in order to keep going, has to continue to escalate. And escalate. And escalate. So what is next?
2022 is a lost cause. I think that the House is going to be overwhelmingly run by Republicans and the Senate will also move into Republican hands. Maybe Roe slightly changes that calculus for the Senate, but maybe not.
So assuming that we’ve got that, then the question is: Will there be two years of backlash to them? And then in 2024, would the Democrats have regained enough steam to capture the White House, no matter who the nominee is?
But if you’ve got people like Bannon who are claiming that the whole apparatus for tallying votes is illegitimate, will enough people reject election results that this becomes a much worse problem? I don’t know. Or will the infrastructure once again barely hold, because enough people who are not election deniers will still be in office?
Yeah, well, we know what he wants. He’s an accelerationist. He wants the destruction of the present political order.
Exactly right. If he truly believed that history just worked in cycles, he could just sit aside and watch it all unfold. But he’s a participant.