What we got wrong about Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon’s appearance at the News Xchange journalism conference in Edinburgh was always going to be controversial. Despite public and political scepticism — including first minister Nicola Sturgeon pulling out of the event in protest — an interview with the BBC’s Sarah Smith went ahead on 14 November. The conference organisers, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), defended Mr Bannon’s invitation by appealing to his relevance. “Steve Bannon is a key influencer in the rise of populism”, it said in a statement. His inclusion in the two day line-up was framed as a sort of altruism; the EBU shouldering the responsibility to scrutinise and challenge any opinion, no matter how unpleasant, so we could better understand our world.
This is also how much of our own media covered the interview, too. Mr Bannon’s invitation was again defended on the grounds that his influence was too important to ignore. “It is vital to hear exactly what Mr Bannon has to say, regardless of how shocking it may be”, said one article with the title ‘No-platforming won’t heal political divides’. Only by understanding his traction could we “hope to counter his dangerous world view”. Another publication put Mr Bannon on a December issue front cover. Inside, an accompanying article and interview claims “his influence cannot be underestimated” and thus he cannot be ignored.
But can he not be ignored? This is not about advocating no-platforming; something which can stymie debate, cede control of the narrative to those you wish to silence, and be a crude and counterproductive tool in any battle of ideas. Leaving these thorny ethical journalistic question aside — that is, whether one believes an individual should or should not be given a platform because of their views –, Mr Bannon fundamentally lacks the very power and influence he and many other organisations and news outlets claim he has. Allowing him to air his now predictable retorts about the establishment and the working man will do little to help us understand, let alone address, political divisions in society. It acts as a PR-boost for a man increasingly irrelevant on both sides of the Atlantic.
Mr Bannon is no political mastermind, let alone an enigma. He is an expert in bluster. Did he have significant impact on the election of Donald Trump? It is hard to say. He likely influenced some of Mr Trump’s more populist rhetoric. He was also likely behind the first incarnation of the ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. But Mr Bannon’s absence from the White House has hardly changed the president’s course or tone. If anything, Mr Trump seems to have been adhering to his own long held beliefs on trade and foreign policy — with a dash of Pat Buchanan — all along.
And what of Mr Bannon’s relationship with, and influence in, Europe? Reports this summer that his new foundation, The Movement, was planning to reshape the continent’s politics by uniting radical-right parties in time for parliamentary elections next year understandably worried many. A Bannon-led cabal has since been described as a force that could topple Europe.
Except it won’t. The idea that the radical-right could unite under Mr Bannon’s tutelage is fanciful (and in many cases illegal, according to a new Guardian investigation). His approach to politics — a US-centric interpretation of nationalism and an ‘America first’ narrative grounded in a warped vision of American exceptionalism — translates awkwardly into a European context. Most of Mr Bannon’s potential political partners have already distanced themselves from his project, including the Sweden Democrats, Alternative for Germany and the Austrian Freedom Party. Italy’s interior minister and League party leader Matteo Salvini gave superficial support to the pan-European plan but has since sounded more wary. Mr Bannon is interesting, but doesn’t understand Europe’s complexities, he said at the start of December. In October, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Rally (the renamed National Front), gave a not-so-subtle speech outlining that only Europeans would have the capacity to save the continent.
This shouldn’t be surprising. European radical-right parties have their own distinct histories, identities and branding. Many have been organising themselves for decades, either while in power or shouting from the sidelines. Anti-Americanism has long simmered just below the surface. Few will want to be seen as taking direction from a parachuted-in American, even one with money.
And while it may hurt Mr Bannon’s ego, these parties already have a history of trying to unite through several existing blocs in the European Parliament, and not always with great success. While they may share some common enemies (the EU, cosmopolitanism, Islam, ‘globalism’ — although even here they differ in their criticisms), there is no collective ideology. Many of those lumped together often disagree on everything from social to economic policy. Finding common ground on, for example, migration burden-sharing or a foreign policy stance toward Russia between Italy’s League and Poland’s Law and Justice (two parties in The Movement’s sights) would be riddled with inconsistencies and unworkable. There is very little even Mr Bannon can do about it.
All this matters. It matters because the likes of the EBU, the Oxford Union — who also extended an invitation to the former White House chief strategist in November — and any number of organisations and news outlets continue to portray Mr Bannon as a man of key political influence and a driver of populist and radical-right politics, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.
Why, then, does it remain such an attractive narrative? Perhaps it is because of its simplicity. It replaces complex political landscapes with a single man, portrayed as pulling the strings behind the scenes. In Europe in particular it takes a varied group of political parties — who are doing, quite frankly, fine without Mr Bannon’s help — and strips them, and the domestic politics of the countries they inhabit, of agency. If one really wants to understand the underlying societal schisms provoking a rise in populist support then this is the wrong way to do it.
Mr Bannon understands all this, which is why he gladly sits for so many interviews, appears on so many panels, and even dips into the domestic politics of other countries — such as throwing his support behind the likes of Boris Johnson and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon here in the UK. It is not influence Mr Bannon is seeking to wield, but relevance he is trying to save. It is a shame so many appear willing to help.
Published December 2018