Long Read | Steve Bannon and the new far right 

The extreme world view of those like Bannon, Joel Pollak, and their news website Breitbart, continue to shape global politics by inciting and growing the far right.

The old guys are frightened and frightening to behold – LCD Soundsystem, 2017.

The United States-based Breitbart News Network is a hard-right online propaganda platform, its content a pit of conspiratorial derangement, racial paranoia and outright fabrication. Unfortunately, Breitbart’s extreme world view is not unique and is widely shared throughout a growing global far right. However, the site stands out for the direct influence it has exerted on the current course of global politics. 

After the death in 2012 of its founder, media provocateur Andrew Breitbart, the website was taken over by Steve Bannon. A wealthy investor with a background in banking, poorly received political documentaries and video games (among other colourful life experiences), Bannon is a neo-fascist ideologue fixated on creating a new kind of hard-right mass politics, combining ultra-reactionary beliefs with the nihilistic, trolling culture of the internet. 

Under his tenure, Breitbart privately courted links with neo-Nazis, while Bannon openly boasted of the site being the “platform for the alt-right”.  

Breitbart’s hysterical, ethno-nationalist world view eventually gained the attention of US President Donald Trump.  

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As journalist Joshua Green writes in his book, Devil’s Bargain, Bannon “supplied Trump with a fully formed internally coherent worldview that accommodated Trump’s own feelings about trade and foreign threats, what Trump eventually dubbed America first nationalism. 

“One aspect in particular that preoccupied Bannon – the menace of illegal immigration – was something Trump would use to galvanise his supporters from the moment he descended the Trump tower escalator on June 16, 2015”.  

Bannon would ultimately become the executive manager of Trump’s 2016 presidential run, and then chief White House strategist after Trump’s surprise victory.

New axis

Since leaving the White House after an apparent fall-out with Trump, Bannon has pivoted his efforts towards stitching together a new international axis of the hard right. 

With varying degrees of success, he has tried to advise for right-wing parties in Europe, Brazil, Israel and Japan among others, attempted to create a nationalist alliance to destroy the European Union and been involved in machinations by hardline Catholics to overthrow the current pope. 

As George Monbiot writes, Bannon is the favoured theorist of the far right because he offers a disruptive politics, the rhetoric of which crosses class interests. 

For the oligarch class, he promises a strategy for stripping away “the administrative state” by imploding the democratic institutions that have been built to check the power of the rich: “The chaos of an undeliverable Brexit, the repeated meltdowns and shutdowns of government under Trump: these are the kind of deconstructions Bannon foresaw,” writes Monbiot. 

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To win middle- and working-class support for these elite goals, Bannon promotes giving the masses the bread and circuses of buffoons like Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. They mobilise their supporters around paranoid resentment, channelling anger that should be aimed towards the super-rich against migrants, women, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQIA+ people and an array of other scapegoats. 

Aside from direct bigotry, Bannon encourages the narrative that employment and social services in the Global North are under attack by migrants, rather than by the rapacity of the transnational financial elite to which he himself belongs. This is a particularly insidious narrative, because it mobilises the language of working-class solidarity for poisonous ends. 

Ideological leanings

Bannon calls himself as an economic nationalist, working to protect cultural sovereignty against rapacious capitalism and “globalist” elites. But his true ideological leanings are even darker and more bizarre, a hybrid of white nationalism, reactionary Catholicism, Silicon Valley dreams of cyber-feudalism and a classically fascist glorification of war and conflict as a force for social and national regeneration.

While many prominent figures in the new far right publicly disavow their connections with 20th-century fascism, Bannon virtually gloats about it. He has proudly compared himself to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl and expressed his aesthetic admiration for the “architectural perfection” of the Auschwitz death camp. These statements are always delivered with winking irony, maintaining the pretence that he is just being “provocative”. 

But Bannon seems to truly believe that an apocalyptic conflagration between the “white, Christian West” and its many enemies is imminent. In particular, he sees migrants as a dangerous, invasive horde. His desired endgame? A world of heavily secured ethno-states where the rich can move freely but migrants of the wrong colour or religion are kept out by violence.

The brutal new reality we see being assembled around us – a world of children in cages, refugees drowning at sea, so-called lone-wolf killing sprees and a culture of conspiracy and lies – is a taste of the future Bannon is working towards. 

The Bannonite spirit

A crude but effective propagandist, Bannon has fused necrotic racist and nationalist ideas resurrected from the past century with novel aspects of late capitalist culture, such as the often fetid underbelly of online communities.  

Prior to working for Trump, he was considered a wealthy but cranky bottom feeder who made shoddy fringe documentaries. But in 2019, the spirit of the global far right can be called Bannonite. This is not to say that he is the manipulative central force behind the disturbing rise in hard reactionary politics – even though he clearly does see himself as the Machiavellian schemer at the centre of all. Rather, it is that his noxious ideological cocktail and strategies best exemplify the tone of contemporary reactionary politics. 

Although Bannon has formally left Breitbart and the website has indeed lost much of its readership to other platforms, his spirit looms over the site. Its articles combine frothing paranoia with a barely concealed longing for ethnic and social cleansing and vengeance against a stigmatised “other”. 

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As writer Anna Merlan puts it in her book on the politics of conspiracy theorists, Republic of Lies, Breitbart (which, along with regularly vicious anti-immigrant sentiment, once included a section tagged “black crime”) doesn’t exist so much as to inform, but to identify and inflame hatred and resentment of a shared enemy. 

For instance, in the twisted funhouse mirror carnival of Breitbart, the US migrant internment camps where children are terrorised and women made to drink out of toilet bowls, are in fact holiday camps!

No, really, this is a description used in the website’s recent defence of the cruel, or rather deliberately sadistic, reality of camps: 

Children “are also given toiletries and lessons in hygiene – literally how to flush a toilet, brush their teeth and operate the shower, which some of the children may have never seen in their lives … They have limited access to telephones to call relatives, both in the US and abroad. They receive therapy, both as individuals and in group sessions. They enjoy field trips to local museums, parks and the zoo, where they can explore the city beyond the shelter. And they also have social activities, including a recent ‘prom’ for which they dressed up.” 

This paean to what can credibly be called concentration camps was written by South Africa-born Joel Pollak, former speechwriter for previous Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Tony Leon, failed congressional candidate and current editor at Breitbart.

Left to right

These days, Pollak specialises in writing sycophantic defences of every terrible action taken by Trump and the Republican Party, producing arduous books with titles like How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution.

Pollak’s fawning support of Trump often reaches Dadaist levels of absurdity. For example, this is how he described Trump’s most recent disastrous and malicious actions against the environment: “Trump’s policy is grounded in reality – which is why it is more successful and sustainable, both politically and environmentally.” 

Unfortunately, his attempts to be noticed by the US president have been less fruitful than he hoped, with leaked emails from 2016 revealing him unsuccessfully asking about a job as a Trump speechwriter. 

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But this was just the latest setback in Pollak’s ignominious career of failing upwards. Born in Johannesburg in 1977, Pollak’s family moved to the US where he was raised. After Harvard Law School, Pollak returned to South Africa, where he worked as Tony Leon’s chief speechwriter from 2002 until 2006. 

In interviews, Pollak claims that his time in South Africa pushed him from left and liberal beliefs towards conservatism. Among various reasons – from a perceived anti-Israel political bias in South Africa to former president Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism – he includes vague and contradictory statements about how visiting the woefully underdeveloped Khayelitsha township opened his eyes to the evils of government intervention. 

Pollak also regarded his ideological shifts as cohering with the underlying beliefs of the DA. In 2015, he wrote that he DA’s core beliefs “map quite closely – if imperfectly – on to the principles of the Republican Party”. 

But his ideology may not necessarily have been the result of any profound critical self-journey. 

Right-wing grifter

A brutal article written by Mark Ames and Max Blumenthal in 2013 depicts Pollak as an opportunist, more interested in becoming a television talking head and ingratiating himself with the powerful than in any specific ideological commitment. 

In their account, Pollak belongs to a very specific political subcategory: the right-wing grifter. These are conservative media personalities who assert themselves as independent journalists or scholars, but in practice are political operatives who work explicitly to push the agendas of their wealthy patrons while trying to enrich themselves in the process. 

Indeed, after returning to the US in the late 2000s, Pollak attached himself to the Tea Party, a pseudo-populist movement within the Republican Party that was heavily supported by wealthy reactionaries. But Pollak suffered a humiliating defeat when he ran for Congress in 2010. As the Mail & Guardian newspaper reported in 2017, he was roundly beaten in a year when other Tea Party candidates were highly successful. 

Shamelessly using his South African connections, he released electoral videos that featured his mother-in-law, well-known academic and former United Democratic Front activist Rhoda Kadalie, with former president Nelson Mandela. 

Like her son-in-law, Kadalie is all aboard the Trump train. In 2016, she wrote in The Citizen newspaper of rejoicing at his surprise victory, making the farcical claim that his racism and xenophobia-propelled campaign was a “spectacular victory for people’s democracy”.  

‘Monster power’

Despite his political setback, Pollak’s enthusiasm for right-wing demagoguery and alleged lack of personal shame landed him a job at Breitbart. Although Breitbart himself had died, the site was about to enjoy a huge rise in prominence under Bannon.  

In the mid-2000s, Bannon invested in a company that made money off virtual mining within the hugely popular, online World of Warcraft game. While that business imploded, Bannon became enamoured with the idea that the internet was a new frontier for mobilising blatant racism, misogyny and xenophobia, and radicalising an army of alienated, angry individuals. Or more specifically, as written by Green, “these guys, these rootless white males, had monster power”.  

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Bannon set out to win the hard right new legitimacy and influence within mainstream conservative circles. With the help of Breitbart technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos, Bannon turned the website into a “killing machine” backed by wealthy Trump supporters such as the Mercer family. 

Revealing emails released by Buzzfeed showed that the site solicited input from active fascists, allowing people like the systems administrator of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer to make suggestions on articles before publication. 

Breitbart was just one tier of Bannon’s vision of “a global existential war … for Western civilisation”. 

Cambridge Analytica

Bannon was also vice-president of Cambridge Analytica, a data company that is credited with playing a massive role in aggressively promoting both Brexit and the Trump 2016 campaign on social media. As whistleblower Christopher Wylie put it, this was a “psychological warfare mindfuck tool”, using personal data to create a new kind of precisely targeted political advertising.  

As Paul Mason writes in his book, Clear Bright Future, “based on Cambridge Analytica’s real-time data, if social media showed a spike about immigration in a swing state, Trump would immediately stage a speech about it based on the intelligence”. 

In Trump, Bannon had found his true champion. An established celebrity brand racist, empty and bombastic enough to be the face of a new kind of reactionary political populism – a Herrenvolk or master-race populism. Rather than organised around a universalist conception of the citizen, it mobilises  around “security” for defined ethnic or religious groups. And despite its anti-elitist language, it effectively works to intensify hyper-marketisation and entrench the power of the super-rich.

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Perhaps the key takeaway from Bannon’s various psychological warfare projects is how the new far right operates tactically. Unlike the fascist regimes of the 20th century, which were rooted in street-based political movements of militias and the suspension of parliamentary democracy, it uses billionaire funding to weaponise smoldering online resentments and  to push regressive political candidates and policies.

However, platforms like Breitbart are also a mechanism for inflaming social tensions and tacitly encouraging political violence. Anti-immigrant propaganda fuels the creation of extra-state groups such as armed militias, border vigilantes and, ultimately, lone-wolf shooters and right-wing terror attacks. In fact, mass killers like Anders Breivik regard themselves as “crusaders” for Western civilisation, the same language employed by Bannon, the devout Catholic.

Defining issue

In one sense, Bannon is correct in identifying mass migration as a defining issue of our time, but not for the fanatical reasons he thinks. Not only are millions of people already fleeing the effects of poverty and warfare, but climate collapse and extreme weather conditions will in the near future create an unprecedented migration of people across the world. 

The instinct of the Bannons and the Pollaks of the world is to demonise refugees, to incite violence against them and to ensure that future climate refugees are met with a world of savage barriers and jagged border walls even more terrible than what already exists. An example of their mindset was seen in Breitbart falsely blaming immigrants for wildfires in California. Their media apparatus exists to amplify the violent stratification of humanity.  

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As scholars Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann write in Climate Leviathan, there is a real danger of an emerging “climate behemoth”, a politics where reactionary denial of climate crisis intersects with authoritarian movements fanning hysteria around borders and internal security.  

The unstable combination of fundamentalist religiosity, free-market fetishism and nationalist hatred not only rejects international efforts to deal with the climate crisis but when confronted with the reality of a never-ending refugee crisis, this kind of militarised, paranoid nationalism will inevitably lead to horrific political violence.

While Bannon salivates at the prospect of chaos, we must refuse to accept his catastrophist signalling. 

New age

The best option to defeat this new Bannonite tendency is not to cede an inch to its foul song of fake anti-elitism and nationalism. It can only be countered by a cosmopolitan, internationalist leftism that tackles the root causes of inequality, environmental chaos and social alienation while aggressively rejecting the kind of chauvinism and social conservatism that Bannon weaponises as the gateway to a new kind of high-tech, hyper-authoritarian world order. 

True to cloddish form, Pollak inadvertently reveals that of which the Bannonite mindset is truly afraid. He recently wrote a series of articles intended as a stinging rebuke of US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s climate change policy suggestions. 

Pollak accuses the leftist politician of pursuing what he sees as dangerous goals: immediate action on climate change, expanded humanitarian aid, the decriminalisation of undocumented immigration, improved housing, healthcare and food, and increased democratisation of the economy. 

For a lot of people, this seems like an attractive and practical vision of political progress. For Pollak, the spectre of democratic socialism and social emancipation is terrifying. Perhaps that’s because a fairer world would have less room for amoral careerists like himself, who enable the truly terrifying schemes of fanatics like Bannon. Bannon and fellow travellers like Pollak are morbid symptoms of a late capitalist world order careening into the unknown. The danger is that their undead thrashing helps inch the world ever closer to what author James Bridle calls “the new dark age”, where high-tech fuses with neo-fascist barbarism.

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