“The world is on fire”: Steve Bannon two years before his rise to power
In September of 2014 I went to Steve Bannon’s house for a party. I was on assignment from Rolling Stone to embed with the staff of Breitbart.com. It was supposed to be a way of illuminating the larger world of gonzo right-wing media. I had never heard of Steve Bannon himself.
The invitation — to cocktails and a seated dinner — listed the location as the “Breitbart Embassy.” It turned out to be a brick townhouse on Capitol Hill, a few blocks east of the Supreme Court building. The Embassy did triple duty as a workspace for the website’s D.C. reporters, a handsome living quarters for Bannon and other company brass, and a swank entertainment venue for a social circle drawn from Washington’s misfit conservative fringe.
Or at least they were fringe at the time. Bannon, now arguably the surrogate president of the United States, was then Breitbart.com’s executive chairman. He moved among clusters of guests with a big smile. When I was introduced to him, I asked why he called the place the Embassy. “D.C. is like Saigon in ’68,” he said. “You don’t know who your friends are and who your enemies are.” Among friends for the moment at least, he promised that he’d set up time for the two of us to talk one-on-one, and then returned to his hosting duties.
I didn’t recognize many people at the event, aside from right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions — easily the oldest guest in a millennial crowd. I asked Sessions some questions about his relationship to Breitbart, mostly to be polite to my hosts. He surprised me by giving Breitbart credit for fatally poisoning a congressional immigration-reform deal that he himself had crusaded against. “You might not think it could” kill the bill, Sessions said, “but it did.” He told me that he read the site almost daily and that his constituents regularly quoted Breitbart articles to him by author name. “From my perspective, Breitbart is putting out cutting-edge information that’s independent, geared to the average working American, that’s honest and needs to get out.”
The evening’s guest of honor was a then-obscure British conservative named Nigel Farage. Breitbart staff told me admiringly that Farage was the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, and that he was leading a charge to withdraw from the European Union. I took only cursory notes on Farage’s speech — enough to fill out the scene, I thought — including a line where he called then–Prime Minister David Cameron “chinless and gutless.” It all seemed so irrelevant that I later deleted the audio.
Obviously, I missed the story. And not just because Sessions is now attorney general, Brexit the new reality of Europe, and Bannon the surrogate president of the United States. My editors and I would never have predicted those things. What we should have realized was that the people supporting them hadn’t yet had their final say. A write-up of the movement’s favorite media outlet was never going to be as interesting as the movement itself, and after a few drafts over a couple of months, the piece shriveled up and died. Which was a shame, I thought, mostly because I had found Steve Bannon to be such a good character.
Bannon kept his word from the Embassy party, and he and I met for dinner two weeks later in New York, at The Odeon, a cheery bistro in lower Manhattan. He arrived buzzing with intensity, with two pens clipped to his shirt collar. Over the next 90 minutes he barely touched his food and never took off his coat. He was too busy trying to bring me up to speed on the world as he and Breitbart saw it — the world that everyone else was missing.
There was lots of news on the docket, little of it grounded in accepted fact: Bannon described what he claimed were 10 counties in the Rio Grande Valley under full operational control of the drug cartels, and exposed only by the diligence of Breitbart Texas: “It’ll blow your fucking mind. We’ll take you on shit in Laredo and these other places; you literally will think, ‘I can’t be in America.’” U.S. immigration policy he said, had been designed expressly to undermine the labor market: “When you flood the zone, as Jeff Sessions says, with 50 million workers…” Then there was a theory that Ebola was spreading in West Africa because of the negligence of President Obama: “By the way, he’s never been briefed” on the virus. ISIS is actively plotting to assassinate the pope.
(Actually, Obama had called the leaders of Sierra Leone and Liberia about the outbreak a month earlier, and Breitbart had reported on it. And the Vatican had dismissed plot chatter as an idle threat.)
“There is a center-right population throughout the world that is anti-establishment, is anti to the party of Davos,” he said, using his coinage for the globalist elite of both parties. He continued, talking so fast that he kept interrupting himself: “And by the way, a lot of these guys have hair on them. Right? They’re not angels,” he said, specifically mentioning France’s anti-immigrant Front Nationale and Britain’s UKIP. “We want to get in front of it,” he said. “If you look at ISIS, if you look at Common Core, if you look at immigration. If you look at — and you can talk to other people about all the stories that we’ve been ahead of. We’ve got a saying internally that, ‘Before it’s news, it’s Breitbart.’”
I knew Breitbart’s coverage to be racially charged and inflammatory, but this was before white supremacism had made its formal comeback as the alt-right (and before Bannon made news by telling a Mother Jones reporter that Breitbart had become the movement’s go-to platform). I didn’t ask him about his views on race and religion, or the site’s approach to those things, an oversight that now seems more and more glaring, given what’s been reported about Bannon’s film projects and the racist and Islamophobic stories (and transphobic and homophobic and misogynist stories) that Breitbart helped push. But he was clearly aware of the association:
“People consider us a nativist, racist, neo-Confederate site,” he offered, basically out of nowhere. He rebutted the charge only vaguely, saying, in effect, that his audience was only curious about the realities of the world. “The Ebola stories have been on fire, from Day One,” he said. The 2014 outbreak was then at its height, and Breitbart had seized on fears of Ebola patients streaming into America through our undefended frontier, essentially transforming a disease story into an immigration story. “People were just interested,” Bannon said.
Among those interested — and then fixated on — the storyline was Donald J. Trump, still nine months away from declaring his candidacy. “A single Ebola carrier infects 2 others at a minimum,” reads one of his many contemporary tweets on the topic. “STOP THE FLIGHTS! NO VISAS FROM EBOLA STRICKEN COUNTRIES!” President Obama refused to take that advice, and only four cases ever appeared in the U.S.
Bannon’s management of Trump’s priority list is now a matter of formally vested authority. And it appears to be giving him the chance not just to cash in on Trump campaign’s promises but push his own pet causes as well. Over the course of our dinner he took three separate occasions to bring up the murder — at one point he referred to it as a “genocide” — of Christians living in majority-Muslim countries. The Week One executive order on immigration and refugees fulfilled a pledge that Trump had made on the campaign trail long before Bannon got involved — but it also included a directive widely interpreted as creating special refugee status for Middle Eastern Christians.
The waiter eventually took away Bannon’s soup, and he ordered a double espresso. He told me that before his business partner and co-conspirator Andrew Breitbart died, Breitbart had vowed to move the news site beyond right-wing populist anger, and into action. “‘There’s going to come a day, with this apparatus, when we’re going to turn around and play offense,” he quoted his friend as saying. “And that’s what Breitbart Texas is. That’s the immigration story. That’s the Ebola story. That’s the Christian genocide in the Middle East. That’s UKIP in England.”
“The world is in a meltdown right now,” he continued. “I mean, the world is on fire. And all of a sudden it’s going to dawn on people, this is not a problem for guys in the Middle East: This is a problem for you in Kansas City.”
I met Bannon only once more, when I returned to Washington a few days later to interview some of his staff members. He answered the door to the Embassy in cargo shorts and waved me in, nattering on about some great new hires he’d lined up. Eventually a subordinate came to fetch me, and that was the last I saw of him.
During the brief time I spent with him, I never detected personal animus or malice. He was friendly and good-natured. It was clear that a sense of grievance — and awakening — had driven him to an edge zone where he sometimes, maybe often, mistook fantasy for fact. Nevertheless I took it to be genuine. Listening to my recording of our interview now, I’m struck by how much I hear myself laughing and nodding along with his points. That he wanted to gut the establishment seemed more mischievous than actually sinister. Clearly I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me.