Steve Bannon promotes 'populist' movement Down Under, stirs free-speech debate

Ex-Trump adviser's controversial interview with respected Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter falls flat in providing factual context for his propaganda, stirring a free-speech debate in the Australian press and elsewhere. 

From 'Four Corners' broadcast, Sept. 3, 2018.

Ever since he left the White House under a post-Charlottesville cloud in August 2017, after six and a half months as President Donald Trump’s chief adviser, Stephen Bannon has proceeded to build a new career as a political Svengali to a variety of far right-movements in Europe. So far, he's been remarkably successful in that venture, helping right-wing elements gain ground in France, Italy and elsewhere. 

And now, it seems, he has his eye on making his “populist revolution” a global one by expanding to Australia.

“I absolutely see Australia is going to be a hotbed of populism,” he told an interviewer for Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) top news program last week. “Just knowing the cussedness and grit of the Australian people. This revolution is global … it’s coming to Australia.”

Bannon’s instinct for controversy remains intact. The interview, with Sarah Ferguson of ABC’s highly regarded “Four Corners” broadcast, set off a controversy within the Australian press and elsewhere about free speech and the ethics of journalism.

Coming on the heels of Bannon’s headline-grabbing disinvitation from the upcoming New Yorker Festival – which raised a similar controversy in the United States – the Ferguson interview raised questions in Australia about when (and how) it’s appropriate to give a propagandist like Bannon a platform for sowing disinformation. And indeed, the interview was problematic in how it failed to counter many of Bannon’s “alternative facts.”

ABC’s defenders saw it as a matter of robust free speech. “Good grief. Journalism is about resisting a retreat to enclaves,” tweeted Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy. “It's about getting people out of them, and debating ideas, in civil and rational fashion. If it's all enclaves, we might as well give it away. We aren't helping. We are making things worse.”

Others faulted the interview not for giving Bannon a platform, but for failing to give its audience a more factual context. “Ferguson's interview provided minimal context and lacked rigour,” wrote media critic Jennifer Wilson for Independent Australia, “reducing the experience to little more than an opportunity for Bannon to peddle his tired ideology, relatively unchallenged. Although we had been urged to open our minds to the ‘different ideas’ proffered by Bannon, nothing new emerged.”

Some critics, notably the Guardian’s Jason Wilson, objected to some of Ferguson’s assertions during the conversation, particularly her apparent concession to Bannon’s insistence that he isn’t racist or hasn’t helped promote racist beliefs.

To her credit, Ferguson did work to tackle the racism underlying much of the ideology Bannon promotes. However, as Wilson noted, the whole enterprise ran aground in an exchange after she asked him pointedly, “How do you stop economic nationalism morphing into something that is essentially racist?”

Bannon: I don’t think economic nationalism has anything to do with race, in fact, what I keep saying here is, remember, it doesn’t matter if you are about your religion, it doesn’t matter your ethnicity, your color, it doesn’t matter your gender, it doesn’t matter your sexual preference. All of that’s totally irrelevant.

Ferguson: You say, that, and I’ve watched lots of interviews, and I’ve watched people ask you or accuse you in various ways of being a racist, and there’s no evidence that that’s what you are.

In truth, there’s fairly abundant evidence of exactly that. Bannon himself boasted to Mother Jones reporter Sarah Posner, when he was still publisher and CEO of Breitbart News, that “Breitbart is the platform for the alt-right.” Moreover, as Posner’s piece explained in depth, this was not an empty boast: Breitbart had by then become a cesspool of white-nationalist ideas and talking points.

A BuzzFeed exposé later laid bare the extent to which Breitbart’s editors during Bannon's tenure cultivated relationships with white nationalists and other far-right extremists, particularly through the offices of his onetime protégé, provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The collusion included openly cultivating neo-Nazi elements in their information sources, and commingling their activism with ostensibly mainstream journalists.

As with many far-right ideologues, however, actions speak louder than words. During Bannon’s tenure at Breitbart, its frequently dubious news coverage became a favorite source of shared information among radical-right ideologues, including neo-Nazis. Breitbart’s comments sections, moreover, were an open sewer full of genuinely hateful racist, misogynist and antisemitic language.

Bannon himself has endorsed openly racist ideologues such as Jean Raspail, author of the bigoted screed The Camp of the Saints, as well as Italian fascist thinker Julius Evola

Ferguson, though, seemed to suggest that the racism inherent in Bannon’s political activism was at worst an unintended side-effect. She continued, “But do you understand that what that group of people, the particularly disenfranchised white workers in America, how that turns into racism?”

“That’s the thing,” answered Bannon. “The white workers in this country are not racist. Do we have an element, like the guys who tried to march here the other day, how many guys showed up? Six. My point is, I come from the American South. OK? It’s such an infinitesimal, small percentage of people, and they’re only made important because the left media gives them a microphone! The other day we had thousands of police officers and hundreds of media, and what, six guys showed up? Twenty? It was nothing. It’s a joke!”

Bannon used this defense throughout the interview. Questioned by Ferguson about his hard-edged rhetoric about the coming November elections, he downplayed the innate violence and explained that “the country is coming apart” and is “quite divided.” He claimed that voters weren’t responding to “fear and anger” as much as “rationality”: “I think working-class people and middle-class people in this country realize that something is wrong.”

Bannon’s attempt at whitewashing the street violence of a racist "alt-right" movement he not only embraced once but actively encouraged didn’t fly with Ferguson, who pointedly noted that “a year ago it wasn’t a joke,” before showing footage of neo-Nazis engaging in violence in Charlottesville.

Bannon retorted, “Well, what happened a year ago, and I’ve said this from Day One, the neo-Confederates, the neo-Nazis, the KKK have no place in modern American society.”

In reality, Bannon from Day One has welcomed the participation of such elements, including (according to the Buzzfeed exposé) input on Breitbart's news stories, as well as their contributions in the Breitbart comments section. He once told Politico that the comments were the best thing in the publication: “It was always great to hear what the hobbits had to say because at the end of the day, what they had to say was what mattered most. This whole movement, it’s really the top of the first inning.”

The interview by this point had become an extended exercise by Bannon of gaslighting Ferguson and her audience, especially after she pointed out the inadequacy of Trump’s post-Charlottesville remarks: “You know what an unambiguous declaration against people wielding swastikas sounds like, and that’s not what we heard.”

Bannon blustered, “President Trump has been adamant about that. He has condemned the neo-Nazis, condemned the KKK, he has condemned the neo-Confederates, yet we’re hearing what the mainstream media wants you to hear.”

In reality, Trump’s only statement condemning the radical right (“Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans”), issued two days after the events in Charlottesville, was explicit, but also anodyne and unconvincing. Even alt-right guru Richard Spencer dismissed it, saying: “Only a dumb person would take those sentences seriously.”

Perhaps even worse, a day later at a press conference, Trump described many of the tiki-torch-bearing marchers as “very fine people.” More recently, according to Bob Woodward’s exposé Fear: Trump in the White House, Trump reportedly told aides that the statement condemning the far right was “the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made.”

Bannon, however, was intent on casting this as media misreporting. "They’re never gonna let Trump off the hook on this, they’re just not gonna do it, they’re gonna continue to pound that," he said. "But I’ve got to tell you, as long as you don’t take responsibility – there’s two things the mainstream media have done. Number one, they’ve given a bunch of marginal, dangerous people a platform."

With one magical brush, Bannon was attempting erase his long history of being one of the key people who provided a platform for the alt-right. Ferguson returned to that: “But you know how to harness their anger too, don’t you?” she asked. “You’ve worked out a way to try and separate yourself and your views from them, but at the same time, their comments filled the Breitbart website – you know how to harness the anger.”

Bannon was insistent on his “racism is irrelevant” narrative. “No, no. The anger is about economic  that anger is about the $880 billion dollars to the $4.5 trillion it’s about the wealthy what it’s about is a set of elites that took care of themselves, and basically screwed over the American worker and the American middle class. The anger comes because people are rational. They look out there and they say, ‘Hey, it’s my pension fund, and my insurance policy, my insurance company, that’s the underpinning of Wall Street.'''

Again, Ferguson failed to correct this calumny with factual context. The kind of bigotry expressed in Breitbart’s comments sections, particularly its heavily antisemitic bent, has little to do with economic anxiety, and everything to do with old-fashioned racism. The alt-right ideologues who have marched in the street in Charlottesville, and Berkeley, and Portland and a dozen other venues the past year and a half haven’t said anything directed at economic concerns. They have instead denounced immigration, Muslims, Black Lives Matter and the “violent left.”

Rather, she continued with her narrative that the racism is a byproduct of the nationalism instead of recognizing that the two go hand-in-hand. Bannon thus repeated his mantra that it is irrelevant.

Ferguson: Do you understand what transforms that into racism when it happens? Because it happens.

Bannon: You can beat this dog all day.

Ferguson: What you have seen is people with racist views cleave to your economic nationalism.

Bannon: But it doesn’t cleave. This is my point. The media always says, and you always come back to the same thing: "Aren’t you worried about this zero-zero-zero-point-one percent that when we put the cameras on them, say ‘Yeah, we support that,'" versus the basics of the argument. Here’s the argument: The Republican Party is being turned into a workers’ party. Workers in this country are finally standing up for themselves. This movement is not gonna stop, and it doesn’t matter how many liberal journalists come in here and say, oh, this is a bunch of fascists, this is a bunch of Nazis, this is a bunch of racists. This is why you have lost so much credibility this is why the mainstream media in this country has  you’re arguing the point over and over.

When they can’t beat you on the facts, what they’re always going to go back and do is the same parlor trick they’ve always had. And that parlor trick is very simple: They’re going to call you a racist, they’re going to call you a xenophobe. And what I said is that accusation, wear that accusation as a badge of pride, because the accusation cannot be they can’t debate you on the facts. And they’ll never debate you on the facts.

Or are those “alternative facts”? Because that, more than anything, is what Ferguson’s interview demonstrated: Far-right nationalist ideologues like Bannon will never engage public discourse in good faith, because they operate from an alternative universe of “globalist” conspiracy theories and fabricated nonsense, as well as a deliberate whitewashing of the racist undercurrents of their politics.

This is at the root of the controversy over the ABC interview, as well as Bannon’s New Yorker Festival non-appearance: It’s extremely difficult for anyone to provide a platform for an ideologue like him without simultaneously letting them extoll ideas that are toxic to any “marketplace of ideas” on which that platform depends.

Bannon has made noises about extending his influence in Australia in the past, and recent manifestations of the spread of alt-right beliefs such as a “men’s rights” march in Melbourne that turned briefly violent suggest that he’s not wrong in looking for ripe opportunities Down Under.

Ferguson’s interview may have been intended to provide a fact-based counter-current to that momentum, but it may have given him more traction instead, precisely because it didn’t adequately challenge the realities about his brand of populist nationalism. Most of all, Bannon was freely able to paint a picture of the American political landscape in which the only effects of Trump’s versions of populist nationalism on blacks and Latinos were positive, as he described their improved employment numbers.

The reality, of course, has been that the Trump administration’s policies have been devastating for a range of minorities. Hate crimes in the United States have reached 10-year heights under Trump, with a particular spike in such crimes in the first month after his election. Many of those incidents involved perpetrators who used Trump’s name or his rhetoric to threaten or intimidate minorities, which have included African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, LGBT people and other immigrants. Since his election, a recent study found, racism and antisemitism have spread to the far corners of the internet.

Trump policies have undermined civil-rights enforcement. They have promoted the disenfranchisement of minority voters.  He has sought the expulsion of transgender people from the military. His administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy resulted in families being separated and children being held in cages at detention centers. Its deportation policies have broken up families who have lived for decades in the United States. There is hardly a minority group in America that hasn’t been harmed in some fashion by Trump’s populist nationalism.

That stark reality was anything but clear to Australia viewers of Bannon’s interview, as he strove to gaslight an entire continent with his skewed version of reality. Whether American viewers of his propaganda campaign – particularly those who go to see his upcoming film release, Trump At War – fare any better has yet to be seen.

Photo credit Getty Images/Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

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