Steve Bannon’s War on Ukraine and Democracy

Steve Bannon is a towering figure among his audience, some of whom are earnestly seeking the truth surrounding issues of the day, and many others who are axe-grinding nincompoops and conspiracy nuts. But Bannon himself is neither stupid nor foolish – nor, for that matter, earnest. He exercises his charm through cultspeak, by pretending to be part of the conspiracy cognoscenti, by charming his opponents with dime-store intellectual banter (embarrassing for a Harvard and Georgetown graduate) and by appearing earnest when he is the most crookedly deceptive. He has a podcast called War Room that has its chains wrapped around the pillars of the temple of American democracy, and he believes that he has the strength of Samson that will enable him to bring those pillars down.

Jennifer Senior has written about Steve Bannon with stunning alacrity and insight, ‘He says he has five phones, two encrypted, and he’s forever pecking away, issuing pronunciamentos with incontinent abandon – after midnight; during commercial breaks for his show, War Room; sometimes while the broadcast is still live.’ He’s obviously a busy man. Bannon’s character is perfectly suited to what she calls ‘this id-favourable internet age.’ And she is right. Of his character, she writes: ‘The chaos and the focus, the pugnacity and the enthusiasm, the transparency and the industrial-grade bullshit. Also, the mania: logomania, arithmomania, monomania (he’d likely cop to all of these, especially that last one – he’s the first to say that one of the features of his show is ‘wash, rinse, repeat’). Garden-variety hypermania (with a generous assist from espressos). And, last of all, perhaps above all else, straight-up megalomania, which even those who profess affection for the man can see, though it appears to be a problem only for those who believe, as I do, that he’s attempting to insert a lit bomb into the mouth of American democracy.’

Senior writes that when YouTube pulled his show (Bannon insists that his talk show is not a podcast but a tv show, and one of the most sophisticated at that!) for spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election, viewing his storied War Room has become much more difficult:

It’s still available in the far-right online ecosphere, and it’s streamable on various TV platforms, including Channel 240 of Pluto TV, but that seems like its own sad metaphor – War Room as a small, demoted planetoid, available mainly in the icier regions of the broadcast cosmos. The whole operation has an amusing shoestring quality to it. The audio occasionally cuts out or sounds like it’s bubbling through a fish tank; two of Bannon’s phones buzz throughout the show; the segment openers aren’t always ready when he needs them. It’s a bit like Father Coughlin stumbled into Wayne and Garth’s basement.

In her brilliant Atlantic article, Senior draws much of her material from personal communications with Bannon, and she manages to draw out pieces of Bannon’s madcap personality, his dark pugnacity and magnificently crafted malevolence that reminds me of a more sophisticated version of Scientology’s belligerent squirrel busters. She describes Bannon as

a televangelist, an Iago, a canny political operative with activist machinations. With almost every episode, he hopes to transform his audience into an army of the righteous – one that will undo the ‘illegitimate Biden regime’ and replace the current GOP infrastructure, still riddled with institutionalist RINO pushovers, with adamantine Trumpists who believe that 2020 rightfully belonged to them. ‘The show’s not about entertainment,’ he told his audience in one of his typical pep talks. ‘That’s not us. This is for the hard-cores, okay? … The people who say, “No, no, no, no, no, not on our watch.”’ He goads his followers into action with a combination of praise, flattery, and drill-sergeant phrases he repeats like a catechism: Put your shoulder to the wheel! Be a force multiplier! And especially: Use your agency!

Senior notes how Bannon advocates the ‘precinct strategy’ (first developed by the Republican lawyer Dan Schultz, which encourages interested citizens to sign up for the grunt work of elections) to advance his agenda, which is to hoodwink ordinary citizens and convince them to ‘work the system’ on behalf of Republican lies and therefore become loyal compatriots of his ‘citizen army.’ Bannon is brilliant at this kind of grassroots scheme, and his show is a goldmine for Republican fundraising. Bannon reminds me of O’Brien in the novel 1984, the man who tortures Winston, but whom Winston comes to love through all of O’Brien’s meticulous administration of pain. Eventually, Winston becomes eager to hear and believe more and more of O’Brien’s lies. And then he becomes, in today’s parlance, Trumpified.

The United States’s democratic infrastructure could implode if the Republicans take back the House in a rout, which they likely will. This possibility has become a political wet dream for Bannon and has him saying: ‘The left in the media … they’re all about democracy….On November 8, the War Room and the War Room posse and all the little people at the school boards and things – we’re gonna give you democracy shoved up your ass. Okay? We’re gonna give you a democracy suppository.’

I suppose this metaphor hints at Bannon’s sexual predilections and certainly reflects his looks and demeanour as an unshaven and hyperactive Edgar J. Hoover. Senior writes that ‘an analysis by the Brookings Institution found that War Room had more episodes containing falsehoods about election fraud than any other popular political podcast in the months leading up to January 6.’ This makes Steve Bannon a very dangerous man. Bannon, in his own words, wants to ‘weaponize’ the type of people who write into comments sections of stories–and turn them into his ‘posse, cadre or vanguard’ of deputized agents who have come to love the online personas they have carefully manufactured but who in real life are more likely to be frustrated geeks or incels. Bannon urges his listeners to become one with old South’s rebel cry, with the hatchet-wielding Mel Gibson that they cosplay in their half-finished recreation rooms before a full-length mirror when the rest of the family is out shopping for supplies for the weekend barbeque. Senior writes:

But that’s precisely what happened on January 6. The angry, howling hordes arrived as real-life avatars, cosplaying the role of rebels in face paint and fur. They stormed the Capitol while an enemy army tried to beat them away. They carried their own versions of caissons. They skipped a day of work. And then they expressed outrage – and utter incredulity – when they got carted away. The fantasy and the reality had become one and the same.

Bannon, I am sure, would love to take credit for helping to marshal that army of delusionoids on January 6. Bannon is the type of archetype con man that follows you as soon as you enter a department store and says, ‘let me show you this, now here is something I think you will like a lot, take a look at this, I have a feeling you’re going to love it’ and doesn’t leave you alone for a moment. You are tempted to make a purchase just to get him off your back. He works his game well because he’s studied the art of manipulation. He’s read some books, obviously, and puts that knowledge to use like a good foot soldier for the fascist rule he so eagerly desires. Senior writes:

Bannon’s the guy with a perpetual meta-motive, always working an angle. He’s extremely skilled at getting others to do what he wants them to do. He speaks openly, almost exuberantly, about his talent for thought-puppetry. When I asked him why Democrats are terrible at talk radio, he had an immediate reply: Democrats are masters of the cool mediums, like TV. ‘But radio is theatre of the mind,’ he said. ‘Hot and theatre of the mind. I can fuck with your mind so badly if you’re just hearing my voice, right? It’s a much more powerful medium.’

Here Bannon seems to echo Marshal McLuhan. Time to digress a bit. I was always interested in media studies. When I was a doctoral student, my advisor (not my dissertation Chair) was Professor Fred Rainsberry, Fred was head of Children’s broadcasting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and he created a show called Misterogers that became a famous American show called Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. Fred Rogers had grown up in Pittsburgh, but my advisor, Fred Rainsberry, recruited him from the States, initially for his work behind the scenes as a puppeteer. Professor Rainsberry coaxed Fred Rogers not to stay behind the scenes working his puppets but to actually interact with children onscreen. He loved the way Rogers interacted with children directly on camera. Rogers was homesick and went back to Pittsburgh, where his show was renamed Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. A legend was born. My advisor asked me to develop a children’s television show, which I did and called it Kidding Around, starring me, my daughter, a co-host and a musician. We did a pilot episode for Multicultural Television. It wasn’t picked up (probably because the pilot wasn’t very good), and then my advisor arranged for me to host some new television shows for the CBC, but I was always second pick (I probably was the last pick, but they always told me I was runner up). Anyway, shortly after meeting my advisor, he asked if I would be interested in having Marshal McLuhan on my dissertation committee. That opportunity failed to materialize as the great Canadian intellectual died within months of my conversation with Fred (I thought it was premature to be talking about a thesis committee when I had just started the programme, but I didn’t want to pass up the chance to meet and work with McLuhan, assuming he would be interested). I have remained a student of McLuhan’s work to this day, and it is obvious to me that Bannon likely has some McLuhanesque media savvy on his side, but which he puts into the service of demented, politically dangerous political narratives: stolen elections, the dangers of wokeism, and slipping some QAnon conspiracies into the mix of his War Room podcasts (sorry, Steve, you host a podcast, not a television show). Anthony Scaramucci (who, for a brief eleven days, was Trump’s communications director) saw Bannon as a Hitlerian figure.

Bannon’s frequent comments when he worked in the White House included the phrase ‘burn it all down.’ In this, he sounds like a deranged ‘burn baby burn’ hippie radical from the 1960s, but I guarantee he was nowhere near Watts in 1965. (‘Burn, baby! Burn!’ was a catchphrase attributed to the 1960s R&B disc jockey Magnificent Montague, who used the term to refer to really ‘hot’ records, but the slogan became associated with the 1965 Watts Riots.)

There is a side to Bannon that is charming. Senior describes it this way: ‘When Bannon isn’t in full gladiatorial mode, he is upbeat, good company, almost clubbable.’ This puts liberals off guard and susceptible to being used. Bannon is an elite code-switcher, which makes him extremely capable of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He has a forked tongue (not literally), a feature common to many species of reptiles that gives them an increased ability to sense chemicals which allows for heightened abilities to identify prey, recognize kin, choose mates, locate shelters, follow trails, and in Bannon’s case, smell political enemies or rivals. The phrase ‘speaks with a forked tongue’ is also a First Nations cultural term that means acting in a duplicitous manner or lying. One 1859 account from Canada connects the native proverb that the ‘white man spoke with a forked tongue’ to a heinous French tactic of the 1690s, in their war with the Iroquois, of inviting their enemies to attend a peace conference, only to slaughter or capture the good faith ambassadors. That’s Bannon. He will make you feel calm and comfortable and then give you a sucker punch. Senior writes: ‘He’s quite capable of code-switching into the patois and patter of the coastal elite, probably because he’s a card-carrying member, whether he likes it or not: an alumnus of Harvard Business School, Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Goldman Sachs, Hollywood.’

Apparently, Bannon helped Trump amplify the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, not because he believed the preposterous idea, but because he needed a presidential pardon for being indicted for scamming money in a crowd-funding scheme to build Trump’s wall. I wonder if he helped Milo Yiannopoulos, an ‘ex-gay’ and far-right provocateur, get his recent gig as an intern for Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, you know, the politician who, one day after the US Senate passed a bill that would make daylight-saving time permanent, alleged that DST is a ‘conspiracy to control clocks.’ The same person who believes the attacks on 9/11 were an inside job, the same person who floated the idea that a California wildfire that killed 84 people was started by ‘lasers or blue beams of light’ shot down from space by a Jewish space laser and who liked a video that mentioned Hillary Clinton and a top aide cutting off a child’s face.

Bannon is a master of chaos whose preferred media strategy is to ‘flood the zone with shit.’ It’s shit, yes, but shit with a face – like Mr Potato Head, you can pin eyes, nose and lips to it. It’s shit with a voice, shit that can speak to an audience of gullible listeners before it starts to stink. And Bannon shits in Costco-sized dregs of unflushable bulk yak dung. According to Senior, ‘It’s perfect doublespeak, a formula that allows his viewers to embrace a conspiracy without calling it a conspiracy, to believe a lie while claiming it isn’t one. His show positively burbles with conspiracies, or at least darkly hints at doings within doings, grimy wheels within wheels.’

How has he affected the reception of the war? What has he done since remarking, just hours before the invasion of Ukraine, ‘Putin ain’t woke.’ Bannon has insisted, ‘Ukraine is a European problem, not an American problem.’ He remarked on Real America’s Voice, ‘This Ukraine situation is a Western European problem. They need to stand up.’ And when the war began, he told listeners of his podcast: ‘Ukraine’s not even a country. It’s kind of a concept…. It’s just a corrupt area where the Clintons have turned into a colony where you can steal money out of.’

Bannon clearly is taking sides with Putin, telling his followers that the war will drive up inflation. He wants the war in Ukraine to be one of the prime reasons for impeaching Joe Biden when the Republicans take over the House. He lists the reasons Biden will be impeached:

Number one on the southern border, number two on this fiasco right now in the Ukraine. And we’re going to get into every detail of every penny his family stole out of there from the Ukrainian people, from the kleptocrats in Ukraine that were his partners. We’re going to get to every penny – to the fifth decimal place – of everything that the Clintons and Biden and these corrupt Democrats have skimmed off the top.

He further asserts:

Putin called your bluff. He says you’ve turned Ukraine into a ‘colony,’ a ‘Clinton colony.’ […] They stole as much money as they could out of Haiti, out of sub-Saharan Africa, and then they’re in Ukraine, stealing it with both hands…. Is Hunter Biden over there with his business partners? Is he sitting there with the Ukrainian flag? Where is Hunter? Is he in his art gallery? Is he with more strippers? Is he smoking more crack?

Here is a comment by Bannon’s frequent podcast guest, Marjorie Taylor Greene: ‘You see Ukraine just kept poking the bear, poking the bear, which is Russia, and Russia invaded. And the hard truth is … there is no win for Ukraine here. Russia is being very successful in their invasion.’ And, of course, we are unlikely to forget these comments by Tucker Carlson: ‘I think we should probably take the side of Russia, if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine.’ Here is another from Tucker: ‘Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?’ And we can expect this from Candace Owens: ‘President Zelensky is a very bad character who is working with globalists against the interests of his own people.’ And, of course, Bannon again: ‘No Republican should vote for any money for Ukraine. $0 for Ukraine.’

According to Jessica Brandt, Valerie Wirtschafter and Adya Danaditya, who are reporting for the Brookings Institute on Russian disinformation about Ukrainian biolabs, Bannon is implicated in a major way in spreading dangerous misinformation. The conspiracy theory being referred to is ‘that the United States is funding the development of dangerous biological weapons in Ukraine. This claim, which has no basis in fact, has not been confined to Kremlin propaganda. Popular podcasters in the United States have repeated and promoted it for their own purposes.’ According to the authors,

Over a 10-day period beginning March 8 – when US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said that the United States had provided funding to Ukrainian labs carrying out research to prevent the diffusion of harmful pathogens (not bioweapons) – 13 popular political podcasters devoted segments in 30 episodes to the false theory that the United States had funded biological weapons research in Ukrainian labs.

The authors are understandably concerned that right-wing podcasts have largely escaped challenges from policymakers, and this lack of oversight and accountability poses a dangerous threat over time to the stability of the nation:

As the notion that the United States funded biological weapons development in Ukraine spread from fringe QAnon groups to Fox News, podcasts appear to have played a key role in facilitating its proliferation while at the same time mostly escaping scrutiny. The nature of podcasting makes oversight challenging, but the rapid growth of the medium suggests that this is a set of challenges that requires urgent attention from policymakers considering how to guard against disinformation.

The authors go on to report that ‘Bannon’s War Room podcast, hosted by former President Donald Trump’s one-time chief strategist Steve Bannon, devoted segments in five episodes to the story. With its episode on March 8, Bannon’s show was the first popular series in our dataset to promote the conspiracy. Bannon’s show claims to have been downloaded over 135 million times and ranks second in the “Politics” category on Apple. The false theories that these podcasts push about the existence of US-supported biological weapons capabilities in Ukraine frequently draw on COVID-19 conspiracies.’

Bannon himself probably doesn’t believe any of this, but he promotes it anyway. Of course, our Viktor Orbán lackey, Tucker Carlson, was also in on the game. The conspiracy theory had been circulating for at least a week before Nutland’s Senate testimony, so when Nutland gave her Senate testimony, Carlson claimed Nuland’s testimony the day before showed Russian claims to be true: ‘“Nuland just confirmed that the Russian disinformation they’ve been telling us for days is a lie and a conspiracy theory and crazy and immoral to believe, is, in fact, totally and completely true. Whoa,” host Tucker Carlson told viewers.’ I doubt that Carlson believed this, either. I don’t foresee any way to stop this kind of disinformation. Millions of Americans are tuning into madness:

Roughly 2,000 episodes in, Bannon’s show has produced a mighty river of ordure. Every state official, no matter how marginal or ostracized (or indicted), gets a chance to recite what they deem evidence of a stolen election – harvested ballots! hinky machines! lapses in signature matches! – and other assorted crimes committed by Democrats. His show is ground zero for epistemological warfare, and he recruits all kinds of fringe combatants to the cause….

Hey, Apple, Spotify, Google, are you listening? Where are your content moderation policies? Get your apps in order, will you? What about your podcast policies? We are in a time of national crisis. The Republicans, with the help of QAnon crazies and non compos mentis podcast perpetrators, are going to galvanise the vote for those who are bent on turning our government into a hurricane of hapless haranguing hacks – at least, more of a hurricane than it is already. Right now, it’s a thunderstorm. After November 2024, it will likely be a hurricane. Ask Bannon. He’s the most accurate weatherman. He has his podgy finger on the pulse of the country because he has supplied the arteries and veins of public opinion with a toxic form of haemoglobin. He has oxygenized the country with hate. Bannon sits behind his desk and smiles while War Room guests repeat that the Covid-19 vaccines are an experimental gene therapy that kill one out of every fifteen people who take them. That the vaccines are actually a software platform that can receive uploads. Seriously, these are people who might receive appointments in the next Trump administration. Bannon is confident: ‘We will show full-spectrum dominance in November. We will run the tables on those feckless Democrats; we will fieldstrip these clowns. Trump was the tip of the spearan armour-piercing shell.’

Bannon is probably correct, but for all the wrong reasons. We watch Bannon’s treatment of Ukraine with trepidation while wondering what sort of role he will play, if any, in America’s apocalyptic disintegration. Bannon is selling out Ukraine in precisely the same way he is selling out America, demonstrating absolutely no understanding of the history of Ukraine’s relations with Russia and an astonishing ignorance about Trump’s role in fomenting a particular species of American fascism. Rohini Hensman writes:

If someone suggested that we could understand the Black Lives Matter struggle without some knowledge of the historical background of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow and so on, we would find it unconvincing, to put it mildly. But many on the left seem to think that they can comment on the crisis in Ukraine while being totally ignorant of that country’s history. I wish to argue, on the contrary, that it is impossible to understand what is happening in Ukraine today without some knowledge of its past and to fill in some essential features of that past.

Hensman has documented the long struggle of Ukraine towards independence, beginning tens of thousands of years ago to the present. She writes of the revival of Ukrainian culture in the nineteenth century and the integration of Ukraine into the Tsarist empire. Ukraine begins its long journey as a provider of wheat and raw materials such as coal and iron, and serves as a market for Russian manufactured goods. Hensman notes that this was a typical colonial relationship, as Lenin himself observed in 1914 at his famous talk in Zurich. Ukraine’s origins as a state predated the founding of the Grand Principality of Moscow (predecessor of the Tsarist Empire) in 1263. It had a national liberation movement, which briefly established Ukraine as an independent Soviet Socialist republic from 1920 to 1922. Lenin granted the Crimean Tatars a special status. Then Ukraine was recolonized by Stalin. And that’s when the real trouble began. Hensman writes that this was

a process described as ‘the classic example of Soviet genocide’ by Lemkin, who outlined the process in chilling detail. First, the intelligentsia was destroyed by deporting, jailing or killing teachers, writers, artists, thinkers and political leaders; at the same time, the Ukrainian churches were destroyed with hundreds of priests and lay-people killed and thousands sent off to forced labour camps, deliberately separating families and sending children to Russian homes to be ‘educated.’ Finally, in 1932–1933, as Stalin escalated his repression in Russia itself, around 5,000,000 Ukrainian peasants – men, women and children – were starved to death. Lemkin shows that this was not the result of forced collectivization, which had left ample crops to feed the people and livestock, but the outcome of a deliberate policy to engineer a famine.

The ethnic composition of Ukraine was dramatically altered as the dead and deported Ukrainians were replaced by non-Ukrainians, which was the final step ‘in the systematic destruction of the Ukrainian nation.’ The Crimean Tatars were deported en masse by Stalin, in which almost half of the population disappeared. Then the Nazis occupied Ukraine:

Timothy Snyder argues that Nazi policies, which referred to Ukrainians as Afrikaner or as Neger – including the Hunger Plan to starve millions of people in the winter of 1941, the Generalplan Ost to forcibly transport or kill millions more thereafter, and the ‘final solution’ to exterminate the Jews – were centred on Ukraine; consequently some 3.5 million civilian inhabitants of Ukraine – of which an estimated 1.5 million were Jews – were killed by the Nazis, in addition to roughly another 3 million inhabitants of Ukraine who died as soldiers fighting against the Nazis or indirectly as a consequence of the war. Russian historians have calculated that more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in WWII than inhabitants of Soviet Russia; more Ukrainians died fighting against the Nazis than French, British, and Americans put together. At the end of the war, Ukrainians were subjected once more to Stalin’s rule.

Then came the fall of the Soviet Union. During the referendum of 1991, 84% of the population participated, and more than 92% voted for independence from the Soviet Union. Hensman writes that ‘When the votes are disaggregated by region, it is notable that every region had a majority in favour; the lowest majority (54%) was in Crimea, but in each of the majority-Russian-speaking Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, over 83% voted in favour.’ It is important to note that, during this time, citizenship was not defined by ethnicity. Rather, citizenship was broadly inclusive. And, while the 1996 constitution proclaimed that the state language would be Ukrainian, it also promised that ‘the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed.’ Ukraine basically continued to operate as a Soviet-controlled colony, where ‘the disintegration of the Soviet Union can be seen as an ongoing process of decolonisation, and Ukraine’s struggle for independence as being necessary, as Lenin said, to permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs.’ At the cusp of the end of the Cold War, Gorbachev wanted to create a truly voluntary federation, but he was opposed by Stalinist hardliners in August 1991. After the coup was roundly defeated, Ukraine, among other Soviet Republics, voted for independence, leading to the breakup of the USSR. Hensman notes ominously that since he came to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin has been trying to reverse this history and now he is trying to achieve his goals by means of a fierce and demonic colonial war.

Is the word ‘demonic’ too harsh, perhaps? Not when you think of the ways in which Putin is admired by right-wing authoritarian groups in places such as Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Serbia and Spain ‘who have a symbiotic relationship with his regime.’ And not when you recognize how effusive the neo-Nazis from Germany, Greece, Britain, and Norway are in their praise of and admiration for Putin. Hensman points out ‘that White supremacists from the US have close ties with their counterparts in Russia, and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke has travelled to Russia several times to promote his antisemitic book, Jewish Supremacism. The Russian paramilitary Wagner Group, whose brutal neo-Nazi Rusich unit was active in Donbas, has fought for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Khalifa Hiftar in Libya, both guilty of crimes against humanity, and has been associated with mass murder and military coups in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Burkina Faso.’

There is no denying that Putin is in full support of Stalin’s counter-revolution, and he has ratcheted up its brutality for this century by ruthlessly engaging in the bombing of universities, colleges and schools in Ukraine. For Bannon and his War Room guests, none of this history matters. What matters is that he and his followers accumulate power, even if this means crafting their own Putinesque tactics designed to pry the country away from its democratic foundations, whether by painting over Stalin’s iron fist with the Stars and Stripes or by wielding the Biblical iron rod that some of Trump’s more crackbrained religious followers interpret to mean an AR-15 assault rifle, the weapon of choice in American mass shootings.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Steve Bannon’s War on Ukraine and Democracy. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.

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