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Denying Oxygen to White Nationalism – Media Myths of 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 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 his appearance, too. 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 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.

He can be ignored. This is not about advocating no-platforming; something which I agree can be a slippery slope. Such action can stymie debate. It can cede control of the narrative to those you wish to silence. And it can be a crude and counterproductive tool in any battle of ideas. But 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 –, Bannon should still be denied public oxygen because he 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, cliche one-line retorts about the establishment and the working man will do little to help us understand – let alone address – political divisions in society. It merely acts as a PR-boost for a man increasingly irrelevant on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bannon is no political mastermind, let alone an enigma. He is an expert in bluster. Did he have an impact on the election of Donald Trump? It is hard to say. He likely influenced some of President Trump’s more populist rhetoric. He was also likely behind the first incarnation of the ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. But Bannon’s absence from the White House has hardly changed the president’s course or tone. If anything, 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 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 Bannon’s tutelage is fanciful (and in many cases illegal, according to a 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 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. 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 Bannon’s ego, these parties already have a history of trying to unite. It has been a mixed one. There are existing party blocs in the European parliament but they often clash rather than work together. Even the more ad-hoc alliances have struggled to produce anything concrete. Sure, the parties may share some common enemies (the EU, cosmopolitanism, globalisation, Islam – although even here they differ in their criticisms), but 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, the details of 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 little 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 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, unfortunately, doing just fine without Bannon – and strips them, and the domestic politics of the countries they inhabit, of agency. If one really wants to understand what is provoking a rise in populist support then this is the wrong way to do it.

Bannon will understand all this too, 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 – like throwing his support behind the likes of Boris Johnson and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. It is not influence Bannon is seeking to wield, but relevance he is trying to save. It is a shame so many appear willing to help.

Comments (14)

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  1. Alexander Ritchie says:

    I’m sure Steve Bannon would thank you for giving him some more of the oxygen he craves.

  2. Frank says:

    I really don’t see the relevance of ‘no platforming’ in an age of social media. No platforming also makes the left sound authoritarian and allows the right to proclaim themselves as the defenders of ‘free speech’. There is also a significant gap in what the protestors say about Bannon and what he says himself; for example, those the protesters yell ‘fascist’, ‘Nazi’ and ‘white supremacist’ – yet Bannon denies all of these things and describes himself as an economic nationalist. The truth is the protestors and Bannon need each other – Bannon gets the publicity whilst the protestors get to think they are making a historic contribution in the fight against fascism.

    1. Nick Gethins says:

      I agree, its unnuanced, simplistic and polarising just to call someone like Bannon a ‘Fascist’ or a ‘Nazi’. I had heard this from 3rd parties time and time again, before i listened to him directly. I listened to his Oxford address and found myself agreeing with him on certain points. His critique of the 2008 banking bail out and Obama’s links to the banking class, his case against US militarism were hardly what you could call radical right, perhaps libertarian, call it what you will, but valid points and the point is I was able to make up my own mind if I agreed with him or not. I find many other aspects of his ideology untasteful and missguided, his views on migration, for example.
      The trend to no platform by the petty-bourgeois pseudo-left , is indeed authoritarian and stops where? who decides who should not be allowed to speak? Iet people speak, let people make up there own minds . As for the authors argument, to no platform because he ‘lacks power and influence’, my word, if this is the line we draw then this is a worrying development.

      1. Its Platforming not No Platforming that we’re talking about. BBC Scotland gave Bannon – a self described white nationalist – a platform where he was the only political figure on the stage (!)

        1. Frank says:

          A reference for the claim that Bannon is a ‘white nationalist’ would be good.

        2. Graham Ennis says:

          interesting that the BBC in Scotland covers Bannon, and platforms him, but people like me are never invited to participate in the Scottish airspace, although I am an archetypal blogger and activist, who actually has some connection with Scotland, and have my own useful pile of things to say, as I am also Irish, and as they say, “Been through it” in Ireland, and clearly have experiences that are relevant to Scotland. I say that not to profile myself, but to point out that people like me are very typical, there are thousands of us in Scotland, and we are carefully excluded and ignored, and the airspace we would have filled occupied by Bannon and his clique. Its called exclusionism, and you will never see activists on say, “Any Questions”, unless massively outnumbered by UKIP Yoons, etc. The value of Bannon is that he looks and sounds exotic, but really has nothing deeply powerful to say, in Scotland, about Scotland. he is “Click-bait”. The mirror reflection of Bannon is the “No platforming of ordinary people in Scotland or supporting Scotland. Just obstruct the airspace with something that looks and sounds exotic. Simple. Uber-pseudo-liberal!.

      2. Graeme Purves says:

        And what did our bold journalists learn about irrational racist bigotry and bluster that we didn’t know before?

      3. milgram says:

        No platforming (maybe more correctly “deplatforming”) has bankrupted that Milo person that was all over the media a year or two ago. Has anyone noticed him gone? Is the political discourse fatally wounded by “authoritarianism” like that?

      4. Gashty McGonnard says:

        I saw the Oxford talk too. He’s recently, gallingly, co-opted the name ‘civic nationalism’ to describe his ideology, instead of ‘defending Judaeo-Christian Culture’. Despite the dog whistles and left-baiting, I don’t get the sense that he’s personally racist – just devoted to American hegemony, and none too fussy about where he gets his support. It is plainly in current US interests to weaken Europe, but not to kill it: hence the ‘Movement’; hence the support for Brexit.

        “Xenophobes of the World, Unite!” as a rallying cry was always bound to fail. Maybe that was the point, maybe the infection of chaos was carefully dosed to be self-limiting? (That, or I’m giving him far too much credit)

        1. Graeme Purves says:

          You are giving him far too much credit. When he isn’t being fêted by Sir Angus Grossart and the BBC, Steve Bannon is doing gigs for rednecks in Kentucky motels.

      5. Lindsay Mackenzie says:

        I didn’t call Bannon a Fascist or a Nazi and i’m not drawing any lines. My point was to try and remove him from the platform / no-platforming discussion entirely. What i am interested in is this; is there evidence to back up the often-made claim that Bannon is a driver of populist and radical-right politics across Europe? If there isn’t any – and i’d argue there isn’t – why is he repeatedly treated like there is? What implications could this misunderstanding have on our interpretation of Europe’s radical-right? I’d imagine these questions would appeal to anyone decrying a lack of nuance and detail in our political discourse.

  3. Frank says:

    It is counter-productive – in an age of social media, to throw terms like ‘Nazi’ and ‘white supremacist’ around as a means of describing Bannon and his ilk. People are not stupid – in the social media age, they watch the YouTube public meetings, like the recent Oxford one (over half a million hits) and when they discover that Bannon’s none of the things he has been described as, some might become sympathetic to his argument, especially the point that the left is against debate.

    Bannon describes himself as an ‘economic nationalist’ and that he stands for racial equality within the nation state – he makes that point repeatedly; granted there are those he would exclude from the nation state, but this is different from white supremacy. Most people are economic nationalists in the sense of wanting tighter border controls and a strong nation state. Populist right wing nationalism is a different beast from white supremacism or Nazism– but some on the left just can’t spot the difference between a fascist, a right wing Tory, a neoliberal and so forth – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, their emotions are stirred quicker than their intelligence. The right are equally as guilty as this; for example, some on the right (Jordan Peterson springs to mind) can’t see the difference between a radical social democrat and a Bolshevik and think that renationalising the railways leads to the gulag!

    I watched the footage of the Edinburgh protestors– it was the hard left, mainly those who used to be in the SWP/Anti-Nazi League in the 1990s and early 2000s. I know from experience that you can’t debate or reason with these people because they actually believe it’s the 1930s and they are in a historic fight to the death against Nazis… It’s called political hysteria.

    1. milgram says:

      “The left are the real authoritarians”
      “Two sides of the same thing”
      “If you oppose the far right, more people will join the far right.”
      “Not racist, just against people from other countries.”
      I think I’ve scored a full house on my Disingeneous AltRight Disputation Bingo Card.

      1. Frank says:

        I’m not sure who that post is aimed at Milgram because no one on this thread has said any of the things which are in quotes. I’m a left wing social democract with no time for the ‘alt right’ whatsoever. In fact, I find Bannon’s politics deplorable and in no way would I equate the far right with the far left. This ought to be a debate about tactics not principles.

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