Darren McGarvey: Why alt-right guru Steve Bannon is so successful

Right-wing populist Steve Bannon is growing in influence '“ as others like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones fall by the wayside and social-democratic systems managers stumble from one mistake to another '“ partly because his working-class roots give him a distinct advantage, writes Darren McGarvey.

Steve Bannon listens to a speech by Donald Trump in the White House, beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Picture: Mark Wilson/Getty)

Is anyone else finding it hard to put their head down at night? In this increasingly virtual world, where it’s becoming harder to discern right from wrong and truth from falsehood, I find myself losing sleep just trying to keep hold of something that feels real. Simply committing to one version of reality requires a tremendous leap of faith; the algorithms have boxed us into circular and self-validating conversations that we too often confuse with a mythical ‘consensus’.

In these times of irreversible and sweeping change, we turn to leaders who appear just as baffled by it all as we are. Caught haplessly in the headlights of divided public opinion, our representatives have little choice but to dial up the empty rhetoric. From the chaos must come order and the global stage is truly set for a new kind of politics and a new kind of leadership. Which is why we should all be delighted that Steve Bannon has arrived in Europe to share some of his fantastic ideas about flags and walls.

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A right-wing populist, widely regarded as the proximate cause of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential race, Bannon, a self-styled economic nationalist and student of political history – who counts Mussolini as one of its most “fascinating” figures – may well be the 21st century’s most audacious man. Entering a chaotic and unfocused campaign just 88 days before its climax, Bannon skilfully steered a floundering Donald Trump through a hurricane of self-generated calamity – including a tape-recorded admission to sexual assault – that threatened to derail his presidential bid. Bannon went on to serve as White House Chief Strategist in the administration during the first seven months of Trump’s term, before leaving the West Wing to play a more decisive and, arguably, dangerous role – as the political Rorschach of our time.

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More so than Trump, Bannon embodies the American Dream. Hailing from a working class, pro-democrat, Catholic household, Bannon defied the gravity of his roots, ascending the ranks of academia where he earned qualifications in urban planning and national security studies (while serving in the US Navy), before graduating from Harvard Business School as a Master of Business Administration. His subsequent career has spanned every prestigious domain of American society from Wall Street to Hollywood and later journalism and media before finally hanging his feathered cap on the shaky nail of politics. Now in political exile, Bannon is repositioning himself as the architect (and de-facto leader) of what he calls the “global populist movement”.

For some, Bannon is the bitter palette cleanser that precedes the main course of fascism; a charge he laughs off as proof his detractors in the “propaganda wing of the establishment” are resorting to smears “because they don’t want to talk about facts”. Others regard him as a natural and necessary disruption to the regularly scheduled neoliberal programming, observing his rise with great interest, arguably ambivalent to the consequences of his radioactive politics. But most worryingly, increasing numbers across the West regard Bannon (or the slew of far-right figures channelling him) as a virtuous, straight-talking tribune of the little-guy. And it’s in this area that his working-class roots appear to be giving him a distinct and devastating advantage.

If you watch Bannon speak (temporarily ignoring his political impact on matters of race) he sounds like a class-warrior of old, with constant and deliberate emphasis on “workers” and “elites”.

His carefully rehearsed rhetoric is more Chomsky than Trump, with calls for an end to foreign invasions, his assertion that mainstream media is largely a propaganda operation and that criminal charges should be brought against the high-priests of finance who presided over the near-collapse of the Western economic system just a decade ago. Like many on the hard left, Bannon also believes in a high rate of taxation for the wealthy and argued for a 45 per cent rate on anyone making more than five million dollars, before Trump pulled rank. And Bannon, like so many on the left, is utterly merciless in his assessment that the political centre is no more than a puppet theatre for the pampered “parties of Davos”. It’s frightening how hard-right figures like this have been able to co-opt the language of class struggle while our social-democratic systems managers flounder from one cock-up to the next, completely oblivious to what gives this ascendant, virulent strain of right-wing populism its muscularity and momentum. That’s not to cast centre-ground parties as bogey men, or pretend that we’ve seen no progress during the neoliberal period, but if Bannon’s continued rise tells us one thing, it’s that we’ve reached peak ‘easy-does-it’ where our politics and economy are concerned and that liberals, largely insulated from the economic insecurity that gives rise to populism, won’t be enough to stop this march to the far-right.

Every trick in the liberal playbook has so far failed. Unlike Trump, May and the rest, Bannon is almost impervious to mockery; the merciless, unending social media-driven onslaughts that have derailed and demystified the power and privilege of so many notable figures of late seems to ricochet off Bannon like rubber bullets. Mainstream media scrutiny doesn’t appear to be achieving anything but promoting him, as he smiles through every ‘tough’ question with a palpable lack of concern for whatever liberal hacks try to pin on him.

Unlike the coterie of useful idiots that were used as battering rams to clear the brush for Trump’s ominous arrival, Bannon’s star grows brighter by the day, while alt-right poster-boy Milo Yiannopoulos and demented conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, as well as Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen among others, have been systematically delegitimised and side-lined. Meanwhile, Bannon has managed to peel-away from the Land of Oz that he, himself, created and may stand as the only serious sideshow to emerge from the political and economic circus of Trumpism.

Unsurprisingly, the fact Bannon comes from humbler beginnings than many of his media and political contemporaries has been largely edited out of the story. Understandably, we tend to focus on his Wall Street connections, his Breitbart ‘news’ site, his fingerprints all over Cambridge Analytica, his courting of the far-right in Europe and the neo-Nazis who – whether Bannon likes it or not – have been empowered by Trump’s hostile rhetoric on illegal immigrants and Muslims.

But it’s Bannon’s working-class roots that give him the edge in a political and media climate dominated by people who struggle to both interpret and reflect what is going on further down the food-chain. I suspect the political response to Trumpism – and Bannon – may have to come from the same place.