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Steve Bannon Out in the Open

The erstwhile Trump adviser is refusing to talk to the House Jan. 6th Committee, but most of his energetic anti-democratic activities are in plain sight.
October 19, 2021
Steve Bannon Out in the Open

The House committee investigating the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol is expected to vote today to refer Steve Bannon to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution for contempt of Congress. Bannon, who was Donald Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, the CEO of Trump’s 2016 campaign, and the recipient of one of Trump’s last-second presidential pardons, has said that he will not comply with a subpoena from the committee.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, has made it clear that the committee intends to enforce its subpoena. Last night, the committee published its report and resolution recommending Bannon be held in contempt. In addition to spelling out why Bannon’s claims of executive privilege don’t hold up, the report briefly describes some of what is known about Bannon’s connections to the events of January 6th:

  • Bannon was involved in the “Stop the Steal” efforts during the post-election period.
  • Bannon’s remarks on his podcasts on January 5 suggest possible foreknowledge of the next day’s disruptions: “You made this happen and tomorrow it’s game day. So strap in. Let’s get ready. All hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” he said. “It’s all converging, and now we’re on the point of attack tomorrow.”
  • On the days surrounding January 6, Bannon was apparently part of a clique of Trump advisers gathered at the Willard Hotel near from the White House. The participants in those meetings—Rudy Giuliani, Roger Stone, and John Eastman were among the others present—reportedly “discussed plans to stop or delay the January 6th counting of the election results and persuade Members of Congress to block the electoral count.”

As intriguing as the committee’s brief account is, it is worth noting that Bannon’s troubling activities did not stop after January 6. Far from it. He is still out in the streets, at rallies, on conference calls, and on his podcast trumpeting it to the heavens: The insurrection isn’t over, it’s only just begun.

On September 22, the day before the committee issued its subpoena, Bannon more or less confirmed his involvement with January 6th. He has continued to push the idea that the Biden administration is illegitimate—“We told you from the very beginning, just expose it, just expose it, never back down, never give up and this thing will implode”—and said that he wanted to help “kill this [Biden] administration in the crib.”

Bannon is neither hiding nor defensively trying to justify his past actions. Rather, he is continuing to push the Big Lie and all of its permutations, tying together a web of far-right ideas and allies. Like most good propagandists, he knows that the veil between fact and belief is very thin in a highly partisan political environment. What pushes an overt lie into semi-gospel is sometimes merely it’s repetition. Bannon’s podcast, “War Room,” continues to promote conspiracy theories about the 2020 election—the day after his subpoena running a segment titled “50k Illegal Ballots in One County Alone.” His guests have included Trumpist members of Congress, like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene; conspiracy theorists Jack Posobiec and Mike Lindell; anti-vaxers; and other subpoenaed Trump administration figures. Topics run the gamut from the border to the debt ceiling to “how schools are indoctrinating kids” to “the battle of Lepanto” (sure to appeal to far-right Crusade-cosplaying insurrectionists and mass murderers alike). Perhaps most provokingly given his subpoena defiance, an episode on October 13 was entitled “The Continued Search for the Truth of January 6th.”

If Bannon were only a podcaster, were only pushing his ideas on one of the many far-right channels that have popped up in the last half-decade, that would be bad enough. But Bannon is incredibly active in person as well—a natural organizer and demagogue. It’s worth taking a look at just three of the events at which he has recently spoken.

On September 29, Bannon appeared at the Capitol Hill Club—a Republican club on the House side of the Capitol—for the launch of a new organization, the Association of Republican Presidential Appointees, founded to prepare future appointees “to optimize their tenure and ability to advance public policy goals.” In an interview afterwards with NBC, Bannon described his comments as, “If you’re going to take over the administrative state and deconstruct it, then you have to have shock troops prepared to take it over immediately.” He would double down on that sentiment on his podcast on October 4, saying “We control the country. We’ve got to start acting like it. And one way we’re going to act like it, we’re not going to have 4,000 [shock troops] ready to go, we’re going to have 20,000 ready to go.” To use this kind of martial rhetoric in describing an intention to impose reports on the American federal government is troublingly fascistic.

The following weekend, Bannon attended the Rod of Iron Freedom Festival, as he has annually for several years. He has fostered connections among conservative and evangelical Christian audiences for more than a decade, and now seems to be preparing to exploit those relationships in a variety of ways. Bannon’s address to the group contained all of the half-truths, gross exaggerations, invented evidence, and irrational interpretations endemic to today’s MAGA-populist GOP. What is new is his insistence, based on an existing conflation between revolutionary clergy and modern Christian conservatives, that religious leaders should advocate the rejection of President Biden and his 2020 election victory as an act of piety among their followers. Religious leaders at the festival were already well versed in an interpretation of the American Revolution that positions themselves as its heirs and sole beneficiaries, but it is hard to think of a time—other than during the Civil War—when clergy have been so publicly advised by a national political actor to advocate open insurrectionism against the U.S. government and our system of elections. Paired with the self-interest of these organizations, which see affiliation with national figures like Bannon as providing exposure for themselves, this development ought to be regarded with real alarm—especially among members of those faith traditions. At best, their beliefs are being exploited by cynical men like Bannon and Trump, who want to use them as a voting bloc. At worst, these groups’ beliefs could be manipulated by leaders they respect and by genuine fears they harbor to provoke otherwise law-abiding American citizens into acts of violence and treason. Bannon is suggesting that Christians must choose between loyalty to their country and loyalty to their political allies.

In the appearance that has received the most news coverage, Bannon headlined the Take Back Virginia Rally on October 13. The rally, organized by right-wing radio host John Fredericks in support of Republican Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial bid, brought a couple hundred people together in the Richmond suburbs. Donald Trump called in to the event, saying “We won in 2020—the most corrupt election in the history of our country, probably one of the most corrupt anywhere. But we’re going to win it again.” Amanda Chase, a state senator who was notably rebuked in January for a “pattern of unacceptable conduct” including the allegation that she voiced support for the January 6th coup, was one of the speakers. And then there was Bannon, who said that “we’re putting together a coalition that’s going to govern for 100 years” while selling the Big Lie. All of this at a rally where the host, Martha Boneta, had the crowd recite the Pledge of Allegiance to a flag supposedly waved in Washington during the events of January 6. The display of a banner used at a failed insurrection as a pseudo-sacrosanct relic meant to convey solemnity and renewed loyalty has been used before, notably by the Nazi party after its failed 1923 putsch against the German state.

Bannon has had plans to attend even more events, including the now-canceled November 16 “prayer rally” organized by Saint Michael’s Media, better known as the Church Militant, in Baltimore—canceled because the city reportedly worried about rioting. Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos were scheduled to speak at it. While the event has been canceled, it is worth bearing in mind Bannon’s links to far-right Catholic groups—especially after his failed bid to purchase a derelict abbey in Italy in hopes of turning it into an “insurgent political training camp.”

On his podcast, in his speeches, and in his interviews, Steve Bannon combines anti-democratic claims: the election was stolen, the insurrection was peaceful, we will build a centennial dynasty that cannot be shaken. This fascistic message is not new: Bannon has had a clear mission for years, both before, during, and after his time working with Trump. His vision is ultranationalist, deeply racist, and aggressively linked to far-right Christian ideologies.

Bannon has called himself a Leninist, specifically in his desire to destroy the state, and we should take him at his word. He was apparently one of the architects of the January 6th coup attempt, and he remains a continuing threat to our democracy. If the 2020 election and the January 6th insurrection are becoming the “New Lost Cause” of the GOP, Bannon wants to organize its new fascist apparatus. The charge of contempt of Congress is a good start. But will it be enough?

Thomas Lecaque and J.L. Tomlin

Thomas Lecaque is an associate professor of history at Grand View University. Twitter: @tlecaque. J.L. Tomlin is a lecturer of American history at the University of North Texas. Twitter: @JLoganTomlin.