Errol Morris, one of the great documentary filmmakers, has sat down with men from the halls of power for years. In his new film, American Dharma, Morris faces Steve Bannon, one of the darker lingering figures of our very recent collective history. If some of the world’s major publications were a bit more astute they would have long ago tagged Bannon as the person of the year, if not the decade. An argument can be made that Bannon is the most dangerous man in the world. Known primarily as the odd right-wing firebrand who helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election, and before that as the head of the infamous website Breitbart News, Bannon’s shadow casts over every major gain by an emerging, new proto-fascism. In Brazil he consulted the campaign of Jair Bolsonaro, in Europe he rubs shoulders with Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, power players united in their paranoid policies aimed at immigrants and leftists. What sets Bannon apart from the stereotypical Trump aficionado, if not Trump himself, is that he is an actual ideologue, a reactionary internationalist designed for a postmodern world.
In American Dharma, the portrait Morris builds of Bannon via his words is of a strange, hybrid radical produced out of classic Americana. The subject sits inside a mock air force hanger, dressed in a green combat-style jacket, scruffy but with a rather ominous demeanor. There is a rapidity in how he tells his story. Bannon is a working class product of Norman Rockwell neighborhoods who served in the Navy before getting into banking, the film business and finally casting aside pretentions of being an elite to instead use his money to fuel a rage aimed at reshaping the U.S. into a battleground of classes. The infamous site Breitbart News became his outlet as its main editor before reaching the imperial White House as Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist. It was Bannon who molded Trump’s 2016 campaign into a nationalist bulldozer focused on immigration and class warfare.
One senses the nervousness in Morris’s voice during the film as he attempts to comprehend Bannon and his philosophy. Now, when Morris talks about the documentary — which struggled to find a distributor after an explosive festival run during which detractors accused the renowned filmmaker of giving Bannon a platform — he still sounds like someone pondering an odd experience.
“I don’t know if there’s such a thing as ‘the perfect subject’ for anything, but I felt he was the architect of Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, and that story in and of itself is of enormous interest,” says Morris while recounting the documentary’s origins. “How did it happen? Was it conspiracy? Was Bannon that one individual who had engineered it or made it possible? All of these questions of great interest, at least to me.” In American Dharma, Bannon describes Trump more as a means to an end, the proper tool to begin a wave that will destroy an ossified system in which liberalism has degraded values personified in films Bannon loves, like 12 O’ Clock High and The Searchers. In one disturbingly evocative moment, Bannon, as if on the verge of tears, describes visiting his daughter at West Point and discovering that sports uniforms have “Made in Vietnam” labels. For Bannon, it is an example of how previous conflicts have now been trivialized by globalization. How does one then feel when meeting with a man like this?
“It was endlessly fascinating. When I make a movie I’m essentially investigating something, trying to find out about something I don’t know. With Bannon he was such a mystery to me. What really is his thinking? What is his motivation? Is he a true believer in his own ideology? Is he a snake oil salesman simply interested in promoting himself? Who is he? What’s going on here? If anything that was the principle reason for making the movie.”
So upfront is Bannon of his worldview, which is based on a nationalist drive to isolate the nation from foreign toxins in terms of economic influence and the influx of unskilled workers, that it’s almost astonishing to discover he gave Morris no restrictions. “There was no agreement. We could talk about anything and everything. I’ve never had agreements or restrictions, like ‘you can’t talk about this or that.’”
In previous documentaries like The Fog of War and The Unknown Known, Morris profiled two other figures of particular notoriety. In the first, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara outlines the history and follies that led to the Vietnam war. In the second, a less remorseful Donald Rumsfeld attempts to justify his role in the Iraq catastrophe. How does Bannon, a different architect of unsavory history, compare? “They’re all different. Every single one of them is different. Bannon was different from McNamara and Rumsfeld because you’re dealing with an open wound, I don’t know how better to describe it. For many people, including myself, the 2016 election was a nightmare, a disaster. And how to understand it, how to reckon with it, for me Bannon was not the only key but a key, a way in, a way of understanding what happened and if you like a way of preventing it from happening again.”
Yet unlike the previously mentioned men, Bannon comes across as a militant, a radical who has invested the money he’s made into a cause bent on overturning the world. In a sense he operates like a revolutionary. “I wouldn’t even say ‘in a sense,’ I think you’re absolutely correct. There’s almost a Leninist quality to it, ‘to the Finland station!’ We’re going to take society apart and reconstitute it in some radically different way. He talks explicitly about revolution, in warlike terms, clearing the underbrush, tearing it down. He describes Trump as an ‘armor-piercing shell.’ That’s at the essence of the movie that I made. At the heart of all of this posturing and ideology, there’s a destructive impulse.”
What fuels a modern right-wing revolutionary? Bannon’s fierce views are fed by a wide fauna of ideas ranging from fascistic Italian mystic Julius Evola to the ideas in the book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which suggests historical patterns can be approached in a seasonal vision. Bannon seems to have combined what he knit picks into a convoluted canvas. “I agree. I like the way you just described it, it is kind of a strange hodge podge of stuff that doesn’t cohere, that doesn’t make sense. You have a bit of Catholic ideology here, a bit of Hindu philosophy there, the whole idea of ‘the four turnings,’ the use of the term ‘dharma.’ But when you come down to it, none of it really makes sense. It doesn’t make sense to call yourself a populist when you go to Harvard Business School, work for Goldman Sachs and take money from fascist billionaires. None of it makes any kind of sense. I felt I was dealing with a snake oil salesman.”
When American Dharma first screened at several major festivals the initial reaction was a curious sort of meltdown as critics lambasted Morris for supposedly giving Bannon a platform. Now that it is playing in limited engagements, the urgency of Morris’s film deserves a more sober discussion. To allow Bannon to speak gives the viewer a window into not just this particular individual, but into an emerging mindset of those seeking to reform the world along reactionary lines. His is a radical creed, as dark and misshapen as it may appear, and it shook the world on election night 2016. American Dharma warns us that we mock Bannon at our own peril.