This is a scary time for America. The country is radically changing and tribalism is ripping us apart as the forces of white nationalism try to put a stranglehold on the Republican Party to steer the country even further to the right. In these scary times, it’s understandable to want to seek out knowledge and answers as a balm and a way to fight back. Unfortunately for director Errol Morris and his new documentary American Dharma, he attempts to seek answers from Trump campaign manager, former Trump adviser, and former head of Breitbart, Steve Bannon. What quickly becomes apparent is that Bannon believes he’s a deep thinker except all of his answers come back to the necessity of destruction and oncoming revolution. Instead of appearing as a fascinating contradiction—a self-styled revolutionary who rails against “the establishment” yet promoting conservative values—Bannon shows he’s only half-smart. He’s read some books and seen some movies, but he fails to grasp his place in history or the consequences of his actions.
Morris frames his movie with all the pomp and circumstance for a figure who has actually accomplished something, so it only serves to make Bannon smaller and more ridiculous. Speaking to Bannon in an aircraft carrier and invoking the 1949 war movie Twelve O’Clock High, Bannon sees himself as a general leading the forces of populism against the government establishment that brought us to war and economic ruin. Bannon then talks a bit about his past, how he got involved with Breitbart, his relationship to the Trump campaign, his time as one of Trump’s top advisers, and how he’s trying to bring his nationalistic message to Europe.
What becomes clear early on is that Bannon does have a key talent, which is understanding the new media landscape and wielding it to his advantage. Morris sees this as well as he’ll take major news stories and litter them with social media reactions from Facebook and Twitter. For Bannon, he truly was out ahead when it came to online communities that he could weaponize using fear and anger in service of his anti-establishment, pro-nationalism ideals that were represented by Trump. In a world where the news media can only focus on so many stories, a blunt instrument like Trump is arguably better than a scalpel in today’s landscape.
And yet what’s far more apparent is that while Bannon can talk at length, he’s not a deep thinker. He fails to grasp key contradictions in his platform and beliefs, and frustratingly, Morris never calls him on it. For example, Bannon’s origin story is about how one of his coaches in high school lost a son in Vietnam, and Bannon was outraged when he saw that the uniforms for his daughter’s basketball team were made in Vietnam. In this anecdote, Bannon sees a representation of an establishment that goes to war, kills tens of thousands of Americans, and then turns around and establishes trade to the benefit of the “elites”. So what does it say that Bannon gladly went to work for Donald Trump, who slapped his name on Trump Shirts that were made in China, Bangladesh, Honduras, and, yes, Vietnam.
These hypocrisies surface again and again where Bannon pretends like he’s fighting for the little guy, and yet all of his actions are in serving the powerful and the protected. Bannon sees himself as a warrior, but all of his beliefs come back to some nebulous form of “destruction”. He wants to bring down the system and take down the elites in service of “the people”, but his actions betray someone who has no idea how to build anything. When he gladly takes pride in the travel ban that kicked off the Trump administration, he says they wanted to “flood the zone”, and from a media perspective, it was a big move. It got attention. But that’s the difference between campaigning and governing, and it’s painfully obvious that Bannon has no idea what governing means.
If Steve Bannon had been serious about the travel ban that he and hobgoblin Stephen Miller concocted and launched in the first week of the Trump Administration, they wouldn’t have rolled it out in such a sloppy manner. They would have gotten buy-in from the important players, made sure they were buttoned up legally, and laid the groundwork for victory. Instead, it was a hasty executive order that made a lot of noise and hardened beliefs among opponents that Trump wasn’t prepared to govern, but he was prepared to punish Muslim countries. It was a great move if you wanted to please Breitbart readers and Trump’s base, but poorly executed if you wanted to achieve a tangible goal.
And that’s why Morris’ fear of Bannon strikes me as bizarre. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Bannon seems surprised and disgusted that Morris voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, and when he asks why, Morris says that he did it because he was afraid of Trump and afraid of Bannon and that Clinton had the best shot of winning. I used to share Morris’ fear, but I don’t anymore. I can’t be afraid of someone who was so idiotic that he reached the highest echelons of power and found himself out on his ass in about seven months. Bannon showed he was a lot of talk, but when it came to action—smart, savvy actions that would further a political agenda rather than a media narrative—he was completely lost.
The fatal flaw of American Dharma is that Morris still thinks Bannon is someone worth fearing. He frames his movie with big, dramatic notes, operatic music, and flags on fire. As an interviewer, Morris doesn’t let Bannon go unchallenged, but he also seems to cede the ground that a revolution is indeed coming. Nationalism is objectively (and depressingly) on the march, but it has to do with forces far greater than Steve Bannon. Walking out of American Dharma, I didn’t see Bannon as someone to be feared or celebrated or even a person of consequence. At best, he’s a pundit, no different from the establishment talking heads he claims to despise. But ask him about what he wants to build, the future he wants to create, and he’s got nothing—just some platitudes about “deplorables” and the need for change. Bannon’s not an architect. He’s an arsonist, and anyone can set a fire.
American Dharma does not currently have a release date.