In 2004 I covered the American Film Renaissance in Dallas, a conservative film festival organized in part in response to the documentary advocacy of Michael Moore whose Fahrenheit 9/11 had hit theaters that same year.
The festival represented a cultural counteroffensive of sorts, mounted by a new generation of conservatives who aimed to co-opt the language of countercultural agit-prop which until then had mainly been the prerogative of the left. Like similar initiatives (for instance the Liberty Film Festivals organized in Hollywood by Govindini Murty and Jason Apuzzo) the stated intent was to seize the initiative from the liberal elites which were to become relived tropes of Trumpian rhetoric.
Not even the most optimistic of the young lions gathered in Dallas at the time could have imagined all-encompassing success to be so nigh. In those neocon times ideological conservatives were content to criticize the Bush administration and the Republican establishment from the right. But the seeds were being sown for the alt-right movement which a mere dozen years on was to storm the most powerful government in the world and install Steve Bannon as its figurehead.
In the festival program of mediocre propaganda documentaries and religiously themed films, one stood out that year: Michael Moore Hates America, a parody of Moore’s Roger & Me directed by Michael Wilson. When I interviewed him back then, Wilson had the soft-spoken, grad student demeanor of the well-read young conservative, only becoming visibly impassioned on the subject of Ayn Rand, whom, like many festival participants, he venerated as the spiritual fountainhead of the doctrine then emerging as major ideological current in the new right.
Rand, a jewish Russian exile, had fled her Bolshevik homeland arriving in Chicago in 1925. Subsequently landing studio jobs in Cecil B DeMille’s Hollywood, she had found some modest success as a screenwriter before going on to articulate her mystical proto-libertarian doctrine in novels like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The “objectivism” which she founded postulated a neo-Hobbesian society diametrically opposite to the communist egalitarianism she had escaped. Her starkly Manichaean vision an Darwinist concept of individual achievement has influenced successive incarnations of American conservatism and was emerging as a driving force of the resurgent libertarian strain on the right.
One of the interviewees in Wilson’s film was another young Turk of the new conservatism, Andrew Breitbart, who a couple of years later would go on to found the website destined to become the portal of the alt-right.
Burning with the zeal of the converted (he had initially been a left-leaning liberal arts student) he had the instinctive pop-cultural grasp of his generation and Brentwood-raised station. He also had Hollywood connections. One of them, Bannon, had parlayed a Goldman Sachs career into a venture of mid-level Hollywood financing, making his fortune after securing a portion of the returns on Seinfeld reruns.
Bannon and Breitbart were friends and political soulmates, sharing a deeply reactionary world view and a vocation as cultural warriors. Breitbart was an early internet adopter, participating in the founding of both The Huffington Post and Drudge Report and intuiting that the web afforded a dynamic platform on which a new, aggressive brand of alt-right libertarianism would flourish.
Bannon made movies – the kind that would have screened at festivals like AFR.
The first film released in 2014, the very year of that first edition in Dallas, bore the lurid title In The Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed and a blockbuster-style tagline: “Good versus evil in this epic tale which chronicles Ronald Reagan’s crusade to destroy the most tyrannical and depraved political systems the world has ever known.” Hollywood salesmanship aside, it paid tribute to two sacrosanct mainstays of conservatism: the cult of Reagan and that of war as the paradigm for political conflict.
More films would follow as director and producer: Cochise County and Border War framed the complex historical issues surrounding the immigration “crisis” as an invasion and (again) all-out war. Deploying rhetoric which would become the basis for Trump’s populist demagogy a decade later, Bannon stoked a siege mentality with color-corrected imagery of hordes overrunning the southern border. Other Bannon films, some under the banner of Citizens United Productions, used heavy handed propaganda to lionize the Tea Party (Battle for America), and Sarah Palin (Undefeated) and to discredit the Occupy movement (Occupy Unmasked) – the latter two both saw the personal participation of Breitbart.
The Bannon/Breitbart filmography is a blueprint for fringe ideology, a dark and dystopian worldview that seeks to whip up fear and paranoia around the “multiculturalism” which is corroding the nation’s original Judaeo-Christian virtue.
The conservative film movement sought to mobilize the Republican base which after Obama’s wins would coalesce into the Tea Party. To further stoke the revolt against Obama, Bannon produced Battle for America. In that film right-wing luminaries like Dick Morris, Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich warn among other things that “In 2008 America entered a battle,” “America is in crisis” and “We’re facing a new culture war.” The film produced to mobilize conservative voters in the 2010 midterm election was meant as a “battle cry to take back the country,” but it is safe to assume that even Bannon would not have predicted that a mere seven years later the Donald Trump anomaly would have allowed his side to “take back” the country – and that he himself would have been swept into the White House’s inner sanctum.
Meanwhile, Breitbart concentrated on the internet. Breitbart.com (like the sister sites Big Hollywood, Big Journalism and Big Government) adopted the “anger format” and incendiary rhetoric of AM radio shock jocks. On the web, conspiracy theorism, anti-élitist rancor and white male resentment were “weaponized” by the feedback loop of anonymous commentary. Trolls amplified an acrimonious distaste for social entitlement, welfare, LGBT culture, feminism and, of course, the favorite catch-all term, “political correctness,” whose denigration came to define the latest generation culture wars of the alt-right and ultimately Trumpism.
Breitbart endeavored to make conservatism proactive, embracing birtherism and offering a platform to provocations like the ACORN undercover sting staged by Breitbart contributor James O’ Keefe to denounce the very concept of community organizing and the president most connected to that idea: Barack Obama.
Taking full advantage of social media, the Breitbart target skewed young, nerd and tech, an echo chamber for insult trolls partly overlapping gamer and tech circles. The “gamergate” incident proved the heavily masculine bias of what some dubbed the manosphere and the new virulent misogyny endemic in alt-right circles. Under the guise of feminist critique and healthy political incorrectness, vicious campaigns were unleashed like the ones against the original gamergate targets (feminists and female game developers) or the trolling persecution of SNL comedienne Leslie Jones, which got alt-right provocateur and Breitbart alum Milo Yiannopoulos banned from Twitter.
Breitbart is a bile-mill which established gender as a principal fault in the current political fracture. It is no coincidence that the early anti-Trump opposition coalesced in the Women’s Marches.
Bannon was at his friend’s side throughout, co-founding the website of which he would become the editor after Breitbart’s sudden death in 2012. Declaring the site a portal for the alt-right, he would consolidate and expand its anti-global, no-gov, traditional values platform and amplify its dogwhistle appeal to white supremacists. Bannon oversaw a coalition-building effort which would radicalize traditional values evangelism, white rage and ethno-nationalism.
“I’m not a white nationalist, I’m an economic nationalist,” Bannon would later declare in one of the first post-victory interviews, given to the Hollywood Reporter (still the “hometown paper,” after all, for the master propagandist). But it was purely a matter of semantics.
By then transcripts had circulated from the remarks Bannon had made at a 2014 conference of fundamentalist Catholics in the Vatican. They outlined his apocalyptic political and cultural views. “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” Bannon told the cabal of assembled traditionalists, “of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
Bannon fleshed out a millenarianist conception of a Western Civilization in crisis, facing a downfall which had started with the demise of Victorianism and the dawn of modernity. Warning of this danger, he said, had been Breitbart News’ organizing principle from the start. The world conservative movement’s aim, he added, must be to reclaim the original virtue of Judaeo–Christian capitalism, in short, a manifest destiny of a superior West.
This was well beyond even the cult of Rand in the libertarian right I had encountered a decade earlier.
No longer are these the dark musings of fringe trolls and provocateurs, but extreme ideas now articulated from the halls of the world’s most powerful government.
Ideas which suddenly illuminate the choice of immigration as the first Trump battleground. In Bannon’s vision, bans, walls and eventual deportations are clearly a bid to stem cultural miscegenation and an unfavorable demographic tide. A plan to neutralize both imaginary “illegal votes” and actually inhibit minority voting are tasks which will fall principally to attorney general Jeff Sessions, eager to complete the rollback of the Voting Rights Act. After leveraging the Electoral College to effectively “take back America” from its popular electorate, it is the right’s prescription to consolidate power in spite of constituting the minority. This week’s quiet demise of the federal Election Assistance Commission is not a coincidence. A bolstering of gerrymandering will complete the plan.
Last month, with their man finally ensconced in the High Tower, yesterday’s culture war marauders gathered at an inauguration eve celebration in Washington.
The “Deploraball” guest list read like a reunion of Breitbart alumni: manosphere trollmaster Mike Cernovich, ACORN saboteur James O Keefe, fake newser Michael Flynn Jr., conspiracist Alex Jones and dirty trickster and Trump biographer Roger Stone.
Stone told The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray: “We are now the mainstream. CNN and The New York Times — they are the fringe.” An apt snapshot of America, circa 2017.