If for some reason you haven’t seen Die Hard, it’s a movie about a gang of thieves who hold an office building hostage to perpetrate a robbery. Except part of the plan to get away with it involves pretending to be ideologically motivated terrorists. At one point the ringleader, Hans Gruber, is speaking on the phone with an FBI negotiator and rattles off a list of political prisoners being held around the world whose release he is demanding.
It’s just a stalling tactic, designed to get the authorities spinning their wheels for no reason. After rattling off the list, Gruber confesses to a confederate that one of the groups of imprisoned terrorists he’s claiming allegiance to is something he read about in Time magazine recently.
That’s what I thought about when I read today that Steve Bannon made a public appearance at CPAC dressed up in a special black-on-black costume to proclaim that his true purpose is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
He presumably meant that he wants to destroy the administrative state, not apply literary theory inspired by Jacques Derrida to it. Which would just be another way of saying that he’s a Republican Party political strategist who favors less regulation, just like all Republicans for the past 40 years.
I guess he means that he’s more extreme and hard-core in his libertarian economic commitments. But back in his bombastic November 18 Wall Street Journal interview, Bannon explained he’s an “economic nationalist … an America First guy,” so not at all a libertarian — and also not an ethnic nationalist. But back in July, he told Sarah Posner that his website was “a platform for the alt-right” — in other words, for ethnic nationalism. In 2014, though, Bannon was making a pitch for an explicitly Christian conservatism, arguing that libertarianism and secularism had “sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals.”
Then again, in another post-election interview, Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter that “Darkness is good … Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”
Get it? Well I don’t get it either. And, frankly, I don’t think Bannon spends much time worrying about how he plans to implement an economic program of “America first” nationalism without an administrative state. Or why the Judeo-Christian West is good but Mexico is bad. And of course Bannon isn’t a Satanist. But he knows Satan gets the best lines in Paradise Lost and everyone knows that Darth Vader is a cool badass character and Luke is a lame weenie. But there’s no grand ideological vision here; it’s marketing and clickbait and sloganeering and self-puffery.
At one point, Holly McLane confronts Gruber, saying, “after all your posturing, all your little speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.”
Gruber retorts, “I’m an exceptional thief.”
And by the same token, just because Bannon is talking nonsense doesn’t mean he isn’t good at it. Breitbart isn’t good journalism, but it’s certainly been successful at building an audience. Trump isn’t popular, but he won. And to say that Bannon is kind of a faker — it’s entirely vacuous to rant against “the establishment” while sitting in the West Wing of the White House celebrating a stock market boom — isn’t to say that he can’t do harm.
Gruber was only a fake terrorist, but the hostages he took were very real and he killed a bunch of people. Bannon, by the same token, may be a fake ideologue — but his sporadic embrace of various ideologies, whether Islamophobia or nationalism or deregulatory mania still has real, and often dire, consequences for people's lives.