VENICE, Italy—Those who loudly objected to Steve Bannon’s scheduled appearance at The New Yorker Festival, from writer Roxane Gay to comedy god Judd Apatow, are not going to be thrilled with Errol Morris’ new film.
Titled American Dharma, the renowned filmmaker’s documentary consists of a lengthy sit-down interview between Morris and Bannon, tracing the latter’s journey to the Trump White House, with stops at Wall Street, Hollywood, and Breitbart along the way. Bannon’s saga—and so-called economic populist mission—is articulated through the prism of classical Hollywood cinema, including perhaps his favorite film, the World War II drama Twelve O’Clock High. Unlike Morris’ previous political docu-subjects, Robert McNamara in The Fog of War and Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, Bannon was not subjected to the Interrotron; rather, the two cinephiles are seated across the table from each other in an airplane hangar.
That’s a far less glamorous setting than our tête-à-tête, which took place inside the self-styled man-of-the-people’s luxury suite at Gritti Palace, a five-star hotel on Venice’s Grand Canal where rooms cost a minimum of $1,400 a night during the Venice Film Festival, the site of Dharma’s premiere.
“It never gave me the impression of being this gotcha film,” Bannon says of Dharma.
He’s right. Despite subjecting Bannon to 18 hours of interviews over three days, Morris mostly cedes the floor to a man whom many have branded a “white nationalist,” granting him a big ol’ platform to preach his controversial doctrine, one that is spreading like wildfire across Europe.
“Did I struggle with the question?” Morris said of whether he should make a film about Bannon. “The answer is yes. If the question is, am I still struggling with it? The answer would be yes.”
Over nearly two hours, The Daily Beast spoke with Bannon about the alt-right, the Trump administration, and his so-called dharma.
In American Dharma, Errol mostly let you have the floor—far more so than McNamara in The Fog of War and Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known.
I think he wanted to have a development of these ideas. When I saw it, I thought it was pretty balanced between him not just asking the question but asking the follow-up, the rejoinder.
But it’s Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, and Steve Bannon. You don’t think there’s a theme running through these films—and subjects?
No, I just didn’t. I see it as different. Those are much bigger historical figures. I don’t think there’s any doubt. Rumsfeld is a much bigger historical figure than me—we’re not even in the same ballpark. Not just everything he did during the administrations as secretary of defense but with Bush, look at the whole Iraq War. That changed modern history.
You brought up Bush. How did you feel about the spectacle of John McCain’s funeral? The media coverage of it was kind of nuts.
Kind of? It’s not just the coverage of it, but it’s also the way it was set up and the way it was crafted. This was the High Holy Days. This permanent political class, you saw them there at this funeral. This was High Civic Religion, the High Holy Days. Trump didn’t create North Korea. He didn’t create Afghanistan. He didn’t create Iran. He didn’t create Venezuela. That was all dumped on him by that crowd that was there. The geniuses. And I’m not picking on any political party, it is the permanent political class. The Bush administration will go down as the single worst administration in the history of the country, including James Buchanan: 9/11, the Iraq War, the financial crisis, the rise of China, the whole thing.
So you think George W. Bush was a considerably worse president than Obama.
They’re not even in the same ballpark. And I think Obama was generally a disaster. Look, the elites in our country, it’s about managing a process…
…Trump is an “elite” though, right?
No, he’s not at all. He’s… he’s definitely a populist. Always been an outsider.
But he’s a billionaire with a superrich father. The guy inherited tens of millions—maybe more—from his father.
But that doesn’t… it’s not… he’s a guy from Queens.
Have you seen his penthouse apartment in Manhattan? The thing is solid gold, overlooks Central Park, and is worth over $100 million.
You don’t think that constitutes “elite”? It’s one of the nicest apartments in Manhattan. It’s a $100 million, three-story, solid-gold penthouse.
It’s a nice crib. But “elite” is not just about wealth, it’s about mind-set. Trump connects with working-class people and lower-middle-class people. The problem I had with the High Holy Days is, look, you could hate Trump’s guts, you could think he’s the worst fuckin’ individual in the world. He just got elected president of the United States, whether you like it or not. And the High Holy Days, the problem I had with it, he’s commander-in-chief. I don’t care if you fuckin’ hate him, he’s gotta be there. You gotta invite the commander-in-chief to the funeral. You gotta invite the president of the United States to the funeral.
Even after all the horrible things Trump’s said about the guy, you still think [McCain]’s obligated to invite him to his funeral?
John McCain would not be a senator, and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be buried lying in state, if Donald Trump hadn’t bailed him out in the spring of 2016. Let’s be quite frank about McCain’s career. In 2010, he was going to lose in a primary to that sheriff, Babeu, until Sarah Palin came out and endorsed him and put his shoulder to him. [Editor’s Note: Babeu never ran for Senate, and McCain was the front-runner.] People like myself and others in the Tea Party said, “No, don’t endorse this guy.” She said, “This guy tapped me on the shoulder when I was a nobody, and I owe a loyalty to him, and I will do this.” And then Trump came in and bailed him out against Kelli Ward in ’16.
You were in the Navy and your daughter’s in the Army. How did you feel about the things Trump said about McCain’s service? About how he’s “not a war hero” and “I like people that weren’t captured”?
What upset me at the time was the thing about “I like the ones that are not caught.” It didn’t wash with me. I didn’t think Trump had to make an apology, but I thought he should have addressed it with Senator McCain. Look, as a naval officer, I never doubted McCain’s heroism. He’s a hero.
OK, but how do you square Trump’s McCain comments with his own lack of service? How do you square those comments with the fact that Trump dodged the Vietnam draft?
That’s not… I mean, did he dodge it any more than Bill Clinton? Bill Clinton is an active draft-dodger. And… I don’t think it’s been any requirement that a president actually has to serve in combat.
But I want to know what your thoughts are on Trump dodging compulsory military service.
I don’t know… I don’t agree with that at all. I don’t think that, given the time and the circumstance, and what he did for his, ugh, you know, for health reasons, it’s dodging it at all.
He still has heel spurs?
I have not checked. But I don’t see it any more dodging than, what was my understanding was that it was a fairly low number—or a fairly high number. They were all student deferments, and medical on the bone spurs. Dick Cheney took six. I’ve never pointed for those guys to do it. And I think that people in the service understand that, if you look at Washington today, how many of them actually serve? Of the 16 people who ran for president in the latest election, I don’t think any of them served. [Editor’s Note: Republican candidates Rick Perry, Jim Gilmore, and Lindsey Graham all served in the U.S. military.]
You argue in American Dharma, though, that it is the elites in America who help usher in these wars and then don’t fight in them. And Trump is an example of that.
I don’t agree with that at all. In Vietnam, like I said, he took student deferments that were open to anybody, and Bill Clinton took them too. If you look at soldiers, sailors, Marines, police officers, EMTs, there’s nobody who’s connected more with these guys than Trump.
Let’s talk about the recent New Yorker snafu. You were formally invited by Remnick…
Let’s get the facts straight: For a year—for one year—they came to me virtually every week or every other week [pitching] various things, and then in June they came up with an idea to do this live-events thing which I’d never heard of, honestly. They sent a letter that said, “We’d be honored to have you, we’ll make a whole evening of it.” They said something in the letter about an honorarium, and I said, “Whatever they want to do. Whatever they think is appropriate.” And then every week, for seven weeks, they were on us like, “You gotta do this,” and I was trying to get my schedule straight. Finally in mid-August, they said, “Hey, we really need you,” and I told my staff, “Whatever they need. I’m free that day.” And right up until the thing the other day, they kept telling me, “We’ve gotta get your picture, we need your bio…” I told Remnick: “The reason I did this is you’re one of the most fearless guys, and no offense to a handful of comedians or a howling mob on Twitter, but you should have thought this through more.” I also fail to believe that David Remnick and the senior people that put this together hadn’t informed the staff. I fail to believe that. This is one of their biggest events of the year. And it’s been [planned] since June!
The reason that so many people objected to your speaking at The New Yorker Festival is because you’ve been branded a white nationalist.
That’s just laziness. That shows you… It’s like being an “anti-Semite.” I started Breitbart Jerusalem, have done more to identify the plight of the Jews in Europe, have done more about coverage of the BDS movement in the United States and the problem of Jewish kids being tormented at colleges and universities.
But you hired Milo Yiannopoulos at Breibart, didn’t you?
He went by “Milo Wagner” before. He was a Nazi fetishist who wore an Iron Cross.
I did not know that. He ran the tech coverage for us at the time, and his thing was exposing the narcissism of Silicon Valley.
But do you regret bringing on Milo to Breitbart?
No. Not at all. I think that if I had remained at Breitbart—because I thought Milo’s best days were when I was there. Milo needed to be controlled.
I think your hiring of Milo is indefensible.
What’s indefensible? Up until August 14 of 2016…
That clip of Milo defending hebephilia was from a 2015 interview with Joe Rogan. It was an old clip. It resurfaced after he was announced as a CPAC headliner. You think that clip is defensible?
I didn’t say it’s defensible, and the Breitbart guys had to do what they had to do at the time.
But then how do you hire someone who espouses those views?
Well, when you talk about that, in our due diligence we didn’t find that.
No, my question was whether you regretted bringing Milo on to Breitbart. Basically, looking back and knowing all these things about him, would you hire him again?
Oh, no, no, no. With everything that came out, no. I’m sorry. I had no regrets at the time hiring him, and properly managed, I thought he did a great job. I thought he did a great job until August of 2016, and I didn’t focus on it much after that.
You mentioned earlier about being branded an anti-Semite, and I think some of that stems from your divorce, and the details that came out. Your ex-wife claimed that you didn’t want to enroll your children in the Archer School because there were too many Jews there.
Which is total nonsense. It’s total nonsense. I was an advocate of putting them in Archer School, and they went there, and they had a great experience, and they graduated from there. By the way, not if you talk to Ron Dermer, if you talk to all the Jewish guys I’ve ever worked with, if you talk to the guys in Israel, if you talk to anybody in the Middle East, if you talk to anybody in Europe, Klein and all the guys I started Breitbart Jerusalem with.
Many of these far-right movements that you’re boosting in Europe are not the biggest fans of the Jews, to put it mildly.
Give me an example.
What do you mean? The National Front in France, in Hungary.
I disagree with that. Orban and the guys in his movement would say the exact opposite. They’ve met with the prime minister in Israel. And one of these guys I’m working with in this movement is Jewish. One of the central things we’re doing in this is to make sure that nobody has any anti-Semitic tendencies. The plight of the Jews in Europe is to me a crisis that nobody’s focused on. It’s one of the reasons I’m spending this time over here, is because the Jewish population in Europe is in a crisis.
But Breitbart has cultivated such a large neo-Nazi, white nationalist following.
What do you mean white nationalists, neo-Nazis? That’s just a flat-out lie. That’s bullshit.
I’ll go into the comments section of Breitbart and I’ll see all kinds of crazy anti-Semitic shit.
No, because the comments section—that’s called freedom of speech. That’s why. And by the way, when I left it was the most-commented section of anything in the world. Breitbart, by the way, is a middle-class and working-class site.
So you don’t think it’s cultivated a large white nationalist following?
That’s complete, total nonsense and bullshit. When I left, it had 25 or 30 million unique visitors a month. That’s just flat-out Daily Beast bullshit. “A large white nationalist following”? I say this time and time and time again: the neo-Nazis, the neo-Confederates, and the KKK are an infinitesimal number of cranks, and they’re only loud because the mainstream media gives them a platform and a voice.
No, they have platforms. Everyone has a platform now. Social media is the platform.
Yeah, but Twitter? Who gives a shit? The neo-Nazis on Twitter? You’ve got to follow them and link to them. It’s all nonsense. The mainstream media wants them because you can’t deal with economic nationalism, you can’t deal with right-wing populism. It has nothing to do with race.
Do you think [Trump chief of staff John Kelly] is in trouble? I’m sure you’ve heard, but some pretty damning excerpts have been released from Woodward’s book that basically have Kelly shitting on Trump, calling him an “idiot,” and saying being his chief of staff is the worst job he’s ever had.
Look, I was friendly with General Kelly. I think very highly of General Kelly. Do I think that as chief of staff he may have cut down the information to the president too much? I think it’s obvious. But knowing General Kelly like I know him, I can’t believe General Kelly said that. The worst job he ever had, given that General Kelly was the guy that went to the Anbar province to clean it up, which was the toughest tribe, and had to see all the death and destruction he saw there, I can’t imagine General Kelly ever saying that. And General Kelly, in front of people, disrespecting the president? It’s just not General Kelly’s stripe.
You got pretty railroaded by a book too. In Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, he had you saying some things that we’ve since heard rubbed Trump the wrong way.
Is this about the movie, or is this about… because I don’t want to go over Fire and Fury.
Well, the film does touch on your leaving the White House and I think this plays into it. There were two things in particular that seemed to draw his ire. One was calling Ivanka “dumb,” and the other was calling the Trump Tower meeting “treasonous.”
I’ve corrected that since then.
But did you say those things to Wolff?
I have not… I haven’t read the book, and don’t remember ever talking to Wolff about any of the [Trump Tower] stuff. But I might have. I don’t know. Don’t remember.
And the Ivanka thing, did you say that?
Don’t remember. Like I said, I haven’t read the book. But anything I said about the Trump Tower meeting was directed at Paul Manafort, a professional. He should have known better than that. I still stand by that.
Things are looking pretty bad for Manafort—and his ostrich jacket.
On that thing is that, you know, the government went and had a chance to prove their case, and a jury found a mistrial on half of the charges…
… I mean, that’s not how it works, though.
And Paul got banged on the other charges.
Eight charges. But in light of this, how do you think things are looking for the Trump administration?
First off, the whole thing is: Where’s the Russian collusion? There are committees on the Hill asking for subpoenas, and I’ve said from Day 1 that Rosenstein should execute on those subpoenas and turn over all those documents on Crossfire Hurricane. Back in the ’70s when we had the Church Committee, the liberal media weren’t being the mouthpieces for the CIA and the FBI, they were investigating them. Now they want to look the other way. And with Crossfire Hurricane, it’s not me subpoenaing these things, it’s multiple committees on Capitol Hill saying that that stuff should be reviewed. And there’s been nothing that’s come up on collusion.
But we haven’t even seen the results of the investigation.
We haven’t seen the results. OK. If the collusion is firing Comey, or saying bad stuff about Jeff Sessions, or the Air Force One thing, if that’s the best they got, then you oughta get it out there and let the American people vote on Nov. 6 and we’ll see what happens.
Let’s go back to American Dharma for a second. There’s a lot of talk in the film about your mission to take on the “elites,” but Trump’s initial Cabinet was worth what, $15 billion? How do you square that?
Well, first of all, they’re all self-made people.
Elaine Chao and Betsy DeVos are self-made people? They come from family money.
OK, but no, come on, just because they’re successful doesn’t mean they’re part of the American elite.
It doesn’t mean that they’re part of the elite, and it also doesn’t mean that they did not go along 100 percent with Donald Trump’s populist program.
But if they’re billionaires, how does that not make them part of the elite? What makes someone elite?
If you’re self-made. Donald Trump is not part of the American elite. Donald Trump has always been an outsider.
But he’s not self-made.
Donald Trump is totally self-made. He took a small grubstake of his father. His father gave him, what, $100 million? $50 million? $40 million?
He inherited a lot of money when his father died, too. I’m not exactly sure how much.
And he’s worth, what, $7 to $10 billion today?
Oh, he’s not worth that much. Come on.
Trump is a self-made man. A self-made man.
You really think that? When you have a father who’s worth several hundred million dollars, and who gives you millions, and you start off working for your father’s company?
He’s totally self-made. And by the way, his father’s company was an apartment company over in Queens. He brought it to Manhattan and built some of the greatest projects in America. How can you sit there and say the guy’s not self-made?
Because he’s not self-made. He’s an heir. I’m from New York.
This is the continual thing on the left, just trying to tear this guy down every time. And this is why the Trump voter just totally rejects you guys.