Errol Morris Gets Played by Steve Bannon in ‘American Dharma’
In the famed documentarian’s latest, he largely cedes the floor to the fascistic far-right propagandist and ex-Trump strategist.
We know the story: After Donald Trump won the 2016 election, some liberal politicians, pundits, journalists, and artists sat down in a slump, wrung their hands, and asked themselves: How might we understand?
Notice that the response from most of this group was not: What might we do to protect and fight for those who will be the most affected by this impending administration’s policies? Much of the moral sense of responsibility was left up to activists, rabble-rousers, and those further left on the political spectrum. For those least at risk on the center-left, as well as moderates and a handful of “Never Trump” Republicans, the results of the 2016 election constituted an existential crisis.
Reporters ventured to the Rust Belt to talk to white Midwesterners who had voted for Trump; publishers released books by white writers like Edouard Louis who had grown up in rural areas and were willing to explain “economic anxiety” to the masses; and many lined up for interviews and encounters with Trump campaign strategist and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon.
Notable people who joined the line included Vanity Fair reporter Gabe Sherman, who seems to have him on speed dial; Alison Klayman, who made the fly-on-the-wall Bannon documentary The Brink, which followed him through the 2018 midterm elections; and famed documentarian Errol Morris, best known for his films The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. Morris’s latest documentary, American Dharma, is a portrait of Bannon that focuses on his political career, which is defined by using a largely incoherent set of beliefs to fuel a globally successful propaganda machine. And despite Morris’ mostly feeble attempts to mitigate it, that machine seems to have worked in his film.
American Dharma begins with Bannon’s analysis of the 1949 film Twelve O’Clock High, starring Gregory Peck as a high-ranking general during World War II who encourages his troops to forget themselves and serve, no questions asked. The film was a perfect tool of seduction for a propagandist like Bannon, who knows not only how to manipulate large swaths of beleaguered working-class white people, but also more than a few desperate rich people. World War II itself was mythologized with no room to question the methods employed by the U.S. in pursuit of a noble goal. It took until Barack Obama’s presidency for an apology to be issued to Japan for the atomic-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nostalgic retellings tend to leave out racist harassment and violence back in the U.S. that would continue long after. When Peck tells his men to forget their feelings in Twelve O’Clock High, he’s also asking them to buy into a vision of America that casts the country as one of unimpeachable heroism. Morris doesn’t dig into any of this; he seems to be in rapture.
Morris does pepper in his own questions, rebuttals, and ideas, but when Bannon responds by asking yet more questions (a common destabilizing tactic amongst those who make bad-faith arguments), Morris allows himself to be sidelined by his own befuddlement.
The incredulity of some liberals in the face of common corruption, greed, and malfeasance is a major theme of post-2016 discourse. Morris asks how Bannon could profess to be a populist when he condones the rolling back of environmental protections, corporate greed, and tax breaks for the rich; Bannon doesn’t answer. Morris moves on, back into Bannon’s never-ending movie analysis.
Of course, the simple answer is this: By preaching populism and appealing to the plight of the (white) working class, Bannon buys more time and space to create the kind of world he, personally, would like to live in—which in fact is not one of economic justice for the “common man,” as Morris suspects.
Bannon says that an appeal to identity politics killed Hillary Clinton’s campaign—by speaking out against white supremacy and the alt-right, she moved away from the issues that (white) working-class Americans care about. American Dharma seems to believe this claim, as do many on the left who themselves decry identity politics when practiced by non-whites.
But for all of Bannon’s knowing talk and movie lore, he (likely on purpose) misses history itself. The American political system—with its Electoral College, biased legal system, and many other forms of identity-based discrimination, from voter suppression to gerrymandering—was precisely built so that the white working class would take up their grievances with minorities rather than the rich and powerful; these are the original identity politics on which Bannon has based his career.
Of course, no one wants to believe they’re being conned, especially a documentarian who has made his name by taking on the powerful. But Morris has, over time, become known for being easily swooned by flashy grifters. Most recently and famously, he came under fire for shooting a fawning commercial for Elizabeth Holmes’ infamous health-care startup Theranos. Holmes, who now faces criminal charges for committing and conspiring to commit wire fraud after sending falsified test results to customers, resembles Bannon in her pedigreed background, cocksure manner, and ability to sell. That anyone believed anything Holmes ever said about her supposedly groundbreaking blood-drawing and testing methods was mostly due to her striking look and the fact that she was bold enough to never have earned an MD-Ph.D., let alone completed an undergrad degree. She has the dazzle of an innovator, and in Morris’ commercial, you can feel him being blinded by the light.
So what do we do with Morris’ good intentions, led straight down a path to pseudo-populist hell? The film itself had trouble finding distribution precisely because of its vacuum of ideas that don’t come directly from Bannon’s mouth. This is not a documentary that anyone needs, not even Bannon’s fanboys, who will have already heard the spiel.
Admittedly, mainstream media is often responsible for the continued relevancy of demagogues, cynics, and grifters. And from time to time, I get emails from people who feel that my “fellow journalists” and I ought to do our jobs better by, essentially, telling them what they want to hear. Bannon has succeeded because he knows how to do precisely this while making people feel like he’s actually giving them a tough lesson, like Gregory Peck’s steely general.
One thing existentialist liberals got right post-election was that the pedigreed and professional need not continue condescending to Trump supporters by saying these voters can’t tell what they want from what they need; in fact, certain American liberals, moderates, and their carefully reasoning ilk might also apply that analysis to themselves.