Earlier this month, Steve Bannon, the far-right firebrand, was announced as a headlining speaker at The New Yorker Festival. The decision was met with widespread condemnation on the left, where many view the propagandist, who transformed Breitbart into what he called a “platform for the alt-right” and helped Donald Trump ride a wave of white resentment into the White House, as a “white nationalist.” After several prominent speakers backed out of the gabfest, Judd Apatow, Jim Carrey and John Mulaney among them, New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick chose to cancel their onstage discussion.
In a letter to New Yorker staff, Remnick wrote, “The main argument for not engaging someone like Bannon is that we are giving him a platform and that he will use it, unfiltered, to propel further the ‘ideas’ of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism. But to interview Bannon is not to endorse him.”
Remnick further explained that, after speaking with colleagues, “I’ve changed my mind. There is a better way to do this. Our writers have interviewed Steve Bannon for The New Yorker before, and if the opportunity presents itself I’ll interview him in a more traditionally journalistic setting as we first discussed, and not on stage.”
While the choice of venue was indeed questionable, since including Bannon in a “festival of ideas” can be seen as tacit validation of his agenda, Remnick is right—there is merit to interviewing Bannon, provided it’s a proper journalistic interrogation that seeks to expose his disturbing views and not a ceding of the floor, allowing the man who’s attempting to hijack Europe for the far-right to proselytize unchecked. (I took a stab at it a few weeks back.)
With that said, Bannon was the guest on Friday night’s Real Time, where he sat down with host Bill Maher and attempted to give his usual “populist” spiel.
Calling him “one of the most influential [people] around,” Maher right off the bat thanked Bannon for appearing on the program, saying it “says volumes why the Republicans are in power and we have none… Hillary Clinton never came here.” He added, “Maybe she’d be here if she were more confident.”
Maher then asked Bannon about being disinvited from The New Yorker Festival, and after the 64-year-old said that he was more than willing to chop it up at “the toughest places,” the comedian agreed, repeating “that’s why the Republicans are in power.”
The HBO host attempted to get Bannon to admit that he homes in on “empty vessels” like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump—people who can be easily manipulated, and whose heads he can stuff with his own ideas, but Bannon defended Trump, characterizing him as “incredibly smart.” Next, he moved on to Trump’s corporation-benefitting tax cut, but Bannon outmaneuvered him again, claiming (rather speciously) that the president got the tax bill passed in order to ignite his trade war with China and bring back jobs to working-class Americans. Maher had no rebuttal.
He asked Bannon about his thoughts on the Dems’ potential 2020 candidates, whether or not Trump would actually exit office if he lost, and whether he still felt that the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Kremlin associates was “treasonous,” and Bannon pivoted to say that, somehow, then-campaign chair Manafort was the only one whose actions were treasonous. Again, no pushback from Maher.
His final shot was to try to get Bannon to admit that there are a lot of “racists” within the populist movement. Of course, his guest didn’t bite.
Overall, Maher appeared under-prepared and outmatched. Instead of challenging Bannon on his myriad hypocrisies and white nationalist leanings, he mostly let him drone on about Trump’s effect on the economy (thanks, Obama!), his trade war with China and his thoughts on the topics of the day. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, given how much common ground Maher found with Breitbart’s editor-in-chief Alex Marlow and its former editor/performance artist Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right fellow traveler who was jettisoned from his post after a video emerged of him defending hebephilia.
Following Yiannopoulos’ firing, Maher took a bizarre victory lap, telling The New York Times, “As I say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. You’re welcome.”
As unwarranted as that was, there will be no performative rejoicing after his dismal performance Friday.