Thursday, May 25, 2017

PBS’s “Frontline” on the Bundys and Steve Bannon: The Alt-Right In and Out of Power

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Recently the long-running PBS Frontline program — actually produced for the national network by station WGBH in Boston — has run a couple of episodes that perhaps unwittingly formed odd bookends, one showing the extreme “alt-Right” in revolutionary mode, mounting — and so far getting away with — armed insurrections against the U.S. government, while the other shows the “alt-Right” actually winning admission to the halls of official government power with which to promote its white-separatist, nationalist “America First” agenda. The first program, aired May 16, was called American Patriot — an oddly singular title for a show with plural protagonists — and dealt with the antics of the Bundy family of Nevada. Their first 15 minutes of nationwide fame came in 2014, when paterfamilias Cliven Bundy, a cattle rancher in the middle of a 20-year battle with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over when and where his cattle could graze and how much he’d have to pay the government for what was essentially rent for the public lands on which his cattle fed, decided to make his stand in the appropriately named town of Bunkerville, Nevada. Cliven Bundy was at the receiving end of federal policies aimed not only at getting more money from the cattle ranchers in the area but reducing the total amount of area available for grazing so more of the land could be allowed to return to its natural state — and his case became a cause célèbre for the radical-Right militia movement in general and groups with names like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters in particular.

Bundy had declared he wasn’t going to pay his grazing fees, and the BLM responded by mounting an operation to seize his cattle and essentially hold them as collateral for the fees he owned. Suddenly the BLM agents were faced with an armed resistance by militia groups demanding that the federal government not only give Cliven Bundy back his cattle but get out of the business of land management altogether and give control of the West’s lands either to the private sector or to state or local governments which would be easier for the ranchers to influence. It wasn’t a new demand: a similar movement had started up in the central West in the late 1970’s that called itself the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” and when Ronald Reagan campaigned for President in those states in 1980 he proudly announced, “I am a Sagebrush Rebel.” It was one of the first signals Reagan sent that as President he was going to abandon the tradition of Republican environmentalism that had begun with Theodore Roosevelt and continued through the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (Nixon had signed into law the big environmental protection bills of 1969-1970 and appointed dedicated environmentalists like William Ruckelshaus and Russell Train to run the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency). In 2014 the Bundys were seen by the Right in general — both the nascent alt-Right and the quasi-“respectable” Right of media outlets like Fox News — as heroes courageously standing up to government overreach. As Oregon militia leader Brandon Rappola told Frontline, he was moved to come to Bunkerville to defend the Bundys when he saw a video on YouTube of the male Bundys getting tased by BLM agents and their elderly aunt knocked to the ground. “To come in as a militarized force against your citizen like this, that’s when we the people, we say no, this is not what the Constitution stands for. And we have to remind our federal government that we are the power.” Eventually the BLM agents realized they were outnumbered and outgunned, and they retreated; the Bundys got all their cattle back and they weren’t arrested.

Cliven Bundy instantly became a huge hero to the American Right as a man who had courageously stood up to government oppression — he appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News and Hannity basically stared at him with gooping admiration — until his public credibility nosedived when he made a widely quoted comment that African-Americans had been better off under slavery than they’ve been since. “I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?” Cliven Bundy said publicly, and in 2014, with an African-American (albeit not one who was descended from American slaves) in the White House, most of the “respectable” Right still considered such expressions of open racism as beyond the pale. The Bundys emerged again in 2016, when Cliven’s son Ammon — who compares to his dad much the way recently defeated French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen compares to hers (Le Pen père was openly anti-Semitic; Le Pen fille realized that in order to be a serious player in French politics she needed to downplay her party’s traditional anti-Jewish prejudices and recast the racist message in nationalist terms, much as Donald Trump did in his successful campaign for President of the U.S.) — led a seemingly bizarre occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge had originally been established in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt was President (remember the Republican environmentalist tradition that T.R. established?) and Ammon Bundy and his brother David were coming to the defense of Dwight Hammond, another rebel rancher who had been accused and convicted of arson by the federal government. The government accused Hammond and his family of deliberately setting fires on federal land that endangered human life; the Hammonds claimed they had merely set the fires so the land would grow back as pasture. They were given a light sentence and were actually released when the government won an appeal and a judge ordered them back to prison on the ground that the sentence didn’t meet federal mandatory minimums — and, as Ammon Bundy told Frontline, “This urge just filled my whole body. I felt a divine drive, an urge that said you have to get involved.” The Bundys staged an occupation of Malheur under the organizational name “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” and, as at the Nevada confrontation, attracted plenty of militia activists and other people who not only had guns but had had military or paramilitary training and therefore knew how to use them.

Not all the militia members went along with the Malheur occupation — they saw themselves as self-defense units and this looked too much like taking the offensive — but among the people who did come was a rancher from Arizona named LeRoy Finicum, who directly confronted law enforcement officials and challenged them to shoot him. They did. Eventually the Malheur occupation ended and the government arrested Aaron and David Bundy and charged them with conspiracy — but an Oregon jury acquitted them on all counts. What was most striking about the Bundy stories was that the government used the same scorched-earth tactics against them they had previously deployed against Left-wing activists from the 1960’s and 1970’s until more recent cases, including the Occupy movement (which some of the Malheur occupiers actually compared themselves to publicly even though the Left-wing Occupiers targeted urban areas and had a very different set of demands and issue positions). They infiltrated agents, including one who posed as a filmmaker interviewing the Bundys for a documentary but who was really an FBI agents assigned to get the Bundys to make incriminating statements on camera. What’s more, some of the infiltrators deliberately acted as agents provocateurs, encouraging the militias to do something violent that the government could then use either to indict them or just go out and shoot them. And the government used the conspiracy statutes against the Bundys because one of the marvelous things about conspiracy law, if you’re a government prosecutor trying to suppress a popular political movement of either the Left or the Right, is that in order to prove there was a conspiracy and your defendants were part of it, you do not have to prove that they actually did anything illegal. All you have to establish is they came together for an illegal purpose and they did one or more “overt acts” in furtherance of that purpose — and the “overt acts” do not necessarily have to be illegal in and of themselves. As the legendary Clarence Darrow explained conspiracy law, “If one boy steals candy, that’s a misdemeanor. If two boys talk about stealing candy but don’t do it, that’s a felony.” I left the Frontline “American Patriot” documentary with oddly mixed feelings, hating the Bundys and loathing their cause but also oddly glad that the government’s underhanded tactics against them ultimately failed.

If the “American Patriot” documentary showcased the alt-Right in the years when it was out of power, the May 23, 2017 Frontline episode, “Bannon’s War,” showed what it looks like when it has a President in office who, if not a committed alt-Rightist (Donald Trump doesn’t appear genuinely committed to much of anything beyond what will make Donald Trump richer and more popular), was certainly comfortable with their philosophy. Like so many of the members of the American ruling class these days, Steve Bannon served his apprenticeship at Goldman Sachs, which is so powerful in its own right on Wall Street and so influential in Washington, D.C. (Trump is the fourth President in a row who has appointed a Secretary of the Treasury who used to work there) it sometimes seems as if the federal government has simply outsourced its entire economic policy to Goldman Sachs. But instead of going from Goldman either into government service or the hedge-fund business, Bannon took his career on a different track, heading for Hollywood with the intent of mobilizing conservatives both in finance and in the entertainment industry to make movies that would reflect the Right-wing world view and counter what Bannon and his fellow Right-wing ideologues saw as the propaganda being put out by “liberal Hollywood.” Bannon didn’t get his name on any major dramatic feature films — he claimed to have helped develop the show Seinfeld and to have had a profit participation in it, but other people involved with Seinfeld have disputed that — so he started producing documentaries admittedly influenced, at least stylistically, by Leni Riefenstahl’s famous 1934 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. His first production was called In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, and it was originally intended as a celebration of the 40th President’s single-handedly winning the Cold War — but the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 led Bannon to add a coda to the Reagan film before he released it in 2004, saying that the Evil Empire still lived, only now the world-threatening enemy was not Communism but Islam. Bannon hooked up with David Bossie, whose group Citizens United produced documentaries trashing Democratic Presidential candidates John Kerry and Hillary Clinton (the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for corporations and rich individuals to buy U.S. elections was centered around a small corporate contribution to Bossie’s film attacking Clinton just before the 2008 election) and also discovered a book called The Fourth Turning by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe. 

The central argument was that U.S. political and social history moves in “saecula,” periods of about 70 to 80 years, and that the American Revolution, the Civil War and the combination of the Great Depression and World War Two were turning points in the succession of “saecula.” Nation author Micah L. Sifry, in a February 8, 2017 article on Bannon (, summed up the theory as follows: “According to Strauss and Howe, roughly every 80 years—a saeculum, or the average life-span of a person—America goes through a cataclysmic crisis. Marked by savagery and genocide, and lasting a decade or more, this crisis ends with a reset of the social order and its survivors all vowing never to let such a catastrophe happen again. Each of these crises, Strauss and Howe posit, have been formative moments in our nation’s history. The Revolution of 1776–83, followed roughly 80 years later by the Civil War, followed 80 years after that by the Great Depression and World War II.” In 2009 Bannon released a film called Generation Zero that was basically a depiction of the U.S. economic crisis of 2008 in terms of the saeculum theory, though he took it considerably farther than Strauss and Howe had: in a profile of Bannon published in the February 2, 2017 Time (, and also in the Frontline program, historian David Kaiser recalled that he had been asked for an interview for Generation Zero, and when it was filmed Bannon wanted a very specific comment out of him. “He wanted to get me to say on camera that I thought it (the so-called “Fourth Turning,” the fourth saeculum in American history) would occur,” Kaiser recalled. “He wasn’t impolite about it, but the thing I remember him saying, ‘Well, look, you know, we have the American revolution. Then we have the Civil War. That’s bigger. Then we have the Second World War, That’s even bigger. So what’s the next one going to be like?’” As part of his belief that the fourth turning was about to happen in the U.S. — and his determination to use his influence as a filmmaker and activist to bring it about — Bannon looked for a politician who could stage a Presidential campaign on his mix of far-Right nationalism, veiled racism and anti-Islam “clash of civilizations” rhetoric. At first he thought he’d found his ideal candidate in Sarah Palin — he even made a film about her, The Undefeated, that was an attempt to launch her candidacy and propel her to the White House — but Palin quickly lost credibility with the Republican Right after she abruptly resigned as governor of Alaska to become a commentator on Fox News, and instead of “undefeated” the general consensus of the Republican Party about Palin became “quitter.” 

However, when Donald Trump made his ferocious entry into Presidential politics in June 2015 by denouncing virtually all Mexican immigrants as “rapists and criminals,” which soared him to the top of the Republican field overnight and ultimately propelled him to the White House, Bannon — as the proprietor of Breitbart News, a far-Right news Web site Bannon took over from its founder, the late Andrew Breitbart, and turned into so aggressively pro-Trump a propaganda site quite a few contributors left in protest (quite a few of Frontline’s sources about Bannon were people who worked for him at Breitbart and quit in disgust over his making it a site to promote all things Trump at the expense of other Right-wing leaders and causes) — went along for the ride and got appointed chief White House strategist when Trump won. Bannon and Stephen Miller, whom he’d met when Miller was an aide to Jeff Sessions, then U.S. Senator and now Attorney General, and recruited to the Trump campaign, drafted the controversial first version of the immigration/refugee/travel ban against individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries and deliberately made sure that no one outside Trump’s inner circle got a look at it before Trump issued it. Indeed, it was largely Bannon’s idea to have Trump start his presidency with a flurry of executive orders to make it clear, as Bannon put it, that there was a “new sheriff in town” (a phrase quite a lot of Trump advisers have been using to defend his policies and establish him as a transformational leader who seeks a profound and lasting change in American politics and how American individuals relate to their government), which made the Trump administration in its early days look less like a newly elected government of a democratic republic and more like a cabal of generals in a Third World country who had just grabbed power in a coup d’état and whose leader was ruling by decree. Bannon also not only anticipated but actually welcomed the protests that followed the anti-Muslim ban, figuring that most of America would be repelled by them (as they were by similar street actions in the late 1960’s, paving the way for the election of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as “law and order” Presidents) and thus anti-Trump protests — the bigger, more unruly and more violent, the better — would only bolster the administration and make Trump and his policies more popular. 

It hasn’t quite worked out that way — Trump’s approval rating in opinion polls has hovered between 38 and 42 percent, showing he’s kept the loyalty of most of the 46 percent of the people who voted for him but he hasn’t really expanded his base — but so far the Democrats have proven unable to mount an electoral resistance to him: Trump got all his Cabinet appointees through the U.S. Senate despite a razor-thin Republican majority, he got his American Health Care Act through the House of Representatives and so far the Republicans are 2-for-2 in the special House elections in Kansas and Montana despite much-ballyhooed Democratic challenges — and as the Frontline documentary points out, reports of Bannon’s demise as a Trump adviser have been greatly exaggerated. It’s true that Bannon took such an outsized role in the early days of the Trump presidency he ran the risk of getting himself fired by challenging Trump’s notorious ego — Trump has made it clear over and over again that there’s no room for anyone in his administration (or his business empire before that) with an independent power base: there’s room for only one prima donna in the Trump world, and that’s Trump — and it’s also true that Trump’s other key adviser, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, has made at least some attempts to move the Trump administration closer to mainstream hard-Right Republicanism and away from Bannon’s messianic vision — but Trump took Bannon and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus on his trip to Saudi Arabia, though he sent them home before the White House entourage reached their next stop, Israel. (Stephen Colbert showed a photo of Bannon with some of the Saudi royal family’s entourage and bitterly joked on his late-night talk show, “These aren’t the people in white robes Bannon usually hangs out with.”) 

In some ways Bannon seems at times to be a reincarnation of one of the least acknowledged but most important people in Trump’s history, the New York super-attorney Roy Cohn, who began his career as chief of staff for the notorious Red-baiting U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and later masterminded Trump’s rise from small-time real-estate developer in the outer boroughs of New York to major player in the sacred precincts of Manhattan. Just as the cadences of McCarthy’s rhetoric live on in Trump (as well as in Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Roger Hedgecock and the other superstars of the Right-wing media), so does Cohn’s take-no-prisoners style and view of the world in apocalyptic terms lives on in Bannon. The Frontline documentary on Bannon ends with Washington Post political editor Robert Costa summing up, “Bannon sees an amazing and probably last in his lifetime opportunity to really have his worldview come to the fore in American politics. He wants to see this out as much as he can, to see what can actually be accomplished with a populist president.” While Donald Trump is in no way, shape or form a “populist” — he’s actually the sort of 1880’s politician the original Populists of the 1890’s were railing against, the super-rich man who bought his way into political office and blatantly and unashamedly used it to make himself and his rich friends even richer, and though he threw out a lot of populist-sounding rhetoric out during the campaign that was as meaningless as the lies he told people to get them to buy his condos, spend money at his casinos or attend Trump University: as President, Trump has governed as an extreme Right-wing Libertarian whose budget and health care proposals show a determination to end the whole concept of a government safety net and tell individuals that when it comes to retirement or health care, they’re on their own — Costa is right that Bannon has an apocalyptic world view and that his promise to make Trump a transformative President feeds Trump’s insatiable ego and his view of himself as a super-person who alone can fix America’s problems.