Late in the evening on Oct. 31, 2020, just days before the U.S. presidential election, Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, sat with a group of associates in his posh Washington, D.C. townhouse. Violence beckoned for the nation, he told them. Bannon claimed that, regardless of the tally, Trump was planning to declare victory shortly after polls closed on Nov. 4. They all knew that the first votes counted would be those cast in-person as opposed to mail-in ballots, and these votes would favor Trump.
So, Bannon explained, “Trump’s going to take advantage of it. That’s our strategy. He’s gonna declare himself a winner.” Were Biden to overtake Trump’s lead later in the vote count, competing claims between Trump and the media would cause uncertainty and discord. “You’re going to have antifa, crazy. The media, crazy. The courts are crazy. And Trump’s gonna be sitting there mocking, tweeting shit out: ‘You lose. I’m the winner. I’m the king.’” Moreover, Bannon claimed, the sitting president would then gut judicial oversight of himself by firing FBI Director Christopher Wray. “After then, Trump never has to go to a voter again. … He’s gonna say ‘Fuck you. How about that?’ Because … he’s done his last election. Oh, he’s going to be off the chain — he’s gonna be crazy.”
The comments were captured on a recently released recording taken at the townhouse that evening, and in retrospect they appear prescient in their anticipation of Trump’s public statements on election night (the president eventually claimed, “Frankly, we did win this election”) and of the dramatic attempts to challenge the election results that followed. Bannon’s words served to push him once again — today a private citizen perennially declared “irrelevant” by political observers — to the center of public conversations about the Trump presidency, the 2020 election, and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that followed.
And they force questions about Bannon’s involvement and intentions. Was Bannon only prophesying when he spoke about Trump’s possible actions on election night, or was he presenting his vision for the future? Was the undoing of the U.S. democratic system something Bannon feared or craved? And — as Jennifer Senior of The Atlantic and Sean Illing of Vox recently considered — does he recognize his own claims as being false, or are they uttered with sincerity?
Paradoxically, the answer to each of these questions is probably, yes. I have sat with Bannon many times in his townhouse, talking specifically about the destiny of the United States and the role he sees for chaos and destruction — for “craziness” — in it. The worldview he laid out to me was one where things he might otherwise consider harmful, like the dissolution of our electoral process or the erosion of shared understandings of truth, were to be embraced as fated stages in a process of national rebirth. It is a way of looking at society and people that makes Bannon’s actions since the 2020 election intelligible and harrowing. [Continue reading…]