Bannon opens CPAC with QAnon fan art and D-list book promotion

The former Trump adviser has found a flock he can fleece, all in the name of MAGA orthodoxy

The steam-warmed lunch trays had just been cleared when former Trump adviser Steve Bannon welcomed a fan on stage. The young man introduced himself as Spencer Reyes, and proceeded to unfurl a poster-sized canvas with what appeared to be a large Q over the word “Hollywood.”

Video file

Citation From Steve Bannon's War Room event at CPAC, February 21, 2024. Video recorded by John Knefel

“Young MAGA, right?” Bannon said. “Can we give it up for it?"

Although neither Bannon nor Reyes mentioned anything about QAnon on stage, the meaning of the moment wasn’t hard to divine. “We’ll get you on the show,” Bannon told Reyes, after praising his homemade artwork. For his part, Bannon referenced Ukrainian biolabs and child trafficking, both long-running elements of the broader QAnon conspiracy theory.

It was a fitting unofficial opening to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the large annual conservative gathering that takes place just outside of Washington, D.C. With each passing year, CPAC devolves further and further into conspiracy theory-peddling and crankery, a trend well-exemplified by the appearance of a QAnon reference before the conference had even technically begun.

Bannon’s breakout session served as a gathering point for the angry local gentry of the country, the beige conference room’s uncirculated air heavy with grievance and entitlement. Over the course of more than four hours, Bannon’s extended podcast universe of kooks thrilled the audience with exhortations against the Chinese government and trans children, two fingers in the fist of supposed worldwide woke hegemony.

The War Room host also constantly hocked his new publishing imprint and film distribution hub. The best way to save your country is to buy Bannon Inc., it appears. He harangued the crowd to buy new titles from War Room books, and to watch new movies from War Room films. He pitched a coffee table book of photos of himself and his guests in dramatic lighting. His co-host, Natalie Winters, hocked a lifestyle brand. At one point Bannon alluded to Donald Trump Jr.’s publishing ambitions. It all felt like an extension of the billion-dollar scheme that recently landed Bannon’s longtime associate, Miles Guo, under a federal indictment. If, as the old poker saying goes, it’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money, the Bannon clique may be the country’s foremost ethicists.

Bannon’s skill is convincing the people he’s fleecing that he has brought them inside the halls of power — hence the brand War Room. For all the fawning mainstream coverage he got early in Trump’s rise, many reporters missed what makes Bannon worth thinking about. His self-appointed status as a Machiavellian political theorist has always been ludicrous, but he does deserve credit for speaking in the idiom of an organizer, or, perhaps more accurately, as a hustler. He regularly tells his audience that they are a “force multiplier,” and that any perceived win — the ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, for example — is due to their participation in the movement, which often just means listening to Bannon rant.

To the uninitiated, it may look like Bannon is building a movement — albeit one that has failed time and again. In truth, his event at CPAC had more in common with scams like Trump University — or Bannon’s own We Build the Wall grift — than with real political base building.