Misinformer of the Year: Steve Bannon’s “flood the zone with shit” approach is destroying American democracy
On November 15, shortly after being indicted on two counts of contempt of Congress over his refusal to provide evidence to the congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Steve Bannon broadcast the evening version of his podcast from a suite in the Willard Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.
This was very publicly not his first time there -- it’s the same hotel where he had spent the days before January 6 plotting to overthrow the 2020 presidential election in a “command center” with other right-wing election deniers, including Rudy Giuliani, Bernie Kerik, and infamous coup memo author John Eastman. (Hours before the attack, then-President Donald Trump had even called in to discuss strategy.) Nearly a year later, Bannon was holed up there again, typically defiant and unapologetic.
He and his co-hosts recapped Bannon’s appearance with his attorney from earlier in the day in front of the federal courthouse. Multiple networks had broadcast live as he railed against the Biden administration and Attorney General Merrick Garland and instructed his supporters to “stand by” because “we’re going to go on the offense on this.” (These remarks recall Trump’s directive to the neofascist street gang the Proud Boys to “stand by” during a 2020 debate against Joe Biden.)
On the podcast that evening, Bannon's co-hosts bragged about media outlets running with his remarks. Bannon added that he was broadcasting from the same Willard Hotel suite that they had used to plan before January 6: “They can suck on that.”
“Flood the zone with shit”
In 2018, while watching Trump’s State of the Union speech, Bannon told author Michael Lewis that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Since then, this has rightly been understood as the core of Bannon’s strategy and the threat of the larger Trumpist movement he represents. As Vox’s Sean Illing put it, “The press ideally should sift fact from fiction and give the public the information it needs to make enlightened political choices. If you short-circuit that process by saturating the ecosystem with misinformation and overwhelm the media’s ability to mediate, then you can disrupt the democratic process.”
Illing’s piece on Bannon’s flood-the-zone-with-shit approach was published shortly after Trump’s first impeachment trial. In the nearly two years since, the country has undergone a lot: a pandemic that’s officially killed nearly a million Americans, a grueling presidential race, a putsch on January 6, another impeachment trial, a moral panic over “critical race theory,” the ending of America’s longest war, and a return to the normal life-or-death politics that preceded Trump, to mention just a few things.
But what stands out is that Illing’s warning — that Bannon’s flood-the-zone-with-shit strategy was destroying democracy — is even more important today.
That’s because while some right-wing media are institutions in their own right (Fox Corp., Sinclair Broadcast Group, Salem Radio Network, etc.), Bannon’s approach is to essentially burn institutions to the ground, wherever they may be. As author Douglas Rushkoff put it in a recent essay about why he would not go on Bannon’s show, “Inflammation is the name of Bannon’s accelerationist game, after all: Get people on all sides angry, bring about the civil war or mega-conflict, let them burn it all down, and start fresh with something more local, human, and natural.”
When you continually find yourself in a room that is on fire, at some point you should figure out who is the arsonist. And now, with American democracy already smoldering, Steve Bannon’s podcast is where arsonists are being trained.
War Room: Apocalyptic Fury
In a lesser-noticed part of his 2018 discussion with Lewis, Bannon admitted what was crucial to the entire enterprise: anger.
“Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls,” he said.
Bannon’s been at the center of American anger for nearly a decade now. He built up Breitbart into a formidable presence on Facebook through raw anger, and he bragged about the website being “the platform for the alt-right” shortly before he took the helm of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.
After flaming out of the Trump White House (ironically, by cultivating too much anger from Trump himself) and the good graces of his former patrons the Mercers, Bannon remade himself as a podcaster. He’s also sidled up to Guo, whose GTV Media like Bannon is pushing QAnon conspiracy theories. (Pro-Trump social media network Gettr is also linked to Guo.)
Bannon initially built his War Room podcast around Trump’s first impeachment, but it was the spin-off — War Room: Pandemic — that stuck. A better name for the show would be War Room: Apocalyptic Fury. The show is a 17-hours-a-week workshop dedicated to enraging the most loyal Trumpists with lies and misinformation about issues from the 2020 election to the southern border, from critical race theory to transhumanism and big tech.
Before the 2020 presidential election, one apparent goal of the podcast was to get people so angry about the possibility of Trump leaving office that they would go and vote. On its face that seems normal enough, but a main tactic Bannon used was claiming that elites would steal the election from Trump and the only solution was to overwhelm the system. So when Joe Biden actually won, Bannon was able to quickly pivot to enraging his audience about Democrats supposedly stealing the election.
Bannon thundered about the election and the counting of electoral votes on his podcast with top Trump advisers, including Eastman, the author of the infamous memo on how the outgoing president could stage a coup. Bannon spoke repeatedly in apocalyptic terms and urged his followers to prepare for war. Then January 6 happened.
In the nearly year since, Bannon has only doubled down on his strategy. CNN’s Daniel Dale — known for fact-checking Trump — was blown away by the sheer volume of election lies on Bannon’s show. They've come from a conspiracy-minded cast of characters.
He’s hosted MyPillow CEO and deranged election denier Mike Lindell at least 84 times in 2021 alone, including when Bannon essentially co-hosted Lindell’s “cyber symposium,” broadcasting his show on location from the event dedicated to spreading election lies. Giuliani has appeared on Bannon’s show at least 55 times in 2021.
Darren Beattie, the former Trump speechwriter who was fired from Trump’s White House after it was revealed he attended a white nationalist conference, appeared on Bannon’s show at least 57 times in 2021. In fact, it was on Bannon’s show where Beattie’s false-flag conspiracy theory about January 6 was workshopped and tested. Beattie then brought it to Fox News and Tucker Carlson, and he eventually landed a plum spot in Carlson’s revisionist Fox Nation film about the insurrection.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) became a frequent War Room guest in 2021 — just as he was becoming too toxic for Fox. Gaetz's Fox News hits dropped from 14 in March to zero in April, and he hasn’t gone back on since. Meanwhile, he’s appeared on War Room at least 19 times since April 1.
And the podcast has become a must-visit for other Republican politicians as well. Those who have appeared on Bannon’s show over the past year include: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO); Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Tim Burchett (R-TN), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Claudia Tenney (R-NY), Elise Stefanik (R-NY), and Mo Brooks (R-AL), who’s running for Senate; Arizona state Senate President Karen Fann, secretary of state candidate and state Rep. Mark Finchem, and state Sens. Wendy Rogers and Sonny Borrelli; Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, and state Rep. Dawn Keefer; Georgia state Sen. Brandon Beach and lieutenant governor candidate and state Sen. Burt Jones; Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton; and Mayor of McAllen, Texas, Javier Villalobos.
And while Fox News wages the culture war in prime time, Bannon has filled a party-building gap in right-wing media, directing his audience to infiltrate the system itself at all levels in order to carry out his anti-democratic aims. As ProPublica has detailed, Bannon and frequent guest Dan Schultz are trying to get listeners to take over GOP precinct positions, becoming the “worker bees” of the party. And the listeners are taking action. ProPublica reported that Bannon’s broadcast led to a surge in interest from his supporters who want to become local GOP precinct officers, noting that the outlet “contacted GOP leaders in 65 key counties, and 41 reported an unusual increase in signups since Bannon’s campaign began. At least 8,500 new Republican precinct officers (or equivalent lowest-level officials) joined those county parties. We also looked at equivalent Democratic posts and found no similar surge.”
One Wisconsin GOP county chair told the outlet, “We’re signing up election inspectors like crazy right now.” (Additionally, the Wisconsin GOP-controlled legislature -- which holds its majority because of gerrymandering -- has signaled it will attempt to take over the administration of elections.)
Schultz has long pushed this “precinct strategy,” but Bannon allowed him to spread it, hosting him at least 21 times on War Room this year.
Schultz has also advocated that those who obtain these local Republican Party positions should also be prepared to inflict violence in carrying out their roles, saying during a July conference call with supporters of his ideas, “Make sure everybody’s got a baseball bat. … I’m serious about this. Make sure you’ve got people who are armed."
Bannon’s hosting of Schultz on his broadcast has also been credited with the popularization of the so-called “independent legislature doctrine,” a radical and previously obscure legal theory that would allow a state legislature to unilaterally overturn election results -- an anti-democratic concept that has been embraced by many state Republican legislators in the wake of Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election.
Bannon is also promoting extremists to challenge major elected Republican incumbents. The stated goal is to prevent future elections from being stolen — that is, by overturning (or at least severely compromising) elections themselves.
Bannon’s efforts to further radicalize state GOP party organizations, to place people with a far-right agenda in election-official positions, and to empower Republican-controlled state legislatures to overturn election results they simply disagree with all portend a scary future for the administration of future democratic elections.
It’s not even just American elections: Bannon and his crew have close ties with far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Bannon introduced Bolsonaro’s son at Lindell’s cyber symposium; his circle is engaging in a similar manner in that country ahead of its 2022 election, pitting the elder Bolsonaro against progressive candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There are already cries of voter fraud to undermine the results.
QAnon's path to power
It’s clear Bannon believes a constant supply of anger is necessary to get people motivated to actively take over and destroy institutions from the inside. So Bannon is not just embracing but actively placing himself at the center of more and more conspiracy theories and extremism.
He’s been central in the critical race theory moral panic, repeatedly hosting the likes of Chris Rufo, who told Bannon on October 18 that “this is not just about critical race theory; this is about the heart and soul of our democracy. This is about who is the ultimate authority over our institutions. And this is a really, a kind of a battle for the soul of our country, and it really will be -- who is in control?”
This propaganda campaign, which Bannon has gleefully taken up, is a power grab by the right-wing media for “ultimate authority” over how -- or if -- the history of American racism is taught in schools.
Bannon has also embraced deranged vaccine conspiracy theories. For instance, Bannon has hosted conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf at least 28 times in 2021. Wolf was banned from Twitter after she said the COVID-19 vaccine is a “software platform that can receive uploads” and compared Dr. Anthony Fauci to Satan. For his part, Bannon suggested she is “on the short list for woman of the year.”
Not only does Bannon repeatedly host QAnon promoters – Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has appeared at least 33 times in 2021 and Mike Lindell is a fixture, with Bannon playing a prominent role at the pillow baron's “cyber symposium” – but clips from War Room circulate many extremist channels.
The Arizona fake-audit is a good example of Bannon's QAnon links manifesting in the real world. Bannon repeatedly pushed the idea of “forensic audits” for the 2020 election, first in Maricopa County in Arizona and then across the country, even saying that his show was crucial to the effort.
Bannon used his show to whip GOP state legislators across the support the faux-audit effort, which he touted as a first step to decertifying the presidential election. When AG Merrick Garland said there would be DOJ scrutiny of the effort, Bannon seconded a GOP lawmaker who threatened to put Garland in prison. When the faux-audit eventually failed in its stated goals, finding more votes for Biden, Bannon and his minions tried to claim victory anyway.
Despite the failure, the completely ridiculous joke of an audit (complete with a hunt for bamboo ballots) could well be the harbinger of worse to come. Bannon's show has hosted some of the QAnon-linked politicians running for office to oversee future elections in various states, which would remove a 2020 firewall. The end result of Bannon's horrid type of politics is a steady stream of election officials quitting. Their replacements may well be worse, and indeed Bannon is very open about declaring that his goal is to take over the election process.
If Breitbart in 2016 was the platform for the alt-right, Bannon’s (and Guo’s) infrastructure now aims to be the platform for the QAnon crowd. Certainly, Bannon is committed to delivering the results that they want, regardless of whether democracy is standing in the way.
Bannon's role in the Hunter Biden laptop story
To understand Bannon’s capacity to “flood the zone with shit,” it’s worth considering the behind-the-scenes role he played in a smear campaign launched against Joe Biden and his son Hunter in the final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign.
The campaign, attacking Hunter Biden as supposedly involved in international business dealings based on emails found on his laptop, is most often associated with Rudy Giuliani, who delivered copies of the emails to The New York Post and went on a frantic media campaign to promote the smear. But later reporting revealed that Bannon also played a critical role.
The New York Times reported that Bannon, Giuliani, and exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui (who also goes by Miles Guo) met four days before the Post published its article about the laptop, gathering to strategize the dissemination of the smear -- and that both Bannon and Giuliani had been involved in pitching the story to various outlets.
The Daily Beast reported that Bannon had told a Dutch television program weeks before the laptop news broke that he was in possession of a hard drive owned by Hunter Biden, and the Post story mentioned that Bannon had been in contact with the paper about the emails weeks before the piece came out. Guo’s misinformation network GTV Media also pushed claims about supposed computer data that would impugn Hunter Biden weeks before the Post story’s publication.
The corruption allegation made in the Post article quickly fell apart, at least as a factual matter. But regardless of the credibility, Bannon, Giuliani, and others had successfully flooded the zone with shit. Trump had been consistently polling behind Biden, and the smear became a central feature of Trump's campaign rallies and was deployed by him as his primary line of attack on Biden during the final presidential debate.
Although it had declined to publish the allegations itself, Fox News devoted large swaths of airtime to promoting the smear, pushing it in nearly 600 show segments totaling more than 36 hours just before the election.
And the Post story lit up social media. An Axios analysis found that following the final presidential debate, Hunter Biden was by far the most discussed aspect of the debate. Twitter prevented users from sharing the Post story and Facebook limited its reach on its platform, and the unusual actions naturally gave the smear even more oxygen. This was not lost on Bannon, who said, “Social media overplayed this and did us a favor.”
Because of credibility concerns, mainstream outlets typically did not publish the details of the smear, but because it had snowballed into such a major news story, they instead reported on the spread of the smear.
Bannon and his allies were able to set the narrative of a presidential campaign to the extent that a smear’s popularity drove the narrative of mainstream political reporting — which is frightening.
Bannon’s massive reach
While mainstream outlets may talk about what platforms Bannon has lost, they rarely talk about the crucial platforms he still has.
Bannon was banned from Twitter and Spotify last year shortly after calling for the beheadings of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray. He was removed from other platforms like YouTube in the wake of the January 6 attack. RedBubble, SendGrid, MailerLite, TeeSpring, and Email Octopus banned Bannon in early 2021 as well.
But to this day, Bannon still has a massive reach. War Room had more than 100 million downloads over 1,000 episodes, per ProPublica, and it ranks highly in podcast platforms from Apple, Google, iHeartRadio, and more. There’s also far-right platforms like Rumble that host him, as well as Guo’s network. (As Bannon’s podcast goes to breaks, music videos play of Guo singing about taking on the Chinese Communist Party.)
Most important is his reach through Real America’s Voice, a far-right outlet itself that is part of a sketchy Performance One Media network. A review by our colleague Justin Horowitz uncovered numerous examples of QAnon content on its website, and the network also features other extremists, like Bannon associate John Fredericks. Despite all of this, the Real America’s Voice app is still available on the Apple and Android stores and on ViacomCBS’ streaming service Pluto TV – where Bannon’s show has been placed alongside blue-chip advertisers like Men’s Wearhouse, Lexus, and Procter & Gamble.
But Bannon being Bannon, there’s also some apparent system-gaming involved in his podcast’s spread. ProPublica recently reported that Bannon’s home website “played innocuous stock content” in order to get Google ads from brands like “Land Rover, Volvo, DoorDash, Staples and even Harvard University.” (Gaming the system is not new to Bannon; well before his contempt charge, he was indicted for defrauding supporters of his “We Build the Wall” effort; Trump pardoned him only after Bannon supported January 6.)
It’s clear that Bannon is funding his operation with zero concern for ethics and little apparent concern for the law. After all, if institutions like Google are just impediments to his accelerationist ideology, what’s the harm in ripping them off? There’s a similar logic for his alleged fraud with “We Build The Wall”: If his supporters are truly his, then how is it wrong to dip into some of their money, regardless of what project he said it was earmarked to fund?
Reporting on an industrial-scale liar
In promoting his latest book about the final days of the Trump administration, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl has started openly talking about Trump as a distinctly anti-democratic candidate. That shift in media account — to acknowledging the reality of where Trumpism is headed — is a legitimately positive development, even though many people saw it well before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building while chanting about murdering the vice president. The problem is that Karl is just one person; the rest of the Beltway media doesn’t appear ready to acknowledge that the far-right problem has metastasized well beyond just Trump. Indeed, no one – even Trump – exemplifies the problem more than Steve Bannon.
By refusing to honor the subpoena of the January 6 committee, Bannon is clearly trying to play a familiar public relations game. He’ll portray himself as the martyr and use all of the attention to simply increase anger in whatever manner possible, compromising media outlets along the way. Even if some people get mad at him over it, he knows that with Democrats holding the White House and both houses of Congress, right-wing audiences will probably be angrier.
There’s a template for covering a big news trial. Well, to paraphrase Die Hard, Bannon’s read that playbook and knows what’s coming. Ignoring him won’t work either. To the contrary, he benefits only if the media outlets covering the trial are blind to the larger project he spends his days engaging in outside the courtroom.
The better approach is to emulate Daniel Dale by calling Bannon what he is, an industrial-scale liar who is trying to corrode the very fabric of American existence, and show how he’s trying to do that.
Bannon’s ultimate goal is to see American democracy burn. The rest of us don’t have to accept that fate.