In the earliest days, Steve Bannon projected uncertainty.
It was March 2020 — the country was one month into the COVID-19 pandemic, and Trump was flailing.
“Governor Cuomo, who I think has done an extraordinary job so far as an executive, really ahead on leadership, on testing, getting ahead of what they call hospitals exhaustion,” Bannon said on March 16, 2020, contrasting him with Trump, who failed to “be bold.” The President, he said, was merely “making recommendations” as “the stock market goes down.”
Bannon made the remarks on his podcast, War Room: Pandemic. Over the last two years, the show, which ostensibly started with a focus on the pandemic, has become a gathering place for Trumpworld luminaries and plucked-from-obscurity conspiracy theorists. Ahead of the January 6 insurrection, it was a place where various claims of fraud were aired, and, in the days and months following, the place where they were kept alive.
To understand how the show came to occupy such a central place in the MAGA ecosystem, I mainlined twenty-four hour-long episodes of it, from its first episode on Jan. 25, 2020 until Dec. 16, 2021.
What resulted was a journey through the past two years of American history as Bannon sought to shape it.
His is not a vision that’s necessarily always aligned with Trump, but it is very much one that is overwhelmingly the conscious product of Bannon’s attempt to, as he says, “drive the narrative” of American politics — to shape the national news environment in a way that benefits the former president who he helped to elect.
By inflicting two years of Bannon’s podcast on myself, I was able to observe how he occasionally groped for the right message as the COVID-19 crisis spread and morphed, and, once it became increasingly obvious in mid-2020 that Trump was not on a path to victory, embarked on a campaign to delegitimize the nascent Biden administration.
Thanks to this experiment, I also now have a song written by Miles Guo — Bannon’s exiled Chinese billionaire patron — endlessly on repeat in my end. “Take down the CCP,” it goes. “Follow me and I’ma set us free.”
Bannon, too, seems interested in taking down the Chinese Communist Party – and casting it as culpable for the pandemic.
But it wasn’t until a few months into it that Bannon solidified on blaming China. In the first episode, aired, to his credit, relatively early, in January 2020, the discussion focused mainly on the severity of the outbreak, and whether it would cause the CCP to lose the mandate of heaven.
Twenty-four episodes later, on Feb. 25, 2020, blaming China still wasn’t the focus.
“Social separation is gonna be the way we have to go on this for a while, at least until vaccines,” Bannon remarked.
If anything, the early phases of the pandemic left Bannon in a position that was surprisingly mainstream: follow the public health guidance. Wait this out. Listen to the experts.
“We don’t think they’re draconian when you look at what the alternatives are,” he noted in an April 3, 2020 podcast, referring to social distancing measures.
Throughout this time, the country’s economy was struggling. Stocks were in freefall, and the biggest mass firing in recorded history took place.
Or, as Bannon put it: “the contagion has engulfed the world’s capital markets.”
Trump, meanwhile, hoped to “open” the country “by Easter.”
But it wasn’t until the situation stabilized somewhat in the wake of first wave that Bannon’s perspective began to harden along partisan lines in May 2020 that the podcast seemed to veer away from steering Trump directly and towards a wholehearted effort to brand the virus as a product of China.
“The Communist Party and the PLA knows exactly where we’re defenseless,” Bannon remarked in a May 15, 2020 episode that also featured an interview about the country’s dependency on China-manufactured pharmaceuticals.
At that point, Bannon still mixed the anti–China messaging with basic public health exhortations: “These are casualties in a war,” he said in the same episode. “A lot of these are greatest generation, and we owe them the respect to make sure that these things are sorted.”
By May 2020, COVID-19 was increasingly being seen in MAGAworld through the prism of the 2020 elections. Bannon had former Rep. Jason Lewis (R-MN), a Senate candidate, on his show.
Lewis launched into a rant questioning whether COVID-19 death certificates were manufactured, before Bannon interrupted: “I guarantee the way you’re gonna lose in Minnesota in the fall is to argue the death count, word to the wise.”
In the next episode, on June 9, Bannon had no problem arguing the death of George Floyd however, pinning it, too, on the CCP.
By August, he tried to refine the narrative, perhaps sensing that Trump was headed for defeat.
“The path to victory goes right through Beijing,” Bannon said imploringly. “We’ve gotta talk about tactics. We could lose.”
But then, he turned to something else: “President Trump said yesterday, ‘hey, if I lose it’s because they stole it.'”
“But guess what, we shouldn’t be worried about them stealing it, we should get in front of that,” he added.
There’s an odd dynamic apparent in the last two years of episodes where the more intense the events, the calmer Bannon’s demeanor.
As shock over COVID-19 subsided (though the death count continued to climb) and the 2020 election approached over late summer and fall 2020, Bannon got more focused on ginning up Trump supporters and directing them towards the idea that a Biden win would be illegitimate.
“The only way he can win is illegitimate,” Bannon said straightforwardly in a September 18, 2020 episode. “It’s an illegitimate regime — we will never, ever, ever, ever bow down to it.”
Of course, by that point the Biden “regime” had yet to be legitimated — the election had yet to occur. But the message was clear: Bannon needed “tough hombres in the room to watch the count” on Nov. 3 and, if that didn’t work out, legal fights over the electors would get the vote “kicked to the House of Representatives, the new Congress that gets seated on Jan. 6th.” Bannon’s listeners were getting a months-early preview of the scheme Trump would push in the run-up to the insurrection.
Throughout all of this, Bannon benefactor Guo Wengui — known also as Miles Guo — appears periodically. In an October 2020 episode, Guo suggests that China sent COVID-19 specifically to Trump, so that he could be infected one month before the election.
Guo, Bannon said, “has almost been like an old testament prophet that has come to this country and warned America about the evilness of the Chinese Communist Party and their focus on taking down the United States.”
Suffocating the baby in the crib
The November elections provided great fodder for the War Room podcast.
“This thing was not close, it was not close — it was a blowout,” Bannon proclaimed on Nov. 4. “Look, when you’re gonna steal it — make it believable.”
It was, of course, all false, but it was great content. Hearing Bannon’s talk of a stolen election, coming constitutional crisis — even one year later — gets your blood pumping.
That energy led to one place.
“We’re hurtling towards this meeting in Washington D.C. on the 6th,” Bannon said in a December 21 episode. “This is about legitimacy, this is about legality — we’re hurtling towards a constitutional crisis that will be worse than any other constitutional crisis in our nation’s history.”
When that day came, it was something akin to March 2020: struggling to pick up the narrative.
“You have to be really careful about walking into these traps of the mainstream media,” Bannon says on the Jan. 6 episode.
He veered between blaming the violence on Pence and the “emotional reaction” of Trump diehards.
“You can’t break into — all they’re gonna do is run the sprockets off this,” Bannon said, interrupting himself.
“We told you it was gonna be one of the most important days in American history, and Mike Pence dropped a bomb,” he said. “The one way you don’t do it is an emotional reaction.”
Finding a way out
The War Room remained somewhat muted for the first few months of 2021, with the spin room apparently in waiting.
Throughout the spring, various anti-vaxxers began to appear on the show, including one who claimed that the shots present a danger to the “innate immune system,” relative to the more tried-and-true preventative measures of “get[ing] into the sun” and removing vegetable oil from the diet.
But five months in, with memories fading, the tone began to revert back to its old aggression.
“The modern lexington and concord is going to be Arizona and Georgia,” Bannon said in a May 18 episode, proclaiming that former Sens. Kelly Loefller (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA) in fact won in November 2020.
The insurrection caucus members would come on the show — in one July 29 episode with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Gaetz opined that “if I was a local prosecutor in Michigan, I would indict the FBI under RICO” over the extensive use of informants in the planned Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) kidnapping case.
It’s almost cliched to say, but this isn’t a zone where truth of any kind matters. Being in the “War Room” is all about “building and driving narrative,” a world of endless spin, mainlined MAGA like uncut cocaine: exhilarating to the point of exhaustion.
“We’re crushing this illegitimate regime in the crib,” Bannon says.
Who knows if it’s true or not — if the “narrative” that the podcast has “built and driven” really is suffocating the Biden “regime.”
Instead, what you’re left with is the image that he and those around him want to create, as described in the most recent episode that I listened to, on Dec. 16: “chaos.” In this case, it’s the chaos brought on by Omicron and, in Bannon’s stated view, the botching of the federal response.
But the real chaos here lies more in the effect that the constant spinning and narrative-advancing has on the listener: that there’s no fixed agreement on any reality, that it’s all drowned under a flood of shit, as Bannon famously once said, and that anything we regard as reality is in fact transitory and flexible, the reflection of some obscure interest seeking advantage.