If the BBC really is, as Steve Bannon says, a communications department of the global elite, they messed up badly last night. Emily Maitlis's 20-minute long interview with Bannon on Newsnight was mesmerising television — even, or especially, if you can’t bear the subject. It was also the longest advertisement for economic nationalism yet delivered to British viewers. No doubt Raheem Kassam, the close Bannon associate who’s just left Breitbart and has been on Newsnight a few times himself, had something to do with it.
By airing the discussion, the Beeb disproves the Bannonite idea that it is part of an elite conspiracy to silence populist points of view on immigration. Or perhaps they just don’t want to believe that viewers would agree with Steve Bannon’s assessment of President Trump far more than the views of the usual British talking heads on America.
Credit to Maitlis, she let him talk. She didn’t have a Cathy Newman-style meltdown. But a sharper interviewer might have buttoned him on some points. When, for instance, Bannon argued that Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration was already increasing the wages of minorities and the poor, she could have pointed out that, according to the Department of Homeland Security, illegal immigration is up 230 per cent on last year. At one point, Bannon started talking about how he has set up a ‘C4 to do messaging’ – he was referring to his 501 (c) (4) tax-exempt campaign organisation – and Maitlis asked him if he still talks to Trump, which he flatbatted, as he has done before. A more interesting question would have been to ask more about what this organisation is up to.
This wasn’t a gotcha interview — and was the better for it. Bannon was given a chance to express himself and to talk about what he thinks is going on in the world. It was interesting that he said the Time’s Up movement against male sexual predation was ‘The Handmaid’s Tale as a political movement'. You have to hand it to Bannon: he’s got an ability to sum up big, complex themes in single sentences.
Bannon trotted out his loyal lines about what a great job Trump is doing. But his deeper point about Trump — the one his acolytes often make — is that economic nationalism is bigger than the Trump administration, and he’s not wrong. The 2016 Republican victory was about the country not the candidate. Economic nationalism is truly international now, roiling politics all over the world. His assessment on the incoming alt-left-hard-right government in Italy was far more revealing than most of the rubbish you’ll read about Italian populism in the Guardian. (For more on this, read Nick Farrell’s excellent interview with him in the Spectator.)
Bannon’s support for Robert Mueller (‘He’s an honourable guy’) was interesting, too, since it comes at a time when Team Trump has gone into overdrive to label the Special Prosecutor’s investigation a ‘witch hunt.’ Bannon was keen to predict that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein would be fired instead, which seems to be a new consensus on the right. It’s well-known that, during his time in the White House, Bannon fell out with Jared and Ivanka Kushner, and it’s often whispered in Washington that he’s subtly helping Mueller bring Jared, Trump’s son-in-law, down.
The conversation had been edited badly in parts but it was great political telly. There was a curious irony in Bannon telling Maitlis that white nationalist figures such as Richard Spencer and David Duke are cranks and shouldn’t be given air time. Two years ago, Newsnight would probably have thought the same about Steve Bannon. The times are a’ changing. Anyway, worth a watch.