I was waffling on calling this column “How World of Warcraft Gave Us Trump” but that would only be a small part of the story. The real story here is Steve Bannon and AMERICAN DHARMA (2018), the documentary Errol Morris made about him. Morris is no stranger to political documentaries, focusing on subjects like Abu Ghraib, Robert McNamara, and even Donald Rumsfeld. This subject would be one of his toughest to tackle, considering he even told his subject on camera that he’s afraid of him.
Bannon admits early on to being a fan of Morris’ documentaries, especially THE FOG OF WAR, his McNamara documentary. However, he points out how he didn’t like the subject, whom he referred to as a symbol of globalization and The Republican Machine. Repeatedly Bannon says his goal is to “burn it all down” and create a “populist uprising.” The Democrats weren’t the enemy, but entrenched career politicians within the Republican party.
I’m on a mission to remake the Republican party as the worker’s party.Bannon
The documentary barely touches on Bannon’s privileged upbringing, his early years among the fringes of the elite. The film doesn’t delve into how he got from that point to seeing himself as a messiah for the working class and you get a feeling Bannon wouldn’t be honest if he were asked. Instead, he and Morris discussed modern politics, old war movies, and Bannon’s own methodology. Bannon, for what it’s worth, was so self-enamored he was more than happy to talk about all his tricks.
How does World of Warcraft come into play? For this, Bannon focuses to his days as the CEO of Affinity Media–a gold farming company. To explain gold farming, I have to back up a little to explain the game mechanics of World of Warcraft. As people play and succeed at various missions, they earn “gold” or in-game currency. Players can use this gold to buy better weapons, cooler armor, or unlock other parts of the game. It takes a long time and a lot of skill to earn large sums of “gold.” Enter the gold market. People who don’t plan on using their gold can sell it to other players. Someone somewhere got the idea to run “gold farms” in places like China, India, or Russia where labor can be found cheap (sometimes free if you factor in slave labor from prisons). These people spend 8-12 hours at a day on a computer playing various missions to earn gold. The company then sells the currency to other players. At one point it was a billion dollar industry until the game makers got wise and started shutting down the accounts of the gold farmers.
This is what Bannon was running right before taking over the Brietbart media empire. What he learned from that enterprise was how invested people were in their on-line personas. When he started running Brietbart, his focus was on nurturing the comments section. There he knew people could find a home that was sympathetic to their struggles, their frustrations, their anger.
The key to these sites was the comments section. This could be weaponized at some point in time.Bannon
From there he created a populist following that wanted to burn the establishment down as much as he did. He “political machines” did nothing to help them. In fact, it was the political machine holding them back. It wasn’t “deep” state, but right there in their faces, in their lives, ruining the country they so loved.
Angry voices, properly directed, has latent political power.Bannon
There’s more–how he played Bill Clinton’s accusers for the media and to the voters. How he knew to keep eyes on Anthony Weiner to make sure and take him down at the first opportunity, on how smaller news outlets like Buzzfeed are used to leak questionable stories, so that news stories can be about the Buzzfeed article and not directly about the sketchy information. But the biggest stunner was in exactly how he weaponized latent anger.
There is no question Bannon is a master manipulator who knows how to use media to get messages across and recruit sympathizers. This proved a challenge for Morris who specializes in humanizing his subjects. How could he prevent the audience from relating too well to Bannon? Morris used some brilliant methods. He edited in clips and commentary about the political fallout from Trump’s decisions and policies, including how populism led to violence in Charlottesville. His most effective tool was not using his most effective tool.
Morris had a problem with his subjects wanting to make eye contact with him during the interviews instead of the camera. To fix this, he invented the “Interritron”–a two lensed camera that filmed a subject and immediately projected that footage in front of the lens of the other camera. That way the two people could look directly in the camera while still looking at the face of the person talking to them. What that did was give him the opportunity for his subject to address the viewers directly, drawing them in to their stories and their lives. It’s a hugely effective tool in creating empathy for your subject.
Empathy, though, was not what he wanted to build for Bannon. He knew the dangers of building empathy for a man whose specialty is manipulating the public. For the first time he skipped the Interritron completely. Instead he used indirect angles, quick cuts, edits away from Bannon’s face. All this has a subconscious effect of pulling the viewers out of the narrative. It’s not normally something you want in a movie but something you need with a subject like Bannon.
AMERICAN DHARMA is not an easy movie to watch and will make you angry time and again. It is important to learn how the media that’s a part of our daily lives was weaponized against us. This won’t be the last time either, and we need to remain vigilant to keep it from being this successful ever again.
(The movie is available for rent on most streaming services. I saw it on Kanopy–a streaming service used by some library systems–for free.)