The FRONTLINE Interview: Ben Shapiro
Ben Shapiro joined Breitbart as editor-at-large in 2012, when the site was being run by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Weeks later, Breitbart suddenly passed away, leaving behind a vacuum that would be filled by Steve Bannon.
Under Bannon, Breitbart focused on political coverage, said Shapiro, transforming from “a media watchdog website, in many ways, into a website that is reporting on D.C., manipulating inside D.C., leading charges against Speaker [John] Boehner, for example.”
Shapiro was one of six staffers to leave Breitbart in 2016, as the site found common cause with the candidacy of Donald Trump. The catalyst, according to Shapiro, was an incident in which he and others said that the site did not do enough to support former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields following an altercation with former Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.
“When a news outlet decides that it is more important to maintain close ties to a particular candidate or politician than it is to maintain the integrity of their journalists, that is no longer a journalistic organization,” Shapiro told FRONTLINE. “It is now a propaganda platform.”
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on March 24, 2017. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with the travel ban. Where are you when you hear about it?
I believe that it was a late Friday afternoon, correct?
I had already signed off for Sabbath on Friday afternoon, because I’m an Orthodox Jew. I heard about it Saturday night. And the first thing that I saw on the news, when I opened up my computer, was all the protests at the airport. I saw them simultaneously, that this had happened and also that there were protests. The first thing I thought was, OK, I have to look at the actual text of the ban. Is it what people are saying it is? Because very often, there’s an exaggeration as to what’s actually happening. And then second of all, why are all these protests actually happening?
What you realize is that the ban was an attempt to placate a certain element of the base that wanted to strengthen vetting procedure. But the real problem here was not even the ban. The real problem was the application of Green Card holders, and that was something that was done apparently, according to media reports, at the behest of Steve Bannon and Steve Miller, that they were called up and they were asked, “Do you want to keep Green Card holders who are currently trying to get into the country, do you want to hold them up?” And they said yes. And I thought to myself, well, that seems rather unprofessionally done. I mean, you would actually want to coordinate a major activity like this, you would imagine, a couple of days beforehand. Whatever you think of the travel ban, the implementation of it was an absolute disaster.
In what way?
Well, it was a PR disaster. It was a public policy disaster. There was discombobulation within the administration. People in different branches didn’t know what the people in the other branches wanted them to do. There was a disconnect at the top. Again, whatever you think of the actual policy is a different question than how it was implemented. But the implementation was absolutely scattershot, and that opened the door to all of these protests and bad headlines.
Some of the people we’ve talked to about this say they feel the hand of Bannon in the waiting until Friday, … [that he] wanted people when they were off work on the weekend to be able to flood the airports, for protests to begin, for chaos to reign.
I think one of the great myths of the campaign and then the administration is that everybody is playing 4-D chess all the time, that there’s always some sort of grand plan going on. They’re not playing 4-D chess. They’re a Wookiee who rips the arm out of the socket of the droid, then beats them to death with it. Again, this is not a grand plan where they’re sitting around on Friday going, “You know what I’d love, I’d love thousands of protesters to spontaneously show up at the airports and destroy travel for the next three days.” No, they call up Bannon. Bannon probably had a gut reaction, and he said, “Yeah, we’re not going to allow anybody in without vetting, and that includes the Green Card holders.” They implement it, there’s blowback, and then they claim, afterward, there was a plan, which I think is probably a pretty common symptom; it’s a pretty common happenstance inside the administration lately.
So the idea that these guys were sitting there, Jeff Sessions, Steve Miller and Stephen Bannon, saying, “OK, we’re going to have a flurry of 100 executive actions.” They say to the president: “Let’s do it. Let’s drop all these things on people.”
That’s a different thing. I do think that they wanted to have a flurry of activity at the beginning to demonstrate that Trump is what he said he was: … He’s not going to wait; he’s not going to take his time. He knows what to do, and he’s going to fix everything. He’s going to set the world right immediately. I think that part is absolutely planned. I think that the implementation of each one of these pieces of the plan is scattershot, because when you rush it, and when you don’t actually take the time to do it right, what you end up with is a lot of holes in the plan. And that seems to be what’s happening.
… When does Steve Bannon actually enter Breitbart’s field of vision, your field of vision?
I can’t speak to when he specifically met Breitbart. I knew that he was working with Andrew on a documentary as early as 2010-2011, I believe. I joined Breitbart as editor-at-large February, 2012, right before Andrew died, but I had known Andrew for 10 years before that, and we’d worked very closely together on a couple of projects. Bannon had been lending Breitbart office space, and they’d been friendly and traveling around together, doing this documentary.
Who is Andrew Breitbart at that time?
Well, Andrew was an iconoclastic guy. … He was a controversial guy, but mostly because he took no prisoners, meaning he would kind of say whatever came to mind. He thought of himself [as], and I think he was in many ways, a real truth teller. His main goal was not even political. He actually thought of himself as somebody who just fought bullies, and his main opponent was the media. He was somebody who was directed against what he liked to call the “Democrat media complex,” this collusion between the Democratic Party and the media in order to promulgate left-wing narratives. He said that also infused Hollywood. But he’s somebody who was mainly concerned with the idea that you shouldn’t have to fight a media complex that is giving you information coming straight from the Democratic Party in order to get at the truth. …
And who were you? How did you get, at 17, involved in this role?
This kind of illustrates who Andrew was. I was writing a column for the UCLA Daily Bruin. I went to UCLA at 16, so I started writing for the paper when I was 16 or 17, and Andrew was reading the UCLA paper, because he lived in Westwood. So he picked up a copy of it, and he saw one of my columns, very conservative column, in the UCLA paper, and he emailed me just out of the blue and said, “I’m this guy who works with Matt Drudge, and would you like to get lunch?”
And that was sort of who Andrew was. Andrew was the guy who would reach out to everybody. …
… But he’s not as political as [the site] will eventually be with Bannon.
No, no. Andrew didn’t care about D.C. Andrew thought that everything that was important in the country was happening outside D.C. … He was more of a culture warrior than he was a D.C. politico inside guy. That’s not somebody he was interested in being.
What do you think he and Bannon saw in each other?
I think that Andrew saw in Bannon what Bannon presents to powerful people that he’s always gravitated toward, which is somebody who’s sort of mirroring what he thinks. Bannon has made a habit of finding powerful people and then mirroring back to them what they say and what they think. He’s very good at it. And I think that he did some of that with Andrew as well. He sort of started styling himself as this media iconoclast the same way that Andrew had. I think that Steve is very good at making you feel like you’re a fellow traveler, or that he’s a fellow traveler with you, and I think that he did that with Andrew. So what did they have in common? I’d say everything that Steve was capable of mirroring back at Andrew.
Did you spend any time as you got to know Bannon, saying: “Who is this guy? Where did he come from?”
I think that mostly everybody was trying to stay away from him. I mean, you spend most of your time trying to stay away from Bannon. He’s not an easy human being to deal with. So most of the people —
What do you mean?
I mean that he is, to put it bluntly, one of the worst people interpersonally that I know, if you’re on his bad side. So you spend most of your time trying to stay out of his bad side. The way that it was at Breitbart was he was brought in as the chairman. I was not — you know, I was working underneath him. So you try and kind of stay away from him to the extent that you can, do your work. I think that was true for a lot of folks at Breitbart as well.
What was he like?
I mean, Bannon is a guy who likes to shroud himself in mystery, to promulgate the narrative that he is this big powerful player. He is, when it comes to his politics and the way that he addresses the world, incredibly aggressive. So he’s a smart guy; there’s no question he was a very, very bright guy. But Steve is, I would say, more balls than brains. He likes the aggressive side of politics. This is why he portrays himself as Darth Vader. This is why he likes to think of himself as some grand schemer behind the scenes who’s controlling everything.
And he likes to push that narrative. He likes people to think that about him, because he understands that in the perception of power, there is actual power. And that’s what he’s been doing for years.
… When do you hear that it’s Bannon who is going to take the reins [at Breitbart]?
Larry [Solov] let us know pretty quickly. I think it was like two weeks after Andrew died that he let us know that Bannon was going to become chairman of the company. …
He brings with him a penchant for politics, or a real interest.
Steve is definitely interested in politics. He’s mostly interested in power politics. Unlike Andrew, who’s very interested in the cultural side of politics, Hollywood, the media, Bannon hates the media just like Andrew, but more importantly, he’s very, very into the inner workings of power in Washington, D.C. … You can see that the website starts to push political narratives that are D.C.-centric a lot more than it probably would have if Andrew had been alive.
… Can you help us define what “populist nationalism” means?
It’s a bunch of intellectualized horse crap that is generated from a bunch of policies that don’t hold together in any serious way. It’s a brand that Bannon has slapped on a series of policies that Donald Trump likes. It’s a branding effort. So Donald Trump has a series — President Trump has a series of policies that he likes that are not conservative in many ways. Some of them are conservative, but it’s a grab bag, right? When it comes to regulation, he’s anti-regulation. So that’s conservative. When it comes to tariffs, he’s very pro-tariff. That is not conservative. When it comes to infrastructure spending, he’s very much in favor of blowing out the infrastructure spending. That is not conservative. When it comes to taxes, he’s in favor of lower taxes. That is conservative, right? It’s all over the place here in terms of conservative/not conservative. He’s certainly not a small-government, traditional conservative on foreign policy, on social policy, on financial policy. He’s not a traditional Ronald Reagan conservative in any real sense.
Now, there’s this kind of attempt to read an ideology back into Trump that doesn’t actually exist. And you’ve seen that happening, this kind of attempt to apply a label to what is an incoherent grab bag of issues. And you’ve seen that happening from people ranging from Pat Buchanan to Ann Coulter to Steve Bannon. So they came up with this sort of populist-nationalist routine because it does describe it, in a way. I mean, populism is a strategy; it’s not an ideology. So whenever people say populism is his philosophy, that’s not a philosophy. Bernie Sanders is a populist, right? You can be a populist to the left; you can be a populist to the right. Populism just means that you think that the grassroots people know better than any of the bureaucrats, but it doesn’t mean that you actually think that power should be returned to the grassroots. You may think that the grassroots wants the government to have more power so it can redistribute wealth. That’s Bernie Sanders’ take on it.
So when you say “nationalist populist,” there are nationalist populists to the left, like Bernie Sanders is a nationalist populist to the left. I think that it’s a crude attempt to create an intellectual veneer for a bunch of gut reactions that Trump has. He likes the flag. He thinks America is great, not because of founding philosophy, but because America is America. He thinks that, you know, he’s populist because he appeals to a group of blue-collar people who don’t reside in New York or L.A. or D.C. and because he disdains expertise. I think that would be the only way to really sum up his ideology.
… If you were going to define Bannon’s philosophy at the beginning, as he comes into Breitbart, what is it?
Anti-establishment. And it’s not really a philosophy. Again, it’s more of a feeling. So, he just doesn’t like the establishment. And that, again, has been true for a long time … He resonates to people who are like that. So Breitbart, Palin, Trump — all are sort of anti-establishment figures, and I think that that appeals to Bannon. …
… Yeah, so it’s the Republican establishment as much as Democrats —
In many ways, more. Yeah, the idea was that the establishment Republicans didn’t know how to fight, and you need to trash the establishment Republicans so that you can know how to fight. Now … I was not a John Boehner fan; I’m not a Paul Ryan fan. But I actually want to supplant the establishment philosophy of compromising and middle-of-the-road sort of Democrat-like governance. I would like to replace that with a far more libertarian, small-government politics.
That is not something that I think that Steve cared tremendously about. It was more about destroying enemies, and that’s where he and Trump, I think, really meet. I think that they’re very much into destroying enemies. Again, it’s not a philosophy. It’s not a governing philosophy; it’s a mood. But that mood has consequences.
One of the things that does emerge, if you go back and you read the site, you notice this emerging interest in the other side of the immigration debate, post-Republican “autopsy” in 2012, where suddenly Breitbart is out on the outer edge of this. It’s Miller; it’s Sessions; it’s this idea that we don’t want to get the millennials, and we don’t want to get the women and the Latinos and Hispanics.
I don’t think it’s fair to attribute that all to Bannon. I think that’s a pretty widespread sentiment inside a lot of Republican circles. I mean, it’s actually a major debate inside Republican circles about how pro-illegal immigration particularly to be. There are some places that are a little bit warmer on it. But Breitbart was obviously very anti-illegal immigration. There was more debate inside Republican circles, including Breitbart, about illegal immigration itself. You know, there’s a lot of debate between Ted Cruz’s position that says — originally, before he changed it — that H-1B visas were a good thing, that legal immigration is a good thing, and it enriches the country, and the Jeff Sessions position that legal immigration is a bad thing that sort of waters down the economic well-being of the country. Those are real debates that were had, so I wouldn’t attribute that specifically to Bannon.
You can certainly attribute it partially, and its appearance on Breitbart, to Stephen Miller, to Sessions, access to Breitbart in lots of ways.
But I think it’s not that they infiltrated Breitbart. I think that most of the people at the top editorial level of Breitbart basically agreed that illegal immigration is bad and was being ignored by the media and ignored by the Republican establishment. …
… Do you think Sessions and Miller would have been as visible, or their arguments would have been as visible, without Breitbart?
Well, Breitbart’s a major site. … Breitbart gave exposure to a lot of people inside and outside the Trump administration, who gained a lot of power and cachet by being on Breitbart. When you have a website with, I guess, now it’s up to 200 million page readers a month, that’s a major player. And even before the rise of Trump, it was a major player. It wasn’t like it was a nonentity until Trump came around. It was a major website. I mean, it probably had 60 to 70 million page readers a month before Trump even came around. So, I mean, it was a major player in this space.
So for Sessions to be on either the radio show or whatever, 32 times, and —
Well, the radio show is a different thing. … But I will say this: that the fact that Stephen Bannon hosted Breitbart XM, it demonstrates how involved he was in terms of editorial shaping, because the fact is that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have his own radio show, right? Jeff Zucker doesn’t have his own radio show. Jeff Zucker isn’t CNN Radio, right? Rupert Murdoch isn’t Fox News Radio. They have people to do that, the people who are the policy people who do that.
But Bannon actually personally hosted the Breitbart XM Radio because he liked it. And also, it is funny: If you listen to his radio show, you can see how Bannon works by listening to the radio show, because everybody he has on is the greatest, the most wonderful, the most genius, the expert, and literally every person he has on he describes this way, because that’s how he cultivates people.
Well, it’s also interesting to listen to him. There’s a moment where he’s instructing Trump.
He wasn’t the only one to do that, obviously. I mean, Sean Hannity was basically guiding Trump through the primaries, and you had Hugh Hewitt coaching Trump. Everyone was trying [to] coach Trump all the way, up to the time he’s president. And then it turns out that Trump is now the president, and you can’t coach the president. The president is the president. So yeah, everybody was trying to do a little bit of that. Bannon, I don’t think, is an exception.
But if you’re looking into kind of how Bannon gets where he’s going, I think the looking at the radio show is actually a pretty good way of doing that, because again, it’s almost a favor machine. It’s like: “I’ll have you on the air. I’ll really talk you up. I’ll butter you up. And now we’re friends, and now I can call you.” So there is some of that.
… Do you think Trump was reading Breitbart as he starts to get rolling and as he’s thinking about running?
Yeah, for sure. Apparently, he knew Bannon since, like, 2013-2014, so I can’t imagine that he’s not being sent material by Bannon at any time. I mean, Bannon was coordinating with him a little bit, apparently. That’s not firsthand knowledge; I’ve just heard that through the grapevine. But yeah, I can’t imagine that he wasn’t looking at Drudge or Breitbart or at least looking at the headlines, because I don’t think that Bannon — I don’t think that Trump reads below the first paragraph. I think he reads the headline. If you’re lucky, he reads the entire first paragraph. If you’re not, you get, like, half the first sentence.
Have you watched Trump closely enough, especially back in there, to notice that he’s beginning to pick up —
— Breitbart narratives? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, absolutely. The reason that I quit Breitbart is because they were working so closely with Trump, right to the point where they threw one of their own reporters under a bus. That was the breaking point for me. I knew they were pro-Trump. Everybody knew they were pro-Trump. If you watched them, you know, for any length at all, you could see it was a pro-Trump website.
But I figured, OK, well, lots of different websites have different editorial bents. They’re allowing me to say what I want to say. I was writing stuff that was not particularly pro-Trump. I wrote a “Never Trump” column for Breitbart in the beginning of March, right, so it was not like they were quashing what I had to say. In fact, I think that there was probably the perception that they were using me as sort of their token, and that I was the voice on the other side, which was fine.
But the breaking point, for me, was during Michelle Fields’ incident, after one of their own reporters claimed that she was grabbed and yanked hard enough to be bruised by Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, and then Breitbart immediately responds by saying, “If this happened, then we want an apology.” And it was like, your own reporter said it happened, and Ben Harris of The Washington Post also said it happened. And then, two days later, they were on a front-page major headlines story from their former editor-in-chief Joel Pollak saying that it couldn’t have happened, that Corey Lewandowski couldn’t have grabbed her; it had to be a Secret Service agent, and their own reporter got it wrong, and taking their own reporter’s credibility and stomping all over it, in order to get themselves in deeper with Trump.
And it was at that point I said, “Well, this is just immoral at this point.” … I mean, that’s not reporting; that’s now propaganda, I think.
… When do you notice that turn starting to happen?
Toward Trump, specifically?
That was happening in 2015. You could see it. And again, this is not internal news, because I wasn’t part of the editorial chain from 2014 to 2016. I was on every phone call with Bannon basically from 2012 to 2014, and 2014 I shrank my role because I wanted to, to writing one piece a day for Breitbart, and not having to be part of the editorial chain anymore. So I sort of have a general idea of what’s going on inside the company, but a lot of what I’m seeing is the same stuff that you as an observer are seeing. Any observer could tell you this thing was starting to tilt toward Trump in the middle of 2015 when they started — I think that one of the turning points was clearly when they began running stories about TPP, when they started talking a lot about Trans-Pacific Partnership, and this became the major issue for Trump. Trump was talking about TPP. Why? Because it was a great point of differentiation from a Ted Cruz, because Ted Cruz’s original position on TPP was that TPP was OK because it’s a trade deal, and it’s a regional trade deal that’s actually directed against China. So what’s the huge problem here?
There are reasons to oppose TPP, such as the president shouldn’t have fast-track authority under the Constitution, or Obama negotiated it badly, or there are secret provisions we don’t know about. Those are real reasons. But Sessions is leading the charge on TPP; Breitbart is leading the charge on TPP. Cruz ends up reversing his position on TPP, and that was a good indicator that they were moving in a different direction, I think.
When you were on the phone calls, or listening to those phone calls every morning, what is Bannon like?
I’m not going to speak to material on the phone calls; I’m just going to speak to what Bannon is like generally. And you’ll get this from everyone who has ever dealt with Bannon. Bannon can be very charming. He can be very warm … He will yell at people; he will scream at people; he will curse at people. Everybody in the company is — you know, and people outside the company, personal friends of mine have had the Steve Bannon treatment before. This is famous about Steve. This is no secret. Steve is not — he can be kind and generous when it suits him to be kind and generous. He can also be nasty as hell if you cross him. And that’s sort of — that’s how he wants it. That’s part of his image; that’s sort of what he cultivates is, again, that dark-master image, right? “I can reward you if you serve my purposes, but if you don’t, then I will break you on the wheel of flame.”
And the growing political perspective as passed on by Steve, can you feel him? Can you feel a change?
Steve’s editorial presence became more and more felt, obviously.
From what to what?
You know, from not being particularly involved in the editorial at the very beginning when he started as chairman to being extremely involved in editorial.
… Trump, Bannon, Sessions, Miller all coalesce around certain issues, one of them being immigration.
My guess is that the wedge there was actually trade, and then that expanded into immigration, meaning that Trump was — as I say, Trump, look at his career: He was always anti-trade, and he always was taking about, back to the ’80s, “China is destroying us; Japan is destroying us.” So this is always how he’s felt. Up until 2012, he didn’t link that to immigration. And then after that, obviously, he starts linking sort of the nationalistic zero-sum game to the immigration conversation, and that changes pretty radically.
And it also appeals to a sort of nativist audience.
Sure, yeah. I hesitate to say racist, because I don’t think it’s racist. I think it is nativist, though. I mean, I think it is, “If you were born in America’s borders, you live in America’s borders, then you are inherently of more value than people who are coming in,” without reference to a values system, per se. And that’s the problem for me. I mean, America is a government designed for the American people. Obviously, the good of its citizens has to be first priority, not the good of other nations’ citizens, of course. But that’s not quite the same thing as saying that people who are coming in who embrace American ideology are, you know, troublesome to the American worker, which is sort of — that’s where I think we part ways.
… Was this an issue for Bannon in the early days?
Bannon never talked about the idea that, as I say, there is a specific disagreement on immigration with regard to whether immigration is “taking American jobs,” or whether legal immigration of people who embrace American values is a good thing. That’s the specific issue of differentiation. Bannon never really spoke to that until the Trump stuff, right, because on everything else we agree. We don’t like illegal immigration; whether you’re establishment or anti-establishment, pretty much everybody has agreed illegal immigration needs to be curbed. There are disagreements about citizenship being granted or whether you ought to be softer or whether you have to be harsher on it. But I think that the differentiation between, like, Coulter, Sessions, Miller and people like me is this specific question: Do I think that immigrants who are coming in, who embrace American values, and they’re coming in on the H-1B visa to work for a company, are they part of the whole screwing-America routine? I don’t think yes. I think that Sessions and Bannon think yes. I don’t know when Bannon starts thinking that, you know. That’s a question. My experience with Bannon is not that he comes up with his own, that he’s not an ideologically freewheeling guy who imposes his views on others. My impression is that he’s somebody who adopts views based on what the powerful people near him are saying and thinking. …
… So what drove Bannon to Trump?
Power, access to it.
… Let’s talk about Breitbart and the controversy, for instance, this idea that there was a black crime section.
Yeah. Again, I don’t recall when I was in the editorial structure that there was an actual black crime section. You know, is there? I mean, I don’t know. Is there actually a black crime section on the website, or is it just like a URL? I’d have to check it honestly to respond to that, because I don’t want to speak —
People say there’s a black crime section, and that this an intention of Bannon in directing the site?
I don’t remember that being a thing, to be frank with you. I don’t remember Bannon ever saying anything like that. You know, there’s an implication. It’s very funny, because Bannon is now so prominent, there is this attempt — the left has a couple of things that they like to do with prominent people on the right. They are racists; they are homophobes; they are anti-Semites. I don’t think that — I don’t have evidence that Steve’s any of those things … And I think that the left oversteps its boundaries when they start attributing motives to people without proper evidence. So yeah, as far as the black crime section, I mean, again, I don’t even know if that’s there. If it is there, I wasn’t involved in it. If — or I’m not even aware of it now.
As far as coverage of black crime, meaning that there were stories where we would cover it and make a specific point of pointing out the race of the suspect, that was almost invariably to move the stories. That was almost invariably to point out that the media was refusing to cover the race, meaning the media always covers the race when it’s a white guy killing a black person, but the media never covers the race when it’s a black person killing a white person.
… And the focus on immigrant crime, same kind of thing?
The focus on immigrant crime was the same thing. It was the idea that the media would not cover immigrant crime because they would avoid mentioning the immigration status of people who were criminal, because they don’t want to promulgate a narrative that would suggest that we need to actually vet people coming into the country.
Alt-right is a different thing. Alt-right is an actual philosophy to make people like Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer — the alt-right philosophy is actual white supremacy and white nationalism. I think the connections that are forged between Breitbart and the alt-right, it seems to me that there was an identification inside the alt-right with the Trump campaign. As Breitbart becomes more Trumpy, it gets more traffic from the alt-right, from the Reddits and the Fortunes and the areas of those sites that are alt-right in nature.
And then, after I leave, they really start promoting Milo Yiannopoulos very heavily. Milo writes a piece, along with Allum Bokhari, called “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” or “An Establishment Republican’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” that is basically just an ode … to the alt-right, in which he explicitly talks about the alt-right belief that culture and race are inseparable, in which he specifically name-checks Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer. And that piece became basically sort of the Bible for the alt-right, as far as, who are we? What do we do?
Then Milo and Breitbart start to play the clown-nose-on/clown-nose-off thing. Well, we’re just covering it; we’re not actually promulgating it. Sure, we’re hiring some figures from kind of alt-right circles and promoting them, but we’re not actually pushing that philosophy or ideology. It’s just something important that we’re covering.
And then Bannon says that they’re — what did he call them? — the site for the alt-right or a gathering site for the alt-right. And I’m not, you know — and I would be willing to attribute ignorance to Bannon, because a lot of people don’t know what the alt-right is. A lot of people think the alt-right is just a bunch of people who like Pepe memes and don’t like Hillary Clinton. But I would be more willing to attribute that to Bannon if they hadn’t actually run the piece fully explaining what the alt-right was and what their philosophy was.
So it’s Bannon?
Well, Bannon is green-lighting that. I think that to say that Bannon is alt-right is a step too far. To say that Bannon was willing to make common cause with the alt-right in order to promote his own power is fully within Bannon’s MO. He’ll make common cause with anybody. As long as it promotes him, he doesn’t care. I mean, look at what’s happening right now with this health care bill. Perfect example. Breitbart is wildly against this health care bill, right. And when I was there, everybody who’s in leadership would have been wildly against this health care bill because it doesn’t actually repeal Obamacare, it re-enshrines it.
So what is Bannon doing? He’s playing both sides of the table. He’s going to the Hill, and he’s telling Republicans: “You must vote for this health care bill. You must do it right now.” And at the same time, there are stories leaking on Breitbart about how Bannon actually is unhappy with the health care bill. And of course who stands to benefit if the health care bill goes down? Bannon, because Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan get thrown under the bus. He’s always hated Priebus and Ryan, so what does he care?
Bannon is very, very good at this game, you know. But to suggest that Bannon’s philosophy is the governing philosophy, only to the extent that both Bannon and Trump value power above principle would I say that’s true.
One of the things we’re doing is digging into his bibliography.
He loves to read; that’s true.
… So there’s this book, Camp of the Saints.
Yeah, I’ve heard about this, yeah.
Does it feel like it’s consistent with a philosophy and ideology or worldview?
I think that Bannon thinks in terms of opposition, and he thinks in terms of enemies, and who those enemies or opposition are can change from time to time, depending on whether it’s politically useful to him. So books that tend toward, “Here is an enemy; here is an opposition,” I think those appeal to him. He’s a pretty binary thinker in a lot of ways. But I think that to cast it as like it’s a binary America versus the rest of the world, or it’s a binary white people versus not white people, no. I think the only binary that really matters to Steve Bannon is pro-Steve Bannon/anti-Steve Bannon.
So here’s —
Here’s the test point, OK. And I’ll give you a test point, and we’ll see how it plays out. Find the area where Steve Bannon has a clearly articulated view, and then Donald Trump takes the opposing view, and see if Steve Bannon stays with his clearly articulated prior view or if he flips and immediately begins mirroring Trump. He will flip and immediately begin mirroring Trump, which is to say, I know everybody is scared that Trump is the actual president, and I know everybody is scared that the guy in charge doesn’t know what he’s doing and that he has no actual root philosophy. Because they’re scared, they’re looking for the guy with the plan. There is no plan, OK? Steve Bannon doesn’t have a plan; Donald Trump doesn’t have a plan. They have a bunch of moods. And what they decide, you know, today is based on what Donald Trump’s mood is. All Steve Bannon is going to do is decide whether this is a lasting mood, and so I can bank on Trump being on this train, or whether this is a passing mood, and is Trump going to get off of this tomorrow, and so I can kind of tamp it down a little bit?
Steve Bannon rounds off Trump’s hard edges. When he was hired, somebody asked me, “What does Bannon do for him?” I said, “He’s a smarter mirror.” And that’s what he is: He’s a smarter mirror of Trump.
Well, that gives Trump more power and more credence than a lot of people are willing to give him.
He’s the president of the United States. That’s right. Everybody is looking for the guy behind the curtain. They’re looking for the Wizard of Oz behind that curtain. They think Trump is just the big shadowy head emerging from the flames. That is not the case. There is no guy behind the curtain. Trump may just be the big shadowy head emerging from the flames, but there is no person behind the curtain. There is no evil root philosophy behind the curtain. It’s a series of driven positions. And you know, and this is what Bannon — in all my time knowing Steve Bannon, never — and he was against the stimulus package. Now he’s promoting a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. All he wants is to be close to power, because he thinks that that makes him an important human being.
Well, and he may have a strategic skill.
And maximizing power for other people, yeah. Yeah, he’s a smart guy. I think that he’s capable of doing that for Trump. I think he’s capable of helping Trump navigate some shoals, or at least avoiding blame from a particular segment of his base.
But even when you watch something like the Access Hollywood moment, right, before the second debate, that weekend, Bannon is just freshly there.
Yes, that’s exactly right. Bannon is a security blanket for Trump, and he’s a security blanket who always humors Trump’s already stated disposition to punch back. So the Access Hollywood tape, it wasn’t just that he was standing there with Trump; it’s that he immediately came back, as you recall, with a bunch of stuff about Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton and Bill’s sexual peccadillos, and Juanita Broderick and all this stuff, right, which is good strategy. It’s good political strategy. I said so at the time.
That’s what Steve does for all the people he’s dealt with. He did it for Andrew. I think he did it for Sarah Palin. I think he’s done it for Michelle Bachmann and a bunch of other figures that he’s worked with. It’s just the person he happens to work with became president. … People always ask the question, OK, so you say, you know: “Shapiro, you say that Steve Bannon is power in pursuit of power. Well, what exactly does he want to do with that power?” And the answer is, whatever he feels like that day. It’s not something where it’s like, “I’m going to –” This whole “Make America Great Again” shtick, it’s a slogan, and it means something, I think, in their head. I think they want to “Make America Great Again,” but it doesn’t have any formal definition; it doesn’t have any formal philosophical rooting.
There may be some areas where he’s more consistent. Like I say, on trade and immigration, I think he’ll be more consistent, but I think the rest he doesn’t really care too much about.
… When I go back and I look at his movies and what he’s read and what he kind of seems to believe —
He’s a dramatic apocalyptic thinker, no question.
And that’s part of the —
It’s always high drama. It’s always high drama with Steve.
So if you have to have somebody who’s one sentence away from the president’s ear at an incredibly important moment —
I don’t think he’s going to be the voice of caution. Yeah, I don’t think Steve Bannon is the voice of caution. I think that Steve Bannon is somebody who recognizes that, when somebody’s id is raging, the best political move, if that’s a powerful person, is to get behind and push, not push back. So yeah, I don’t think he’s a moderate influence in the White House. I think anybody who believes that Steve Bannon is a moderating influence in the White House has never met Steve Bannon. But you know, I think there are other moderating influences in the White House. I think Gen. [James] Mattis of Defense is a moderating influence, obviously.
But if you have to worry about something about Steve Bannon, even the Steve Bannon you characterize, you would worry on the national security realm, right?
Yeah. You want to worry about him humoring Trump’s worst impulses on national security. That’s the area where you want to worry. The American system is incredibly durable and can withstand a lot of things on the domestic front, because there’s a lot of checks and balances built into the system. No matter how much the right despised Obama, Obama wasn’t able to get that much done outside of Obamacare. No matter how much the left hated Bush, Bush wasn’t really able to get that much done on the domestic front. So it’s — except for spending, which is just a consistent failure of both parties. But when it comes to foreign policy, yeah, the stuff matters. When it comes to foreign policy, Trump’s id is a problem. And you see that the administration, so far at least, has doubled down on every element of that.
When he accuses British intelligence of having wiretapped him, there’s nobody in the White House saying to him: “You know, Donald, you might want to tone that down, right? You might want to let that one go.” Instead it’s: “Well, of course they did. We’ll never apologize for that,” because that’s how Trump is, and that is very Bannon. And Bannon is a double-down guy. Bannon has never apologized for anything, nor will he. That is something where he and Trump are absolutely identical.
So, what is Bannon’s philosophy?
Again, I think that it’s an anti-establishment idea that the people in power can’t be trusted, that we are one minute away from a real emergency, and that the ground has to be cleared so that people of will can do something to stop the problem. That, I think, is the common thread for Steve.
And in Realpolitik terms, what does it mean?
So far what it means is that, if he sees the chief threat as they defined it as radical Islam, then that means that you are fighting Hitler, and that means you have to side with Stalin, so that means that Putin is our friend. He’s not going to be confrontational with people he thinks are friends, are civilizational friends. He’s been a little bit more unclear on China, because Trump obviously doesn’t like China.
I don’t think Steve has any particular feelings on China one way or another, or at least that’s not the impression I ever got from speaking with Steve. He always thought that the Chinese government was smart and able, but I never got the impression that he saw it as, like, we’re going to have an apocalyptic war with China or something. But I think that the idea that everybody is weak-kneed and that all conflicts can be solved easily if you just get rid of the establishment that’s true for his domestic politics, I think it’s also true for foreign policy, which is why he is not in favor of things like TPP; it’s why he is probably humoring Trump on this NATO stuff.
Steve understands better than to actually humor that stuff. Steve actually knows a fair bit about NATO, but Steve, I can’t imagine him standing in Trump’s way, because that is something Trump is fond of. So foreign policy is the real danger. Do I think that Steve Bannon is the guy who pushes the nuclear button? No. Do I think that Trump is a guy who pushes the nuclear button? No, because I think that he will understand that people will be angry at him if he pushes the nuclear button. Do I think Gen. Mattis will stand by and let Trump push the nuclear button? No. But what you could see pretty easily is a situation where Trump mouths off, somebody takes advantage of him mouthing off, and then we get ourselves involved in a little war somewhere, because Trump mouthed off, somebody took advantage of it, and now Trump has to double down to prove he is tough. …
… But if you read and think about what he has said and what he has read, you ask yourself, “Is this a guy who believes that we are in the war already, the 80 year war and it’s radical Islam?”
I do think that he believes that. I think a lot of people on the conservative side believe that. The question is how apocalyptic is the thinking; how close are we to losing it? So if you actually believe that we are one heartbeat away from losing the war on terror, … that does help define policy.
… So when it comes to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), on the one hand Bannon wants to be anti-establishment but at the same time to have influence.
… I mean, it’s all about perception of power. Steve understands that better than anybody. Steve understands perception of power. And the fact that you’re even doing this documentary demonstrates how well he understands the perception of power. He knows that you think he’s powerful. Steve will be the first person sitting back with a cigar and a snifter of brandy watching this thing and enjoying it richly, because it makes him appear, just the fact that we’re even covering him, it makes Steve appear like he is this deep-thinking power player who is behind all the events in the United States. That’s exactly how Steve wants to be perceived. He is loving every second of it.
So, when he attends the CPAC event this year, he changes out of the suit he is wearing at the White House for a black shirt.
This is all Steve. This is Steve’s routine. In all the pictures he’s got, everybody else is wearing a tie, and he is wearing a black shirt unbuttoned at the top, looking unkempt, looking mangy, right, with the black coat, and he has got his hair a little bit long, and he is looking for all the world like a dog about to attack. That’s what Steve wants to be seen. He calls himself Darth Vader. I’m not calling him Darth Vader. I don’t think he is Darth Vader, because I don’t think Darth Vader is a real thing. I think he likes people to think he is Darth Vader, because it gives an impression of power that he can then wield against people. I mean, he spends a lot of time threatening people. He does.
When he talks at CPAC about destroying the administrative state what does he mean?
Again, what I’m trying to do is be intellectually honest in separating out what is particular to Steve Bannon and what is actually longstanding conservative philosophy. There is a whole wing of conservatives, and I’m among them, who believe that the administrative state established under Woodrow Wilson and has been growing ever since is an attempt to wrest power away from the legislative branch and from the elected branches of government in favor of an unelected bureaucracy that makes all the rules under which we live. When he says he wants to destroy the administrative state, that’s presumably what he means. That is actually the part of Steve’s agenda that I have the least problem [with]. I agree with him on that.
Let’s talk just for a minute about the administrative and the deep state, the deep state.
Yeah. These are two different things.
Understood. All right, so —
Administrative state is like the staffing at the EPA that makes all the rules under which we live without any sort of real public oversight.
And the deep state?
And then the deep state presumably is like Obama-appointed intelligence officials who exist inside the intelligence apparatus and have been leaking information about Mike Flynn’s conversations with the ambassador from Russia.
… [Bannon] gets a seat as a principal on the National Security Council. How and why, and what does it mean?
It just means he is a security blanket, and Trump trusts him to summarize all the information that he is being given; that’s all. I think that’s the same way that Ivanka [Trump] is there and Jared [Kushner] is there. Trump has set himself up with a bunch of security blankets around him so that he feels comfortable in those sort of settings.
… Can you help us understand the threat that Bannon sees post-9/11 to the Judeo-Christian West?
Yeah. I think that the threat that Bannon sees post-9/11 to the Judeo-Christian West … is that radical Islamic theology is metastasizing into more mainstream Islamic communities; that the growth of Islam itself isn’t necessarily the problem, but the growth of radical Islam is definitely a problem, and there is crossover between radical Islam and mainstream Islam, which is why it’s a growing threat in a lot of countries, including places like Saudi Arabia. But he would also say that the greatest ideological threat … is not radical Islam; it’s a secular leftist ideology that says that multiculturalism is not a threat to the West. So, in other words, you can have enclaves of people who believe in radical Islamic theology inside the West without threatening the West or all cultures are equal and Western civilization is not worth preserving or being stood up for. There I think that he is right, and I don’t think that that is a minority position at all on the right. I think that is a pretty mainstream position on the right.
… I just have one last question, which is Michelle Fields and what happened to her. I think you should just tell us the story, and then certainly what the greater takeaway is.
Yeah. I sort of told this story earlier. Basically the timeline was this: Trump was doing a rally down at Mar-a-Lago. Breitbart sent Michelle Fields, who I really had met once, I think. She was a reporter for them; they sent her down to cover it. So she goes down to cover it, and Trump is moving through the room after the rally, and as he is moving through the room, she starts walking alongside him, as many reporters do, and she is holding a tape recorder to get his responses, and Corey Lewandowski comes from behind her — and you can see this on the tape –he comes from behind her, and he grabs her by the arm, and he yanks her back hard enough to bruise her arm. Her boyfriend, Jamie Weinstein, puts up on Twitter something about how she was grabbed and yanked by Lewandowski, and this turns into a big thing, because campaign managers don’t usually grab and yank reporters. …
So this happens. I’m on Twitter at the time, and I among many, many others say: “This is inappropriate. If this is what happened, then this guy should be fired. You can’t grab reporters and grab them just because you want to.” … So Breitbart doesn’t really report it, and it’s reported elsewhere. It’s reported by Ben Terris of The Washington Post, who confirms the story and says that Michelle had bruises welling up on her arm and all this. Michelle takes a picture of her arm and puts that out as well to show that she was bruised. And immediately the conspiracy theories start in: She is a tool of the anti-Trump forces; this never happened; Corey Lewandowski didn’t grab her; she was not bruised; she made up the bruises; she faked the bruises, all this kind of stuff.
Meanwhile, Breitbart has issued a statement saying, “If Michelle Fields was grabbed by Corey Lewandowski, we want an apology.” “If.” OK, well, I thought, that’s rather inappropriate. She is your reporter. If she is your reporter you defend your reporter. You don’t say “if.” I run a website. If one of my reporters said, “This happened,” I wouldn’t then issue a statement saying, “If this happened.” I would say: “This happened. We want an apology.” That is what any normal newspaper would do.
Instead, they do the “if” thing, because they don’t want to offend Trump. … At that point Michelle and I had been talking, and she is saying to me, “I can’t stay here. …” I said, “Look, first of all, if you are going to do this, then I would — if you are saying this happened, I would advise you to go down and make a police report so they can at least substantiate that you’re not faking the bruises. You don’t have to go through with the prosecution. You don’t have to push it through. But I’ve done this sort of thing before, and it’s not out of line to go down and substantiate this actually happened.”
So she goes to the police station, and she files a police report against Lewandowski, and Breitbart has come out with this story same day, and then on Sunday night we both walk from Breitbart. The reason that I walked is because I knew that Breitbart was pro-Trump, obviously. Anybody who can read English knew that Breitbart was pro-Trump by that point, but my main objection was when a news outlet decides that it is more important to maintain close ties with a particular candidate or politician than it is to maintain the integrity of their journalists or to defend their journalists or protect their journalists from people who are grabbing them by the arm and bruising them, then I’m out. That is no longer a journalistic organization. It is now propaganda platform.
In my statement, I specifically name-checked Bannon, and I said that Bannon is somebody who I thought had betrayed Breitbart’s legacy by promulgating this sort of stuff. Andrew never would have stood for this, which is absolutely true. …