How Steve Bannon guided the MAGA movement’s rebound from Jan. 6 (Isaac Arnsdorf, April 4, 2024, Washington Post)

[W]hen he watched Trump glide down a golden escalator to announce his campaign for president, in 2015, his first thought was, “That’s Hitler!” By that he meant someone who intuitively understood the aesthetics of power, as in Nazi propaganda films. He saw in Trump someone who could viscerally connect with the general angst that Bannon was roiling and make himself a vessel for Americans’ grievances and desires.

Bannon’s thinking on building a mass movement was shaped by Eric Hoffer, “the longshoreman philosopher,” so called because he had worked as a stevedore on the San Francisco docks while writing his first book, “The True Believer.” The book caused a sensation when it was published in 1951, becoming a manual for comprehending the age of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Hoffer argued that all mass movements — nationalist, communist, or religious — shared common characteristics and followed a discernible path. “The preliminary work of undermining existing institutions, of familiarizing the masses with the idea of change, and of creating a receptivity to a new faith, can be done only by men who are, first and foremost, talkers or writers and are recognized as such by all.” (How about a reality TV star?) But such leaders cannot alone create the conditions that give rise to mass movements. “He cannot conjure a movement out of the void,” Hoffer wrote. “There has to be an eagerness to follow and obey, and an intense dissatisfaction with things as they are, before the movement and leader can make their appearance.”

Rather than focusing on movement leaders, Hoffer’s inquiry concerned the followers — how ordinary people became fanatics. Successful, well‐adjusted people did not become zealots. Sometimes they glommed onto mass movements to serve their own ambitions, but that came later. The true believers were seeking not self‐advancement but rather “self‐renunciation” — swapping out their individual identities, with all their personal disappointments, for “a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause.” The kinds of people who were most susceptible to becoming true believers were, in Hoffer’s idiom, poor, struggling artists, misfits, unusually selfish, or just plain bored. “When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need of something apart from us to live for,” Hoffer wrote. “All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self‐surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives.”

For Bannon, as he was building Breitbart’s audience, the ready supply of true believers came from disaffected young men. Bannon had first discovered this untapped resource in, of all places, Hong Kong, while working with a company that paid Chinese workers to play the video game World of Warcraft, earning virtual commodities that the company could flip to Western gamers for real money. The business collapsed, but not before introducing Bannon to an online subculture of young gamers and meme creators, whose energies he learned to draw out and redirect toward politics.

Breitbart’s traffic figures confirmed Bannon’s hunch that candidate Trump was catching fire in 2015, and Bannon positioned the site as the Trump campaign’s unofficial media partner in thrashing the Republican primary field. By the time Bannon officially took over Trump’s ragtag campaign, in the wake of a chaotic convention and spiraling Russia scandal, he supplied a closing message that, if not exactly lucid, did have a kind of coherence. The message was that Trump, the “blue‐collar billionaire,” was here to blow up the established political order that was plainly failing to serve the needs and interests of the common public, and would be a champion for the forgotten and left‐behind Americans. Bannon was not alone in seeing Hoffer’s influence on what he was doing: Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, dusted off “The True Believer” and shared it with her campaign staff, recognizing in those pages the description of a destructive energy that she concluded she was powerless to subdue.

In the White House, as Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon heralded the dawn of a “new political order,” but he lasted only seven months. Trump threw him out after white supremacists and neo‐Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, against removing a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and one of them drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a young woman. Trump was the one who defended the torch‐carrying mob as including “very fine people,” but Bannon, as the face of right‐wing nationalism inside the White House (and what a face it was), made a fitting scapegoat. Though the dismissal set Bannon, temporarily, at odds with Trump, it did not shake his commitment to their shared political project. Bannon moved back into the Breitbart Embassy to plot his comeback.