Of the many fictional characters Steve Bannon compares himself to in American Dharma — Col. Nicholson from The Bridge on the River Kwai and Falstaff from Chimes at Midnight — the most blatantly ridiculous name mentioned is the Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger from the infamous YouTube video of the same name. To Bannon, he and the badger share a common quality: they “just don’t give a shit” about how their horrible traits and behavior will ultimately affect others around them. As the chief executive officer of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and co-founder of alt-right “news” outlet Breitbart Media, the last thing Bannon’s certainly giving a shit about is the wellbeing of others who have immigrated to the United States; the zealot hides a xenophobic worldview under the guise of populist rhetoric, or “nationalism” as most neo-Nazi’s would like to put it.
The inherent contradiction here (that one can be for the people while systematically discriminating against many) is one director Errol Morris picks up fairly early on in American Dharma. When Morris confronts Bannon about this, an uncomfortable silence follows. For Morris, in the past (say, with war criminals Donald Rumsfeld and Robert S. McNamara), he’s let his subjects’ own words bring-out the contradictions they engender — but here, the director finally engages with this tendency head-on. What hampers this tactic is where the newfound aggressiveness stems from: that Morris truly finds Bannon fearsome, a boogeyman of such untold proportions that you must keep attacking (a tactic Bannon brags about consistently). This constrains the scope of American Dharma’s ambitions to that of a surface-level critique, rarely fleshing-out the psyche of the former White House Chief Strategist beyond a trotting out of his “greatest hits,” which includes bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to Hillary’s second presidential debate. That isn’t to say the film isn’t without justified merit: to Morris, evil must be exposed before it’s eradicated, and seeing such sickeningly monstrous beliefs casually mentioned is deliberate and startling. Again, much like the honey badger he invokes, Bannon’s only allegiance is to his own preservation — and he sees a return to 1950s America as the best way of accomplishing that selfish goal.
Published as part of November 2019’s Before We Vanish.