If you ever wondered about the capacity of a broken, pathetic person to fuck up the world, Alison Klayman offers a case study in her documentary The Brink, which turns its lens on Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chief executive and sacked chief strategist to President Donald J. Trump. The filmmaker finds Bannon regrouping in the wake of his banishment from Breitbart-world, to which he had returned following his ouster from the White House.
Bannon likes to call himself an “economic nationalist,” but it was white nationalism that led to his White House ouster, when he took the fall for Trump’s outrageous remarks following the violence instigated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. In a press conference soon after the incident, the president proclaimed that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the demonstrations there—one side being people who assembled ostensibly to defend a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that was erected as a monument to racial segregation. The deal was sealed after Bannon cold-called Prospect Co-editor Robert Kuttner to rattle on about his grand plan for economic war with China, gleefully claiming that his China strategy had people in the Departments of State and Defense “wetting themselves.” Bannon went back to his Breitbart post only to lose it as a result of some rather intemperate remarks he made to journalist Michael Wolff about the president’s son-in-law and despot fanboy, Jared Kushner.
So he set out to be a kingmaker in U.S. politics, promising primary challenges to Senate Republicans running in the 2018 midterms who were insufficiently Trumpian. His support of Roy Moore in Alabama led to the humiliating loss to Democrat Doug Jones of what had long been a safe Republican seat. Klayman went on the campaign trail with Bannon, and was with him on election night as the returns came in. On Election Day in 2016, Bannon says, he knew, with absolute certainty, that Trump was going to win—a feeling he didn’t have this time. So much for the kingmaking.
It’s been reported that when he was booted from his post at Breitbart, Bannon also lost his patrons, the Mercer family, who had poured millions into Breitbart and various Bannon projects over the years. But who really knows? These days, there’s no shortage of ways to move money in ways unseen, virtually untraceable to its sources.
But maybe Bannon is merely chasing dollars as we find him embarking on his next project—building a coalition of Europe’s far-right parties, just in time for the European Parliament elections, which will take place in May. “We’re gonna run the fuckin’ tables on these guys,” Bannon says, “these guys” being those running to be part of the EU’s governing body for the purpose of seeing it succeed. (Spoiler alert: That’s not the purpose for which Bannon’s compatriots hope to gain a controlling bloc in the elections.)
It’s sort of like that Brexit thing in which Bannon and the Mercers played a role via Cambridge Analytica, the infamous data-mining firm bankrolled by Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund genius. The U.K. is one of the three largest economies among the countries of the EU, meaning that if it leaves, it leaves the union significantly weakened. As I write, a leader of the Leave.eu campaign, Arron Banks, is under investigation by the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency, which would like to know where he obtained the millions he contributed to the campaign and to pro-Brexit politicians. Emails uncovered by the British site OpenDemocracy show an exchange between Banks and Bannon in which Banks sought to enlist Cambridge Analytica to raise funds for the Brexit campaign from American donors—a practice that is illegal in U.K. political campaigns. Another prominent Brexiteer, Britain’s Nigel Farage, is shown in The Brink among Bannon’s confidants as the American impresario of hate attempts to assemble his continental coalition of contempt.
The glue he proposes to hold them together? A kind of pooled resource of Bannon’s expertise in messaging and polling, to be set up as a foundation called The Movement. The foundation appears to be something of a cover for a Brussels-based Bannon consultancy business. The endgame is to weaken the European Union—an aim, coincidentally, of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s, as well. We see Bannon flying around Europe and the U.S., watch him as he fetes some of Europe’s most reactionary and hateful politicians at a five-star hotel in Venice, peer into some of his interactions with billionaire Miles Kwok and multimillionaire John Thornton, the former Goldman Sachs president who hangs around Bannon, despite having been an Obama supporter once upon a time.
Yet despite the grandeur of his project, not to mention that of his overseas lodgings, Bannon comes across as wounded and lonely. Asked by Klayman whether he’s hurt by Trump’s description of him as “Sloppy Steve,” Bannon says no, but his expression says otherwise. It’s not easy being the guy who wants to burn it all down.
While Bannon’s European project may simply represent an opportunist’s attempt to harness “a zeitgeist,” as Bannon calls the rise of the right around the world, the gee-whiz fascination for the technology used by the Nazis to effect the Holocaust in the film’s opening scenes suggests, at best, a callous disregard for the lives lost in the death camps. His ability to pursue the project in a high-flying style speaks to the growing weakness of institutions of governance in the face of unfettered capital. Prospects for either war or peace increasingly rest in the hands of a small group of billionaires. Bannon is but their tool.
Whether or not his purported expertise contributes to the electoral fortunes of parliamentary candidates is almost beside the point. What Bannon has succeeded in doing is getting key far-right players—the Brexiteer, the Swedish neo-Nazi, the Italian neofascist, etc.—together in a room focused on a single goal: maiming the European Union. Whatever the electoral outcome, the groundwork for future cooperation among the nativists of Europe has been laid.
Kudos to Alison Klayman and producer Marie Therese Guirgis for bringing this revealing portrait to the screen.