There’s nothing more boring than journalists writing about journalism. Please let me tell you, though, about The Spectator’s interview with Steve Bannon, which we published in March. It began with an email from one of my favorite Speccie contributors, Nicholas Farrell, who lives in Ravenna in Italy. “Steve Bannon has agreed to see me in Rome tomorrow,” it said. “I need to know tonight/first thing latest.” I rang Nick. “Apparently, he likes my book about Mussolini and some of my articles, and he likes my stuff,” he said.
Great, I said. Let’s do it.
I should tell you a bit about Nick, a wild man of journalism and in my mind one of the most underrated writers out there. He is a serious boozer and a militant smoker: a man who would have made the late Christopher Hitchens look like a member of the Temperance Society. He has an original approach to journalistic interviews, which gets results. In 2016, for instance, he managed to persuade Boris Johnson, the current British foreign secretary, to invent an obscene limerick about the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan:
There was a young fellow from Ankara
Who was a terrific wankerer
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn’t even stop to thankera
Not Boris’s finest creative moment, perhaps, but not bad on the spot. The ditty later caused something of an international diplomatic incident because Erdogan had instituted blasphemy laws to defend himself from criticism, so my editor thought it a great success.
My point is that Nick is an effective gonzo type. If he didn’t drink so much he’d probably be editor of Vanity Fair—or Breit bart. He used to work for the Daily Telegraph but was sacked after going on a free cigar trip to Cuba. He had a crazy marriage to the manager of a London drinking club, then he went to Italy to write a book about Mussolini (“An unputdownable opus,” according to Taki). These days he has a very attractive and devout Italian Catholic wife and six beautiful Italian children. I met them all once in London in a pub. Nick used to be tremendously good-looking, or so he says. Now, as he all too gleefully puts it, he “can look a bit like a tramp.” As does Steve Bannon, famously, so the two seemed right for each other.
Anyway, the Rome rendezvous did not take place in Rome, for one reason or another. Bannon, America’s most reviled populist, the man who not so long ago was called Trump’s Rasputin, was on a European tour promoting his curious brand of populist nationalism: a global anti globalism tour. His next stop was Zurich, where he was giving a speech for Die Weltwoche, the right-wing Swiss weekly. Bannon’s nephew told Nick by text message that Steve would still be keen to meet him. So The Spectator sent Farrell off to Switzerland. He wore a midnight-blue silk cravat and a broad-rim panama hat, even though it was snowing in Zurich. As a Weltwoche contributor, Farrell got himself invited to their dinner to honor Bannon after his speech. There, Nick says, he drunkenly shouted across the table to ask Bannon if he believed in God and whether he went to confession.
After the meal, Bannon—rather generously given that exchange—agreed to be interviewed by him early the next morning. Nick hadn’t booked a hotel, so he spent the night roaming the streets. “I ended up in some working man’s bar,” he told me.
He rolled up for the interview at the Park Hyatt hotel at around 8 a.m., unslept and worse for wear to put it mildly. The sit-down lasted about ten minutes. Nick asked Bannon why he didn’t drink much. Bannon said something about killing too many days drinking when he was in the Navy. They had a slightly incoherent chat about Italian politics, the Lega Nord, the Five Star Movement (“I like how they are kinda making it up as they go along,” said Bannon), and the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi—or “Silvio il Magnifico,” as Farrell calls him. Understandably, perhaps, Bannon then said “I gotta bounce.” Still, he kindly offered Nick another interview at 10 a.m. Nick said no: “I’ve got to get some sleep.”
Bannon, by now exhibiting the patience of a saint, promised to see him again, and he did the next day. I don’t think Nick stopped drinking. When they saw each other again, Bannon asked: “Dude, when was the last time you took a shower?”—an echo, funnily enough, of a rude remark Donald Trump once made about Bannon himself.
The two men finally had a 45-minute conversation: the Bohemian Mussolini biographer and the global revolutionary anti globalist. It was like a train-wreck Frost/Nixon.
Nick took up the first five minutes showing Bannon pictures of his loved ones on his phone. (“This one is my son called Winston, after Churchill . . . and there’s the dog.”) Bannon congratulated Nick on the handsomeness of his family, then asked if Nick had heard his Weltwoche speech. No, said Nick. Oh, well, had he heard it online? No, said Nick. “I like the way this guy rolls,” said Bannon. Nick had asked me to send him some questions about American politics, which I did, but on the tape he and Bannon agreed they were stupid. So they spent the vast majority of the interview having a sprawling conversation about Mussolini, Nick’s book, the brilliance of Nick’s prose, the differences between populism and fascism, and their favorite films.
The recording of the interview, which I’ve heard, is part fascinating, part frustrating, and entirely ridiculous. Nick keeps pointing out he hasn’t asked his questions. “Just ask me the questions, Jesus,” says Bannon. Then they swerve off into another rambling dialogue about the nature of democracy. “The bigger threat we have got than socialism is state-controlled capitalism,” says Bannon. “We have big government and a handful of big companies. That’s what you’re seeing in technology right now with these massive companies. It’s the biggest danger we have.
“Listen, I think our problem is [not just] the Cultural Marxist left, but state capitalism on finance. That’s what we’re fighting right now. They absolutely control our borders. They debase your currency, they debase your citizenship, and they take your personhood digitally.
“This is the new serfdom. We’re just a collection of serfs—serfs living at a higher standard of living, but vis-à-vis what the total economic pie is, you’re still a serf, and that’s exactly where the modern state wants to keep you.”
A day or so later, Bannon sent Nick an email, asking if they could go through any other points he might have. “I felt you were asking me too many esoteric questions about political philosophy that I’m just not equipped to answer,” he said.
But the funny part is that, by seeming to be a hopeless interviewer, Farrell got Bannon to reveal a lot of himself. On the tape, Bannon told him how fascinated he was by Mussolini’s virility and his dress sense, which prompted much snarky liberal chortling about his sexuality on Twitter after we published. He also disclosed that his favorite scene in Apocalypse Now is one in which you can see the determination of the Viet Cong fighting against helicopters: “That’s nationalism.” He veered between insisting he didn’t understand Nick’s deeper questions—“I’m not a political philosopher, I’m just another schmendrick”—and launching into profound monologues about the failures of late democracy. “I came from a blue-collar family who read Plutarch,” he said, proudly. “Lincoln had the King James Bible, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, and the plays of Shakespeare, that’s all he had, that’s what he read nonstop. He didn’t go to 20 years of school, he didn’t have a Ph.D. in English. In the height of our civilization, in England and other places, working men had reading associations. Churchill could make classical allusions and the Labour vote knew exactly what he was talking about. We’re not going to dumb it down, OK? I’m not going to let you dumb it down.”
I’ve read some good stuff on or by Bannon. There’s Devil’s Bargain, the book by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green; there’s Fire and Fury, the Michael Wolff sensational and scurrilous tell-all about the Trump White House—which draws heavily on Bannon as a source. There’s his peculiar sweep-of-history speech to the Vatican in 2014. And Christopher Caldwell wrote an excellent profile of him for the New York Times. But Nick’s interview is the best insight I’ve seen into Bannon’s contradictory nature, his curious blend of vaunted intellectualism and crude straight talk.
Bannon wanted to get across his talking points about cryptocurrencies, Internet data, transhumanism, and the coming matriarchy, but Nick refused to let him dictate the conversation.
On the subject of women, Nick rather bravely asked Bannon, “Isn’t your politics really all about male insecurity?”
That elicited an interesting response: “The Time’s Up movement is coming to the heart of the structure of global society because all global society is built on the patriarchy,” he said, a reference to the virtue-trumpeting and seemingly never-ending feminist campaign against “sexual injustice,” whatever that is. “Confucian society is, the societies in Africa are, the societies in the subcontinent of India are and the Judeo-Christian West, that’s just a fact, OK, and that is why there were things like the French Revolution.”
Nick was adamant that Bannon had told him he “adored Mussolini.” Since we didn’t have that on tape, I decided the safe thing would be to run the quote by Bannon. He didn’t reply, so we didn’t use it. We decided instead to put “I’m fascinated by Mussolini”—a recorded quote—as our headline, and the article duly attracted a lot of online traffic, especially after Matt Drudge, who now seems to hate Bannon, linked to it. Bannon’s critics thought we were being sycophantic and flirting with extremism. His fans thought we had stitched him up. To me this suggests we got the balance about right.
Nobody expects the Farrell inquisition!