Errol Morris’s career as an Oscar-winning documentarian has been shaped by his fascination with crime, from the false murder conviction at the center of The Thin Blue Line (1988) to the war crimes of Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War, 2003) and Donald Rumsfeld (The Unknown Known, 2013). His new film, American Dharma, profiles Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon, who is loathed on the left at least as much as the president himself. Even Morris worries that his audiences may see the film as simply boosting Bannon, who has proven himself adept at manipulating the media. In his office filled with books and antique taxidermy, I sat down with Morris for a candid discussion about what he thinks is gained by American Dharma’s searching portrait and what, having spent more time with Bannon than perhaps anyone else on the left, he thinks of the man who has likened himself to Darth Vader and Satan.
“The way Bannon uses the term ‘dharma,’ it’s almost a justification for anything and everything.”
Deborah Chasman: In the opening sequence, Bannon says something like, “The permanent political class that controls our country is going to stay exactly like it is until you have true disruption. It can’t be a pillow fight. You need some killers.” He refers to Trump, Trump’s team, and himself as killers. This is a theme in your work—talking to killers, to people who are drawn to power and destructiveness, first Robert McNamara in The Fog of War (2003), then Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known (2013). Why do these people interest you?
Errol Morris: In the case of the two secretaries of defense and now Bannon, they’re people who have wielded enormous power. It’s the power and the destructiveness combined that is fascinating. The psychology of these people is hard to parse. With Rumsfeld, I felt I put my finger on it: at the heart of it was this almost impossible vanity and self-satisfaction. I call him the least Jewish person I’ve ever met because of his lack of self-knowledge, lack of self-loathing, guilt, remorse. All that was left when you sieved everything out was this enormous pleasure at himself and his own sense of righteousness—“I am right, and you are wrong.” McNamara was never trying to convince you that he was smart; he just was smart, and tortured.
Bannon has this odd career because you would assume, having been tossed out of the Trump administration, that that would be more or less the end of him; he might appear as a pundit on Fox News and otherwise we wouldn’t hear from him again. But of course that’s not what has happened. And that in itself is really interesting, this life after life. It bears out a lot of his claims, one of which was that he saw himself as bigger than just a political advisor to Trump. Evidently, bigger means he wants to take his message—his crusade—global; he’s in love with the Crusades and he himself has started yet another. He wants to destabilize Europe and he’s having some success. He wants to put an end to the European Union. He wants to put an end to the euro. He wants to undermine the May government, the Merkel government, and the Macron government and install right-wing administrations in their place. And he’s already been successful to the extent that he played a major role in the political coalition that now governs Italy.
DC: It’s clear that he’s good at giving voice to a legitimate grievance, at least in some contexts. In the United States there’s the legitimate grievance that a corrupt political machine has left a bunch of people behind. But I’m unclear what he is actually delivering to these people, or even just thinks he is giving them, other than this permission to hate.
EM: I think that’s certainly part of it. He told the French National Front, “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor.”
I also think you see it in his reaction to Charlottesville. He basically says, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. The neo-Nazis have no currency in our culture.” In my movie he even says that the neo-Nazis are a creation of the liberal press. Which, of course, is absurd. Yes, the liberal press gets upset by neo-Nazis being coddled by the president, and why shouldn’t they? But that’s not to say that journalists parked them in Charlottesville and caused them to run over people.
Bannon also called Macron “a little Rothschild’s banker.” He said, “The French are realizing how much Macron has become an embarrassment. He’s a Rothschild banker who never made any money, the ultimate definition of a loser. He would sell his soul for nothing.” I did not like that. He doubtlessly would say that his remarks were not anti-Semitic, but I would respectfully disagree. He knew what he was doing. He knows who he’s appealing to.
DC: So why talk to Bannon at all? What’s to be gained?
EM: I think there’s a lot to be gained. I consider myself a journalist, proudly so, and the job of journalism is not to have five pundits sitting around a table on Fox News or CNN. The job of journalists is to report—to go out, look at stuff, and report on it. I went out in the field and this is what I saw, and I would like to present it to you for your consideration.
DC: One of the things I find most disturbing in the film, from your “report,” is seeing a pretty definitive narrative about how he masterminded Trump’s victory. Not only that, but he gives the appearance that it was easy.
“Does he believe in throwing all of the DACA people out of the United States or separating mothers and children at the border? I know he does.”
EM: He certainly has a narrative about how Trump won the 2016 election, and how Hillary lost the 2016 election. And he was actively involved. The movie doesn’t tell the whole story. It can’t. It’s a movie. But he was actively involved in trying to undermine Hillary and the Clintons since 2012. It didn’t start with 2016.
The permission to hate seems to be a really big part of what Bannon offered to voters and to the Trump campaign. Hate black people. Hate Hispanics. Hate Muslims. Hate, hate, hate. A friend of mine years ago was working on a self-help book, Why Be a Kiss-Ass When You Can Be a Kick-Ass? And he used to say, “love is enervating, hate is energizing.” Hate is energizing for a lot of people. It’s exciting.
And it does seem to be the essence, the core, of fascism. One wonders, is it appropriate to call this administration fascist? Is it exactly the same as the fascism of the 1930s and ’40s? No, it isn’t. But is it often racially motivated? Based on fear and hate? Yes. That’s what’s so depressing and horrifying about it. If getting our “sovereignty” back means hating a lot of people, beating up on them, that’s bad. Very, very, very bad.
DC: You treat Bannon quite respectfully. How hard is it for you to sit down and talk with him?
EM: He’s avuncular. He’s charming. I sat across from him and we had a conversation. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t so hard.
I have seen many, many interviews with Bannon. But most of the televised interviews I’ve seen with him I thought were not terribly good or terribly insightful. I had the feeling that Bannon was walking all over his interlocutors, interrupting them, not addressing any of their concerns. Then the question is, if you’re going to interview him, are you just going to assume a David Frost default position? Which I didn’t really feel capable of doing. Part of me thought I should just be there rather than going after him with, “You said this on such-and-such a date, and you know this is not true.”
To make people happy, I could just attack Bannon. But then he would go into boilerplate talk in which he says nothing. It’s boring. It’s repetitive. And I just didn’t want to do that.
DC: Was having him talk about his favorite movies your idea?
EM: He didn’t ask me to do that. I asked him about his favorite movies and he gave me a list which included Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He also mentioned Groundhog Day (1993), which I love, but I just couldn’t put everything in there.
DC: The ones you included seem relentlessly focused on masculinity and what makes a real man, what makes a hero. He seems obsessed with that. When he’s watching or listening to the scenes, you can almost see him mouthing the words.
“People are slippery even to themselves, let alone to other people.”
EM: He knows Twelve O’Clock High chapter and verse. It’s like he’s reading from the Bible. I’m not sure I made as much of the movies as I could have. But he does see the movies differently than I do. I think that’s one of the things that really interested me. Not that his interpretations are incorrect, but they’re often odd.
For example, I’m thinking of the scene between King Henry and Falstaff in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965). I look at it and see Henry betraying Falstaff. Falstaff gives him everything and in return he gets threatened with death if he comes within ten miles of the king. I offered this interpretation to Bannon, but he rejected it, saying that he sees it completely differently—that it’s a fulfillment of Falstaff’s dharma. To Bannon, Falstaff understands the natural order of things. This is the way things should happen. This is the natural progression of things. You’re a courtier. You’re the tutor. Now he’s king of England and you are no longer needed. The interesting thing about Bannon’s version of Falstaff is that it’s a heroic Falstaff. It’s Falstaff who does his duty, knowing that it may come to a dismal end, but nevertheless his obligation, his dharma, is to train, educate, and bring up Hal, the future king.
In Bannon’s view, Falstaff is delighted. And Bannon is delighted by what he was able to give Trump. He was the loyal courtier who educated the future president. He did his job and did it well. He fulfilled his dharma. The way Bannon uses the term “dharma,” it’s almost a justification for anything and everything. Whatever you do, I suppose you could say, well, this is a fulfillment of dharma, a realization of some inexorable process of history, of which you are a pawn.
There’s a lot of mush here, in my view. But to Bannon it’s heroic when you accept that your task is the fulfillment of whatever it is that you’re fulfilling. That’s pretty strange, and a little terrifying. I suppose I was struck again and again by the strangeness of Bannon.
DC: That was my experience watching it, just trying to figure out what drives him, what he’s really thinking. He contradicts himself often and sometimes just seems to be bullshitting.
EM: I’m often asked whether Bannon is a true believer or an opportunist: does he believe in all of this stuff? I don’t have a definitive answer; I can’t give you a pie chart. But I think there are definitely elements of both. He’s a snake oil salesman and he is a true believer. You can’t be an effective salesman unless you believe in the product that you’re selling. And does he believe that building the wall will help the middle class? I think he does. Does he believe in throwing all of the DACA people out of the United States or separating mothers and children at the border? I know he does, because he said as much.
I understand the refugee crisis in Europe as a byproduct of U.S. policies in the Middle East. We helped create this nightmare. But the United States has no sense of history; history doesn’t exist for us. We just invent it hour by hour, and we quickly forget. I’m sure I’m not the first person to coin the term, but I call it American amnesia. America has never come to terms with its own history of race, the Civil War, or anything else for that matter. And if I were a black person living in the United States, I would have problems with Civil War monuments to Confederate heroes. It just would make me feel uneasy and unwelcome in my own country. Is that so hard to understand? I guess it is.
Bannon asked me about the Civil War monuments: “Where will it end? Are we going to take down every single monument? Are we going to take down monuments to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington?” And I’m thinking to myself, if someone told me they were going to put up a monument to Heinrich Himmler somewhere in Boston, or even in Berlin, I would not be a happy camper. I would say, “Excuse me? I don’t think so. You’re celebrating a past which, to me, is indefensible, criminal.”
DC: You do sometimes call Bannon out for this sort of thinking. For example, near the end of the film you refer to the Trump administration as the Fuck-You Presidency. Bannon thinks you’re talking about the Trump team’s unceremonious disposal of business as usual but you push back, saying, “You want health care? Fuck you! You want clean drinking water? Fuck you!” He stops smiling.
EM: I’ve been rereading Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors (1986) and there’s a section I love that’s about trying to pin people down and maybe the impossibility of doing so:
The third interview was an important turning point. [Ernst B.] began by complimenting me on the clarity of case studies in a book I sent him in response to his request to see earlier work of mine. But he then emphasized how people were likely to reconstruct past events in a way that was favorable to them. He made clear he was referring to himself, and was telling me, in effect, that I should not accept what he told me about his Auschwitz experiences as the full or only truth. He was struggling for candor and perhaps at the same time expressing a new version of one of his consistent themes: that Auschwitz was so complex and paradoxical that it was not really graspable or recoverable to memory.
There’s a popular theory of interviewing in which the interviewer is a kind of lepidopterist who is going to pin the interviewee to a board and subject that person to intense scrutiny to determine once and for all what the nature of this creature might be. But in my experience it’s a much more elusive process, because people are slippery even to themselves, let alone to other people. Who am I? What am I really thinking? What am I doing? Do I even know?
But Lifton makes the point again and again that there are people out there who have this enormous capacity for destroying everything. I think maybe Bannon is one of them. But I felt a little guilty about ending the movie on the note of Bannon’s destructiveness.
DC: Because it gives him the last word?
“I worried I was being unfair to him. Is he really that destructive?”
EM: No, because I worried I was being unfair to him. Is he really that destructive? But it’s all there. It’s in the interview, it’s in the words that he’s said, it’s in the things that he’s done. He would say to me, “I think there’s a revolution coming unless we do X, Y, and Z. And my hope is that the revolution won’t come.” But it’s not at all clear when you talk to him at other times that he’s working against that revolution and not for it. It’s him saying “P and not-P.”
So I felt that it does capture something about him that is important and accurate and powerful. And that I would be in some way remiss not to demonstrate his anger. I think he’s one of the angriest people I’ve ever met. But you know what? It’s bullshit. It’s all a lot of hooey. And I hesitate to say that a lot of stupid people go for it, but it seems as though love of Trump does not require great intelligence. Why are there really smart people who love Trump? I don’t know. Maybe I’m not smart enough to understand why. Maybe they like contradictions, inconsistencies, and the incomprehensible. Maybe they feel it’s in line with their deeper interests. And for them it’s not a question of is he stupid or not; it’s a question of whether their support facilitates what they believe in, what they’re looking for, what they’re hoping for. And fuck all the rest.
DC: How will you talk about Bannon when you’re promoting the film?
EM: I can say that we respectfully disagree. My political views are antithetical to his own. I don’t believe that balkanizing the world again is a smart idea. I believe that countries should be acting together to try to make the world a more tolerable place. And when I really think about it carefully, he makes me angry. So if people are angry at me and they’re angry at the movie, all I can say is, I’m sympathetic!
DC: I hope people are not angry with you.
EM: Me too. This whole phenomenon of people being in silos and not seeing the world anymore—what are you supposed to do to make the world a better place nowadays?