The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bannon’s Jan. 6 role walks the thin line between revolutionary rhetoric and revolution

Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon speaks at Atreju 2018, a conference of right-wing activists, on Sept. 22, 2018, in Rome. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Listening to it today, the most jarring part of Stephen K. Bannon’s Jan. 5 podcast is its assertion that the Capitol Police had been derelict in protecting a federal legislator.

He was describing a protest outside of the house of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) that Hawley had discussed on Twitter the previous evening.

“I’ve been very upset since last night,” Bannon said. “Where’s the Capitol Police and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and the security around Senator Hawley?”

After all, he pointed out, Hawley was the first Republican senator to step up and endorse President Donald Trump’s plan to object to the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6. This made him a target, Bannon explained.

“Mitch McConnell’s got to start taking care and focusing on these senators — because this is going to be very controversial,” Bannon said of the effort to block the finalization of Joe Biden’s victory. “We are going into uncharted waters. We’re going into something that’s never happened before in American history. Tomorrow it’s going — we’re pulling the trigger on something that’s going to be, it’s going to be minute by minute, hour by hour, what happens. The stakes couldn’t be higher right now.”

This, of course, was the broader theme of Bannon’s show, unsubtly titled “War Room.” The country was on the brink of something dramatic, at a scale of historic consequence.

“It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen,” he said at another point. “Okay, it’s going to be quite extraordinarily different. All I can say is, strap in. … You made this happen and tomorrow it’s game day. So strap in. Let’s get ready.”

And at another: “It’s all converging, and now we’re on the point of attack tomorrow.”

Those quotes are edited a bit, but that is how they appear in the contempt resolution targeting Bannon that was passed Tuesday evening by the House committee investigating the violent riot that occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Those quotes were meant to emphasize that Bannon had telegraphed foreknowledge of how the day might go, knowledge that, when overlapped with his admitted conversations with Trump, suggested a possible link from Trump to the riot through his former adviser.

In their book “Peril,” The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa describe Bannon’s other activity on Jan. 5: joining Trump’s allies in a room at the Willard Hotel where, among other things, the crew worked to encourage legislators to oppose the electoral-vote count. The following day, that gathering — also referred to by the Jan. 6 committee as a “war room” — included a number of other Trumpworld figures, including Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, conspiracy theorist Russell J. Ramsland Jr. and law professor John Eastman, architect of the strategy to have Vice President Mike Pence simply declare Trump the winner. (Their attendance was documented on Instagram by a Republican Senate candidate named Robert Hyde.)

Beyond that, though, Bannon’s role is murky. He’d encouraged Trump to leave Mar-a-Lago in late December and return to Washington, according to “Peril,” and argued that raising questions about the election on Jan. 6 would help to “kill the Biden presidency in the crib” — something Bannon later admitted having said.

What is clear about Bannon and specifically about his Jan. 5 podcast is that he was very engaged in amplifying the idea that the country had reached a critical point in which regular Americans could turn the tide. This wasn’t a trait of Bannon’s that emerged only after the 2020 election but, instead, has long been a centerpiece of his rhetoric: the embattled Real American pushing back against the elites. His patter on Jan. 5 was less fiery than practiced, honed assertions about how the moment of clarity was nigh. And, importantly, it was centered on how his listeners and the “deplorable” base had been the driving force in getting the country to the point where Trump could retain power.

“We’re now on the cusp of really reversing this, decertifying this, and that is because of you, this audience that has responded to everything,” Bannon said. He walked through a number of developments that had followed the election, events that he centered on agitation from Trump’s base. That was the predicate for his “converging” comments: “Just remember it all, okay? It’s now put us at the point that it’s all converging, and now we’re on, as they say, the point of attack. Right? The point of attack tomorrow. It’s going to kick off; it’s going to be very dramatic.”

“You are not the Greek chorus,” he said to the audience at another point. “You’re an active part of this.” And later, “we’re on the cusp of victory for only one reason: You are woke.”

A few years ago, Bannon was criticized for allowing the website he managed, Breitbart, to become a home of alt-right rhetoric. At the time, shortly before the 2016 election, there was a surge in racist and anti-Semitic tropes associated with the alt-right movement, ones often framed as being ironic or trolling, attempts to irritate perceived opponents. But the distinction between ironic racism and sincere racism is a subtle to nonexistent one, as made particularly obvious when HuffPost obtained a document from a white nationalist website explicitly identifying irony as a vehicle for its rhetoric.

Something similar was at play Jan. 5. Bannon was there at the Willard Hotel with Trump’s allies and attorney gaming out how to seize a second term by rejecting cast electoral votes, as he explicitly delineated on his podcast, and then he was using his podcast to stoke an ember of revolution that would soon grow out of control. The distinction between Bannon’s revolutionary language and his endorsement of revolution was, like the alt-right’s racism, a subtle one.

It remains unclear what Bannon knew about the events of Jan. 6 before they unfolded. What’s emerged about the violence that day so far is that it appears to have been largely organic, a function of a furious mass of people that created an overwhelming force rather than of explicit planning beyond some pockets of those present. It was a mob empowered by scale and enraged by dishonesty from Trump and from Bannon, among others. In other words, it’s already clear that Bannon helped contribute to what unfolded, however explicit his conversations with Trump might have been.

But again, there was that weird innocence about the protest at Hawley’s house, a protest that was loud but not actually threatening. Where was his security, Bannon fretted? This seems more like the hand-wringing of someone used to framing his side as the heroes and his opponents as enemies than of someone who expected his allies and his listeners to take his talk for calamitous revolution literally.

One of Bannon’s co-hosts chimed in.

“I think this guy needs to have security,” she said, “and Mitch McConnell needs to get behind him and make sure that other senators feel safe standing up as well.”

The Capitol Police would, in fact, soon turn their attention to the safety of the U.S. Senate.