In the fall of 2015, before Stephen K. Bannon became a trusted adviser to the next president, he launched a daily three-hour radio show that catered to what he called “those ‘low-information’ citizens who are mocked and ridiculed by their ‘betters’ — the clueless elites.”
Bannon welcomed guests whose views, he often said, had been suppressed by the left’s political correctness.
He gave regular airtime to Milo Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Twitter after cheering on supporters who barraged “Ghostbusters” actor Leslie Jones with racist and sexist tweets. Bannon described an anti-Islamic activist who campaigns against what she calls “creeping sharia” in the United States as “a voice in the wilderness.” A former Heritage Foundation staffer who had argued that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs was “one of the smartest brains out there in demographics, demography, this whole issue of immigration,” Bannon said.
From his perch as chief of the Breitbart News empire, which produced the satellite radio show, Bannon cemented his role as a champion of the alt-right, an anti-globalism movement that has attracted support from white supremacists and helped power Donald Trump’s populist White House victory.
Bannon’s appointment as Trump’s senior White House counselor is an early sign that the incoming president intends to continue promoting the hard-line approach to issues such as immigration and Islam that galvanized nationalist enthusiasm for his candidacy.
How Bannon rose from provocateur to Oval Office confidant is the story of a man who, like Trump, now rages against the system from which he benefited for years.
As a graduate of Harvard Business School, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and a Hollywood movie producer, Bannon is in many ways an example of the bicoastal elite that he now disdains.
Although Bannon and those close to him have said he is not racist, he has nonetheless shown a willingness to accommodate “fringe organizations,” as he described the extremists attracted to populism in a 2014 address unearthed by BuzzFeed. Eventually, those elements would fall away, he assured the audience: “Over time, it all gets kind of washed out, right?”
Under Bannon’s hand, Breitbart articles offered dire warnings of the threats posed by immigrants. Bannon’s radio show provided a steady diet of apocalyptic warnings about radical Islam’s rise, asserting that Europe had been subject to a “quasi-invasion.” Breitbart stories ridiculed feminists, and Bannon once angrily denounced a female colleague as a “bimbo” in the 1990s, according to court records. An ex-wife’s allegations that Bannon said he did not want his children to attend school with Jews — comments he denied making — have spurred accusations that he is anti-Semitic.
Friends, family and even now-critical former colleagues said the image of Bannon as a bigot is wrong, and miss what really drives the 62-year-old, who was infuriated when people like his father, a longtime phone company worker, saw their retirement funds shrink because of the 2008 financial crisis. Bannon’s longtime personal assistant is an African American woman, and he has extended family members who are Jewish, they note.
For Bannon, the mission is to ignite a broader populist movement — even if that means tolerating extremist viewpoints, associates say.
“He is not a racist,” said Julia Jones, a self-described “Bernie Sanders liberal” who was Bannon’s screenwriting partner for 16 years. “I think he is using the alt-right for political purposes.”
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter published Friday, Bannon said: “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist.” He predicted Trump could create a new populist political movement that would win significant black and Hispanic support and “govern for 50 years.”
Bannon did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article, but friends and family spoke about his views.
His older brother, Martin J. “Mike” Bannon III, strongly rejected the idea that he held any prejudices.
“Steve and I and others were taught by our parents that if a woman came on the bus, you gave up your seat — it didn’t matter if they were black or white or Asian or whatever,” Mike Bannon said.
What guides his brother, Mike Bannon added, is a belief that the rules should be fair to give everyone a chance to participate — including those of all ethnicities and faiths.
“He’s a fighter for those people,” said Mike Bannon, who works in finance and still lives in their home town of Richmond. “He’s a man for the forgotten man.”
Bannon is known for becoming consumed with whatever endeavor is before him. When something goes awry, he is quick with an expletive. At times, colleagues said, he would remind those around him that he had a Harvard degree.
Brazenness, canny intuition and luck drove Bannon to a series of unexpected successes. When he ran a boutique investment bank, a bet on the library of Castle Rock Entertainment in the 1990s scored him a lucrative royalties stream from a then-little-known show called “Seinfeld.”
His direction of a glowing biopic of former President Ronald Reagan in 2004 brought him into contact with the late conservative media agitator and entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart and through him the wealthy Mercer family.
The middle sibling of five children, Bannon grew up in a tightly knit Irish Catholic family in Richmond, on a street of big shade trees and eclectic old houses in the Ginter Park neighborhood. Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, now lives about seven blocks away.
Bannon’s pugilistic character was apparent at an early age.
“He’s a son of Richmond and a son of the South, and that’s who he’ll always be,” Mike Bannon said. “He was always a guy that would get in an argument or get in a fight, and you weren’t going to change his mind about something. He believed what he believed.”
Bannon attended Catholic schools throughout childhood and graduated in 1972 from Benedictine High School, an all-boys military academy.
Students were not exposed to much of the counterculture of the time.
“We had to take Latin and logic — everyone had to take a classical education program and a heavy dose of values,” said Patrick McSweeney, an old family friend. “At that time, most of the teachers were monks. It was very definitely a religious education.”
McSweeney, a lawyer who went on to be chairman of the state Republican Party, said Benedictine was racially integrated long before Richmond public schools, which did not integrate until the 1970s.
Bannon’s first foray into his brand of disruptive politics came in 1975, during his junior year at Virginia Tech, when he launched an upstart bid for student body president, challenging the established order.
He chose as his running mate a woman, Susan Oliver, at a time when campus leadership positions were dominated by men.
“He had as much respect for me and my ideas and my contributions as anybody possibly could,” said Oliver, who is now a lawyer in Lynchburg, Va.
The race got nasty.
Bannon had participated in student government for only five months. His opponent, Marshall DeBerry, had toiled for more than two years in the organization and was the handpicked heir of the outgoing president.
Bannon used DeBerry’s establishment credentials against him. “He was saying, ‘This administration, these guys . . . they’re all part of this old crowd. They haven’t done jack for you,’ ” DeBerry recalled.
A Bannon-Oliver campaign flier belittled other candidates for offering only “Platitudes, Promises and Slogans.”
The old guard struck back. “Don’t be fooled by Bannon. He has immense charisma, but lacks the ability to keep his head geared in any one particular direction long enough to accomplish anything,” warned Gary Clisham, whom Bannon was running to replace, in a letter to the editor of the student newspaper. Clisham, who is deceased, added that during his brief tenure in student government, “Mr. Steve Bannon has run amok every assignment given him.”
The letter infuriated Bannon’s supporters, including Bannon’s then-roommate Darrell Nevin, who shoved Clisham when he spoke up to blast Bannon during a debate.
“Scuffle Occurs at Great Debate” read the headline in the student newspaper.
“I was young. I just thought, well, let’s push him off the stage,” Nevin recalled sheepishly. “It was a bitter campaign.”
Bannon won with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Bannon’s political tilt deepened in the Navy, when he observed President Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Iran hostage crisis from a destroyer in the north Arabian Sea.
“I come from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2015. “I wasn’t political until I got into the service and saw how badly Jimmy Carter f---ed things up. I became a huge Reagan admirer.”
After Harvard Business School, he scored a job at Goldman Sachs in the middle of the heady 1980s, eventually moving to Los Angeles to focus on media mergers and acquisitions.
In the late 1980s, he and some Goldman colleagues broke off and formed their own investment bank, Bannon & Co., housed in an office on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif. They quickly gained traction by drilling into the details of a media company’s library, outmaneuvering goliaths such as Goldman in the process.
“We were two guys trying to buck the system, not being the traditional establishment investment bank,” said Scot Vorse, a close friend since business school who joined Bannon in the enterprise. “We were of an attitude that we’re going to do something different.”
During this time, Bannon was hired by investors including Texas billionaire Edward Bass to turn around the financially struggling Biosphere 2, an experiment in the Arizona desert to build an entirely self-sufficient community.
Bannon’s temper flared as he became embroiled in a management dispute, according to court records.
One scientist described as part of subsequent litigation how Bannon pulled up in a limousine on Easter weekend of 1994, accompanied by police officers and armed with a court order that gave him control of the facility. The scientist said that Bannon changed all of the office locks and switched out computer and telephone codes.
The project’s chief engineer hid a microcassette recorder in his underwear and secretly taped Bannon, court records show, capturing Bannon angrily calling a female scientist a “29-year-old bimbo.” The woman had broken into the Biosphere to warn other scientists of Bannon’s actions. On the recording, a copy of which has been published by Buzzfeed, Bannon promised to take a document she had written outlining safety problems at the site and “ram it down her f---ing throat.”
In a deposition filed in the case, obtained by The Washington Post, Bannon said the “bimbo” insult was said “in the heat of the moment, in a monologue of which I am blowing off steam.” At trial, he defended the word, saying it meant a person of low intelligence. He said he had concluded the woman was “detached from reality, deluded and acting like a bimbo.”
While Bannon’s work as an investment banker consumed him, he was growing increasingly intrigued with the creative side of the entertainment business. In the early 1990s, he and Jones, a screenwriter, struck up a conversation in a restaurant and decided to try their hand at adapting Bannon’s idea for a version of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” set in space.
That script went nowhere, but the two went on to work on dozens of film and television projects together. One of them, the 2004 Reagan movie “In the Face of Evil,” introduced Bannon to Breitbart, who was making a name for himself as an editor at the Drudge Report.
“We screened the film at a festival in Beverly Hills,” Bannon told Bloomberg, “and out of the crowd comes this, like, bear who’s squeezing me like my head’s going to blow up and saying how we’ve gotta take back the culture.”
By then, Bannon had sold his company to the French bank Société Générale. He shed the expensive suits he wore for Hollywood business meetings, sticking with cargo shorts and polo shirts.
“The moment he left that world, there was a physical transformation,” said conservative author Peter Schweizer, whom Bannon approached in 2002 about turning his Reagan book into a documentary. “The uniform of those elite institutions was gone.”
Bannon told Bloomberg that he was disgusted by how the banking industry handled the 2008 financial crisis.
“I turned on Wall Street for the same reason everybody else did: The American taxpayer was forced to cut mook deals to bail out guys who didn’t deserve it,” he said in the interview.
Bannon increasingly turned his lens on political issues, directing and producing documentaries such as “Generation Zero,” an examination of the global economic crisis; “Battle for America,” which hammered an “arrogant, and ever-expanding central government”; and a film celebrating 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin called “The Undefeated.”
He said his approach was influenced by liberal filmmaker Michael Moore and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
“Leave the politics aside, you have to learn from those past masters on how they were trying to communicate their ideas,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
Jones, Bannon’s longtime writing partner, said she was dismayed by his turn toward conservative politics — particularly his focus on Islam as a threat. Jones said she was taken aback when Bannon added a coda to the Reagan film warning of the threat of “the beast” over images of Muslims praying, terrorist camps and people falling to their deaths from the World Trade Center on 9/11. A few years later, Jones said, she declined to work on a project he pitched about the rise of “Islamic fascism” in the United States that would have opened with an image of the American flag dissolving into the Islamic crescent and star.
“It offended me,” Jones said. “Everything about what he’s become baffles me.”
In recent years, Bannon has expanded his efforts to influence the political debate by setting up nonprofits to spearhead independent research, most notably through the Florida-based watchdog group Government Accountability Institute. Bannon served as chairman of the group, whose directors included Rebekah Mercer, a daughter of hedge fund executive and conservative megadonor Robert Mercer.
Schweizer, the president of GAI, authored “Clinton Cash,” a book that lacerated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her ties to wealthy interests. Bannon turned it into a documentary that was released earlier this year. It was produced in part by a company called Glittering Steel, which shared a Beverly Hills address with both Breitbart News and the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica — both of which have financial backing from Mercer, who also financed a super PAC supporting Trump. Cambridge Analytica also worked directly for the Trump campaign this year.
Bannon joined the board of Breitbart News in 2011. The following March, the site experienced an unexpected transformation when the 43-year-old Breitbart collapsed and died near his California home. Larry Solov, Breitbart’s longtime friend, took over as chief executive, while Bannon was appointed executive chairman.
Bannon was hands-on, hosting two daily calls with the staff. Reporters talked up news — about immigration, refugees and crime — that they said the rest of the media was ignoring.
Conservative stalwarts such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — nominated Friday to be Trump’s attorney general — had a welcoming forum to explain their immigration and terrorism views, and Breitbart embraced Republican insurgents while blasting party leaders.
“We call ourselves ‘the Fight Club.’ You don’t come to us for warm and fuzzy,” Bannon told The Washington Post early this year, adding, “We think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti-’ the permanent political class. We say Paul Ryan was grown in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation.”
The site’s tone and the reactions it drew from readers alarmed some staffers, including former editor-at-large Ben Shapiro, who later wrote that the comment section turned into “a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers.”
Bannon told the Wall Street Journal this past week that Breitbart provided “an outlet for 10 or 12 or 15 lines of thought,” of which the alt-right was only “a tiny part.”
He acknowledged the movement had “some racial and anti-Semitic overtones” that he rejected, defining it for himself as “younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment.”
In November 2015, Bannon assumed a more prominent public role as host of the daily satellite radio talk show “Breitbart News Daily.” He led the show until August, when he became chief executive of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Bannon’s show became a key platform to promote Trump, who appeared regularly. During one interview, Bannon likened the reality TV star’s ability to negotiate with networks about the terms of the primary debates to the skills needed to negotiate international treaties.
“The same logic applies whether it’s China, or Mexico, Iran or the E.U.,” Bannon told the candidate. “We’ve been pushed around by everybody. ”
Still, Bannon had reservations.
Trump is a “blunt instrument for us,” Bannon told Vanity Fair this summer, before joining the campaign. “I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”
One thing Bannon had no doubts about, however, was the strength of the nationalist sentiments bolstering the candidate.
The day after Trump’s Election Day upset, Bannon took a victory lap on his old radio show, chiding the media elite for failing to anticipate the outcome.
“They didn’t understand the underlying desire for people to have control over their own lives,” he said.
“This victory,” Bannon told his listeners, “is your victory.”
Alice Crites, David Weigel, Richard Chumney in Blacksburg, Va., and Evan Wyloge in Florence, Ariz., contributed to this report.