Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.


(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Though Stephen K. Bannon left his White House post as President Trump’s chief strategist more than a year and a half ago, the shadow he casts over Western politics has hardly faded. The former investment banker and executive chairman of far-right Breitbart News became one of the leading ideologues of Trumpism — building a creed that allied American nativism with the language of European far-right nationalism — and helped push Trump toward his improbable electoral victory in 2016. In the months after palace intrigues forced him out of the West Wing, Bannon remained close to figures within the administration and even closer to the world of journalists who report on it.

Bannon extended his brand as both populist soothsayer and rabble-rouser across the Atlantic, offering support to a constellation of far-right, ultranationalist and anti-immigrant parties across Europe. His listening tours and speeches last year in Britain, France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere attracted large numbers of mainstream journalists, whose stories placed Bannon at the heart of a far-right insurgency that seeks to blow up the status quo in European parliamentary elections this May.

“This populist-nationalist revolt is a worldwide phenomenon,’’ Bannon told Bloomberg News last December, adding that the upcoming elections were a “historic moment.”

Bannon, indeed, seems to be in a constant search for “historic” dramas, and ways to locate himself within them. Enter “The Brink,” a new and already critically acclaimed documentary in theaters across the United States that tracks his activities in the year after his exit from the White House. In it, we hear Bannon grandiosely quote Abraham Lincoln as his enemies loomed around him. We watch him scribble in the margins of a newspaper column a crude diagram charting the “triple threat” posed — for reasons only Bannon can divine — by an axis of China, Turkey and Iran. And we listen to him rage against the West’s liberals, who he declares are content “to manage the decline” of their civilization.

We also see Bannon guzzle copious amounts of energy drinks, snarl at complacent assistants, and, on numerous occasions, exhibit an almost disarmingly charming penchant for self-deprecation. The fly-on-the-wall approach of Alison Klayman, the film’s director, offers a rarely seen portrait of the man once dubbed by Time magazine as the “great manipulator” — and one that happens to rather adroitly dispel the myth of his political genius.

“I think the image that emerges of him is a much more human one, but certainly not soft and cuddly,” Klayman told Today’s WorldView. She said her efforts to go “behind the curtain” show how Bannon’s agenda is “in some ways more convoluted” than it is sometimes framed in the mainstream media, spurred both by his personal desire for attention and the imperatives of his wealthy backers. It’s why, Klayman added, “I think some people see him as an opportunist.”

Take, for example, Bannon’s insistence that his politics center on “economic nationalism” — a populist message about protecting the working class and curbing the excesses of globalization. In a stump speech before Republican donors, Bannon uses this line to dismiss the accusations of racism and bigotry often leveled against him, Trump and the right-wing nationalist base whose support they need.

But, after months of following Bannon on trips in private jets and private fundraising sessions with billionaires, Klayman concluded that Bannon’s economic populism “is a little bit of a branding exercise.” In his meetings with patrons and far-right politicians, Klayman said, Bannon “is not talking about how we make policies that bring back manufacturing jobs. But he is talking about birthrates and how to win elections by talking about religion.”

In a drive through London, we see him roll his eyes in despair when informed that a particular street has “flipped” to mostly Arab businesses. He notes with glee that left-wing populists such as Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the United States don’t grandstand about immigration — a refusal he believes will limit their appeal among working-class voters. In lavish hotel dining rooms, Bannon and a motley crew of European far-right politicians grouse over the alien menace of Islam and growing Muslim populations in their countries.

It’s difficult to ignore the more disturbing echoes of Bannon’s ideology in the aftermath of the slaughter carried out by a white supremacist, animated by similar concerns, in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month. “These aren’t siloed biases,” said Klayman, referring to the hatred felt by the Christchurch shooter. “There’s a worldview that makes it all fit together.”

Klayman’s first major entry into the world of documentary cinema was “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” a 2012 feature film on the Chinese dissident artist, who has since been forced to flee his native country. In subsequent work, he has sought to draw attention to the plight of refugees and migrants around the world. While Ai is intent on “honoring human dignity,” Klayman said, Bannon “is very expressly not concerned with that.”

"He goes around and talks about making people’s lives better, but you know it’s only about certain people’s lives, while he ignores the suffering of others,” she said.

The film also shows the limits of Bannon’s powers. We watch him endure three demoralizing setbacks: The failed Senate campaign of controversial Republican candidate Roy Moore in Alabama; the landslide defeats that hit the Republican Party in the House in midterms last year; and the ultimate sputtering of his attempt to lead a continental far-right coalition in Europe.

Still, Bannon is hardly one to give up, and journalists continue to chase after him on both sides of the Atlantic. Last week, CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed him for the majority of his one-hour prime-time show. In Rome, Bannon admitted at an event that Europe’s nationalists “don’t need me,” but still prophesied their victory and emphasized his commitment to their struggle.

In one pivotal scene in “The Brink,” Bannon lectures Klayman on how the Democrats’ insistence on “identity politics” will give the Republicans victory. But when challenged by Klayman, who argues that his messaging centers wholly on “identity” politics and tribal outrage, he smirks, and quips that such bad faith would make his work — in this instance, a pro-Trump film he was previewing to journalists — just “propaganda.”

“What would Leni Riefenstahl do?” he then asks Klayman, referring to the chief filmmaking propagandist of the Nazi era. “How would Leni cut that scene?” It’s a chilling moment, not least because it’s not totally clear that he’s joking.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.