The Night Steve Bannon Came to Toronto

His Munk Debate with David Frum filled an auditorium with sound and fury, but was anyone listening?

Photo of Steve Bannon holding a microphone.
WikiMedia Commons

In the days leading up to last Friday’s Munk debate in Toronto between Steve Bannon and David Frum, an expanding roster of politicians and activists declared Bannon a “fascist” and “Nazi” who was beyond the pale of public engagement. Charlie Angus, an NDP MP, called on the Munk foundation to cancel its invitation “out of respect for the victims” of the October 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. For Nigel Barriffe and Cynthia Levine-Rasky, of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, Bannon’s appearance “undermines democratic principles” and “encourages white nationalist violence.” Naomi Klein tweeted that the debate was “fuel” for Toronto’s “crisis of rising white supremacy.” If any of the event’s attendees had missed those criticisms, there was no missing the chants of hundreds of protestors outside Roy Thomson Hall.

Bannon is widely reviled for stoking xenophobic fears at Breitbart News, where he was executive chairman, and, when he was chief strategist for Donald Trump, for urging the president to carry out, among other things, an executive order banning immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. Critics also accuse him of aggressively promoting the brand of right-wing extremism currently ascendant in Brazil, Hungary, and Italy. Bannon’s opponent, and the clear hometown favourite, was David Frum, a staff writer at The Atlantic who, over the last couple of years, has emerged as a fierce critic of Trumpism. But, far from being seen as the antidote to Bannon, Frum—the former George W. Bush speechwriter who minted the phrase “axis of evil”—was caricatured on social media as a warmonger and the moral equivalent of his opponent.

For those in favour of the event, however, the “dangerous” nature of Bannon’s views was the very reason he needed be heard and debated—even by someone right leaning, such as Frum. Michael Enright, a veteran CBC broadcaster, conceded that Bannon may be a “glib, well-dressed fascist” but believed a civil confrontation with him would represent “a symbol of our ability to tolerate words and thoughts we despise.”

The key word here is symbol. For all their apparent differences, both sides were firmly united in the belief that the actual content of the debate—the potential arguments, lines of reasoning, and facts—mattered not a jot. No, the debate itself was the thing: its very existence indicated either the vitality of our democratic discourse or its corruption and rot.

Yet if attendees of Friday’s debate expected an ideological circus freak, they were in for a surprise. Bannon—unlike the scabrous, dishevelled figure we recall from early photos of the Trump White House—was cogent, gracious, self-possessed, and utterly unrattled by the protestors in the audience who disrupted his opening statement. Bannon was in no rush. He moved around the stage with the swaggering confidence of a veteran baseball manager. In a recent appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, he told Maher that he avoids conservative media and prefers liberal audiences—the more hostile the better, because they “sharpen the blade.”

In the opening remarks, however, it was Frum who was intellectually sharper. Frum, who entered the debate with 72 percent of the audience’s support, delivered a masterful opening salvo that combined humour, fact, and a series of withering attacks on the emptiness of Bannon’s populism, which he described as a “scam.” Frum’s weaknesses in the eyes of leftists became strengths in a battle with Bannon, where he was free to assail Bannon’s populism without playing a rearguard defensive game against traditional leftist vulnerabilities. At times, Frum’s rhetoric was stirring. “You will lose,” he said, directing his words at Bannon and his supporters. “You have been winning…but you will lose. And, when you lose, your children will be ashamed of you, and they will disavow you, and the future will not belong to you.”

Frum’s fundamental line of attack was that nationalist populism pretends to speak “for the people” but that its vision of “the people” depends on the deliberate exclusion of groups—entire races, sexual minorities, and ideological opponents—who are construed as enemies. It was a strong, clear argument, and Frum made it repeatedly throughout the evening—he was attacking populism not from the left but from a vision of conservatism defined as “conserving” liberal democratic ideals. More than once, Frum drew attention to the poppy on his lapel, arguing that Western societies are faced with enemies comparable to those of “our parents and grandparents,” and he set Bannon’s hate-mongering populism against the enduring value of democratic institutions. “The failures of a good system,” he argued, “are not the reasons to turn to an evil one.”

Bannon dismissed this out of hand: for him, the extinction of liberalism is a foregone conclusion, the starting point for the conversation. The choice, for him, was between a left-wing populism bent on expanding the role of government and a nationalist populism devoted to the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” He swatted away accusations of racism as “the oldest trick in the book—smear deplorables.” Bannon, too, appealed to history, arguing that millennials are the equivalent of “eighteenth-century Russian serfs.…They don’t own anything, and they aren’t going to own anything.” He characterized his populism as the only force than can counter the current economic system, rigged by the “party of Davos” as a “brutal form of Darwinism capitalism” against the “little guy” in the middle.

The battle lines could not have been clearer. Frum pushed to “repair” and “renew” our grand traditions; Bannon was for “taking the leviathan apart, brick by brick.” Yet as the combatants sparred over tariffs, NAFTA, and the wisdom of Trump’s China strategy, viewers could be forgiven for wondering what the performances added up to. The sincerity of the debaters was beyond question. Frum appeared to trust that his oratorical facility and command of the facts could convince even those bent on “burning everything down.” Bannon ploughed on, driven by a sense of his own role in a vast geopolitical reckoning.

Organizers had touted the event as a referendum on the future of Western politics. But did it actively shape those politics in any appreciable way or was this simply a brand-building exercise for all involved—a Barnumesque spectacle for our age of political entertainment? Frum and Bannon filled the auditorium with sound and fury, but was anyone really listening?

The Munk Debates, which occur twice each year, purport to confront nothing less than the major contemporary issues confronted by the Western world. Whenever possible, the organizers bring together international heavyweights: “thought leaders” who write bestsellers and visit talk shows. A poll is taken before and after each exchange; debaters who change the most minds—between 3 and 25 percent of spectators typically switch sides over the ninety-minute tête-à-tête—“win” the contest, even if they fail to persuade 50 percent of the audience. Newt Gingrich and Robert Reich “won” a 2016 debate—convincing 6 percent of the audience that “Donald Trump can make America great again”—despite the fact that 80 percent of the audience voted against the motion. The odd emphasis on “winning” serves a dual purpose: heightening the drama of the event while also implicitly arguing for the relevance and usefulness of the act of debating itself, since some attendees do change their minds.

The debates made an immediate splash when they were launched in May 2008. The first iteration featured Charles Krauthammer and Niall Ferguson who defeated Samantha Power and Richard Holbrooke, convincing 17 percent of the audience that the world was safer with a Republican in the White House. The series—which would go on to include Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, and Glenn Greenwald—continues to be bankrolled by the Peter and Melanie Munk Charitable Foundation, which, by the time of Peter’s death in early 2018, contributed $12 million to running the debates. The wellspring of this charity was Munk’s Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold-mining company, which has itself become the subject of debate elsewhere: Barrick operations in Papua New Guinea have been criticized for systemic human rights abuses by Amnesty International and other mining watchdogs.

Twenty-three Munk Debates have now entertained subjects ranging from state surveillance, health care, and Obama’s foreign policy to religion, the rise of China, and political correctness. Of course, those deemed “winners” may reveal less about the merits of the debaters than about the attitudes of those (generally well heeled and white) who pay up to $100 to attend. In a 2016 debate about refugees—based on the motion “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—22 percent of those in attendance switched their votes from historian Simon Schama and former Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour, who had endorsed the proposition, to Nigel Farage and Mark Steyn, who had rejected it. On the resolution that “climate change is mankind’s defining crisis and demands a commensurate response,” 8 percent of the audience switched to the “con” side, handing it a victory.

The format of the debates is not designed to encourage nuance or sustained analysis—the longest stretch of time available to any speaker is eight minutes—and instead privileges vast, polarizing statements. Trump’s election, for instance, was either an “extinction-level event” (Andrew Sullivan) or a “tremendous opportunity” to “set the path for a new and bold direction guided by the will of the people” (Newt Gingrich). The most decisive victory in Munk Debates history went to Maureen Dowd and Hanna Rosin, who persuaded 28 percent of their audience that “men are obsolete” in 2013.

As the Munk Debates have grown in renown, so too have they assumed a quasi-official function within Canadian political and intellectual culture. During the 2015 federal election campaign, the debates hosted Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, and Thomas Mulcair for an official leaders’ debate on foreign policy. Munk Debates are broadcast by CPAC in Canada, on C-SPAN in the United States, and stream the world over on Facebook Live. The debates are meant to stand as enduring statements on the ideas under discussion—important enough for Canadan literary press House of Anansi to publish a transcript of each debate in book form. The organization is informed by an advisory board populated by members of the Canadian intelligentsia and business elite, including the diplomat Allan Gotlieb, political scientist Janice Gross Stein, and BMO chairman Robert Prichard.

To invite Steve Bannon to a Munk debate, therefore, is to hand him one of the biggest megaphones available in Canada’s political discourse. Do Bannon’s ideas deserve this kind of signal boost? Certainly not, according to the many celebrities and politicians who have withdrawn from events featuring Bannon. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, pulled out of a BBC-sponsored conference after Bannon was invited, arguing that his inclusion “risks legitimizing or normalizing far-right, racist views.” By providing Bannon with all the trappings of important political dialogue, we inadvertently legitimize the idea that even Bannon’s most extreme ideas are “debatable,” which is to say debatably true.

Margaret MacMillan, a history professor at the University of Toronto and member of the Munk Debates advisory board, has little patience with the argument for silencing Bannon. “I find it actually rather patronizing, this view that members of the public, including me, are so pathetic that we can’t make up our own minds,” MacMillan said to me. “I don’t like the idea of self-appointed guardians deciding what I can and can’t hear. Next time, someone will decide that we need to be protected from hearing Bernie Sanders. It cuts both ways.”

And yet there is a difference between censoring Bannon and inviting him to speak in the first place. Rudyard Griffiths, the organizer and moderator of the debates, has said that inviting Bannon is a “public service” that allows “the public [to] draw their own conclusions from the debate.” Griffiths’s “marketplace of ideas” argument emerges from an august lineage in classical liberal thought. In Areopagitica, published in 1644, John Milton argued “that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.” According to John Stuart Mill’s argument in On Liberty, even if Bannon were the only white nationalist alive, we would be no more justified in silencing Bannon than he, “if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

These ideas, however venerable, are products of their time. Exposing populist nativists to facts, we now know, will not disabuse them of their political delusions—not least of all because our “facts” are their fake news. Even after Barack Obama produced his birth certificate, one poll found that 59 percent of Trump supporters believed that Obama was not born in America. Moreover, the argument that we should “test our views” against Bannon, as a form of intellectual callisthenics, treats Bannon like a machine for sharpening the arguments we already know to be correct. (“Sharpening the blade,” is, of course, Bannon’s stated reason for engaging opponents.) There may be some value in this as entertainment, or even as intellectual exercise, but let’s be honest: each side is simply using the other to strengthen and retrench its preexisting ideological assumptions. For a debate to fulfill its much-ballyhooed democratic function—in order for the Munk Debates to be debates—organizers had to be open to the idea that Bannon could actually win and that many of his own supporters in the audience may be using Frum to sharpen their own blades.

Apologists for Bannon’s invitation argue that the event could provided an opportunity for what Michael Enright characterized as intelligence gathering: that is, that hearing from our ideological opponents allows citizens to make better decisions. Yet, according to social-scientific data, public debates have a negligible effect on concrete political outcomes. We remember the supposedly significant exchanges, the “gotcha” moments where one candidate decisively conquered an opponent—Brian Mulroney’s charge of “you had an option, sir!” against John Turner in the 1984 English-language leaders debate, or Ronald Reagan’s 1980 deflation of Jimmy Carter with “there you go again.” But analysis of the statistics tells a very different story. In their comprehensive study of fifteen presidential elections from 1952 to 2008, the political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien conclude that “debates do not have major impact” and that “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” It’s not that these debates don’t have clear “winners” but that winning debates doesn’t translate to political power.

According to any objective measure—her command of the facts, the strength of her arguments, her coherence of vision—Hillary Clinton won all three presidential debates against Donald Trump. If this isn’t clear enough evidence that facts and arguments are ineffective against populism, our experience on social media, as well as a basic historical understanding of how nationalist populism works—its primal need for scapegoats, its conspiratorial thinking, its susceptibility to strong men—should reveal the limits of debate. Are we ever truly capable of persuading people who disagree with us? “We have to try, don’t we?,” asked MacMillan. “We have to assume that we are rational beings. I don’t want to say that a whole bunch of people I disagree with are so irrational that they can’t be talked to. That seems to me to be the very antithesis of what democracy is all about.”

In the classic Monty Python sketch “Argument Clinic,” Michael Palin presents himself in John Cleese’s office and asks if he has come to the right place for an argument. “I’ve told you once,” Cleese replies. “No you didn’t,” Palin responds. “Yes I did.” “No you didn’t.” “Yes I didn’t.” And so it goes until Palin protests that Cleese isn’t arguing; he’s just contradicting: “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.” Cleese responds: “No it isn’t.”

We are often told that debate, the practice of public argument, is not only inherently healthy in democratic societies but also the only way that our deadlocked politics will transcend the current ideological impasse. “Subscribe to debate, not division,” is a current advertising slogan of the New York Times. “Debating,” according to Harvard historian Jill Lepore, “is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it’s the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures.”

Yet much of our public debate sounds a lot like “Argument Clinic,” with one side mechanically contradicting the other. (When Christine Blasey Ford accused judge Brett Kavanaugh of assault, the president’s response was, essentially, “No he didn’t.”) Last Friday night, Frum called Trump a “crook” responsible for “the most unethical administration in American history.” Bannon rhapsodized Trump as a transformational president who hasn’t made a single bad decision yet—one who will influence our lives for the next thirty years.

For the most part, Bannon and Frum didn’t so much contradict each another as simply talk past each another. The blades did clash in a few revealing moments: after Bannon claimed that populism was a big tent, one that might attract more than one-third of African American and Latino voters, Frum fired back, saying, “If they believed African Americans were going to vote for them, they would allow them to vote, rather than bending heaven and earth to stop them.” Yet Frum and Bannon offered mostly parallel arguments, each insulated in their own hermetically sealed cocoon of assumption and belief. Given the vast chasm separating their world views, the most likely outcome was that both debaters would be seen as “winners” by those who shared their perspectives.

Which, in the end, was precisely what happened. After an embarrassing technical glitch in the electronic voting, where Bannon was declared the winner by a landslide, Munk organizers apologized for the error and indicated that the pre- and post-debate results were effectively identical. Neither debater “won”—which itself was arguably a big win for Bannon. For those who believe in debate for its own sake, of course, the fact that this debate evidently had zero impact on audience opinion would be of little consequence. As Griffiths proclaimed in his concluding remarks, “we’ve done something tonight. We’ve shown that Toronto is capable of coming together to discuss difficult, contentious ideas in a way that informs and engages all of us.” The audience gave itself a hearty round of applause. Outside, twelve protesters had been arrested; two police officers were reported to have minor injuries. “Bravo to the Munk community,” Griffiths said.

But debate is not valuable in and of itself or because it allows us to congratulate ourselves for being open minded or because some eighteenth-century English aristocrats said so. Debate is valuable when it leads to positive social outcomes. Many of those outcomes—a more informed citizenry, a diversity of viewpoints, respect for those with different opinions—may be impossible in the absence of debate, but debate itself is no guarantee of them. Nor is it obvious that Friday’s debate forwarded any of those goals. Bannon said very little, if anything, that he hadn’t said before in interviews that are widely available for all to see. Those who learned anything from Bannon’s performance are those who haven’t been paying any attention to Bannon. If the purpose had been to have an intelligent, informative debate about whether the liberal international order is over—well, Munk already held that debate just last year, between Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson.

Which is not to say that the debate was entirely without purpose. Bannon’s physical presence on the stage—the juxtaposition of the man and his views—had the effect, at least to me, of demythologizing and puncturing the transgressive aura surrounding Bannon’s populist nativism. His words—occasionally risible, more often simply banal—emerged from the lungs and larynx and lips of an average-looking sixty-four-year-old human male. It brought to mind a 1964 poem by Leonard Cohen in which the poet runs through the mundane list of physical characteristics belonging to the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. “What did you expect?” Cohen teases the reader. “Talons? Oversize incisors? Green saliva? Madness?”

Ira Wells
Ira Wells teaches literature and cultural criticism at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in The New Republic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Puritan, and elsewhere.