Digital Alienation

American Rasputin
Steve Bannon is still scheming. And he’s still a threat to democracy.


There’s a scene I keep looping back to in Errol Morris’s 2018 documentary about Bannon, American Dharma. Bannon is recalling his Hong Kong days in the 2000s, when he was working for Internet Gaming Entertainment. He notes how stunned he was to discover how many people played multiplayer online games, and how intensely they played them. But then he breaks it down for Morris, using the example of a theoretical man named Dave in Accounts Payable who one day drops dead.

“Some preacher from a church or some guy from a funeral home who’s never met him does a 10-minute eulogy, says a few prayers,” Bannon says. “And that’s Dave.”

But that’s offline Dave. Online Dave is a whole other story. “Dave in the game is Ajax,” Bannon continues. “And Ajax is, like, the man.” Ajax gets a caisson when he dies and is carried off to a raging funeral pyre. The rival group comes out and attacks. “There’s literally thousands of people there,” Bannon says. “People are home playing the game, and guys are not going to work. And women are not going to work. Because it’s Ajax.”

“Now, who’s more real?” Bannon asks. Dave in Accounting? Or Ajax?

Steve Bannon in Washington, D.C., in May (Chris Buck for The Atlantic)

Ajax, Bannon realized. Some people—particularly disaffected men—actively prefer and better identify with the online versions of themselves. He kept this top of mind when he took over Breitbart News in 2012 and decided to build out the comments section. “This became more of a community than the city they live in, the town they live in, the old bowling league,” he tells Morris. “The key to these sites was the comment section. This could be weaponized at some point in time. The angry voices, properly directed, have latent political power.”

I mentioned this moment to Bannon the second time we spoke. On War Room, he frequently talks about three levels of participation: the posse, the cadre, and the vanguard. It sounded to me like the gamification of politics. Yes, he told me. That’s just it: “I want Dave in Accounting to be Ajax in his life.”

But that’s precisely what happened on January 6. The angry, howling hordes arrived as real-life avatars, cosplaying the role of rebels in face paint and fur. They stormed the Capitol while an enemy army tried to beat them away. They carried their own versions of caissons. They skipped a day of work. And then they expressed outrage—and utter incredulity—when they got carted away.

The fantasy and the reality had become one and the same.