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David Remnick, Steve Bannon, and the Revolt Against the Elites

The outrage surrounding their aborted interview goes well beyond the issue of elevating controversial speakers.

Getty Images for The New Yorker Festival

The New Yorker announced this Labor Day that Steve Bannon—the architect of Donald Trump’s ethno-nationalist campaign—would appear as a headline guest at its October festival, to be interviewed by editor David Remnick. Later that day, Remnick rescinded Bannon’s invitation in a memo circulated to staff. Between these announcements a streak of rage burned across Twitter, resulting in the withdrawal of several celebrity guests from the festival.

All this happened in a single day, on the internet, and then it was done. Was this just a flurry of nonsense on a sleepy summer’s holiday, or was this actual lightning hitting the ground? Twitter is a repository for the real opinions of real people, but it is also a virtual space that exists in parallel to reality traditionally conceived. It’s governed by its own strange weather. But in this case the online storm pointed to factors that exist outside the online discourse, including a growing distaste for the media-political bubble in which people like Remnick and Bannon live.

The Twitter outrage centered on the way The New Yorker was elevating Bannon. The director Judd Apatow wrote that the proposed event “normalizes hate.” Remnick represented their arguments well in his memo, writing, “The main argument for not engaging someone like Bannon is that we are giving him a platform and that he will use it, unfiltered, to propel further the ‘ideas’ of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism.”

But an interview does not equal endorsement, he insisted. Bannon has historical significance, since he helped Trump get elected: The New Yorker is “hardly pulling him out of obscurity,” Remnick noted. He compared his proposed interview to Dick Cavett interviewing Lester Maddox and George Wallace, and Oriana Fallaci meeting with Henry Kissinger and Ayatollah Khomeini. Still, he acknowledged that “many of our readers, including some colleagues, have said that the Festival is different, a different kind of forum.” He eventually concluded that a written profile would be a more appropriate treatment for this important, though awful, man.

For his part, Bannon has explained that he accepted the invitation because he “would be facing one of the most fearless journalists of his generation.” He later called Remnick “gutless” for cowing to the “howling online mob.”

However, this framing of the Festival obscures certain stakes at play. First up, the money. Events are a great way for magazines to make money, especially in an era of declining ad sales. Lots of publications hold charity-style benefit dinners and forums where guests bat around “ideas.” An evening with Jack Antonoff at the New Yorker Festival, including a live concert and interview, will set you back $59. A Haruki Murakami event with fiction editor Deborah Treisman costs $79.* In a 2014 article on the Festival at the business site BizBash, Rhonda Sherman, the magazine’s director of editorial promotion, said, “The New Yorker simply would not put on the New Yorker Festival if it were not profitable.”

Fundraising is a necessary part of the magazine publishing machine, and nobody could blame The New Yorker for wanting to generate cash. But it also means that the invitation to Bannon didn’t come from a place of editorial purity—from a desire simply to interrogate him. This is not to say that Remnick solicited Bannon with the cynical intention of extracting cash from curious punters. But it does mean that the reverberations of Bannon’s appearance would have been felt in the magazine’s coffers.

The second factor obscured by the cloud of indignation concerns cultural, rather than literal, capital. David Remnick and Steve Bannon are captains of two different elites. Remnick heads The New Yorker, which nestles atop the American pyramid of intellectual prestige. Bannon helped to turn Donald Trump—denizen of reality television, the dark mirror to journalistic high-mindedness—into the most powerful man in the world. They are like prefects of different boarding school houses. Each derives part of his power by opposing the other.

Last year, Digiday reported that The New Yorker’s opposition to Trump led to a boom in subscriptions. Subscribing to the magazine, which often features caricatures of Trump on its cover, represents to some readers an act of resistance. The New Yorker’s unabashed intellectualism, commitment to deep inquiry, and skepticism of conservative politics is the kind of bandwagon decent liberals want to get on.

For his part, Bannon referred to the media as “the opposition party” at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. The press are, Bannon said, “corporatist globalist media that are adamantly opposed to a economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has.” In the months since that CPAC appearance, Trump has sculpted his hatred for the media into an ideological issue that pits his supporters against all those who speak with journalistic authority. Bannon lies at the origin of this bit of propaganda.

The proposed meeting between Remnick and Bannon thus represented much more than the political conundrum about “platforming” odious people. It would have seen two public figures at the pinnacle of their respective clans, coming together to create a spectacle that would generate money for Remnick’s magazine and a mixture of prestige and notoriety for Bannon. The merit of the event’s content (whatever it would have been—we’ll never know) need barely come into it. The interview was compromised from the start.

If there’s a third issue hidden in the Twitter outrage cycle over the invitation, it’s the uncanny way that Remnick and Bannon have come to be on the same side in this drama. Seeing their names together in so many headlines was reminiscent of John McCain’s recent funeral. That event was lauded as a glorious bipartisan rebuke of Trump. Present at that funeral were people whom various factions of the American public respectively loathe: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger. And yet the sheer spectacle of power seemed to subdue the newspapers into respect. “It was a meeting of the Resistance, under vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows,” Susan Glasser wrote in, yes, The New Yorker. Welcome to the Resistance, Dick Cheney.

Whether the spectacle made an impression on Republicans—only 40 percent of whom had a favorable opinion of McCain—is doubtful. Many on the left were similarly dismayed by the praise showered on Cheney, Kissinger, Bush, and even McCain himself. It was almost as if the funeral, including the media coverage, was designed to represent everything that angry voters resent about the country’s elite.

On Tuesday, Bret Stephens of The New York Times condemned Remnick for cowing to the Twitter mob. In so doing, a complicated interaction between elites from the political left and the right was once again reduced to some shallow pageant. It’s easier for Stephens to blame the ugly online public than to examine how Remnick and Bannon, of all people, came together in the first place. Remnick may have withdrawn his invitation, but not without sparking the kind of lightning that both burns things and illuminates them at the same time.

*A previous version of this article misstated the price of entry to New Yorker Festival events. We regret the error.