How Steve Bannon Is Weaponizing Stories About Elizabeth Warren

Rebecca Traister has written a fascinating article titled, “Elizabeth Warren Is Getting Hillary-ed.” She zeros in on how we are starting to hear some of the same critiques of Warren that were propagated about Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election.

The elite, ambitious candidate, saying one thing on the stump but another to wealthy donors, willing to cede big dreams for incremental, pragmatic fixes … You recognize her, right? Of course you do. She’s Massachusetts Senator and progressive firebrand Elizabeth Warren, who in the past few weeks has co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’s new Medicare for All bill, introduced a bill to preempt state right-to-work laws, prepared to take on leaders of Wells Fargo and Equifax on the Senate floor … and been hit with a blast of right-wing messaging and mainstream news coverage that feels positively uncanny.

What struck me was the fact that it isn’t just the message that is similar to what we heard about Clinton, but the process used to spread that message is very familiar as well. The attacks on Warren began with funding from Robert Mercer (Steve Bannon’s benefactor) to a super PAC called Massachusetts First.

radio ads funded by Mercer have been running all summer, painting the senator and former faculty member at Harvard Law as a “hypocrite professor” who was “raking in hundreds of thousands each year” while her students were “taking on massive debt to listen to Warren lecture them.”

Next came clips of right-wing Boston radio host Jeff Kuhner confronting Warren with those same “populist” accusations after her appearance on a local television station, where she was excoriated for being “frazzled” and “triggered” by the critiques.

Then last week, Jonathan Martin at the New York Times very subtly picked up on those themes in an article that purported to compare Warren’s approach with that of Bernie Sanders. Here is how Traister summarized:

The Times piece was not officially evaluative of either Warren’s or Sanders’s approaches, but the template it presented — of one candidate, Warren, as the hard-studying, ambitious comer, taking a safer path, willing to talk to bankers and consider incremental change and market the historic nature of her imagined quest as a highly feminized brand, contrasted with the more casual, less strained, and therefore more authentic approach to power exhibited by a competing politician — could have been ripped from the mainstream narrative about Hillary Clinton and any number of her former opponents.

That Times piece was then quoted by the right-wing super PAC America Rising in a post titled, “Hypocrite Warren Secretly Meets With JP Morgan CEO.” Traister ends by pointing to the fact that a couple of left-wing pundits also weighed in on the Times article with critiques of Warren.

If that process sounds familiar, it is because it duplicates what Joshua Green wrote about how Steve Bannon weaponizes a story, as well as what the Berkman Klien Center  documented recently in a section of their report on the role of the media in the 2016 election titled, “Dynamics of Network Propaganda: Clinton Foundation Case Study.” I won’t repeat how this process was used against Clinton, but if you need a refresher course, you can find it at those links.

The one critical component in all of this is the role played by the New York Times. While we know that Bannon and Schweitzer (author of Clinton Cash) sold their story on the book to that publication, we don’t know if Bannon played a direct role in seeding Martin’s piece. What we do know is that it built on a theme already established by a Mercer-funded super-PAC specifically targeting Warren. Moreover, both articles demonstrate how critiques like that become weaponized for mass consumption on both the left and right outside the conservative media bubble. In both cases, it was the New York Times at the center of it all.

It would also be foolish to ignore the fact that the guy pulling the strings in all of this is Steve Bannon. If you have any doubts about that, read Joshua Green’s piece again and notice that this is all straight out of his playbook. For example:

The reason GAI [Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute] does this is because it’s the secret to how conservatives can hack the mainstream media. [Wynton] Hall has distilled this, too, into a slogan: “Anchor left, pivot right.” It means that “weaponizing” a story onto the front page of the New York Times (“the Left”) is infinitely more valuable than publishing it on Breitbart.com…

This is a pattern that we are likely to see used more often in the future, given that it was so successful against Clinton. The most important thing we can do is recognize that it is happening and call out those who are complicit in spreading the lies and innuendos.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .