Few people in American history have been savaged so viciously by the press as Donald Trump during this year’s election. But the media quickly outdid itself when the president-elect announced that Stephen Bannon would be given the coveted role of senior counsel. Without missing a beat, and undeterred by their resounding failure to stop Trump, the press quickly set upon Bannon. They called him an anti-Semite and a white nationalist. A Washington Post writer even suggested that he would serve as the Goebbels to Trump’s Hitler.

The anti-Semitic rumours were started by his ex-wife during their divorce hearing. In any other context, the media would have taken such a source with a hardy pinch of salt. Meanwhile, no one has presented credible evidence of racism. When Bannon ran the conservative website Breitbart it reported widely on violence connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, and, because the mainstream media quickly took up the movement’s case, they decided that anyone who criticises it must therefore believe that black lives literally don’t matter.

Yet the media’s failure to “expose” Bannon leaves one question in stark relief: what exactly does he believe? True, he falls within the burgeoning populist movement in American politics – but then so does Bernie Sanders. So what does that term mean to Bannon, the architect of the Trump revolution?

That question has been eating away at me since I met Bannon last February. It was the day after Trump won the New Hampshire primary, which I’d been covering for Breitbart as a sort of field-training exercise. Matt Boyle, the Washington bureau chief, summoned me to Manchester, the largest city in the state, for the last phase of my initiation: an interview with the chairman himself.

Bannon was polite and encouraging. He said he liked my work, that I showed promise. But his attention quickly turned elsewhere – namely, my clothing. Why was I wearing a tie? The question surprised me. I always wear a tie, especially when meeting people I hope will give me a job.

I thought this was just small talk. How very naïve. As he began questioning me – about my family, my childhood, my work experience – it became clear that he was scrutinising me for a fatal character flaw. I fed him more than the self-aggrandising half-truths customary of interviewees; one by one he picked them apart.

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