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Steve Bannon's indictment is a gift to his movement

Bannon wants to present himself as a freedom fighter, but what is his cause?

Donald Trump’s longtime adviser Steve Bannon turned himself in to the FBI on Monday after a grand jury indicted him on charges of contempt of Congress last week for refusing to cooperate with a subpoena from a House committee’s investigation into the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Bannon — who helped plan the Jan. 6 rally and revved up his vast podcast listenership the day before by saying “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow” — spent about four hours in custody, after which he was released under conditions for check-ins and travel restrictions approved by a federal judge. He’s expected to return to court Thursday.

He turned his surrender into a massive soapbox, during which he framed himself as a victim.

The spectacle of Bannon’s being taken in by federal authorities excited some people keen to see one of Trump’s most influential allies held accountable for flouting the law and possibly facing jail time. But it’s important to understand that Bannon himself also views this spectacle as politically favorable, as evidenced by his dramatic public statements Monday. He turned his surrender into a massive soapbox, framing himself as a victim and promising to “go on offense” for having to endure the charges.

Bannon’s words shouldn’t be dismissed as pure showmanship. I would presume he knows he knows he could go to jail and would prefer not to, but it’s also clear that he and many others in Trumpworld see rebuffing the Jan. 6 investigation as an opportunity to build serious momentum for their authoritarian political project. Their goal isn't just defying the law, but calling its very legitimacy into question.

Bannon’s heated rhetoric Monday should be a clue to how Bannon sees his defiance of the House’s investigation and its legal consequences as a political weapon. He had his surrender livestreamed on Gettr, the right-wing social media website whose chief executive is a former Trump spokesman.

“We’re taking down the Biden regime. ... Remember, signal, not noise,” Bannon told supporters.

“I want you guys to stay focused on message,” he said before he entered the FBI office.

After he emerged from court, Bannon was even more defiant. “I'm telling you right now, this is going to be the misdemeanor from hell for Merrick Garland, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden,” he said after his hearing.

“We’re going to go on the offense on this, and stand by,” he added.

Bannon’s declarations are marked by a kind of grandiosity that’s easy to mock. But it’s not exactly absurd — Bannon’s podcast, which features loads of right-wing influencers, has a loyal following and tens of millions of downloads. Bannon also has a demonstrable ability to mobilize activists on behalf of his project of sabotaging American democracy. An investigation by ProPublica traced an explosion of thousands of new GOP precinct officers to Bannon’s calls for conservatives who believe the last election was stolen to penetrate the administrative apparatus of the electoral system.

Bannon’s lawyer has argued that Bannon should not have to comply with the House committee because his conversations are shielded by executive privilege — the executive branch’s power to claim that the president’s communications with advisers are confidential and protected from Congress and the courts. But that claim is indefensible for numerous reasons, including the facts that Bannon had left the administration when he helped plan Jan. 6 and that plans to subvert the electoral certification process aren’t government business.

Yet the thrust of Bannon's public arguments on Monday weren't about executive privilege wonkery. Instead, he spoke in sweeping terms about being a victim of the deep state and a martyr for free speech. “Not just Trump people and not just conservatives — every progressive, every liberal in this country that likes freedom of speech and liberty, should be fighting for this case. That's why I'm here today: for everybody. I'm never going to back down,” he said outside court.

Bannon wants to present himself as a freedom fighter, but what is his cause? He is refusing to cooperate in any way with an inquiry into an event that threatened a peaceful transfer of presidential power. He is encouraging people to view that inquiry as oppression, and his noncooperation as a badge of honor. Regardless of what happens to him in this legal fight, he’s using friction with the state to call into question the very idea that democracy and rule of law should be respected.