Peter Navarro is hopelessly devoted to Donald Trump, easily goaded into extended and semi-coherent monologues, and obsessed with the Chinese Communist Party. That makes the former Trump administration trade czar the perfect regular guest for War Room, the daily podcast hosted by onetime Trump adviser and right-wing agitator Steve Bannon.
A typical Navarro appearance goes like this: Bannon will provoke him, usually by taking aim at some recent Biden administration action or dovish talking point. Navarro, the author of books like Death by China and The Coming China Wars, always takes the bait. And that’s exactly what happened on November 13, when Navarro joined the show for a discussion about Taiwan. War Room fans who tuned in on Rumble, the video-streaming platform used by MAGA types, were treated to Navarro’s choice of Zoom background: the Wuhan virology lab. It didn’t take long for the conversation to head straight there.
“When I tell you,” Navarro said, digging deep into Covid-19 conspiracies, “that this is a bioweapon launched from the Wuhan lab, take that to the bank.” That China “inundated the world” with “infected Chinese nationalists” to “seed-spread” the coronavirus? Take that to the bank. That “fake president” Joe Biden is prepared for a “unilateral surrender” to China over trade? Take that to the bank.
Navarro, who bursts into every episode with the energy of a youth pastor, was on fire—and Bannon was happy to keep him ablaze. Democrats, Bannon mockingly noted, view climate change as a greater threat than China “because the CCP is not the existential threat. They’re actually the ‘pacing challenge,'” borrowing a phrase from Biden’s Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. “Doctor. Peter. Navarro. Your response?”
“The idea that China is a competitor rather than an existential threat—this is the Kool-Aid that we get from K Street and Wall Street,” Navarro said, winding up another memorable rant that touched on China’s “seven deadly sins” and “scumbags” Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone and Larry Fink of BlackRock, part of the Wall Street clique of the Republican Party he claims is too cozy with China.
“I’ve had some bold but accurate predictions in my life, and I’ve never been wrong about Communist China,” he said. “I’m not wrong right now. This is where the virus came from. This is the house that Fauci built. Fauci belongs in jail. The Communist Chinese Party needs to be sent a bill for $20 trillion.”
“I could go on and on and on,” Navarro added. And he would have, if not for the host’s interjection.
“I triggered you,” Bannon said, finally reclaiming control of the conversation.
War Room, as CNN’s Daniel Dale once put it, is “kind of like Trump’s banned Twitter account revived in audio form.” Every weekday for three hours and every Saturday for nearly two, Bannon convenes the heroes of MAGA world—people like Navarro, Boris Epshteyn, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene—for a struggle session over the coronavirus, Biden’s presidency, the 2020 election, and, increasingly, the threat posed by China. It remains strikingly popular despite being banned from YouTube and Spotify.
Starting just before Thanksgiving, right after Biden had a tense virtual summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, I joined the tens of thousands of people who download War Room on Apple Podcasts. After a few days, I started to get used to the odd rhythm of the show and its apocalyptic warnings about the “illegitimate Biden regime” and the “transnational criminal organization” running China.
To live in Bannon’s world, as I did those few weeks, is to see politics as a black-and-white contest between rugged champions and cowardly, sniveling traitors, whose biggest crime may be their weakness in confronting the ultimate evil: China. Any casual follower of US politics knows this cast of characters. Bannon is surrounded by Trump loyalists and other cheerleaders of the January 6 insurrection. Their villains are Biden, Kamala Harris, Anthony Fauci, and moderate Republicans.
But nothing animates Bannon and his guests more than the Chinese Communist Party, which looms over every episode, even ones where it is barely mentioned, by virtue of Bannon’s choice of theme song. Between every ad break, Bannon plays snippets of “Fight for Hong Kong,” the propaganda song by Guo Wengui, his billionaire backer: “We will fight till they’re all gone/let’s take down the CCP!”
“Bannon uses China as this catch-all for conspiracy theories, to justify extremism, to explain racist inequaities in the US,” says Justin Horowitz, a researcher at liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America who has written about War Room. “Pretty much whenever something is an inconvenient truth, Bannon can somehow mold that to blame it on the Chinese Communist Party.”
When Trump was in office, Asian Americans warned of blowback from his use of racist terms like “kung flu” to blame China for the coronavirus. That prediction came true as hate crimes against Asian Americans rose sharply during the pandemic. Bannon is preaching an even harsher gospel—and he’s bending the Republican Party to his will.
When not discussing China, War Room is flush with coronavirus disinformation and the pseudo-intellectual history lessons that have become Bannon’s signature. In fact, between the November 3 election and January 6, 2021, more than 75 percent of War Room episodes promoted the “Big Lie” that Trump actually won the 2020 election, according to a Brookings Institution analysis published in January. Researchers Valerie Wirtschafter and Chris Meserole wrote that Bannon’s podcast, among the list of political shows they tracked, “stands out for its prescient blend of violent rhetoric and blatant disinformation.” (Bannon did not return a request for comment on this story.)
But it’s Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whom Trump once called a “good man” and a “good leader,” who is like the Thanos of War Room, overshadowing almost any conversation and occasionally coming up for a full-episode spotlight. Even though Bannon surrendered to the FBI on the same day as Biden’s mid-November summit with Xi, he still found time to tweak his favorite enemy. “While the criminal Xi talks to Biden today, remember: Take down the CCP!” he told his supporters in a video posted to Gettr, the social media platform started by former Trump campaign official Jason Miller, a onetime War Room co-host.
Bannon used to talk about a coming “clash of civilizations” between the West and East, but his target was “jihadist Islamic fascism.” Now China is the all-purpose villain.
Bannon can take any subject—from George Floyd’s murder to Trump’s 2020 election loss—and turn it into a galaxy-brain plot, with China as the source of all ills. (The “converging forces of Asia” led to Floyd’s death, Bannon told the Asia Times, citing his drug use, low-paying job, and attempt to use a counterfeit $20 bill. “All four of those come from Beijing, essentially,” he said.)
Even the crisis in Ukraine, according to Bannon, is a sideshow from the real threat of China. In the February 22 episode, Bannon railed against “kleptocrats” like Hillary Clinton for trying to turn Ukraine into “their colony” (echoing Putin’s own description of Ukraine as a “colony with puppets at its helm”) and mocked the idea of using “self-determination” in relation to Ukraine. “Let’s talk about self-determination for Taiwan, self-determination for Hong Kong, self-determination for Tibet, self-determination for Turkistan,” he said.
Behind Bannon while he records the show is wall art with a quote attributed to himself: “There are NO conspiracies, but there are NO coincidences.” That is the show’s essence: Everything is a war for survival—with Bannon as the general leading the charge.
That uncompromising attitude echoes the approach of Bannon’s benefactor, a mysterious Chinese exile named Guo Wengui, whom my colleague Dan Friedman profiled for our March/April issue. Guo, who has claimed to be a billionaire (though he filed for bankruptcy earlier this month), is behind MAGA ventures like Gettr and runs websites that spread coronavirus myths and QAnon conspiracies. Despite fashioning himself a devoted critic of the Chinese government, he’s often attacked other Chinese dissidents, raising questions about his ultimate strategy. (A Washington research firm that Guo hired that later entered into a legal dispute with him has accused him publicly of spying for Beijing.)
In the days following the Xi-Biden summit, Bannon and his guests leveled a similar accusation at Biden following the three-hour meeting. “Let’s be clear: This wasn’t a summit,” co-host Raheem Kassam, former editor-in-chief of Breitbart News’ London outpost, said on November 16. “This was the VP of sales calling into head office.” Bannon, later in the episode, said the “illegitimate Biden regime is in business with the cartels and the Chinese Communist Party,” whom he called “the most evil people on this Earth.”
On an episode later that week titled “The Emperor Xi and the Useful Idiot Biden,” Bannon invited on Frank Gaffney, Jr., founder of the ultra-hawkish Center for Security Policy and, like many War Room regulars, someone who’s not exactly known for his restraint. As they discussed Biden’s approach to China, Gaffney called him “the Manchurian candidate” and then, later in the podcast, drove the point home: “He is there, I think, to do the Chinese Communist Party’s bidding.”
Bannon feigned surprise. “Okay, that’s—whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Hang on. Hang on,” he said. “These are pretty big charges, so how do you back that up? You’re basically saying that Joe Biden is bought and paid for by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Less-extreme China hawks have supported many of the Biden’s administration’s moves, including continuing Trump’s practice of calling the Chinese repression of Uyghurs a “genocide,” maintaining many of the tariffs pushed by Bannon and Navarro, and preparing to execute a landmark bill shoring up American manufacturing and research to compete with China.
But in an episode on November 16 titled “Biden Surrenders to Xi,” Bannon said Biden should be impeached because the White House readout of the meeting did not say if he pressed Xi on the pandemic’s origin. (China has not cooperated with the World Health Organization’s effort to investigate how the novel coronavirus first spread.) “Do you think they’re playing that up in Asia today—that Joe Biden was too petrified to talk about Wuhan, to talk about what happened?” If Republicans take back control of the House in November, Bannon said, they already had “the first charge of impeachment for Joe Biden: not one second about Wuhan.”
Biden will never meet Bannon’s standard, but neither can more hawkish members of his own party. During a November 30 episode, he took aim at Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who was by then sparring with Greene on Twitter over Rep. Lauren Boebert’s (R-Colo.) racist attack on progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). (Welcome to a day in the life of following Congress.)
Bannon had a different bone to pick with Mace. Earlier that month, she and four other US lawmakers visited Taiwan, leading her to refer to the self-governing island in a tweet as the “Republic of Taiwan.” Because the United States as a matter of policy does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country, the tweet caused an uproar—something, presumably, a China hawk like Bannon would welcome. Instead, he rejected her show of solidarity. “We’re the anti-CCP group right here. I’ve been doing this for years. It’s one of the focal points of my life,” he said. “I don’t need a bunch of neocons who are going to traipse over to Taiwan and then hold that up. No, you’re a neocon. You’re poisonous.”
“I don’t think in my experience I’ve found someone who is further right when it comes to being a China hawk than Bannon,” Horowitz said. And no matter how far politicians veer in Bannon’s direction, he’ll always find a way to push the boundary even further.
No matter how China is described by the US government—pacing challenge, “near-peer competitor,” rival great power—it is undeniable that its rise poses a challenge for the United States and the rest of the world. Figuring out how to partner with China on issues of global importance while holding its government accountable for human rights abuses is not easy. No one has a silver bullet.
But Bannon does not see the conflict as anything particularly complex. It is functionally no different from the other enemies he’s long warned about. He isn’t talking about jihadist Islamic fascists anymore, but that same zero-sum mindset holds.
I was reminded of a conference I went to nearly three years ago to see Bannon promote a new committee dedicated to countering China’s rise. He and other members of the “Committee on the Present Danger: China,” which was housed under Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, leaned into the framing of US-China relations as the start of a major cold war that could define the bulk of the 21st-century.
Even the name itself winked at that notion—committees on the “present danger” were first started by anticommunist conservatives as a way to lobby for a more hawkish approach to the Soviet Union.
“These are two systems that are incompatible,” Bannon told the crowd of China hawks. “One side is going to win and one side is going to lose.”
Several years later, in a November 20 episode of War Room, Navarro, took that grim assessment and sharpened it as only he could. “Communist China,” he told Bannon, “is trying to kill us.”