• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Bannon Bumped

August 2017

Bumptious, imperious, self-assured, and proud, Stephen Bannon—the Trump Administration’s chief strategist and former editor of the right-wing news and political website Breitbart—has left the White House on his terms. Not surprising in the least is that he’s resigned; what is surprising is how long it took. He and President Trump were an ill-fated set—two whose relationship was bound to uncoil. After all, both men are stars (though perhaps one might better call them gaseous giants) with a certain gravitational appeal. They’re men around whom attention revolves and to whom all conversations must turn. One can’t live in the other’s shadow, while the other can’t thrive in the other’s light. Inevitably, one was bound to consume or extinguish the other. In this case, it’s Bannon whose light has been doused and whose constellation has tumbled from the sky.

Back on the ground, amongst the forgotten and deplorable women and men whom he has so successfully represented, Bannon has lost no time in transitioning from the public to the private sphere. As of yesterday, he’s officially ventured back to Brietbart, the site that he’s overseen since its eponymous creator died. This time, however, he reprises his role not as editor-in-chief, but as chief executive. It’s there, within that noisy enclave of the right and not in his inconspicuous office in the West Wing that he’ll continue to be an influential political voice. Overseeing as he will the editorship and administration of Brietbart, Bannon will once again lead the young, clamoring, irascible members of the further reaches of the right.

But, where will Bannon lead them? To which new terrains will they go? This is the question, and its answer—as of yet to be seen—could have an impact on President Trump’s standing in the hearts and in the minds of his base. It’s known that initially, Bannon and Trump’s relationship was one of mutual and warm respect. Bannon, much like Kellyanne Conway, was recommended to the Trump campaign to be an advisor at the urging of the influential Mercer Family. The Mercers saw in Bannon—and to a lesser degree, in Conway—an indefatigable political actor who could strengthen Trump’s political brand. Where Trump lacked a structured, or, for that matter, an existent political philosophy, Bannon’s job was to fill in the gap. Under the banner of economic nationalism—a concept unfamiliar to most Americans, but itself seasoned with a dash of populism and a tincture of chauvinism—Bannon was able to formulize and legitimize some of Trump’s crazier ideas. For many wary Republicans, many of whom were hesitant to attach their wagons to this the political novitiate named Donald Trump, Bannon was the final link. In his talks, he was able to prettify Trump’s erratic agenda items into an intelligible academic smock. He was able to ground a seemingly desultory campaign in some ideological soil from which it might grow.

At least for a time, the two worked effectively together. Doubtless, Bannon had Trump’s ear—however elusive and capricious that ear may be—and was able to inform the latter’s thought. This was manifest early on in the administration. Bannon’s fingerprints were all over such measures as the RAISE Act, the “Muslim travel” ban, the renunciation of the Paris Climate Accord (all of which occurred within the first six months of President Trump’s inauguration) and the harsher rhetoric on the topic of trade generally and China specifically, which has been an ongoing thing.

It became clear, or it at least became the accepted belief, that behind many of these controversial agenda items sat Bannon. The media began to portray him as some kind of a diabolical figure, a politically-savvy Mephistopheles lurking in the tenebrous shadows of the Oval Office and in the back of Trump’s head. Time chose to devote to Bannon’s scrofulous countenance its cover. In the foreground, his face, in the background, a black void, Bannon haunted the cover of Time faster than anyone else. The Time journalists cleverly dubbed him the “Great Manipulator”, as though Bannon were the puppeteer and Trump were on his string. On top of that, furthering his import in the eyes of readers, Bannon was deified among the “100 Most Influential People” in America.

It’s no mystery that it was around this time that Trump and Bannon’s relationship began to sour. His ego injured (this, one must conclude, was Time magazine’s rather unsubtle intent), Trump began diminishing Bannon’s importance to the administration and his usefulness in achieving its ends. Bannon was beginning to expand and Trump to shrink. This could be no more. The order of the universe was untenably askew, and there was room enough for only one star. Bannon’s role was further diminished when he was removed from the National Security Council. That’s not to say there was a time when Bannon belonged in that council; from the outset, he was an interloper. On top of that, as Bannon waned, Jared Kushner (who’s seen by most to be the direct opposite of Bannon, what with his being young, taciturn, effete, and globally-inclined) began to rise.

All that being said, Trump’s growing distaste for Bannon was most evidenced in his very own words. In response to a question about Bannon, Trump told the New York Post that he liked “Steve”, but that one has “to remember (Bannon) was not involved in my campaign until very late”. This is a recurrent theme for Trump. It’s not only loyalty to, but longevity with the boss that’s paramount. It’s for want of the second trait that Paul Manafort was likewise jettisoned from the president’s good grace. Trump continued, in his deconstruction of Bannon, by calling him a mere “guy who works for me”, as if to say his Chief Strategist is little more than a seasonal hireling at Mar-a-Lago.

The writing was on the wall and Bannon’s tenure in the administration that he’d helped elevate was coming to its unnatural end. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was fired (with whom Bannon had a good working relationship) and John Kelly was brought in. With the ascent of Kelly, it appeared that Bannon’s role had become expendable. The former Marine general wanted little to do with Bannon and now, neither did President Trump. Feeling himself liberated, like a high school senior readying himself never to walk his halls again, Bannon started opening up to the press. This was highlighted by one of those famous “on-the-record but thought to be off-the-record” interviews, à la former press coordinator Anthony Scaramucci and New Yorker journalist Ryan Lizza. On this occasion, Bannon’s liberal interlocutor was from the Weekly Standard. With vitriol, Bannon talked about his White House colleagues, including Susan Thornton of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs division at the State Department and Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohen.

On the topic of East Asia, Bannon pressed on and ended up subverting President Trump’s position toward North Korea. Unlike Trump, who’s been unequivocally bellicose in his stance toward the Hermit Kingdom, Bannon admitted that “there’s no military solution (in North Korea)…until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first thirty minutes from conventional weapons”. He went along this vein, conceding that “there’s no military solution here. They got us”. I can’t say I don’t agree with Bannon’s analysis, but sapient though it may be, it undermines exactly that which President Trump has been saying for months.

Other things were said, some less inflammatory, some more. What’s obviously clear, though, is that Bannon intended for all of his kibitzing to be made public. One mustn’t forget that, as of late, he’s made his bones as a media operative. He’s as wily, effective, and cynical as they come. He, more than anyone, would know if an interview was to be on or off the record. If he wanted his unfettered comments hidden from public view, he would’ve made them so.

Inevitably and purposefully, Bannon became a distraction. Trump was made to share the limelight and was no better for having done so. Ultimately, it was Bannon’s folie de grandeur and Trump’s pride that ultimately brought him down. Bannon had created a crisis of contested distinction in the West Wing and a struggle for recognition and ascent. The president was being relegated to a second-tier tactician in Bannon’s wake. And in a White House where only one wears the crown, Bannon became plus royaliste que le roi, and for his efforts, was ousted.

To which venture Bannon turns next is a matter of great interest and speculation. As I mentioned, he has rejoined an increasingly influential Breitbart organization whose platform he helped to build. Speaking to the Weekly Standard, he said, “I built a f**cking machine at Breitbart and now we’re about to rev it up”. Aside from sounding like a line from The Terminator, Bannon has a point. The movement that he helped to create has redoubtable support and, more importantly, it has his return. While in office, Bannon never sacrificed his national populist ethos, and thus leaves for Breitbart a martyr of sorts. He was cast off by the globalists in the White House, while never sacrificing his cause nor his ardent beliefs. Never did he succumb to political exigencies, nor soften his tune.

It’s said that Bannon has maintained a correspondence with the Mercer family—from whose recommendation he originally appeared before Trump. The Mercers are a Long Island, long-moneyed father and daughter team who are planning to create a media network to the right of a Fox News. It’s an idea over which Bannon gushes. He’s long bristled at the thought of the Murdoch sons’ increasing influence on Fox News, as they wrest control from their aging father. Bannon fears that the relatively young Murdoch boys might trend the network toward a more “globalist” platform.

None of this speaks to how Bannon will treat the Administration from which he was let go. In so many words, he’s determined that he’ll be going “nuclear” on the globalists at the White House including Cohn, Kushner, National Security Advisor Dina Powell, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. By doing so and going “nuclear” on the vast majority of Trump’s staff, Bannon might forge a schism in Trump’s base. It’ll also be interesting to see how or if President Trump’s path forward changes. He’ll be marching on without the man with whom his positions were so closely aligned for the first stage of his presidency. As the cabinet currently stands, Trump is surrounded by generals, bankers, and New York Democrats (with a few members commingling in those final two groups). While Stephen Miller remains (he and Bannon worked and thought hand-in-glove), it will be interesting to see Trump in Bannon’s absence.

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