The strange saga of Steve Bannon’s career as an Alt-Right agent provocateur and prophet of Trumpism appears to be over. And now that he’s out at Breitbart, it is hard to imagine him going anywhere from here except further down and out into the anonymity of an early retirement in disgrace. There’s a lot to take from this, as I’ve discussed on my podcast.
The drama began when The Guardian leaked excerpts from a book about to be published by Michael Wolff, based on interviews with White House staff (with Trump’s reluctant permission). In the book, Bannon was quoted as saying Donald Jr’s meeting with Russian officers in Trump Tower was "treasonous” and “un-American,” and calling members of the Trump clan idiots.
President Trump hit back within hours, saying that the newly christened “Sloppy Steve” “lost his mind when he lost his job.” Trump announced his intention to sue Bannon for violating his Non-Disclosure Agreement and Non-Defamation Agreement. Trump even tried to block the publication of the book (unsuccessfully, the book is now on shelves) in his own fire and fury online.
As Campaign Chairman, and later White House Chief Strategist, Bannon would be in a position to know a lot about any shady deals, so the liberal media is in a frenzy of anticipation. As usual, they’re putting the cart before the horse, since Bannon’s quotes do not constitute evidence of anything beyond Bannon saying those words (which he did, the interviews were recorded by Wolff, clarifying the confusion of many as to why Bannon didn’t move swiftly to angrily denounce the quotes as lies – he couldn’t).
If Bannon is telling the truth, then he is complicit in treason, since he then helped a traitor get elected, and kept silent about it for over a year. If he is not, then he is a liar defaming the president he claims to be the chief prophet for, in an epic tale of career suicide.
If Trump is guilty of misconduct, he won’t be convicted by anything in the book, which mostly paints a picture we already knew of a vain, narcissistic man surrounded by a nervous staff in a chaotic White House. This book was written as a hit piece on Trump, of course. Michael Wolff is a liberal journalist not famous for honest stories, making Trump’s decision to permit him to chronicle his administration baffling. The one who has felt all the impact, however, has been Bannon, not Trump.
Trump is probably correct in saying Bannon has lost his mind. Bannon had absolutely no reason to insult his patron on the record but was probably governed by pure hubris, the need to make sure everyone knew he was a political prophet and genius (as he saw himself), and that everyone else was stupid. This is not only false (as seen by Bannon’s failure to play kingmaker in Alabama), but it’s remarkably self-defeating.
Even if Bannon was brilliant beyond measure, it clearly wasn’t enough to make him see the obvious logic in keeping his smug superiority to himself. Bannon did this to Bannon, not “fake news” or the “lamestream media” on the left. His story could almost be a parable of Jesus on the folly of pride, and how hubris has lead to a once-mighty figure losing his entire life’s work and legacy in a matter of hours.
Not that we should mourn his legacy of promoting drama and the Alt-Right screed for personal profit and aggrandizement, of course. Bannon has pushed a fringe ideology on the mainstream and tried to normalize an un-American, reactionary sort of angry nationalism, completely out of sync with the confident and healthy patriotism more appropriate for a civilized nation like America. With Bannon’s career also dies any real “Trumpist” ideology or philosophy, since Trump himself has little interest in articulating any such thing, preferring to live in the moment (to put it mildly).
President Trump is not entirely off the hook, however. Trump routinely reminds us that he surrounds himself with the best and brightest, as befitting a very smart, stable genius like himself. If that is so, then why does he show such remarkably poor judgment in character? To the mainstream conservatives and the left, Bannon was a known yellow journalist and selfish, conceited man, pushing a fringe view of America that belongs in the warped politics of Europe. Bannon never put much stock in Trump, but merely saw him as a means to an end. So why didn’t Trump see this? Trump had plenty of warning about Bannon, plenty of reason to not trust the man. How does the Trump faithful reconcile this discrepancy between claim and fact?
Bannon is hardly the only example of Trump putting his faith in poor men. The fact that of all the journalists Trump could have allowed access to the White House to chronicle his presidency, he permitted Michael Wolff (and allegedly even spoke with his usual gushing praise about Wolff, as Trump is wont to do with all those in his current graces), instead of someone with a less obvious agenda to push (I hear Bill O’Reilly has a lot of free time these days, and probably would have written a more favorable book).
What of Michael Flynn? Paul Manafort? Omarosa Manigault? Rince Priebus? Anthony Scaramucci (who appears to have been spot on with his assessment of Bannon)? There’s a swamp getting drained to be sure – Trump’s cabinet and close confidants. For all Trump’s obsession with loyalty, he doesn’t seem to good a good judge of character. He seems to be beset with people who are neither particularly loyal nor particularly free of corruption and scandal.
There’s also plenty of questions to be raised over the swiftness and harshness of Trump’s retaliation. Instead of simply brushing off Bannon as a mistake, Trump has reacted with even more than his usual rage at betrayal. Attempting to block the publication of the book lends it credibility, not the reverse. Does this book, despite being a smear, have more grains of truth than he wants to admit? After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Just because Wolff, CNN, etc. frequently exaggerate and leap to unsupported conclusions doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of telling the truth at least once in a while.
In addition, there’s a somewhat unsettling aspect about how quickly the populist-right turned on Bannon, at Trump’s command. The language being used against (and even for) Bannon has a religious quality, the denouncement of a heretic, an apostate, a traitor to the faith and to their god. Very few asked why Bannon would think so little of Trump and crew in the first place (Bannon’s comments had as much to do with disdain for them as it did admiration for himself), but merely turned on him on cue.
Bannon now occupies a place in the Trump mythos even lower than liberals, one reserved for disgraced traitors of the god. That this has occurred in a matter of hours is noteworthy, since right up until the day the leaks were posted, the faithful had lionized him as a hero of the Trump movement, ignoring his red flags and dubious past behavior because Trump had. The reaction bears a striking resemblance to the “Two Minutes Hate” of 1984, where the citizens are required to hate the appointed villain, Goldstein, for 2 minutes per day, at Big Brother’s command.
The overall lesson that can be drawn is that pride most certainly goeth before the fall and that a policy of turning over our critical thinking to god-heroes will inevitably end badly. This may be a forecast of the future for Trump himself, whose narcissism dwarfed Bannon’s by far. If there’s some truth in the folk saying, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” what might this mean for the Trump presidency?
- Joshua Nybo