Opinion

Steve Bannon May Have Gotten Away With It, if It Weren't for One Thing

Trump’s inattentiveness, insecurity and egomania made it impossible for him to execute Bannon's agenda; he was too busy tweeting out whatever idiocy he just heard on 'Fox and Friends'

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the White House, Washington D.C., January 31, 2017.
White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the White House, Washington D.C., January 31, 2017. Evan Vucci/AP

It is easy to read too much into White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s departure. After all, Bannon was the architect of Trump’s white nationalist campaign and many of his naked anti-immigrant, Islamophobic acts in the White House, and here he is leaving, just as Trump has created yet another crisis for himself by appearing more sympathetic to Nazis than to their enemies and victims. And in doing so, he sounded a lot like Bannon. But it was Trump’s inertia, not forward motion, that pushed Bannon out the door.

Chief of Staff John Kelly has been doing his best to reign in all loose White House ends and live wires — pick your metaphor — and focus on trying to keep the president from kicking himself in the privates. Bannon, whom former communications chief Anthony Scaramucci explained with an anatomically-explicit-albeit-impossible metaphor regarding an act of self-pleasure, was the loosest of ends and the livest of wires. He was generally credited with being the Rasputin of the anti-McMaster campaign being conducted by conservatives in the Breitbart-led universe. The final straw in his downfall appears to have been a phone call he placed to the progressive writer and editor, Robert Kuttner — a man he had never met — where he proceeded to undercut a number of the president’s statements and mock a significant portion of his base. Bannon was trying to make friends with the very people Trump hates. What’s more, a recent book about the campaign hyped his role at the expense of Trump’s alleged genius, thereby injuring Trump’s Mr. Hermon-sized ego. He might as well have kicked his own ass out the door.

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Trump was also angry about what he understood to be Bannon’s proclivity to leak, especially when those leaks were hostile to the entity that has come to be known as “Javanka” — and who have been conducting a low-level guerrilla-style conflict with Bannon through the New York Times and the Washington Post since minutes after Trump’s inauguration. Jared and Ivanka thought Bannon was in the game for himself and few would argue with this assessment. Working through his own press staff, Bannon pushed the plans and ideas that had made Breitbart.com such a powerhouse on the right and in the media generally. If these ideas happened to be consistent with what Trump wanted, fine, but if not, that was fine, too. 

Bannon’s messy personal life and divorce indicated a particular distaste for Jews and his publication, like his president, did its utmost to scapegoat not only Jews, but blacks, Muslims, Mexicans and indeed anyone who was not a white Christian—the less educated, the better. But no one can say for sure whether Bannon really cared one way or another about the fate of these people on either side of the equation. Rather, he saw white Christian working men and women and their fears of a majority-minority nation in which their centrality was no longer a given as an existential threat to their roles in the world and psychological understanding of themselves as citizens. Trumpism — as Bannon understood it — would provide them with the hope that they could come out on top again, or at least stick to the people they held responsible for their own failures: immigrants, Muslims, elites, sometimes called “globalists, and often Jewish”  the media (see under “Jews”), bankers. especially Goldman Sachs bankers, (see also under “Jews”) and also Jews.

While caricatured, but not entirely inaccurately as the “Pepe the Frog reptilian brain of the Trump presidency, the bomb-thrower of the far-right fringe whose rage and intolerance were egged on by Mr. Trump,” by the New York Times editorial page, Bannon had a specific agenda, and many commentators have pointed out that it was actually comprised of the most popular parts of what Trump professes to support. He wanted peaceful relations with Putin, isolationism in foreign policy, trade wars with both Europe and China, higher taxes on the rich, and heavy spending on infrastructure jobs for white working-class men, along with constant attacks on those he had helped them identify as their enemies. Bannon saw in this agenda a way to reshape the political map by remaking the Republican Party into the party of these same white-working class voters and leaving the Democrats with just “elites” and minorities. “We'll get 60 percent of the white vote and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote, and we'll govern for 50 years,” he told one reporter. Republican leaders and donors would have no choice but to go along or risk losing what little influence they had left, though they could probably depend on the fortunes of the likes of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers to protect their puny tax rates.

And to some degree, Bannon succeeded. He did defenestrate the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells of the world, at least for now. They are generals with fat wallets (and egos) but few soldiers—or will find out they are, if they were to openly oppose anything Trump says he wants. But the real problem with Bannon’s plans is not that they were politically unworkable. They may have worked just fine, had they been carried out. Rather it was their agent of action: Donald Trump. The president’s unique combination of ignorance, inattentiveness, insecurity, indiscipline and egomania makes it impossible for him to stick to any one plan longer than it took for him to reach his itchy fingers for his personal cell phone to start tweeting out whatever idiocy he just heard on “Fox and Friends” or “Hannity and Company.” The Bannonite parts of his agenda are, like most of his legislative plans, dead in the water owing to his inability to do the simplest presidential tasks without screwing them up with his twitter-finger and causing some new crisis of the day; sometimes two or three. If he wants to go forward with Bannon’s agenda, he’s still got Bannonites Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka, among others, to whisper in his ear.

Bannon clearly had given up using the White House as his power base weeks ago and was preparing his return to Breitbart where he will continue the war he began before annexing Trump to his team. His war against McMaster and his reaching out to Kuttner prove that. Back at Breitbart, he will support Trump when he behaves and undermine him when he doesn’t. Neither he, nor the forces he has helped unleash are going anywhere. And neither, therefore are the Nazis, the white nationalists and the feeling-sorry-for-themselves white working class voters who will stick with Trump against any incursions from “elites,” immigrants, Muslim, Jews, or reality. Americans don’t like to admit that they have a class system, but what we are sometimes get instead is class war. This is one of the nastiest ones yet; all the more confusing—and infuriating—for the fact that so many millions of working people are fighting their own interests, their fears exploited, their hopes buried beneath a mountain of racial resentment and a need to blame the easiest target available. And whether Trump resigns, is impeached or re-elected, Steve Bannon will be there to help.

Eric Alterman is CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College, media columnist for The Nation, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.