The Bannon Ultimatum

Steve Bannon, the president's nativist consigliere, has left his post in a stronger position than Trump himself.

Steve Bannon speaking in February at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Anyone hoping that the departure of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon would signal a course correction — a pivot away from the Trump administration’s short (but prolific) history of ethno-nationalist pandering — must have been dismayed by the president’s performance last Tuesday night in Phoenix.

For seventy-six excruciating minutes, in sweltering one-hundred-degree heat that dropped police officers, protesters, and #MAGA loyalists alike, Trump expelled more hot air of his own: pitch-perfect racist dog whistles, bemoaning the fate of Confederate monuments (“They are trying to take away our history and our heritage!”); meandering diatribes about the American lügenpresse (“If you want to discover the source of the division in our country, look no further than the fake news and the crooked media, which would rather get ratings and clicks than tell the truth. I mean, the New York Times has written some stories.”); a teaser campaign for his presidential pardon of Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who faces six whole months of potential jail time for failing to obey a 2011 court order against racial profiling (“I’ll make a prediction. I think he’s going to be just fine, Okay? But — but I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to cause any controversy.”); plus the usual obsessional monologue over his crowd sizes; some petulant grudge litigation; the standard Two Minutes Hate for Hillary; and a little jingoism to warm up. It was all there.

Trump said these things not because he is his “own strategist” — as he put it to the New York Post during Bannon’s precarious near-exit last April — but because Bannon’s work here is done. The circle is now complete.

Having scouted for a presidential candidate to champion his far-right simulacra of economic populism, producing documentaries on Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann as a means of currying favor and testing their potential, all the while pivoting Breitbart’s editorial policy toward preferred candidates, Bannon finally found his man in Trump and has affixed him in place. “Bannon,” as former Breitbart spokesperson Kurt Bardella told PBS Frontline, “has been someone who’s been looking for a figurehead to attach himself to for a very long time.”

Years before he formally entered the Trump campaign, Bannon operated a payola scheme at Breitbart to signal-boost pro-Trump media narratives. He boasted to friends in private emails about being Trump’s secret “campaign manager” and publicly coached him on policy and messaging during hours of interviews on Breitbart‘s SiriusXM radio show.

One Republican operative, speaking to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, phrased it best:

“Imagine you have a seventy-something-year-old very strong personality in the family,” the Republican said. “And he’s got his golfing buddy who is his best friend. And they go off golfing and drinking and smoking cigars. What he really wants to do is smoke cigars. But the family is telling him, ‘Smoking cigars is really bad for you and the doctor told you not to do it.’ He’s, like, ‘I know, I know.’

“So when he’s around his family, he’s, like, ‘Look, I’m not smoking cigars!’ And then he goes off with his golf buddy. And guess what they do? They fucking light up cigars, because that’s actually who he is and what he thinks. And Bannon is like his golfing buddy that he goes and smokes cigars with. That’s actually who he is.”

The new White House chief of staff, retired Marine Corps general John Kelly, can attempt to cordon the president off from as many Infowars clips and Mike Cernovich posts as possible, but he has already lost the battle for Trump’s “heart and mind.”

And so, after a tactically offensive, lib-triggering engagement in the West Wing, Bannon has decamped one month ahead of schedule: an eight- to twelve-month tour of duty that he only half-jokingly set for himself as far back as February.

Bannon is now a “populist hero” to his fans and Breitbart News, the billionaire-backed, far-right opinion machine to which Bannon has since returned, as its once and future executive chairman. Bannon told allies that he had hoped to ram through as many key policy proposals as possible while his opponents remained on the defensive — a frequently ham-fisted and performative exercise seemingly intended more to excite Trump’s base, and troll his critics, than to actually affect governance.

And yet, executive decisions were made. Goals were met.

Acting in concert with Scott Pruitt, Trump’s mission-negating head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bannon spent months scheduling meetings between the president, conservative activists, and fossil fuel industry executives to ensure US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord; the pair outmaneuvered not merely Jared and Ivanka, but a powerful faction within Trump’s own cabinet, including Goldman Sachs alum Gary Cohn and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

Despite the ongoing battle over Trump’s travel ban, arrests of undocumented immigrants continue to escalate, swelling detention centers and log-jamming federal immigration courts with tens of thousands of additional human bodies — among them the parents of American-born children and American-raised adults adopted by US citizens decades ago. Elsewhere, the plan that Bannon once described as the “deconstruction of the administrative state” proceeds apace, in federal agencies too numerous to mention, now staffed by former industry lobbyists and lawyers, Heritage Foundation apparatchiks, and even a few of the empty suits bested by Trump in the Republican primary.

(The main agenda items on Bannon’s checklist that failed to gain traction were those already defined as “long shots” given establishment Republican control in both houses of Congress. Namely, a hike in the top income tax rate to 44 percent for Americans earning more than $5 million per year, a policy idea that multiple Republican legislators and White House officials described as off the table; and what Bannon once described as “a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan” to be fueled by “negative interest rates throughout the world” and Reagan-esque deficit spending. But — as with the Trump administration’s baffling opening volley of executive orders — these failures help prop up the narrative arch that his movement so desperately wants to believe: that their Kek-annointed God-Emperor and his renegade band of deplorables roared into the capital, guns blazing, and were foiled ultimately not by their own incompetence, but by their pernicious foes in the “deep state.”)

Having secured clear wins for himself and Breitbart’s self-described populist-nationalists — victories admittedly obscured by months of back-biting leaks and Trump’s own bizarre pronouncements — Bannon reports that he’s left the White House feeling “jacked up.”

“I’ve got my hands back on my weapons,” he told the Weekly Standard, delivering his preferred narrative spin on the exit. “I built a fucking machine at Breitbart. And now I’m about to go back, knowing what I know, and we’re about to rev that machine up.”

What Bannon knows now, of course, is whatever classified material he has managed to ingest with the benefit of a top-level security clearance and an open invitation to sit in on National Security Council meetings — a privilege that Bannon managed to retain even after his removal from the council’s principals committee in early April.

While, legally, Bannon is now duty-bound by a lifetime non-disclosure agreement with the federal government, it’s unclear how aggressively those strictures will be policed by Bannon’s longtime ally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Recall that Sessions was seen partying with Bannon and UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage as early as September 2014 at Breitbart’s DC townhouse. Sessions has enjoyed years of praise from both Breitbart News and Bannon himself, who has described the former Alabama senator as a “clearinghouse for policy and philosophy” in service of their mutual race-baiting nationalism.)

Unambiguously, Bannon is required by law both to report any leak of classified material that he knows of, and to preclear any item of classified material that Breitbart News wishes to publish. How Bannon will reconcile this with his reprised role as a news media executive is anyone’s guess. But Bannon has managed in the past to juggle multiple senior-level positions to maximize a kind of media-brand arbitrage in the service of his political aims.

While simultaneously helming Breitbart and the ostensibly nonpartisan, nonprofit Government Accountability Institute (both funded by his political patrons, Robert and Rebekah Mercer), Bannon managed to get research-intensive and ideologically slanted news items placed in several major outlets, including the New York Times. So, it would not be surprising to see Bannon concocting even more baroque cut-out arrangements to anonymize and launder any new information he found damaging to his own private enemies operating within the Trump administration: “globalist” bureaucrats, “cultural Marxists,” etc.

One of the few certainties following Bannon’s ouster is that the so-called “propaganda document” — a surreal twenty to twenty-five page dossier of positive news coverage, flattering cable news screencaps, and gushing pro-Trump tweets, delivered twice daily to the president — is now sure to become a whole lot thinner.

Loaded for bear and nursing deep-seated grudges, the Steve Bannon who is returning to the reins at Breitbart News is going to mark a sharp decline in Trump’s already historically low approval ratings, as the site gleefully fuels media narratives designed to incite Trump’s already isolated base of core supporters. (Within hours of Bannon’s ouster, Breitbart‘s senior editor-at-large, Joel Pollak, had declared “#WAR” on Twitter. They are already gunning hard for Ivanka.)

Although Trump has hastily attempted to ameliorate the situation — making a phone call to Bannon on his last day, which went unanswered, and declaring on Twitter the next day that Bannon will be “a tough and smart new voice at Breitbart News” — the battle lines have already been drawn by his former media tactician. “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon told the Weekly Standard, part of a media push that has seen many Bannon surrogates and allies describing this new phase of the Trump presidency as a “Democratic White House.”

The administrative reality within the executive branch, however, is probably a lot less dire for Bannon’s supporters — and far grimmer for opponents hoping to celebrate his departure. Bannon leaves behind a series of key appointments, both well-known and unknown, who are likely to keep their heads down, dutifully busying themselves with the enactment of their shared policy agenda.

At the CIA, new director and former Tea Party congressman Mike Pompeo upholds Bannon’s fevered, medieval outlook on radical Islam and its purported existential threat to “Western civilization.” As Pompeo told a church group in his former Kansas district, he regards the “struggle against radical Islam” as “the kind of struggle this country has not faced since its great wars.” Pompeo’s views on the CIA’s infamous torture programs (lax) and the Iran nuclear deal (hawkish) are also perfectly aligned with Trump’s departing chief strategist.

Jeff Sessions is assuredly going to continue hobbling the Justice Department’s civil rights division — as doing so constitutes the linchpin of the Republican Party’s reelection strategy in the coming years, along with controlling the 2020 US Census and expanding mega-donor fundraising. (Needless to say, this new direction at the DOJ was an idea from Sessions’ “clearinghouse for policy and philosophy,” one that aligned him with Bannon in the first place.)

Likewise: it is doubtful that Bannon’s premature exit will spur any changes in the work of the antigovernment wrecking crews he helped appoint at the EPA, the Department of Energy, the Food and Drug Administration, and elsewhere.

While a purge of Bannon allies appears ongoing inside the White House itself, with scholar-manqué Sebastian Gorka summarily fired/resigned and former Breitbart reporter Julia Hahn rumored to be next — even their departures leave them simply back at Breitbart HQ (or somewhere else) burnishing newly minted credentials like “former deputy assistant to president of the United States” for their cable news chyrons. Having cultivated a solid rapport with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller will remain committed to fostering the president’s most white nationalist tendencies, without his “glory hog” of a former mentor, Steve Bannon, to rock the boat. And then there is Trump himself, whose nativist rhetoric and deeply personal sense of white aggrievement predates his relationship with Bannon by decades.

Although both men would deny it, you could look at Trump’s public criticism of the (wholly invented) “alt-left” after Charlottesville as the capstone achievement of Bannon’s tenure: a sitting president redefining America’s partisan divide as located somewhere between Trump’s screamingly xenophobic, ethno-nationalist fan base, and literally everyone else. Bannon, Axios reports, was positively elated by Trump’s outburst — an improvisation that most Trump aides acknowledge represented their boss’s beliefs in their purest form. Reportedly, Bannon described it as a “defining moment” of Trump’s presidency, the moment where Trump officially aligned himself with “his people.”

Bannon leaves the West Wing with real power in two of the few remaining pathways to the president still beyond the reach of his new disciplinarian, John Kelly: Donald Trump’s cell phone, which he uses daily to seek advice from trusted outsiders, and the cable TV news cycle from which he cannot look away.

Over the past year, Bannon’s opponents have been caught with two, dialectically opposed, and mostly useless, cartoon depictions of their foe. Bannon was either the dark wizard of white racial resentment, pouring poison into Trump’s ear, Rasputin-like, with the skill of a great manipulator; or he was merely a self-aggrandizing slob, the piss-drunk granddad whose only lasting impact on the presidency was likely to be unreported property damage or a persistent necrotic odor. These caricatures — while a boon to activist morale and fundraising emails — have offered little in the way of explanation for Bannon’s political successes or his recent ouster.

The following thumbnail sketch is as useful as any: Steve Bannon is a malfunctioning piece of military hardware, a former navy man nursing an armchair obsession with military tactics and a Manichean worldview, both perfectly in line with the binary outlook inculcated in Trump by his father, a world divided into killers and losers. You see these shared sympathies in Trump’s penchant for hiring retired generals to cabinet positions traditionally reserved for civilians. You see them in the way Bannon refers to his team at Breitbart as a “killing machine,” his “fight club.”

Both Trump and Bannon bear more than a passing resemblance in their vision and demeanor to the prestige TV visage of Tony Soprano: a North Jersey mafia don plopped on his couch in front of the History Channel, revisiting World War II with a bowl of ice cream. These are shrewd men who are, nevertheless, comically paranoid and self-indulgent. Neither man is temperamentally suited to the broad administrative duties of national office — but Bannon differs from Trump in that he has always been smart enough to know that, devoting himself instead to destructive termite activities in furtherance of his goals.

“I see Steve as being Patton,” Tim Watkins, Steve Bannon’s producer on the Ronald Reagan documentary In the Face of Evil, once put it to me in a telephone interview. “I wouldn’t want Steve running diplomacy, but I sure would love his strategy and tactics in the field to help me win a war.”