The Rise and Fall of Steve Bannon
In March, I went to the White House to visit Steve Bannon, who today was fired by President Trump. After Bannon showed off his office and his famous whiteboard, we sat down at a wooden conference table in the large corner office of Reince Priebus, who was then the White House chief of staff. Moments earlier, Priebus had left the building, and Bannon seemed to use the chief of staffâs office as if it were his own, roaming around while he talked, and flinging a Coke can in Priebusâs trash bin, as if he were marking territory. Despite the show of confidence, Bannon felt like he was beset by enemies.
Since the day after the election, Bannon had been fighting against forces that he believed were trying to roll back the promises of the Trump campaign. The whiteboard was so important to Bannon because it represented the policy ideas that he had been instrumental in foisting on Trump. And Bannon wanted everyone who came into the West Wing to know precisely what Trump was elected to enact: a Muslim ban, a border wall, a protectionist trade agenda (especially with China), and a more isolationist foreign policy. Bannon was obsessed with defeating the elements in the White House who hadnât worked on the campaign and didnât understand those policies.
âDid you see the lead story in todayâs Financial Times?â Bannon asked me. He summoned an aide to retrieve it and threw the pink broadsheet, the paper of record for what he calls the global Ã©lite, on the table.
âThe lead story is âexplosion of civil war in White House, fiery debate in Oval Office,â â Bannon said. The story was one of many then detailing the internal combat between Gary Cohn, Trumpâs top economic adviser, and Bannon. What was somewhat unusual was that Bannon was bragging about it. In previous White Houses, officials downplayed this sort of internal combat, insisting that everyone was united around th e Presidentâs agenda. But in the Trump White House there is no Trump agenda. There is a mercurial, highly emotional narcissist with no policy expertise who set upâ"or allowed his senior staffers to set upâ"competing ideological fiefdoms that fight semi-public wars to define the soul of Trumpism.
The March meeting in the Oval Office was a pivotal battle between the two main factions: what the Financial Times called the âeconomic nationalists close to Donald Trumpâ and the âpro-trade moderates from Wall Street.â Bannon had spent every hour since Election Day fighting to preserve the Trump of the campaignâ"raw, populist, unapologetically nativist, anti-corporate. And Bannon, at least back in March, before he ran afoul of Jared Kushner and Trump and was almost booted out of the White House, seemed to be succeeding. At Bannonâs direction, Trump hung a painting of Andrew Jackson, a hero to the nationalists, in the Oval Office. Bannon installed himself on the National Security Council as principal, putting himself on par with the Secretaries of Defense and State. The President issued a series of decrees from Bannonâs punch list: the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries, a budget with vast new funding for a border wall and ICE agents, withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Everything seemed to be going according to plan.
In January, 2013, Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Jeff Sessions had dinner in Washington to talk about the 2016 Presidential campaign. Barack Obama had just won reÃ«lection, and the reigning explanation for his victory was that an unstoppable demographic surge of non-white voters had given Democrats a lock on the Electoral College. Most political strategists argued that the Republican Party was doomed unless it could crack the Hispanic vote, and that the only way to do that was for the G.O.P. to embrace comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocume nted immigrants living in Americaâ"amnesty. The three men plotted a way to stop the coming push for immigration reform.
That same month, there was another dinner happening in New York. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes met with Senators Marco Rubio and Chuck Schumer, who pleaded with the Fox News leaders to soften the networkâs coverage of the immigration debate, and Fox eventually did that. The four men plotted a way to help Republicans pass immigration reform.
Bannonâs path to nationalism is famously circuitous. He grew up near Richmond, Virginia, in a big Irish Catholic family of Kennedy Democrats. Although he came of age in the late sixties, his high school, a religious military academy where he was taught by monks, kept him away from the mass protests happening in nearby Washington. He went to college at Virginia Tech, where he became the student-government president after attacking his opponent for offering only âPlatitudes, Promises and Slogans.â Bannon says it was during the first years of an eight-year stint in the Navy, from 1977 to 1985, that he became reliably conservative, because of the way Jimmy Carter dealt with the Iran hostage crisis. A military-history buff, he took night classes at Georgetown and earned a masterâs degree in national-security studies, in 1983, and then a degree from Harvard Business School, in 1985. In the nineties, he was deeply entrenched in New York finance, as a Goldman Sachs mergers-and-acquisitions executive, and then in Hollywood, as a somewhat marginal producer who tried, and failed, to move from the deal-making side of the business to the creative side.
In 2008, at the dawn of the Tea Party, Bannon was in Shanghai working on one of his numerous side projects, creating a virtual market inside the popular online game World of Warcraft. He persuaded Goldman to invest sixty million dollars in the effort, but it tanked, and Bannon was looking for his next reinvention. âI came back right before the 2008 election and saw this phenomenon called Sarah Palin,â he told me last year. The neo-populist movement that Trump eventually rode to victory was being born in the waning days of that campaign. Bannon thought that Republicans, who had become the party of tax cuts and free-market libertarian philosophy, exemplified by people like Paul Ryan, didnât yet have the right vocabulary to speak to its own base. âThe Republicans would not talk about anything related to reality,â he told me. âThere was all this fucking Austrian school of economic theory.â
Bannon started making what are essentially crude propaganda films about people and issues on the new populist right, including ones about Palin, Ronald Reagan, Michele Bachmann, Phyllis Schlafly, and the Tea Party. He became a fixture on the conservative-conference circuit and befriended Andrew Breitbart, a former blogger and then a new-media entrepreneur who was the hidden talent behind the success of both the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post. Bannon helped Breitbart raise money for Breitbart News Network, including a ten-million-dollar investment from the Mercer family, which during this period emerged as a crucial patron for the populist right. When Breitbart died, in March, 2012, Bannon took over editorial control as well. Traffic exploded, from eleven million page views per month to two hundred million. âFrankly thatâs why, when Breitbart puts its fucking gun sights on you, your life changes,â Bannon bragged to me once.
His main target became the Republican establishment. After Obamaâs reÃ«lection, when the G.O.P. started to organize itself around immigration reform, Bannon was desperate to find someone who could become the face of the populist resistance. He was hoping it would be Sessions. Meanwhile, Sessions and Miller, his top aide, were desperate to find a conservative media platform that would help them oppose immigration reform. They were all running out of time. T he Republican National Committee itself, then led by Priebus, was about to release a formal report calling on the Party to adopt comprehensive immigration reform.
The Sessions-Bannon-Miller dinner in Washington in early 2013 lasted five hours. Bannon tried to convince Sessions to run for President in 2016. âYouâre not going to win the Presidency, and youâre not going to win the Republican primary,â Bannon recalled telling him. âBut we are going to be able to get these ideas into the mainstream. Trade is the No. 100 issue right now. Weâll make immigration the No. 1 issue, and weâll make trade the No. 2 issue.â Sessions told Bannon and Miller that he didnât want to run.
In the following months, during the debate over immigration, Breitbart became a crucial platform for anti-reform efforts, and Miller fed the site a steady stream of leaks from the Senate. It was also when the site started to attract white nationalists who saw restrictionist immigration pol icies as a weapon to keep non-whites out of America. The site used a tag called âblack crimeâ for some stories and brought in Milo Yiannopoulos, who wrote an infamous essay celebrating the alt-right, for which Bannon later bragged Breitbart had become âthe platform.â
Miller and Bannon teamed up again, in 2014, when Eric Cantor, then the second-highest-ranking Republican in the House, faced an unexpectedly strong primary challenge from David Brat, a politically conservative Virginia professor. The immigration bill had passed the Senate, and Cantor was considered a champion of the legislation in the House. It was the last chance to stop it. Miller worked as an adviser to Brat in his spare time, offering him attack lines against Cantor. Millerâs favorite quote was a comment that Cantor had made about children who had been brought to the United States. âOne of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents,â Cantor had said. Brat turned the comment into a cudgel about Cantorâs weakness on immigration, and Breitbart highlighted the quote in stories. Cantor thought that he was on safe ground highlighting one of the most popular aspects of immigration reform. Brat won, and immigration reform in Congress was now dead.
Now Bannon and Miller just needed to find a Presidential candidate for 2016. After Sessions declined to run, they backed Trump.
In one of his first acts as President, Trump hung a famous portrait of Andrew Jackson, elected in 1828, on the wall behind the desk in the Oval Office. Jackson, the seventh President and a Tennessean, was the first who hadnât been born in Virginia or Massachusetts. He was a war hero and, at least for his era, had radical views about democracy. Having lost the Presidency in 1824, when the vote was thrown to the House of Representatives, Jackson favored using the popular vote to decide the Presidency. Scholars once treated J acksonâs victory as a flukeâ"he was elected by a âmob of malcontents,â one historian wrote. But Arthur Schlesingerâs Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the era, âThe Age of Jackson,â published in 1945, resuscitated the former President, and the movement that helped him upend the Eastern establishment, as one of ideas rather than just impulses.
Bannon was enormously proud of restoring the Jackson portrait to the Oval Office. Franklin Roosevelt was the first President to hang it, and his successor, Harry Truman, kept it there for most of his Presidency. Lyndon Johnson restored it, but Richard Nixon removed it. Carter put it back, and it remained through the Presidencies of Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, before being removed by George W. Bush. By the time Obama became President, Jacksonâs legacy as a working-class hero who fought the New York banks had become less relevant to liberals than the fact that he owned slaves and pursued a near-genocidal poli cy against Native Americans. Before Trump, sixteen years had passed without Jacksonâs portrait hanging in the Oval Office. âItâs just like Schlesinger,â Bannon liked to say. âThey named it the Age of Jackson. This is gonna be the Age of Trump.â
Like Schlesinger, Bannon saw it as his role to infuse Trumpâs victory with more meaning than the random result of the rise of a mob of malcontents. During the campaign last year, Trump would frequently ask Bannon and Miller, now Trumpâs top policy adviser in the White House, for quotes from the Founding Fathers or nineteenth-century Presidents that link them to Trumpâs policies. Aside from Jackson, they frequently leaned on Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln.
Bannon reveres Lincoln as an economic nationalist, and likes to remind people that, aside from saving the Union and freeing the slaves, Lincolnâs great accomplishments were the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act.
When Republicans cit e Lincoln, the Partyâs first and greatest President, they usually draw on his well-known speeches from when he was trying to preserve the Union. In February, when Miller was writing Trumpâs address to Congress, he pored over Lincoln speeches to find something that would connect Lincoln with Bannon and Millerâs views on economic nationalism. Miller found what is surely one of the least-quoted Lincoln lines in speech-writing history, and Trump picked a spot in his speech to add it. âThis will be the first time Lincoln is ever referred to in the service of a nationalist economic agenda and not slavery,â Bannon told Trump.
âThe first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln,â Trump said in the address to Congress, on February 28th, âwarned that the âabandonment of the protective policy by the American government . . . will produce want and ruin among our people.â Lincoln was rightâ"and itâs time we heeded his advice and his words.â Republican members of Congr ess, who generally disagree with and disparage the idea of protectionism, applauded the line. It was a small victory for Bannon and Miller in forcing Trumpism on the Presidentâs adopted party.
Other Bannon rhetorical flourishes backfired. Trumpâs most controversial campaign speeches, the ones that caught the attention of the Anti-Defamation League, were laced with anti-âglobalistâ rhetoric. Earlier this year, when the papers were filled with stories about infighting between the two camps, the Wall Street Journal asked Trump which one he was. He replied, âIâm a nationalist and a globalist. Iâm both.â
Voices on the nationalist right now fear that, with Bannon gone, Trump will be guided by the globalists. After the news of Bannonâs sacking became public, an editor at Breitbart tweeted, â#WAR.â Iâm skeptical that Bannonâs exit will mean much. His policy legacy is mixed. He and Trump have mostly stamped out the immigration-reform wing of the G.O.P., though the business class and important leaders, like Paul Ryan, are still sympathetic.
But on economic policy, such as trade, and his recent attempt to push Republicans to raise taxes on the super-wealthy, Bannon made no progress to win allies in Congress. He failed to secure Trumpâs repeal of Obamacare, and the nationalist trade agenda, including Bannonâs effort to pull out of NAFTA, has been stymied. The travel ban is still tied up in the courts. Trumpâs recent attacks on the Republican senators Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Lindsey Graham have made the Senate more hostile to any Presidential proposals and more interested in driving its own traditional Republican agenda. Trumpâs remarks on Charlottesville further eroded any influence he has, both in Congress and with Americans outside his shrunken base.
The lasting legacy of Bannonism is the xenophobia and hostility to non-whites that emanates from the White House and has rema ined a political fire that this Administration is constantly fanning. But, as we learned this week, Trump doesnât need Bannon to keep those flames alive.Source: Google News