Bannon’s actions betray not a mastermind or a power behind the throne, but a ship without a harbor, having alienated every port in the game of politics.
There was always a deeply contradictory thesis at the heart of the media’s narrative on Steve Bannon, and Michael Wolff’s controversial new book Fire and Fury has brought it to the fore. If the narrative was to be believed, Bannon was kingmaker, mastermind, manipulator—and master publicist—all at the same time. There’s just one problem: these characteristics are antithetical if one examines the history of advisors to the powerful.
Bannon, erstwhile leader of Breitbart News turned presidential advisor, was pulling the strings in the Trump White House and masterfully executing his secret alt-right agenda, so the story went. He was the “Great Manipulator,” Time proclaimed on its cover, accompanied by an article that posed the question: “Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?” Saturday Night Live parodied this pervasive narrative with Bannon as the Grim Reaper, maniacally manipulating Alec Baldwin’s childlike Trump to do his evil bidding. Even after enduring months of Baldwin skits and Melissa McCarthy’s withering mockery of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the portrayal of Bannon left Trump “especially upset,” aides reported to the Washington Post.
And why wouldn’t it? In the skit, Trump was, as the Post put it, “relegated to a miniature desk, playing dolefully with an expandable toy.” Soon enough, the president began to publicly downplay Bannon’s role in his presidency, saying that Bannon had joined “very late” and adding in an interview to the New York Post, “I’m my own strategist, and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies…” Trump clearly resented the narrative that he was a puppet on Bannon’s strings.
Whether obsequious sycophants or strategic masterminds, kingmakers are not known for trumpeting their successes. Indeed, their power is derived from the quiet ways in which they exert their wills. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “He that would keep a secret must keep it secret that he hath a secret to keep.” An advisor can never publicize that he has power, because doing so risks losing his master’s trust. As queen’s counsel to Queen Elizabeth I and then lord chancellor to James I before he had to resign in disgrace, Bacon knew a thing or two about advising the powerful.
Unlike the sly and self-deprecating ways of history’s great kingmakers, Bannon was well-known for his brazen interview forays into the media. His website Breitbart happily credited itself with every electoral victory and after Trump’s win declared war on “establishment” Republicans in office. They congratulated themselves with developing the intellectual underpinnings of “Trumpism” and populism, and named themselves the driving force behind Trump’s agenda. In an administration that became notorious for embarrassing leaks, Bannon was reportedly behind most from the Trump White House.
Contrast that with Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a statesman and diplomat who worked under the regime of French King Louis XVI, survived the upheaval of the French Revolution, and then devoted himself to Napoleon I, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe. Talleyrand was known for his distinctive realist brand of cynical diplomacy. His ability to survive at the highest levels of successive French governments with competing agendas is cited as a model for advisors. He switched sides so many times that a contemporary cartoon shows him with six different faces, one for each regime he served.
“The first of all qualities in life is the art of showing only a part of oneself, of one’s thoughts, one’s feelings, one’s impressions,” Talleyrand wrote in his Memoirs, adding that “man was given the power of speech to conceal his thoughts.” Indeed, the ability to disguise one’s true self is a common theme embodied by history’s most successful and powerful advisors. T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” a clever chameleon and the quintessential kingmaker, reshaped the Middle East while being everything to everyone and nothing to himself. He wrote:
In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other, and had… a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do. Such detachment came at times to a man exhausted by prolonged physical effort and isolation. His body plodded on mechanically, while his reasonable mind left him, and from without looked down critically on him, wondering what that futile lumber did and why. Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.
Bannon was never capable of this kind of self-erasure. He may have imagined himself in the role of the same Talleyrand who said, “They think that I am immoral and Machiavellian, yet I am simply impassive and disdainful. I have never given perverse advice to a government or a prince, but I do not go down with them.” But that isn’t what Bannon ultimately did. His actions betray not a mastermind or a power behind the throne, but a ship without a harbor, having alienated every port in the game of politics. Even his original backers, the billionaire Mercer family, have reportedly abandoned him in the aftermath of Wolff’s devastating book, and Breitbart may force him out next.
After he was jettisoned from the Trump administration last summer, Bannon claimed he had resigned, although the White House said he’d been fired. The author of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff, isn’t a credible journalist, and the revelations in his book may or may not be accurate—it’s impossible to know. Certainly the furious response from the White House denouncing Bannon suggests there may at least be some truth to Wolff’s accounts. Whatever the case, Bannon, the ship adrift, now says he “regrets” his comments, some of which were deeply negative against Trump kin Donald Jr. and “Javanka,” his nickname for Jared and Ivanka Kushner.
The truth is that Bannon was never the mastermind he was given credit for. As a skillful publicist, he played up and perpetuated the mythology about him, which conveniently fed the media’s confirmation bias. But as a sloppy and narcissistic adviser, his downfall was probably only a matter of time.
This piece was first published on The American Conservative and has been republished here with permission.