Some smartass on Twitter pointed out that the Trump presidency is the first one where the American people, and not the president, will age twenty years over a single term of office. Time is flowing in an incredibly weird way these days. Days sometimes feel like minutes, but weeks feel like months. And months feel like decades.
So I want you to cast your memory waaaaaaaaaayyyyyy back to the distant past of February 2017. I know it’s hard to recall anything that happened in July, let alone the first week of February, but it’s important. Here, to jog your memory, is a visual cue — the cover of the issue of Time magazine that hit the stands on Groundhog Day of this year:
Specifically, do you remember how scared everyone was of Steve Bannon? For most Americans, Bannon had risen from obscurity to the national spotlight overnight. Mainstream Americans don’t follow the hyperconservative media outlet Breitbart News, which Bannon led. They don’t watch his awful documentaries. They had no familiarity with the man.
So when President Trump assigned Bannon to a high-profile advisory position, people got curious. And the more they read about Bannon, the more terrifying he became. Specifically, this passage from an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, of all media organizations, terrified liberals on Twitter:
"Darkness is good," says Bannon, who amid the suits surrounding him at Trump Tower, looks like a graduate student in his T-shirt, open button-down and tatty blue blazer — albeit a 62-year-old graduate student. "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power. It only helps us when they" — I believe by "they" he means liberals and the media, already promoting calls for his ouster — "get it wrong. When they're blind to who we are and what we're doing."
None of us had ever seen an American political figure publicly identify with Darth Vader and Satan before. We assumed that Bannon was so brazen because he had a plan. This assumption eventually codified as a cliché: Bannon, everyone on the left believed, was playing fifth dimensional chess. Bannon was out-thinking us on every level, and he had a devious plan that was executing perfectly. He was the Puppet Master. The Man with The Plan. The Power Behind the Throne. He scared the ever-loving shit out of us.
Today, of course, Bannon is a little less intimidating. The news that he’s been fired is the nadir of a long descent into irrelevance for Bannon as a political figure. The anti-refugee policies that Bannon encouraged turned out to be so poorly crafted that they caused a national act of revulsion that was almost unprecedented in its strength as Americans spontaneously flooded airports en masse. After the Time cover from above hit the stands, rumors circulated that Trump was offended by Bannon’s prominence, and so he started ignoring his advisor out of spite.
And in fact, Trump is reportedly offended by the fact that Bannon gets top billing in the subtitle of Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Joshua Green’s excellent and insightful book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. Trump would probably be even less happy if he (uncharacteristically) bothered to open the book and skim its contents.
The Bannon that Green portrays in Devil’s Bargain is not a master of fifth-dimensional chess. He’s more like someone who brags frequently about his skills at checkers but never actually agrees to play a game with witnesses around. He’s an oafish man, the kind of boor who uses phrases like “Dude, it’s going to be epic” in casual conversation. The fact that Bannon keeps a portrait of himself “dressed as Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries, done in the style of Jacques-Louis David’s famous Neoclassical painting” in his office says more about the man’s ego than it does about his brain power.
Bannon likes to talk about philosophers and the canonical classics that used to make up your standard whitebread Ivy League education in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but in practice he seems to be another self-promoting mediocre white man who repeatedly fails upward. Against his better judgment, for instance, Bannon got involved in a deal with a Hollywood production company. One of the ancillary properties in this deal was a little show called Seinfeld. Green explains:
At the time, the show hadn’t cracked the Nielsen Top Thirty. A year later, it became a hit. “We calculated what it would get us if it made it to syndication,” said Bannon. “We were wrong by a factor of five.”
Bannon also tried to get involved in the world of virtual World of Warcraft gold mining — an exploitative process through which young and impoverished gamers in poor nations around the world are paid pennies to collect treasure in the game, which Bannon and his compatriots would then sell to wealthy American gamers who possessed neither the time nor the inclination to earn the gold themselves. But Warcraft clamped down on the inhumane practice, and so the bottom fell out before Bannon’s campaign could even get started.
Bannon kept failing upwards, learning how to capitalize on his failures and his dumb luck. He eventually turned his eye to politics, and yet again his timing was perfect: the Republican party was also getting dumber and more unhinged. Green seems to greatly enjoy telling the story of Arthur Robinson, a Republican candidate who, according to Green...
...was consumed with extending the human life span and believed that the secret to staving off death and disease could be found in human urine. To that end, Robinson collected thousands upon thousands of urine samples, which he froze in vials and stored in massive refrigerators that stood among his wandering sheep. Robinson published a newsletter to share his findings and to periodically put out calls for more urine (“We need samples of your urine” read a typical house ad).
In many ways, Trump was the perfect vessel for Bannon: both men are failures in a system which rewards well-connected mediocrity with more money and infinite opportunities to restart their careers. Both men are parasitically bonded to the fringiest aspects of a political party that has trapped itself on the fringes. And both men are gifted at creating chaos and then profiting from it.
But Bannon does not have a wide array of strategies available to him. He’s not a fantastic and novel thinker. As a political leader, he basically stuck to one strategy and one strategy only. You can see it in Devil’s Bargain when he admits his campaign plan in the fight against Hillary Clinton: “My goal is that by November eight, when you hear her name, you’re gonna throw up.”
That’s it. As far as Green portrays it, that’s the “genius” of Steve Bannon. He’s great at making everyone hate the world, at inspiring feelings of hopelessness and despair. His gift is convincing other people to see the world exactly as he sees it: a doomed hellhole where evil is rewarded and aspirations are to be mocked. Everything that Bannon touches turns small and petty and mean, and it is a great relief that as of today he no longer has his hands on the levers of power.
But cockroaches like Bannon will never completely disappear. As long as he stays in power at Breitbart, Bannon will hold sway over a vocal and frightening constituency of armed white supremacists and other angry conservative factions. (And today’s news makes the continuing pressure on Amazon to stop advertising on Breitbart even more vital. Amazon is one of a handful of sponsors who still pay Breitbart for advertisements, and without their support the site would be starved for funds.)
Donald Trump should be alarmed by this thought: Bannon doesn’t have to be loyal to Trump anymore. And the truth is that Trump’s supporters are probably more loyal to Bannon than they are to Trump: Bannon, after all, doesn’t have to stand for anything. Whether he wants to or not, Trump represents the United States of America. Bannon represents only hate and chaos and fear. To a certain percent of the population, Bannon’s brand of nihilism is far more compelling than anything any institution can offer. The armies of hateful civilians that he commands would be willing to turn on Trump in an instant, if Bannon ordered it.
The thing about hate is that it always eats itself.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant