In September 2017, previewing an address on economic nationalism to investors in Hong Kong, Steve Bannon predicted, “A hundred years from now, this is what they’ll remember: what we did to confront China on its rise to world domination.” The following month, the recently cashiered White House strategist declared “war on the Republican establishment that does not back the agenda that Donald Trump ran on.”
Such was the Bannon persona: a man with an intellectually grounded vision, a taste for confrontation and a will to win.
However, in November and December, when congressional leaders — with the help of lobbyists from “the swamp”—were writing a tax reform bill with provisions that many tax experts believe will incentivize the offshoring of American jobs to countries like China, Bannon and his Breitbart website didn’t confront China or the Republican establishment.
Instead of scouring the fine print and demanding language that would fulfill Bannon’s economic nationalist vision, Breitbart’s staff routinely flacked for the bill while Bannon skipped off to Alabama to join Roy Moore’s doomed Senate campaign.
Such is the Bannon reality: a man who tries to sound like he’s 10 steps ahead of everyone else while walking into a raging dumpster fire.
Now, Bannon’s attempt to show off his brilliance for Michael Wolff’s soon-to-be-published White House exposé “Fire and Fury” may have effectively ended his brief tenure as an influential figure in American politics.
He blew up his own narrative of a warrior for the Trump agenda by lashing out at Trump and his inner circle. Before Wednesday’s Wolff excerpts—in which Bannon reportedly says Ivanka is “dumb as a brick” and Donald Jr.’s meeting with Russian officials was “treasonous”— Bannon was on the record demeaning Trump himself in last month’s Vanity Fair. Trump was pooh-poohed as a mere “accommodationist” who is always trying to curry favor from the New York Times. (Trump returned the favor yesterday, fingering Bannon as the one who “pretends to be at war with the media.”) The Vanity Fair report also quoted Bannon in private conservations saying Trump had “lost a step” and was akin to “an 11-year-old child.”
Purposefully breaking with Trump might make some sense if Bannon led a movement more loyal to him and to his issues than to the unpopular Trump. All the available evidence says otherwise. Bannon’s financial patron Rebekah Mercer reportedly cut him off after he, according to the Washington Post, “told several other major conservative donors that he would be able to count on the Mercers’ financial support should he run for president.” And after Wednesday’s book bombshell, several of Bannon’s preferred Republican Senate candidates pointedly sided with Trump. Former Breitbart writer-turned Bannon critic Ben Shapiro earlier this week on the Jamie Weinstein Show podcast, “his base is Trump’s base, and when I say ‘his base,’ I mean, he doesn’t have one.”
How could someone so politically reckless get a reputation as a political genius? Bannon had been able to craft that image thanks to this one simple trick: impressing reporters with the fact that he reads books.
In the 2016 campaign book “Devil’s Bargain,” author Joshua Green shares how he was intrigued by Bannon’s “particular fascination with an obscure, early twentieth-century French intellectual René Guénon.” Early in the Trump presidency, Time and the New York Times cited Bannon’s interest in the 1997 book “The Fourth Turning” as a critical window into his apocalyptic worldview.
In his Vanity Fair profile last month, reporter Gabriel Sherman appears to be in awe of Bannon’s reading regimen and fact-dropping skills: “Bannon is a voracious reader … scrawling notes in a pocket-size green diary as he goes (during our trip he used downtime to read a Robespierre biography). This was evident as he freestyled about Hillary Clinton, the opposition party media, artificial intelligence, Thucydides, Hollywood, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the opioid crisis, Boeing jets, Brown University, Brexit, the Cloud, the Civil War, the Peloponnesian War, the American Revolution, the Great Depression, Churchill, Napoleon, Hitler, and J.D. Vance.”
Combine that book smarts with the fact that he is 1-for-1 in presidential campaigns, and voila, we not only have an intellectual, but an intellectual who knows how to win.
Bannon was still at Breitbart in 2015 when Green, writing for Bloomberg, first elevated his stature, dubbing him “The Most Dangerous Political Operative in America.” Green’s insight was that Bannon was more effective than past conservative activists because he founded a research institute “that builds rigorous, fact-based indictments against major politicians” then feeds the information to mainstream publications so they reach a wider audience. He used that model to get the New York Times to use his institute’s book “Clinton Cash” and raise questions about Hillary Clinton’s ethics early in the presidential primary season, laying the groundwork for Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” attacks.
That model wasn’t much replicated, which in retrospect makes him look like less like a genius and more like a one-hit wonder. But Trump’s campaign was in dire straits in the summer of 2016 when Bannon formally joined it. So upon Trump’s shock win, and Trump’s naming of Bannon chief White House strategist, the presumption was he must have worked wonders behind the scenes. Soon afterward, Time christened him (to Trump’s everlasting chagrin) as the “The Great Manipulator.”
But Bannon oversold himself. He claimed he wanted to build a multiracial economic nationalist movement, then deliberately antagonized the left with a travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries. (Bannon told Wolff he wanted the ban announced on a Friday “so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot” over the weekend. But the gambit energized the left rather than marginalizing it.) Bannon failed to convince Trump to abruptly leave NAFTA, or to leave North Korea alone in favor of a more aggressive approach to China.
Once Bannon went bust as White House chief strategist, he assured the press he was just working out of the wrong building. “Now I have my hands on my weapons,” he bragged upon his return to Breitbart. And when Moore beat the incumbent Alabama Sen. Luther Strange in the Republican primary, it seemed as if Bannon really was locked and loaded. “Steve Bannon Should Terrify You” warned New York Times’ Frank Bruni. Even if Bannon’s candidates couldn’t always beat Democrats in general elections, he will still upend the GOP and “enjoy as much mayhem as he can along the way.”
Two months later, Bannon’s weapons jammed in Alabama, leaving a self-inflicted wound to his credibility as a movement general. Back in October Bannon assured Fox News host Sean Hannity he would recruit “fully vetted” candidates to oust Senate Republican incumbents; clearly that hadn’t happened with Moore. The humiliating loss cried out for some introspection, not fanciful talk of a presidential bid and shifting blame to his former boss.
Profiles of Bannon love to cite his motto about his attitude toward criticism: “Honey Badger don’t give a s**t.” But YouTube wisdom won’t save him this time. Even if he worms his way back into Trump’s good graces at some point, Bannon has been exposed. He holds no special insight. He leads no army of supporters. He’s just a guy who enjoys throwing punches, so don’t be too impressed when they occasionally land.