I don’t know if it’s true that Mark Twain wrote, “Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep til’ noon,” but I know it’s a true sentiment regardless. The reputation of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is a perfect example of this. All his political buffooneries are characterized by the press as prudent Machiavellian calculations because he’s somehow been ordained as the current administration’s “big thinker.”
Unfortunately, “Bannon’s War,” a recent episode of the PBS documentary series Frontline, further encourages this prevailing nonsense. Here, Bannon is portrayed as a mischievous and cunning intellectual-turned-DC-power-pusher. His academic and professional pedigree is read out to viewers for sinister effect: bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech, US naval officer, master’s degree in national security studies from Georgetown, MBA from Harvard Business School, investment banker at Goldman Sachs (a navy buddy’s dad was high-up in the company and got Bannon the job), Hollywood executive producer, documentary filmmaker and founding member of Breitbart News.
According to “Bannon’s War,” if President Trump is leading us into a mad dance with national death, it’s Bannon playing the tune and calling the steps. For example, an array of journalists interviewed for the program suggest Bannon purposely had Trump sign his “Muslim ban” executive order on a Friday so that protestors would have an entire weekend to take to the streets in opposition to it. This would signal to Trump’s base that the administration was upsetting the right people. The journalists, however, neglect to mention that the order was a legal and institutional blunder. Trump’s campaign promise to ban all Muslim immigrants (an axiomatic policy for national sovereignty in Bannon’s worldview) was used against him in the courts. And what one journalist calls Bannon’s “shock-and-awe approach to changing immigrant policy” left all the departments that would be tasked with enforcing the order ill-prepared to do so, as well as angry at the administration for keeping them in the dark until the last possible minute.
We’re also told that Bannon is a voluminous reader. Folks who worked on his documentaries tell how they would come into his hotel room and find so many books in there that Bannon was unable to sleep on the bed. (Couldn’t he just have moved the books from the bed to the place on the floor where he was sleeping?) Despite having attended elite schools, Bannon has all the tells of a spiteful and envious autodidact. In interviews and public appearances, for instance, he likes to title-drop books he’s either read or been reading. Books with esoteric and mystical beliefs about history being an apocalyptic drama, such as William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning—which makes the bold prediction that there are good and bad epochs in history and that bad epochs are usually started by a dramatic event—or Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age, published to scare bookish types and so-called intellectuals into supporting the social policies of tech billionaires. (To be fair, kudos to Bannon for accepting the book’s diagnosis but rejecting its cure, even though his own political treatment would be equally disastrous for the country.)
Of course, title-dropping isn’t a bad thing if done with proper aplomb. In fact, it’s really only the guarantee of an insecure mind when practiced with the affected levity and self-unaware pomposity of the villain professor in a college flick—which, unsurprisingly, is exactly the manner in which Bannon does it.
In “Bannon’s War,” Citizens United President David Bossie describes Bannon as “one of the greatest strategic minds that I’ve ever been around.” Bossie, for those unaware, was the third person in the room when Trump and Bannon agreed to run for the presidency. And while he’s now most famous for winning the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC, which further validated one of the upper class’s favorite shopping habits (elections), Bossie first made his name back in 2004 when he called for the FEC to limit commercial ads for Michael Moore’s anti-Iraq War screed, Fahrenheit 9/11, on the grounds that it was essentially electoral propaganda and, thus, should be restricted by the same rules as campaign ads.
How Bannon got his reputation as an ideological visionary is glaringly obvious: by cultivating it himself and, most importantly, by tricking a few dumb rich men into believing it. For the last few years he’s essentially been operating as the political guru of lead-brained billionaire Robert Mercer. Mercer hates all the usual things people who live off interest and dividends hate. In 2011, he “invested” $11 million in Breitbart News. He’s also spent money for death-penalty advocacy and against the construction of the “Ground Zero mosque” (reportedly over $1 million spent alone on that little political project).
Admittedly, Bannon’s discernible talents don’t begin and end with his ability to get rich people to give him cash. (He’s actually quite rich himself, in part from a fairly unconventional Hollywood deal involving, oddly enough, Seinfeld.) Trump ran on a political platform of contradictions (that the United State ought to have a more isolationist foreign policy and that we are also in a civilizational war with radical Islam) as well as one that abandoned all the Republican Party’s fundamental talking-points (he never made arguments for Constitutional principles or unfettered capitalism). Neither of these facts can be reduced to Bannon’s influence, but nor can Bannon’s influence on either be totally neglected.
Trump himself has two ruling passions: money and praise. His family offers him the former; Bannon offers him the latter. How dark and twisted things become the next four (three? two?) years depends a lot on who wins that battle. The choice between corruption and barbarism is obviously not a very satisfactory or encouraging one. Still, it does no good to overestimate those involved. “Bannon’s War” depicts its subject as a fighter and a thinker, but for anyone with real power he’s always been completely servile or, at his most defiant, envious. As for his intellectual capacity, like Henry Kissinger before him, Bannon stays out of the spotlight not for demure or secretive purposes but out of fear of being found out as the dunce and fraud he is. In other words, Bannon might know what he wants but that isn’t the same as knowing how to get it.