I work with a guy who emails Steve Bannon. He’s an Archie Bunker type: conservative, a pre-internet troll, so I thought he was joking. Nope. He emails Steve Bannon. They’re sort of friends. I don’t know how they met, but I believe my colleague was trying to get his nemesis, who worked for the government for a long time, fired. I don’t really know if he convinced Bannon, but I do know the nemesis was canned and my friend took great joy in this: He got Steve Bannon to do his bidding.
A dark and deferential tone permeates almost everything we read or hear about Bannon. Many of us whisper, “He’s an avowed Leninist. He reads impenetrable books. He wants to dismantle the state. He governs by chaos, and Trump is his blundering vector of havoc.” Worst of all, though: “He’s dangerous.” We gotta understand, folks, that this is exactly the story Bannon likes to tell himself about himself. It’s a myth.
Sure, the man holds some dangerous beliefs. But, guys, come on: they’re insane. The only truly dangerous thing about Steve Bannon is his credibility. He’s nothing unless we buy what he’s selling.
We need to expose that myth: Where we need to resist normalizing Trump, we need to normalize Bannon. He craves The Big Ideological Battle, but he’s vulnerable to fine print. The more we iconize this sub-Reddit gasbag in our headlines and our self-indulgent long-form profiles, the more power Trump—and we—will give to a blogger who wants to start a global holy war. The truth is that Steve Bannon is just a fairly smart conspiracy theorist who snaked his way into tremendous political power and is slowly but surely realizing he doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
This is actually quite serious, because Bannon, if left to his own devices, isn’t capable of starting a global holy war. He’s not even capable making a film about a global holy war. He’s writing a pulp fiction about the United States of America, and he thinks you’re stupid enough to read it.
Steve Bannon might be smart, but he’s stupid about it. So don’t try to prove him wrong. Prove him incompetent.
The Lusty Theologian
First, there’s some good in the man. The foul-mouthed, gin-blossomed Bannon is actually a fierce Catholic. Really. His worldview —Western civilization in bad decline; only a shock to the system can pull it out—is the product of what he calls the “Christian militant” wing of the Catholic church. Funnily enough, this gives way to some pretty noble views about capitalism.
Bannon has spoken out against our “brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people.” He decries Ayn Rand’s libertarian doctrine as “a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost.” These ideals seem to be grounded in a genuine passion for fairness, for equity—financial, if not racial.
And Bannon has indeed visited the Vatican, even gave an address to the Vatican. While he was there, though, he didn’t meet with Pope Francis—a friend of Obama—but with Cardinal Raymond Burke, a severe conservative in open opposition to Pope Francis. Paste Politics has written about Bannon’s Vatican address, and you can read the whole monstrous thing for yourself right here.
So really, Bannon wants to be a theologian. He’s built a church out of ones and zeros and, on Breitbart, began writing his Bible. He populated the White House pews with converts, from Stephen Miller to Reince Priebus and Michael Anton. And in Donald Trump he’s found a willing, desperate apostle, an ideal combination of fragility and fire, someone who, as long as you’re an alpha male and project authority, will shout whatever you whisper. And what is Bannon whispering about?
It’s been heavily reported that Bannon—along with toe-faced white nationalist Stephen Miller—has written all of Trump’s executive orders. Most famously perhaps the (possibly illegal) executive order naming himself, Bannon, who has zero experience making foreign policy, a permanent member of the National Security Council. And to give you an idea of how brainwashed Trump is, he signed that order without even reading it, Even for Trump, that’s simply stunning.
In fact, when you hear Trump read anything—anything—you’re really hearing Bannon. Here’s a great example where Trump and Bannon occupy the same mouth. Trump said all of this himself at his disastrous speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.
BANNON: We have seen unimaginable violence carried out in the name of religion. Acts of wanton slaughter against religious minorities. Horrors on a scale that defy description. Terrorism is a fundamental threat to religious freedom. It must be stopped, and it will be stopped. It may not be pretty for a little while. It will be stopped. We have seen peace-loving Muslims brutalized, victimized, murdered and oppressed by ISIS killers. We have seen threats of extermination against the Jewish people. We have seen a campaign of ISIS and genocide against Christians—
TRUMP:—where they cut off heads. Not since the Middle Ages have we seen that. We haven’t seen that, the cutting off of heads. Now they cut off their heads, they drown people in steel cages. Haven’t seen this—I haven’t seen this. Nobody has seen this for many, many years.
BANNON: All nations have a moral obligation to speak out against such violence. All nations have a duty to work together to confront it and to confront it viciously, if we have to.
And indeed, some combination of Bannon and Miller wrote exactly all of Trump’s campaign speeches. Whenever Trump manages to stay on-prompter, his mouth might be moving but Bannon is doing the talking. And as The Wall Street Journal uncovered, it was actually Bannon and Miller who wrote Trump’s inauguration address. Trump didn’t write it himself, as he bragged and stupidly tweeted he did.
But get a load of this doozy. After the inaugural address, in an interview with The Washington Post, Bannon praised the speech that Trump “wrote,” saying, “I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House.” That frightened us. Bannon liked that American carnage stuff! But it sounds much different when we know Bannon wrote it. His quote to the Post sounds petty. It sounds like Bannon thought The Washington Post was stupid—and he’d have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for all you meddling leakers in my own White House!
Later that weekend, though, good ol’ Donnie Puppy Trump went and hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. Trump then remarked of himself, “George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson—who a lot of people, they compare the campaign of Trump with the campaign of… You have to go back to 1828, but that seems to be a comparison for certain obvious reasons.”
(“Obvious reasons” might include the fact Andrew Jackson was a populist and racist firebrand who passed the Indian Removal Act, then defied the Supreme Court’s ruling against it and enforced the removal of the Cherokee from U.S. territory. This led to the “Trail of Tears,” when thousands of Native Americans died walking from their homes in the Southeast to reservations in the West. Jackson also had an election controversy.)
Now, we could write off Trump’s linking himself to Jackson, which began after the election, as another odd Trump ramble, but it’s not. Trump’s surprisingly accurate citation of 1828—which for Trump passes as positively erudite—is out of character. Bannon almost certainly gave Trump a three-minute revisionist history of Jackson, flattering Trump into thinking he’s shaping himself, but becoming the President Bannon wants.
This is troubling for a number of reasons, among them the fact that Bannon is a media savant. Under his watch, the “alt-right”, nationalist, toilet graffiti, propaganda website Breitbart went from a racist internet crawlspace to the White House press corps. He knows how to hijack and spin a narrative. He knows how to get a certain kind of person to believe what he wants them to believe, which is—and again this sounds extreme—that if Western civilization is to survive, we must start a global holy war against radical Islamic fascism.
His words, not mine.
The Disheveled Disestablishmentarian
But like I said before, Bannon can’t even start a movie about a global holy war. He pitched one in which Muslims invade the US and turn it into the “Islamic States of America.” According to The Washington Post, the treatment outlines “a three-part movie that would trace ‘the culture of intolerance’ behind sharia law, examine the ‘Fifth Column’ made up of ‘Islamic front groups’ and identify the American enablers paving what Bannon calls ‘the road to this unique hell on earth.’”
That’s totally crazy. It is physically impossible that it could happen.
But we buy it. Hell, I bought it in a way. I thought the travel ban chaos was intentional. Bannon, I figured, wasn’t really interested if the ban ultimately failed. He was just testing his abilities to bust up our ancient marbled institutions and wrest the fragile state from their petrified clutches. After all, that’s what Bannon wants, right? “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon recently told The Daily Beast. “I want to destroy the state. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
We have to take him literally, but he literally sounds like a cartoon. He sounds like Professor Chaos. Yeah, from South Park. Or like some guy from high school you used to talk to every once in and a while but then he started saying shit like he was a Leninist and that he wanted to destroy the state.
“Ever see Loose Change, bro? Dude. It’s gonna Blow. Your. Mind. Bro.”
Bannon is quite literally that guy, but instead of sulking and feeling superior to everyone else in a hometown sports bar, he’s in the White House. He means what he says, and he holds a truly dark and disruptive ideology. But let’s pull back out of Bannon’s own narrative and into the real world. His plans are, for lack of a better word, stupid. Sure, he’s smart enough to have schemed his way into a position where, if the right people buy his theories, he has the power to put those plans into action. But like I said earlier, Bannon might be smart, but he’s stupid about it.
Bannon will fail. His contempt for the state is exactly why he won’t be able to undermine it.
The travel ban is a great example. Let’s assume Bannon really did want to create chaos, pull a surprise power play before the government or the people had settled into this administration. Let’s assume he really was pushing the limits of the constitution, trying to find a loophole around the establishment clause and test the President’s ability to shut down our borders at will, see how the public would react. Let’s even say the Grand Strategist knew the courts would intervene and wanted to see how strong they were too, how easily and for how long the President could ignore them.
So let’s just say that all went more or less according to plan and Bannon got his wish: His day in court. Balance v. Check; Check v. Balance. The Bannon administration was ready with an obscure clause in immigration law: the President “may by proclamation and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens and any class of aliens as immigrants or non-immigrants” whenever he thinks it “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.”
“Ha ha!” says Bannon. “No one can stop him! No onnnnneeee….”
But that’s exactly why the court stopped him. The judges, all of them, basically said that no, you can’t just do whatever you want with immigration. You have to listen to the judicial branch. And this whole trolling thing, Don? The literal Muslim ban you ranted about for months? The one you’re now trying to tell us has a totally different goal from this new one you just wrote? We don’t believe you. I mean, dude, you’re so smug about it that you haven’t taken the DONALD J. TRUMP STATEMENT ON PREVENTING MUSLIM IMMIGRATION down from your campaign page.
And what was Professor Chaos’ response? Ignore the court? Nope. A rewrite. Not only did he rewrite it, he took a month to do it. It gave him a hard time.
In other words, Bannon defeated himself. He was being clever where you need to be wise. Though he might see the world in big terms, he’s actually a pretty small-minded fellow. Bannon’s not a builder, after all. He’s just a destroyer. A wannabe Shiva. Listen to literally everything he says: It’s negative, every last word. He has no real plan. He just wants to destroy everything. Nobody wants to do that without a real motive. Bannon’s motive? He needs to be right.
And that’s what is entirely up to us. We’re much more dangerous than Steve Bannon.
The Real Danger
Even after all that smarmy ranting, there’s a line that Bannon wrote in that prayer breakfast speech that still troubles me: “It may not be pretty for a little while.”
That’s not Trump. That’s the strategy, at home and abroad.
If you follow terrorism carefully, you know the war against the Islamic State and al Qaeda and the like will never, ever, ever become global in any true sense other than sporadic attacks at different dots on the map. It’s not going to be World War III. We won’t be taken over by Islam. Europe won’t either. Bannon’s ego is so wrapped up in his grand theory that he’s resorting to creating a global holy war that was never really there.
Bannon also said months ago—that the United States and China will fight a war over islands in the South China Sea within the next decade, and that “there’s no doubt about that.” He also said we’ll soon fight a “major” shooting war in the Middle East. Now two-thirds of America believe it. And note that Trump bullied China about Taiwan before he was even President, and it was recently reported the Department of Defense is considering a proposal to send ground troops into Syria to fight the Islamic State.
None of that sounds particularly Christlike to me, Steve.
The real danger is in telling and retelling the story Bannon is writing.
In this sense we need to remember this isn’t only about shooting wars. Bannon is stoking a war with the media (“the opposition party”; “the enemy of the American people”—both of them Bannonisms Trump has adopted). He’s trying to bait the press into a fight because he knows he can spin a vicious response from the media as proof to further discredit the establishment in the eyes of his true believers. We cannot, simply cannot, continue to spew his bullshit for him.
To sum up: Steve Bannon is insane. He suffers delusions of grandeur, and we’re indulging him. He aspires to theology, but Bannon is no theologian. He’s no priest and no Shiva either. He replies to emails. He leaks information he shouldn’t. He’s no evil genius. He’s just another troll: cold, aloof, weathered, immobile—made of stone. Steve Bannon is a gargoyle. A blogger puking a steady stream of runoff.
Listen closely: He’s wrong.