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Tracey Thorn: How my parents met

They’d been introduced as pen pals through an uncle – my mum and her friend had written to this lonely young man, who was training in Jordan, and had each sent a photo. 

Just before Christmas I booked this short holiday in Tenerife with my sister and her husband, our only worry being whether or not Dad would be OK while we were away. Then, just a few weeks ago, and not entirely unexpectedly, he died. And now, with the shock and the funeral safely out of the way, we’ve come on holiday anyway, and it is infused not with worry, but with a strange mix of relief and regret, not least because the last time we were here, Dad was with us, too.

It was about five years ago. He was in good form, having rallied better than any of us expected after Mum’s death, and he had rented a mobility scooter, on which he’d bomb up and down the prom, stopping at cafés along the way to have a Spanish brandy. He enjoyed doing nothing much at all on holiday; eating, drinking, “watching the world go by”, as he used to say. Like in most seaside places, there’s lots of world-going-by to watch here.

The narrow, flat stretch between the barren hills and the sea, into which the hotels and apartments are crammed, has nothing picturesque or classy about it, but a resolute cheerfulness pervades – the simple enjoyment of the sun, of daytime booze, of no work to go to. The holidaymakers are either professional sunbathers with skin like a tan leather sofa, or those whose legs have never seen the light of day and are, as my youngest used to say, “as white as a sheep”.

There are lots of walkers, like me and my sister, and lots of users of mobility scooters and wheelchairs who have found, like Dad, that the flat surface is ideal, and they’re interspersed with local hippies – a bunch of dreadlocked white boys with acoustic guitars, one singing a supper-club version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, another sprawled in a shopping trolley with his fully plastered broken leg resting on the handles.

It’s touristy, and the sandwich boards outside the cafés advertise paella, fajitas and mojitos, and “lasagne of the house”, but then you round a headland and hit upon a stretch of black, rocky beach and a sea full of surfers, and the scent of salty air replaces the smell of salty chips. I remember that when we were here with Dad he decided he wanted to buy a pair of shoes, the same as the ones he was wearing, which he’d bought here a few years before. And so we set off into the streets back from the beach, the only thing approaching an “old town”, and searched for the exact lightweight, beige or grey leather shoes he liked to wear. Which apparently could only be found in Tenerife.

This single-mindedness was pretty typical. The other memory that now comes to me is that during that same trip I had a full-scale, teenage, blazing row with him one night over after-dinner drinks, which resulted in me storming up to my bedroom, shouting “Good NIGHT” over my shoulder as I went. I was almost 50 years old at the time yet he could still make me feel 16 and infuriate me like no one else.

But on the front page of his funeral order of service we had printed a photo of him in his RAF uniform, aged 19, the way he looked the day my mum met him. They’d been introduced as pen pals through an uncle – my mum and her friend had written to this lonely young man, who was training in Jordan, and had each sent a photo. He chose Mum, and kept that very photo in his wallet for the rest of his life. They had exchanged letters and, when he was back in the UK, arranged to meet. He arrived in his RAF blues, gliding up the escalator at Holborn Tube, where she was waiting at the top. And I think of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. David Niven in that uniform, and the staircase to heaven. Wartime romance. Does anything tug at the heart more strongly?

Back at home after the funeral, I put that photo of him up on Twitter. It’s the most popular thing I’ve ever tweeted, getting over a thousand likes. He’d have been proud.

Well, he’d have said, “What the hell’s Twitter?” and rolled his eyes, and we’d have had a row about it. But still.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Steve Bannon with Donald Trump. Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump was Steve Bannon's creation. What happens now he's gone?

Steve Bannon championed the "economic nationalism" agenda which drove Trump's election win and the early days of his presidency.

Steve Bannon, perhaps more than any single person other than the man himself, is the reason Donald Trump is President of the United States.

Bannon is a choleric figure who once described himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down”. It must be said that he has come pretty close to doing so. He served as chief architect of Trump's presidential campaign from the Republican national convention until election day, and then as the senior strategist in the Trump White House, a position from which he has just been ousted.

Why have I heard the name recently? It's very familiar, but in a weird context.

Well, until Friday he was the senior adviser to the president and one of the most powerful people in America.

No, that wasn't it. Something about... this doesn't sound right, but something about sucking his own...

...yeah. That was a quote from a gloriously unhinged phone call between Ryan Lizza, a reporter for the New Yorker magazine, and Anthony Scaramucci, who spent a week as White House Communications Director before being ignominiously canned, in part for giving this quote.

What he said exactly was: “I'm not Steve Bannon, I'm not trying to suck my own cock.”

Can Bannon actually do that?

According to rock and roll legend, Marilyn Manson had two of his own ribs surgically removed in order to autofellate; Bannon, by comparison, looks like he had two dozen ribs for breakfast already. The man is a crepuscular Hutt who looks like he'd rather smother his own firstborn than even enter a yoga studio. I would bet good money that he cannot.

I think Scaramucci meant it figuratively.

So apart from that, why is this such big news?

Bannon was responsible for Trump's victory, and for shaping his early presidency. He came on board at a key moment in the presidential race, after the debacle of the Republican convention, and was campaign CEO through to election day. He helped shape the Trump campaign into the white supremacist dog-whistle-fest that it became. The idea that, far from building coalitions, it was possible to run a campaign that would play directly to the core white male base was, in part, Bannon's particular inspiration.

As the former chief of the far-right news site Breitbart, Bannon was one of the key figures in the online radicalisation of the cluster of more-or-less white supremacist Hentai-fetishists who have come to be known as the “alt-right”. He is the thread that links Gamergate, the misogynistic troll campaign against female influence in video game production and industry news coverage, to what became Trump's rabid online following of lonely, racist white guys. The masses who became keyboard-warriors for Trump from their parents' basement, hanging out on The_Donald subreddit and 4chan's /pol/ board, were an army built by Bannon and Breitbart.

He popularised “economic nationalism”, a position based on the the twistedly brilliant insight that while making race the naked focus of the campaign would run up too hard against American political taboos, you could successfully use “trade” and “immigration” as effective proxies.

From Bannon also in part came the idea that Trump ought to run as much against the “mainstream media” as against his nominal opponent, Hillary Clinton. He brought his anarchic, burn-it-all-down ideology across from Breitbart – the website which Bannon once bragged about having made “the platform for the alt-right” – almost wholesale.

Most likely, Bannon is the reason it took Trump so long to condemn the neo-Nazis marching in support of his presidency in Charlottesville last weekend, and was responsible for the near-fatal cognitive dissonance the president visibly struggled with when he did so.

Why is Bannon out?

The Trump White House has been riven with divisions and factional warfare from the very beginning. In particular, Bannon, whose ex-wife once claimed that he said that he didn't want his children “going to school with Jews” (he denies this), butted heads with Trump's Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and his faction of Wall Street-friendly pinstripe-drones and sundry moderate Republican clingers.

Bannon was the figurehead and leader of the nationalist, alt-right faction surrounding the president, while Kushner was the figurehead for the Wall Street moderates in his administration. In the early days of the administration Bannon seemed set for victory over the Kushnerites – he had installed himself on the National Security Council and had the president's ear. Trump's early moves – the travel-ban, leaving NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – all had Bannon's fingerprints all over them.

Early on in the administration Bannon also clashed with Trump's first chief of staff, former Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus. A lifelong adenoidal Republican functionary, the result of a secret government experiment to breed a human being entirely without a spine, Priebus reportedly made peace with Bannon despite constant schoolyard bullying from most of the president's team, and the two formed an unlikely alliance within the White House.

But the president is nothing if not mercurial in his affections, and he appeared to sour on both Priebus and Bannon in later months, especially after Bannon was featured on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Great Manipulator”, which is said to have irritated the thin-skinned president.

In July, in a chaotic shake-up of his White House staff, Trump replaced Priebus with a retired Marine Corps general, John Kelly, and tasked him with bringing a semblance of militaristic order to his administration. Once Priebus was gone, Bannon became the target of Kelly's next purge, especially as events in Charlottesville played out.

What does this mean for Trump's agenda?

In the first instance, Trump and his supporters will hope that some of the hailstorm of criticism he's been receiving following his apparent endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia a week ago will abate following Bannon's exit.

The bat-shit crazy impromptu press conference the president gave on Tuesday was illuminating in that it showed the faultines in Trump's advice, between advisers telling him to condemn the Nazis and others pushing the Bannonite view that the “alt-left” were equally at fault and that there was “blame on both sides”.

This is the way Trump operates. Again and again, he floats half-baked ideas to see what will stick. After Charlottesville, he tried things Bannon's way – the Breitbart chief has long courted the nationalist right – but, unluckily for Bannon, the narcissistic president found that the ratings and reviews for that approach were poor.

As far as Trump's agenda is concerned, it seems unlikely that Bannon's departure will change the president's behaviour much at this point. The damage is, in a way, done; the course Bannon helped Trump chart is now set, and whether or not Bannon has his hand directly on the tiller, his ideological influence will still be felt in everything Trump does, because more than anyone else Trump was a Steve Bannon creation.

What about the balance of power in the White House?

Now that is likely to change dramatically without Bannon.

With a few exceptions – like Miller – the most influential advisers remaining in the clown-car White House are globalists and militarists. According to a Buzzfeed report, Bannon leaves behind an executive dominated by “hawks and internationalists” like Kushner, economic adviser and former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, and National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster.

Bannon was a “voice for restraint” against the military adventurism such as missile-strikes against Syria and increased troop numbers in Afghanistan, according to the report.

Have we seen the last of Bannon?

Unfortunately not. On Friday, Bannon told Joshua Green, the author of Devil's Bargain, a book about Bannon's rise to power: “I'm leaving the White House and I'm going to war for Trump against his opponents – on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.”

What that means is a return to Breitbart, which is likely to become the administration's media mouthpiece even more than before. Bannon will take up the position of Executive Chairman of the publication. “Breitbart's pace of global expansion will only accelerate with Steve back,” Breitbart CEO Larry Solov said in a statement. “The sky's the limit.”

One Breitbart staffer simply tweeted: “WAR”.

However, there is already speculation that Bannon will return to Trump's side when – or if – the president begins in earnest to run for re-election in 2020.

And in the meantime, Bannon's exit has left the odious Stephen Miller, in many ways Bannon's ideological protege, as Trump's senior policy adviser.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.