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27 August 2017

Steve Bannon: how Trump’s dark mastermind fell

In interviews, the chief political strategist compared himself to Darth Vader.

By Sophie McBain

Steve Bannon’s exit from the White House on 18 August marked a rapid, if not unexpected, reversal in the political fortune of Donald Trump’s far-right nationalist chief political strategist. For a short period, he seemed so powerful in the administration that the New York Times even described him as the “de facto president”.

Bannon characterised his departure as dealing a decisive blow to the White House ultranationalists, telling the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” And yet he was defiant. 

Within hours, Bannon had returned to his position as head of Breitbart, the alt-right website that he describes as a “killing machine”. He portrayed himself as a far-right martyr, telling Bloomberg that he was “going to war for Trump against his opponents – on Capitol Hill, in the media and in corporate America”. No longer bound by White House rules, Bannon can revert to his old bomb-throwing tactics. The notoriously nasty power broker could re-emerge nastier – and possibly more powerful.

It is just over a year since the 63-year-old former naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker and propagandist film producer joined the Trump campaign as its chief executive, having taken temporary leave from Breitbart, which he had headed since 2012 and transformed into “the platform for the alt-right”. Bannon cultivated his image as the dark mastermind behind the presidency, comparing himself in interviews to Darth Vader and describing Trump as a “blunt instrument” for his populist white nationalist movement.

His influence peaked at the start of Trump’s presidency. He co-authored Trump’s inaugural address with its dark vision of “American carnage” and pushed through some of the administration’s most contentious policies, including the so-called Muslim ban and the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. More recently, he successfully urged the president to resist mounting pressure – including from within the White House – to issue a more forceful condemnation of the violent protests by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Even so, rumours of Bannon’s imminent departure had been circulating for weeks. Trump was irritated by Bannon’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine and his reputation as the presidential puppet master, and he reportedly suspected his chief strategist as the source of a series of damaging leaks. Bannon was increasingly isolated within the White House and outnumbered by more moderate voices. In July, Bannon’s ally Reince Priebus was replaced as chief of staff by John Kelly, a retired marine general drafted in to the White House to restore order to the chaotic administration. According to the New York Times, Kelly told Bannon that month that he had to go. 

Picture: Miles Cole

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Stephen Bannon is both calculating and reckless. On 16 August, he gave an interview to the left-wing magazine the American Prospect, in which he undercut Trump’s North Korea policy and outlined plans to oust his adversaries in the White House, who he said were “wetting themselves”. Bannon later said he didn’t realise the interview was on record – an odd misstep, if that’s what it was, for an experienced media manipulator. His position had become untenable. A White House statement described Bannon’s departure two days later as “mutually agreed” with Kelly.

Bannon knows that while he has lost his seat at the table, he still has the president’s ear. He has emphasised his loyalty to Trump, who reportedly regularly seeks advice from former staffers, particularly in late-night calls when he is not observed by Kelly.

In his Weekly Standard interview Bannon said that the Trump presidency would become more “conventional” following his departure, suggesting that political insiders would “constrain” the president and that “his ability to get anything done – particularly the bigger things, like the wall, the bigger, broader things that we fought for, it’s just going to be that much harder”.

Yet Bannon, who believes that the existence of the US as a nation rooted in “Judaeo-Christian values” is under threat, has the media power and insider knowledge to inflict considerable damage on his enemies within government. Breitbart gives him a platform for roiling Trump’s populist, white nationalist base, and he has a proven track record of using the site to attack and discredit his opponents. Bannon told the Weekly Standard that: “Someone said, ‘it’s Bannon the Barbarian’… I built a fucking machine at Breitbart. And now I’m about to go back, knowing what I know, and we’re about to rev that machine up.” 

That said, Bannon may be more skilled as a propagandist than he is at building new alliances, something he will need to do if he is to realise his ideological ambitions. “I think that he’s likely reading the situation inside the administration accurately, what he might not be reading accurately is the potential for expanding the base of economic nationalism,” Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director at the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley told me. “For one thing it’s almost impossible for the economic nationalist argument to proceed without calling up the terrors of American racism.”

Bannon has tried to distance himself from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists attracted to his rhetoric, dismissing them in his American Prospect interview as “clowns”. Bannon “believes he can dismiss those characters and continue on with his ideological project. But the ideological project is so attractive to neo-Nazis, to the KKK, to all sorts of American racists, that he’s got to be able to ditch them and [unless he can do that] it will become a burden,” said Rosenthal.

Trump’s unscripted defence of white supremacist protestors in Charlottesville underlined that Bannon’s brand of nationalism will outlive his White House exit: these are Trump’s views too. Yet the forceful and broad-based backlash to those remarks revealed the natural limitations of his dark and exclusionary ideology. 

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia