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Steve Bannon: how Trump’s dark mastermind fell

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

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.

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

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. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game