Many have become addicted to the twists and turns of the Trump administration as theatre. It’s an impression encouraged by Donald Trump’s own insistance that staff treat each day like an episode of a reality TV show, according to the New York Times, but one that has taken a on a Shakespearean feel of late, as the President this week brutally turned on his former friend and lieutenant, Steve Bannon.
At issue were comments from Bannon that appeared in salacious tell-all book by the journalist Michael Wolff, which shook Trumpland to its core when New York magazine published an extract last week. In the book, Bannon is quoted as describing Trump’s son Donald Jr’s meeting with a Russian lawyer as “treasonous”.
Trump was merciless in his response, coining a new nickname for his former senior adviser in tweet on Saturday saying that Wolff “used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job.”
“Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone,” Trump continued. “Too bad!”
Bannon had long played Falstaff to Trump’s immature princeling. A man who at times seemed to have no reverse gear, who once called Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner a “cuck” and a “globalist”. But Bannon, who returned to the helm of far-right publication Breitbart after being ousted from his role as the president’s senior adviser last August, seemed almost meek this week as he apologised in the face of angry attacks by his former boss.
How quickly things have changed. At the height of his powers Bannon, more than any other person outside of Trump’s immediate family, imprinted his disruptive, burn-it-all-down personality on the Trump candidacy and presidency. He masterminded the divide-and-conquer strategy which saw Trump hit out at Black Lives Matter protesters even as he refused to disavow the support of white supremacists like former Klan leader David Duke. Bannon, many feel, made Trump president.
But he also made enemies among more traditional Republicans along the way, who were eventually able to force his ouster from the White House in August. Dented, he remained a powerful figure on the national stage, but pressing their advantage, the anti-Bannonites looked for a sign of weakness and found one in his support for Roy Moore.
Bannon boosted Moore in the Alabama special senate election last year, pulling off a Trump-esque insurgent victory in the primary over the establishment GOP choice, Luther Strange. Despite mounting allegations against Moore for innapropriate behaviour with, and abuse of, teen girls, some as young as 14, Bannon nailed his colours to the mast in Alabama, and his enemies were quick to capitalise on Moore’s eventual humiliating loss in November as an opportunity to try to topple the discredited king-maker from his position astride their party.
“Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most republican states in the country, but he also dragged the President of the United States into his fiasco,” Steven Law, who runs the Republican Senate Leadership Fund, a group which supports Republican candidates, said. Jeff Flake, a GOP senator, tweeted “decency wins” after the result was announced.
Trump is easily manipulated, and there’s nothing he hates more than a loser. After Alabama the president quickly tried to distance himself from Moore, despite having stumped hard for him during the campaign, and seemed to resent Bannon for forcing him into a losing bet.
Nonetheless, it is not Bannon himself but what he represents within Trump’s orbit that will be hard to change. He was an agent of almost pure chaos, and instigated a culture where the furious reaction of liberals and progressives against a particular policy or pronouncement – the Muslim ban, the response to Charlottesville – was more important than the policy or act itself. He and Trump turned the presidency into a circus, where spectacle is king. His departure didn’t change that.
He also intractably entwined Trump on his side in the culture war. Breitbart, under Bannon’s leadership, had became what he described as a “home” for the alt-right, most obviously in its employment of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopolous. Bannon sold Trump to this constituency, to trolls and febrile online alt-right communities, and Trump is now addicted to their support. Fear of losing their demographic was behind his unforgivable (at least for some) “bad people on both sides” comment after a neo-Nazi activist killed a counter-protester in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer.
Trump may have fallen out with Bannon, but their schism is personal, not ideological. Bannon’s self-aggrandizing approach to the press, characterised memorably by short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci as “trying to suck [his] own cock”, made it easy for Trump to be convinced that Bannon was the nebulous “leaker”, a figure who exists only in Trump’s paranoid mind, a single source for the torrent of embarrassing stories that have dogged his presidency.
But of course, while Bannon seems to have often used the press to push his narratives and bolster his positions, he is by no means the only one. The Trump White House leaks like a sieve, every aide desperately trying to game the press to strengthen their own venal positions, briefing against each other and the President, while Trump can only rail incoherently against “fake news”. If Trump thinks that Bannon alone was responsible for the leaks, he is deluded.
What comes next for Bannon is unclear. He remains executive chair at Breitbart, where — despite a published statement in which Bannon says his support is “unwavering” for the president — the editorial line seems to be turning slightly against his former boss, with recent stories including “Wolff: Trump is Not Fit To Be President” and “Wolff: 100% of the People Closest to Trump Think There’s ‘Something Fundamentally Wrong’ with Him That ‘Scares Them’”.
It is probably unwise to read too much into that, though. Breitbart’s readership are likely to remain largely behind the Trump brand, and the majority of comments on the articles are supportive of the beleaguered president. But breaking with Bannon carries a more serious risk for a president fast running out of friends as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election closes in on Trump’s inner circle.
Surrounded and besieged, Trump is becoming a tragicomic figure, half Macbeth and half Malvolio. There is pathos as well as bathos in imagining the elderly president reading — or more likely seeing on TV, as Trump does not read — how Rupert Murdoch, a man whom Trump admires, dismissed him as a “fucking idiot” as soon as they got off the phone, another detail from Wolff’s book.
It’s not surprising then that he is lashing out. A vain and venal old man, he finds himself beset on all sides by false allies, who lie and flatter him to his face only to laugh at him behind his back, and tell all his secrets to journalists or, worse, make a deal to cooperate with Mueller, as former national security adviser Michael Flynn has done.
If Bannon decides to do as Flynn did and work with Mueller’s investigation, that might spell real trouble for Trump. Bannon, who even sat briefly on the National Security Council, could be a motherlode of information which could further imperil the president. There is little love lost between Bannon and Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Bannon is just the kind of person who would bring the whole edifice crashing down in service of a grudge. There is speculation that he may already be working with Mueller, and some of his comments to Wolff raised the spectre of new money-laundering allegations against Kushner.
Trump is finding the job of president — which he never expected or even wanted to win in the first place — is in fact a gruelling exercise in near-daily public humiliation. Trump won, which should have meant getting everything he wanted, only for it all to turn bitterly into ashes in his hands.
It is surely no coincidence that the title of Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury — in reference to a threat Trump made to North Korea last summer — echoes a line from Macbeth, implicating his presidency as “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Trump turning on Bannon won’t change anything about this sorry story, but it might just hasten its end.