The crude heuristic that transformed Steve Bannon in the eyes of the media from the sewer-dwelling publisher of Breitbart’s “black crime” vertical into a master political tactician goes something like this: Donald Trump was on pace to lose the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton before Bannon joined the campaign last August, and then Trump went on to beat her—using Bannonite race-baiting and character assassination tactics—with a popular vote margin of -3 million.
Just as we can’t replay the election to determine whether Clinton would have won if she’d done more campaigning in the upper Midwest or if James Comey hadn’t sent that letter to Congress, we will never know if Bannon provided the ballast Trump needed to eke out the narrowest of victories.
But his performance as Trump’s chief political adviser in the months between the election and his unceremonious firing last week obliges us, at the very least, to rethink his reputation.
The moral of Devil’s Bargain, the new book by Bloomberg writer Joshua Green about Bannon’s role in the 2016 presidential campaign, is that Bannon’s one proven skill in political combat is the creative deployment of propaganda to damage opponents of his agenda.
This skill served Bannon poorly in government, but now that he has been canned and returned to his racist agitprop website, it will serve the rest of us as a useful if ultimately regrettable reminder of how wasteful the search for worthiness or merit in the Trump-Bannon mind meld has been.
After Trump won the election with his help, Bannon harbored megalomaniacal fantasies in which, after single-handedly “deoperationaliz[ing]” the National Security Council, he would go on to oversee the “deconstruction” of the administrative state. Bannon is by no means the first political operative in history to use grandiose malapropisms to impress gullible onlookers, but he may be the most influential.
And with that influence, he will return to his core competency of savaging people he perceives as enemies of his cause. On the bright side, those people are, for the moment, Trump advisers who haven’t yet resigned or been fired.
But over time his targets will change, and he will resume the project he began years ago of increasing the reach of anti-modern, pre-Enlightenment thought in America. His ultimate goal won’t be “economic populism” but the fracturing and weakening of ideals and political norms that have served as bulwarks against white supremacy and other forms of illiberalism.
It is undeniably amusing, if you don’t think highly of Trump or his enablers, to see the Trump-loyalist media, of which Breitbart is a ringleader, take aim at the people in the White House—like national security adviser H.R. McMaster, chief of staff John Kelly, and others—who serve largely to prevent the Trump administration from flying off the rails.
But the subtext of Bannon’s decision to air out all of his White House grievances is to delude Trump supporters into believing that the failures of the Trump presidency rest not with him, or even with Trump, but with the remaining coterie of White House “globalists” (read: Jews and their allies) who serve masters other than Trump and Trumpism.
As worthy as his targets are of criticism, this is ugly stuff. Anyone who monitored the 2016 election closely knows the vitriol won’t always be directed at people who don’t deserve sympathy, nor will it ever be used to advance any worthy long-term goals. Bannon’s mode of persuasion is a depraved one, deployed in the service of depraved goals—even when it is aimed at people who work for Trump.
Bannon’s main contribution to U.S. political discourse has been to notch a victory for those who don’t consider truth to be a core value. As Green notes in Devil’s Bargain, this is a man who counts Nazi propagandists among his influencers, and he generally rejects the assumption that facts and reason should be principles that limit various methods of mobilizing the citizenry.
Not every Republican politician in the United States has accepted Bannon’s premises, and a few have rejected them outright. But his influence over the party—visible most acutely in the dishonest campaign to gut Obamacare and in the widespread GOP apologetics for Trump’s serial lying—has been impossible to ignore, and it is likely to last.
Tactics like his would be condemnable even in the service of loftier goals. But it is notable that they are only ever deployed in the service of the worst ideas on the right. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has observed, Bannon could in theory use his platform to promote infrastructure investment, or to fight the GOP’s push to cut rich people’s taxes. But instead, even in this moment of pitched infighting, he is attacking his personal enemies and defending Trump’s signature race-baiting.
Before long there will be new enemies—ones who aren’t as unsympathetic as the likes of Jared Kushner. The fate of American democracy may well depend on millions of people resolving, sooner rather than later, that this enemy of their enemy isn’t their friend.