Sunday, June 17, 2018


Gray-green Eminence: Stephen Bannon as depicted on the cover of Time. 2 February 2017, via Flickr.

Actually why is Stephen Bannon important again?

I started noticing something like a Bannon comeback around a week ago, when he turned up in back-to-back articles in the Times as a crucial window into the Trumpian mind, that hilarious Mark Landler piece on Trump's deep study of the North Korea issue—
“To the president, ‘duck and cover’ and the Cuban missile crisis were formative experiences,” said Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist. “He knows the Korean War hasn’t ended, and he can accomplish what destroyed his idol, General MacArthur.”
And the next day in the latest iteration of the "Trump feels emboldened and is taking over now" theme, by Maggie Haberman and Katie Rogers:

Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, said in an interview that Mr. Trump’s love of conflict had driven his approach to the presidency. “This is how he won,” Mr. Bannon said. “This is how he governs, and this is his ‘superpower.’ Drama, action, emotional power.”
Steve M has more cases: Wall Street Journal claiming in early May that Trump's been calling Bannon for advice, and CNBC with a scoop according to which there's going to be an enormous campaign of TV ads praising Trump's achievements, financed by they can't find out whom, but Bannon's running it. Steve's interested in the demonstration that there's no misconduct bad enough to get a winger banished from the club, not even giving a whole book's worth of vituperative complaints about the president's immediate family to a gossip reporter.

But it seems to me there might be something else going on, like a Bannon bid for real power among the Emperor's courtiers, backed with the money of whoever is financing the ad campaign (a Mercer?). As evinced by the ongoing erratic shifts in foreign policy, the random and self-defeating tariffs, the shocking behavior at the G7, the revived complaints about NATO funding and the basing of North Korea policy on the desire to save money—all those expensive flights from Guam—and generally reject not militarism but military cooperation with anybody. And a turn toward Russia in the sudden talk about a summit with Putin to follow Trump's "success" with Kim; I think also possibly a turn away from Saudi Arabia (in his recent criticism of OPEC over rising oil prices, as if they weren't his fault for backing out of the Iran deal, in line with Putin's desire to increase production and let prices go back down a bit; though KSA now seems to have given in to Russia anyway). And out of the blue he's communing with Central Europe's most successful fascist politician, congratulating him on an election of two months ago, or new government sworn in May 18:
Seems pretty thoroughly Bannonistic—Bannonical?—to me.

That Haberman-Rogers article gave me the sense of having a subtext radically different from the "Trump is confident" narrative of the surface—I mean, really pretty spooky. When Trump left for Charlevoix last week, they wrote,
he left behind a West Wing where burned-out aides are eyeing the exits, as the mood in the White House is one of numbness and resignation that the president is growing only more emboldened to act on instinct alone
The turnover, which is expected to become an exodus after the November elections, does not worry the president, several people close to him said. He has grown comfortable with removing any barriers that might challenge him — including, in some cases, people who have the wrong chemistry or too frequently say no to him.
Haberman and Rogers say we see the situation differently on the outside than insiders do, but it's far from clear that the insiders know better; I think we have to assume that the journalists are seeing themselves in the outsider category, and the insiders, at least those few who aren't in the process of fleeing, may be delusional, as in the first of these paragraphs, or making a distinction without a difference, as in the second (if he's always been the way he is right now, just more easily restrained, that's not very reassuring: as he carries through the project of getting rid of all the mean babysitters and keeping only the cool ones, he may be the same person on the inside, but his behavior will keep getting worse):
His daily torrent of Twitter posts about the Russia inquiry, interpreted by his critics as distress signals, is more often than not a sign that he is less worried about the consequences of using the blunt force of his platform to fight back, according to three advisers.
People who did not work with Mr. Trump before the White House see his behavior as deteriorating; people who have worked for and with him for years say he has never changed, and there are simply fewer people around giving him a level of cover.
That is, the lede may suggest that he's calming down, but the details say he'll be crazier. The other thing is, the loss of professionally able people—Kelly, for instance, who's said to be really anxious to leave, and his deputy Joe Hagin, while Zachary Fuentes,
a young former military aide with no political experience, has earned the mocking title of “deputy president” over his behavior as a proxy for Mr. Kelly.
but the president may not have been informed that he exists:

And increasingly relies on advice from entirely outside the White House—the slimy martinet Cory Lewandowski, the vile Citizens United head David Bossie, who was so corrupt during the Bill Clinton scandals era as an investigator that Dan Burton and Newt Gingrich had to dump him, now billed as Trump's personal friend—and, by implication, Bannon, suddenly available to every news outlet in town.

He's de-skilling or de-professionalizing the quality of the advice he gets, creating a kind of demeritocracy, as he turns more and more away from people with relevant backgrounds and toward people he fancies for arbitrary reasons, often people that seem to have attracted him with dodgy characters similar to his own. He seems to think getting rid of the people who "too frequently say no to him" will add to his power or his freedom of action, but that is fortunately not the case. If anything, it's the opposite:
The president, whose view of executive power has often crashed into the realities of Washington, is now focused on flexing what muscles he can — including issuing a series of pardons and repeatedly suggesting he has the power to deliver one to himself — and making decisions that do not require him to build coalitions of support. He now dictates to aides what he would like to see happen, as opposed to seeking a range of views, as predecessors may have done, people close to him say.
With no effective support, he's limiting himself to actions he can perform himself, or order up like room service ("Two quarter-pounders with cheese and some import taxes on Scotland, please, I hate those fuckers"), to make himself feel potent. For which Bannon has lots of suggestions; they're just the kind of dumb-ass pompous actions he wants to see done.

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