First things first: In my view, Breitbart-bête-turned-White-House-chief-strategist-designate Steve Bannon deserves to be vilified by Americans across the ideological spectrum as an opportunistic hatemeister whom it is wrenching to see at the right hand of the President-elect of the United States.
Given, however, that Bannon is already taking so much heat over the bigotry, I think it’s very much worth a cooler look at him solely on the level of strategy.
As Bannon sees it, all the condemnation he’s getting does nothing but serve him. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan,” he recently told Michael Wolff in the Hollywood Reporter. “That’s power.”
As I see it, it also gives him way too much credit. Based on Wolff’s piece, I am not at all sure that Bannon is smart enough to be Satan.
Admittedly, this was not my first reaction to that piece. My first reaction was “Oh my God, Bannon’s the only one who really had the 2016 electorate all figured out! And now that he’s got the national reins, he’s going to hitch his far-right wagon to massive job creation, thus enshrining Trump as a man of the people even as he craters Wall Street reform, decimates civil rights, and institutionalizes brazen corruption at the highest levels of government!”
Then I read it again and felt much better. Not about Bannon, but about the odds that he’s just not the anti-Christ he’s cracked up to be.
First, Bannon seems to be under the impression that everyone in America just voted for Donald Trump, excepting perhaps those he has previously termed “a bunch of dykes who came from the Seven Sisters schools” and a sprinkling of doofus Silicon Valley gazillionaires. Please. As of this writing, Hillary Clinton has gotten more than a million-and-a-half more votes than Donald Trump. She has done this despite being a candidate who had several major flaws unique to herself, and despite being in the traditionally disadvantageous position of running for her party’s third consecutive White House term. If Democrats would be ill-advised to take this election result as anything short of an alarm sounded by the working class -- white and otherwise -- Republicans would be crazy to take it as a national rush order on their whole catalogue, from anti-abortionism to xenophobia. So far, Bannon sounds just that crazy.
Speaking of which: “Conservatives are going to go crazy,” our anti-hero crows, in connection with the “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan” he has in store.
Good thing Trump doesn’t need any fiscal conservatives to back his programs, then! No wait, he does need them. Doesn’t he? Maybe not. It’s all so mixed up.
Total confusion is clearly part and parcel of the new Vaderism, but once the Trump administration gets down to administrating, it might trip up even Darth himself. So what’s the path here? Is the GOP now to become the anti-trade, anti-military-intervention, big-domestic-spending party? If so, will there be designated quarries into which Republicans can dump giant chunks of their bedrock philosophy, or will they need to dig extremely deep holes in their own backyards? Alternatively, is Trump just going to chuck those GOP Establishment losers and govern as a New Deal Democrat with a social agenda to the right of the Pope’s? Are Democrats expected to fall straight in with that? If so, should they wait until dark to sneak out on the clear majority of Americans who voted for Clinton and against the notion that economic frustration is sufficient grounds to trash one’s concerns about anything else? Or can they at least say good-bye? Is the devil planning to skate past those details?
Then there’s Bannon’s gleeful anti-globalism.
“I’m an economic nationalist,” he assures the Hollywood Reporter by way of distinguishing himself from the plain old white nationalists he presumably just feeds and waters. “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia…”
Now, unlike the marvelously anti-elitist presidential counselor-to-be, I have never gone to Harvard Business School or worked at Goldman Sachs. But in my own bachelor’s-degree, womanish way, I suspect that the weakening of the American middle class relative to the strengthening of middle classes elsewhere in the world is not quite the straightforward seesaw proposition that he depicts. Sometimes, for example, those foreign middle classes function as markets for American goods and services. Sure, on balance, the U.S. buys more than it sells. But in the process of running up that much-maligned trade deficit, Americans — not least Bannon’s forgotten, flyover-state Americans — pay a lot less for a lot of things than they otherwise would.
This adds a practical detail to the cultural picture of Team Trump in their “Great Again” America: All the men are stuck in their first marriages, Kellyanne Conway is home stirring the sauce — and only the very rich have an I-phone, a second car, or three pairs of shoes.
Insular east-coast feminista though I am, I do know that a change in the price of gasoline can sway an election. The idea that the bad parts of globalism can be stripped out of American life without sacrificing enough of the good parts to bother folks in any politically costly way is not an idea about which Satan ought to be quite so sanguine.
Last but not least, Bannon embodies the fatal smugness he so delights in deploring. Even more than the average major-upset election victor, he clearly enjoys ridiculing his opponents for having been pathetically blind and deaf to basic, common-sense realities. But here’s one true fact he seems to have missed: There is a big difference between complaining about the country and running it. The moment he is sworn in, Donald Trump will go from the voice of popular wrath to its instrument. Once president, he had better turn out to be a swiftly and shockingly deft instrument indeed. Otherwise, he’s just tomorrow’s target.
So give the aspiring devil his due. To hear him tell it, Bannon called the tune, Trump danced to it, they got enough applause from enough of a crowd in enough geographical locations to claim the presidency. But make no mistake. If they keep up with the deluded bravado on display thus far, the presidency is going to claim them.
Steve Bannon may be evil. But genius? Not so much.