What happened to Steve Bannon? The alt-right godfather and nationalist was removed from his position on the National Security Council this Wednesday. Bannon still has power, but his decline is part of a larger picture. He will keep his position as the President’s right hand, but his dismissal does not bode well for his movement. The failure of Bannon means the rise of the conservative Heritage Foundation. The real story is how an alt-right Presidency (nationalistic populism) became an ordinary right-wing government.
As Trump’s Chief Strategist, Bannon was key to the Donald’s ascension. Yet as a figurehead for weird reactionary dungeon thought everywhere, he was a fantastic liability. This morning saw him plucked from the bed of roses. Peter Baker, writing for the Times, described the gruesome spectacle:
President Trump reshuffled his national security organization on Wednesday, removing his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, from a top policy-making committee and restoring senior military and intelligence officials who had been downgraded when he first came into office. The shift was orchestrated by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who was tapped as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser after the resignation of Michael T. Flynn, who stepped down in February after being caught misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador.
In the normal world, a top dude getting one of his cushy titles removed may not sound like news. But in the universe of power, this is an earthquake. Especially considering the political capital Trump spent to put his chief strategist there. Back in January, when Bannon was first appointed to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council—the major planning body that advises the President on foreign policy and certain military issues—hackles were raised. As in, this guy shouldn’t sit next to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence.
The NSC is the security state’s version of the Round Table. Its membership is made up of the government organizations and institutions whose job is perpetuating and protecting all the important parts of the American imperium. Trump’s idea, of putting a conspiracist next to the big chair, was like putting a drunk creationist on the board of NASA. Not just impractical and dangerous, but somehow tasteless. Moreover, it suggested that both the ideology and the unprofessionalism of the Trump Administration would be at maximum overdrive.
Look close at the McMaster shuffle, and the hand of the national security apparatus is visible. The uniforms had to reassert themselves. In some sense, this was inevitable: Trump loves generals. He was eventually going to restore the mandarins to preeminence. But for Bannon to be appointed, and unappointed, is Officially a Big Deal.
Bannon was supposed to be the puppetmaster. That’s why the media is reacting to his dismissal. Bannon leaving the NSC implies somebody else, or something else, is at the helm of Trump’s White House. If the most powerful man in the West Wing loses power, then somebody new is now king of the mountain.
If you still believe that Trump is trying to foment revolution—to drain the swamp—Bannon’s pushout makes no sense. Why would Trump do this? After all, what cocaine was to Boogie Nights, Bannon was to this Presidency: its animating force. An anti-establishment figure, as much any powerful person can be one. Bannon came to the public eye as chairman of Breitbart: a colorful media tycoon who shilled for alt-right ideas. In so many ways, he was the alt-right. And now, this. What terrible black hole will all the shrieking planetoids of Trump’s White House orbit around now?
Bannon still has authority. He remains a vastly powerful man.
But in terms of influence, Bannon has wilted. Like a bee with a wing blunted by a thrown newspaper. He can still cause pain, but what a decay! Steve’s dismissal is not the caprice of a moment. Instead, it is the result of a long process that began on the first morning of the Donald’s reign.
Consider what Bannon promised us. He told Ronald Radosh of the Beast that there would be baroque hog-stomping:
Then we had a long talk about his approach to politics. He never called himself a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” as so many think of him today. “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed. Shocked, I asked him what he meant. “Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.
Bannon loves this kind of talk. In January 2016, he told the Post that:
“We call ourselves ‘the Fight Club.’ You don’t come to us for warm and fuzzy,” said Stephen Bannon, Breitbart’s executive chairman and one of its guiding editorial spirits. He adds, “We think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti-’ the permanent political class. We say Paul Ryan was grown in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation.”
Yet look around, and what a difference several months makes! It’s safe to say the Trump Presidency marches out of the Heritage Foundation’s pocket—a old-fashioned conservative think tank fostered by dark money. Trump has become a creature of the old right-wing. Not the alt-right.
Trump campaigned as a creature of revolutionary nationalist populism. Yet everything he’s done in his Presidency has been a less hinged Bush Years, Redux. The usual reactionary think tanks knew early on he would be their Fonzie—even if Donald didn’t. Theo Anderson, writing for In These Times:
The mood was jubilant two days after the November 2016 election at a Washington, D.C., panel co-hosted by two powerhouse conservative thinktanks—the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. In his opening remarks, Heritage president Jim DeMint rejoiced that Donald Trump’s election had “preserved our constitutional republic.” Panelist John Yoo, a Berkeley law professor best known as the architect of George W. Bush’s justification for torture, drew laughs with feigned surprise at the audience size. “I thought everyone at Heritage was working over at transition head quarters,” Yoo quipped. “I asked the taxi cab driver to take me to Trump transition headquarters, and he dropped me off here.”
There is nothing new in Trump’s programs or in his policy. Someone should tell Bannon.
It was Bannon who told Radosh that the “National Review and The Weekly Standard are both left-wing magazines, and I want to destroy them also.” But the premises of Trump since Day 1 have been … well … straight from those pages. Strange! But no wonder Bannon has been sent packing. Steve didn’t destroy the magazines; it happened the other way around.
Let’s play a game. Let’s play prophecy. I’ll go first. Trump’s time in office will run along lines set down long ago by the American Enterprise Institute, the Beltway’s chief employer of men in bowties who think college basketball players get too good a deal. You know the drill: Blah blah corporate handouts, yadda yadda military spending, ahem ahem the one percent, cough cough cut the NEA. The delusions of the Trump years will be the ordinary make-believe of your Humvee-owning neighbor, not the fantasies of a demented barker. The Breitbart crowd is slowly being marginalized, and Bannon with them.
The tale of Trump is the same as always: failure to launch. The Orangeman promised a change. Compelling vision. No wonder people flocked to him. He guaranteed broad, sweeping redesign of the national manse. There would be winning, by God. Even his invocation of yesterday’s glory was ambitious. To rebuild everything according to past specification is an onerous project. Wild stuff! Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea!
But even before he won, there was no mystery about his effectiveness. There wouldn’t be any.
Changing the world takes an act of concerted will, a concrete goal, and the expertise to pull it off. Trump and his team had none of these. To the extent that Donald believed in anything, it was what the crowd responded to and what Bannon told him.
As for concerted will, Trump’s people do not possess the discipline or the expertise to change the way business is done in Washington. Or the systems of power. Or the habits of the ruling class. They have made several stabs at it, in their version of good faith. But the machinery of institutions raised up and crushed them. They overreached with the travel ban, alienated the bros of Congress with unenforceable threats, and energized the opposition. The attempted repeal of the ACA was farce.
Lacking the rudimentary tools to even kill off the arts, they turned to the people who had hopped aboard during the final months of the campaign, the people who did have knowledge, planning, and institutions: the machinery of the Beltway right. After the early days of the alt-right follies, the conservatives who sinew this administration are returning to what they know.
If Trump’s budget is nothing of what he promised in 2016, they are part of the reason why. The sharp-eyed among the national press spotted it last autumn. On Nov. 22 of last year, Politico’s Katie Glueck wrote a story about Trump’s transition team, subtitled “The Heritage Foundation has emerged as a driving force as Trump tries to staff up the federal government.” Mike Pence’s ties to the heavily-bankrolled think tank run bone-deep.
In Glueck’s article, she quotes conservative activist Marjorie Dannenfelser:
Heritage is “absolutely the fulcrum, and essential to staffing the administration with people who reflect Trump’s commitments across the board,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent group that opposes abortion rights. “I can say it’s been a source of great confidence during the election to know that principled people were planning for a Trump administration.”
Trump’s budget, which cut practically everything but the military, could have been taken right out of the Foundation’s shadowy playbook. The Heritage’s budget proposal, titled “Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for Fiscal Year 2018,” begins its list of proposals with the beautifully paradoxical “Slow the growth in spending, while fully funding national security needs.” When you read this document, you are reading the organ grinder behind Trump. Just like every other Republican President since Reagan.
And so down goes Stephen Bannon. Appropriate that the man made so much of his money from Seinfeld reruns. His removal is essentially the closing shot of a nineties sitcom: a plot we’ve seen a hundred times before. A clueless character screwing up one last time. Everybody else offstage laughing at him. Curtains.