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When future historians come to write the deeply strange story of the presidency of Donald Trump it is to be hoped that the full testimony of Steve Bannon is available for study. Let’s hope the chief strategist was keeping a diary during his time with Trump, or that if such diaries exist they survive the destruction of the rest of us, and civilisation, in the terrible nuclear war of late 2017.
Bannon himself has just been nuked as Trump’s chief strategist, surely at the urging of leading mainstream sensible person John Kelly, a General and recently appointed as the White House chief of staff. Bannon is the third – fourth? fifth? – such firing in the inner circle this summer alone. It is a White House that is akin to a disintegrating Roman Empire in its level of disloyalty, ineptitude and skullduggery. If it wasn’t for the nuclear weapons and all that, I would say that it is now so laughable that it resembles Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii!. Apologies to my favourite American subscribers. You’ll have to Google Up Pompeii!.
But the evaporation of Sean Spicer and his replacement by the Mooch are as nothing to this. Beyond Trump himself, Bannon is Trumpism. Trump would not have become President without Bannon’s ballast and skilful insurgent strategising. This makes him the key strategist of the first few decades of the 21st century. He changed history.
I’ll skip the in-depth essay for this week’s newsletter that I had almost completed on the events in Barcelona, and perhaps publish that tomorrow. Instead, on what is a breaking story I’ll simply give you my observations from afar on what Bannon managed to do, why he went and the toll of his departure. If you want a denunciation of how terrible Trump is, this isn’t it. I’ve written plenty on the existential menace of Trumpism and this is simply my take on the mechanics of the Trump Presidency (a crisis for the West) and the implications.
Bannon was the real brains in Trumpism
When Trump the celebrity first announced that he was running in the summer of 2015 (and I walked on past Trump Tower in Manhattan thinking his candidacy would come to nothing) it was with a simplistic strategy that owed a lot to vintage agitator and rogue machine-operator Roger Stone. It was a bid that was high on anti-establishment shock value useful for the primary season (think All-Star Wrestling) and low on the meaningful connection that Trump needed to convert voters in a general election. It was clever Bannon, the editor of insurgent alt-right media site Breitbart until he joined the Trump train, who saw that Trump post-Stone could be matched up with alienated voters with an economic and cultural killer double punch:
1) Alienated post-industrial America was there for the taking
Read Shattered, the supreme tick-tock account on the dire Clinton campaign, and you see that her entitled team were so distant from the voters in the surprising states that cost them the election that they couldn’t even see what they couldn’t see. Deep changes in manufacturing and wages and prices, and in social structure, have taken place in communities and places that now defy traditional voter characterisations. There is a deep poverty of expectation and aspiration, in places where people have a car, a house, a TV, a job probably going nowhere, and a shortage of realistic hope. The most obvious symptom is the US opioid epidemic and the decay it causes. As many as two million Americans are estimated to be addicted to prescription opioids, with 600,000 more again on heroin. Some estimates say more than 50,000 Americans died from overdoses last year. The Associated Press reported this week from Columbus, Ohio, that rescue services arriving at car crash scenes now automactially inject slumped victims with the antidote, naloxone, because there are so many crashes caused by drug users overdosing at the wheel. “There’s no waiting period like we used to see with other drugs where you go buy it, then go home and get high, or go to a party and get high,” Scott Houston, a major with the sheriff’s office in Pamlico County, North Carolina, told AP. “We don’t see that anymore.” In this climate of despair, the Democrats of the Clinton era (and what next?) look like entitled, smug, puritan, coast-dwelling aristocrats with the wrong fixations. At least Trump, they reason, speaks their robust language and promises to stir things up. Trump won Ohio by a margin of 8.1%. That’s a state Obama won in 2008 and 2012.
2) The far-left and even much of the soft-left has gone bananas
At the risk of repeating an anecdote, the observation from an American to me the lunchtime after the election as we sat eating burgers in New York brought me up sharp. The biggest story, other than the election, on the US networks for more than year had been the rows over “transgender” bathrooms, he observed. To tens of millions of worried Americans this was proof that ultra-liberals (intolerant, Clintonian) were never satisfied. For their next trick, while their country is in real social and economic turmoil, the social justice warriors were/are pushing to abolish the difference between men and women. Switch your brain on if you can’t see that this rightly resonates with tens of millions of taxpayers – here and in the US – who don’t want life to be an undergraduate experiment in the next piece of bossy muppetry. Bannon grasped all this, and married it with economic fear. His anti-globalism and fight-the-left culture war rhetoric allied with Trump’s celebrity created a monster, and it won in large part because the left has gone round the twist and in doing so enabled a disaster.
Nasty neo-Nazi allies helped
Nazis helped Trump get there. Not because Bannon likes Nazis (he called them losers this week) but because they were useful idiots in the election. Bannon knows his 1920s and 1930s history. Get a street-fight going, get communists cracking skulls and shouting down “patriots”, no matter how unseemly those patriots are, and even if it gets out of control you force “small c” conservative voters to make a choice. They hold their noses and vote for the strongman kicking the communists, anarchists and smug journalists who refuse to tell the patriotic strongman’s twisted version of the story.
Trump can’t do it. He just can’t do it
And then he won. And he’s just crap at the job. Politics at that level requires persuasion, deal-making, cajoling, unifying. Trump has now alienated Congress, business, Muslims, the Jewish lobby, America’s allies, and a lot of voters. Think LBJ, or Reagan, in comparison. And here was the flaw, from Bannon’s perspective. Early on Bannon thought aloud about whether Trump really understood what he was doing, whether he gets what Bannon was trying to do. The answer, clearly, is no. All that matters to Donald is his ego. He measures everything based on whether someone has boosted his ego or been nice to Trump. In this reading, American hero John McCain is bad (who later pays him back, that’s politics.) And somehow President Putin is good. It’s that simple. Do you flatter Trump or not? Nazis like Trump? Well, Nazis are at least okay-ish then, right? No. The sophisticated but relatively young country of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan has this person in charge. Thanks Steve.
Bad for the Trump brand
What matters to the Trumps above all is the Trump brand. Other than mattering to Trump, this matters most to Ivanka (the chosen daughter, and very smart, so smart, as he would say, compared to her dough ball brothers.) Yet, in epic style that will echo down the ages, Dad is trashing what remains of the Trump brand, which threatens the notion of a dynasty in business and political terms. The election was horrible, but elections often are. Much worse for the Trumps, he is turning out (as critics warned) to be a mind-bendingly poor President. People have noticed. History will not be kind.
What happens now?
It is far from original to observe that Bannon’s departure will not change Trump’s personality. Nothing does. He is a narcissist. But… the Russian thing rolls on, with the wonderful American addiction to law and process heading towards a culmination of some sort.
The establishment has taken control
The appointment of Kelly as chief staff, and the work of his old comrade from Iraq, General Mattis, the cerebral and brilliant defense secretary, is all about grabbing the wheel from someone who is inherently incapable. The expelling of the populists and other firings of the summer are aimed at trying to restore some semblance of basic order in the White House that protects enduring American interests which stretch well beyond the four years of a presidential term.
But if the establishment cannot contain Trump, they’ll try to get him out
That’s what is very clearly going on now, as the US’s so-called “deep state” (which I’ve defended before on account of its institutional memory and patriotism) works out whether it can get him into a holding lock, civilising most of his public statements and keeping Trump away from decisions that involve weapons. It is an open question whether they will succeed. Personally, I doubt it can be done because of his immense ego and toddler-style behaviour. Which means they will have to get him to resign, which his supporters say he will never do.