Is ‘Bannon the Barbarian’ Brutus to Trump’s Caesar?
PUBLISHED: 01:00 24 August 2017 | UPDATED: 09:02 24 August 2017
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Steve Bannon’s sacking has been cheered by many who saw him at an alt-right puppet master. But could he been even more dangerous outside the White House?
Donald Trump once told me he rarely read books and much preferred perusing balance sheets.
So, it’s highly unlikely he’s read Machiavelli’s The Prince or any Edmund Burke, but maybe he should have?
With the Trump White House resembling the sort of intrigue-ridden, backstabbing Italian courts Machiavelli was so familiar with, there’s a classic quote from the Italian thinker regarded as the father of political science that seems to ring out as loud as The Liberty Bell in the wake of Steve Bannon’s ousting from the White House (an event predicted in this column last week): ”The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”
Or from Edmund Burke: “The greater the power the more dangerous the abuse.”
Unlike the POTUS he so significantly helped power into the White House, Bannon is a voracious reader of political history and philosophy, including the works of Machiavelli and Burke. And there’s a Machiavelli quote that sums up both Bannon’s political philosophy and the election-winning strategy he sold to his intellectually inferior admirer The Donald: “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo, I want to overthrow it.”
Trump also once told me he wasn’t exactly au fait with Shakespeare’s work. But the one Shakespeare play he certainly knows all about is Julius Caesar. If only because earlier this summer he thanked his supporters who disrupted a controversial Public Theater production in New York’s Central Park in which Caesar was played as a bouffant blond-haired, power-obsessed Trump character with his wife Calpurnia portrayed as a statuesque Slovenian-accented Melania lookalike.
The assassination scene enraged Trump loyalists, but should serve as a reminder that Brutus was a man who professed to love Caesar even while wielding the assassin’s knife in the name of a greater purpose.
So could Steve Bannon turn out to be Brutus to Trump’s Caesar and deliver the fatal blows to his presidency?
It’s a scenario that looms across the American political landscape like Monday’s total eclipse of the sun after just one week of Bannon’s exile from the court of King Donald.
It began with Bannon, back at the helm of the alt-right website Breitbart News, still effectively pledging his love and loyalty to Trump and pledging to wage war for a POTUS he depicted as being isolated and surrounded by “Globalist Secret Democrats” who’d taken over the White House.
The fact that the “Secret Democrats” enemy clearly included Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner certainly added a Machiavellian flavour to it all. While, like Brutus, Bannon perceives a higher purpose to carry on campaigning for – in this case the “America First” philosophy, and the Breitbart alt-right appeal platform, that won the White House.
The uncompromising message from Bannon in the wake of his ousting as White House chief strategist ran: “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over. Now I’m free. I’ve got my hands back on my weapons. Someone said, ‘it’s Bannon the Barbarian’. I am definitely going to crush the opposition. There’s no doubt. I built a fucking machine at Breitbart. And now I’m going back, knowing what I know, and we’re about to rev that machine up.”
There is little doubt that Bannon’s downfall was primarily a coup mounted via an alliance between new chief of staff General John Kelly, Ivanka and Jared Kushner, national security General HL McMaster and Trump’s National Economic Council chair Gary Cohn. With a little help from external influencers, including Rupert Murdoch and generally supported by a Republican party establishment reeling from Trump’s grotesque, un-presidential mishandling of the Charlottesville carnage fallout, his plummeting poll ratings and the image of an erratic, narcissist POTUS presiding over a dysfunctional administration.
Bannon’s efforts to oust McMaster and the national security adviser’s antipathy to Bannon have been the talk of Capitol Hill for weeks, while Cohn’s hostility to Bannon’s anti-globalist “America First” credo had become a running sore. Bannon delighted in calling Cohn “Global Gary”. (Cohn who, like Jared Kushner is Jewish, is believed to have threatened to resign over the president’s U-turn on blaming neo-Nazis and white supremacists for Charlottesville and blamed Bannon’s influence).
Significantly, Trump’s first public reaction to Bannon’s departure was a tweet (what else?) that said: “I want to thank Steve Bannon for his service. He came to the campaign during my run against Crooked Hillary Clinton – it was great! Thanks S.”
To some observers, it was a confirmation that the President himself wasn’t the prime mover in ejecting Bannon the Barbarian. Or maybe it was a genuine recognition by The Donald – an avid follower of Breitbart News and regular guest on Bannon’s right-wing radio show well before he decided to run for the presidency – of the debt he owed him for formulating his campaign philosophy and ruthlessly masterminding its strategic execution?
It’s also believed the anti-Bannon faction at the White House, including the Kushners, skilfully played into Trump’s own egomania by flagging up the chief of staff’s mushrooming personal media profile, as well as blaming him for many of the embarrassing leaks to the “fake news media” that have become POTUS’s overwhelming obsession.
Certainly Trump is known to have privately ranted over a leading magazine cover, shortly after his inauguration, that billed Bannon as the “real” president. While a new book, Devil’s Bargain by the Bloomberg journalist Joshua Green, a Bannon confidant, also very much reinforces the narrative of Bannon as the intellectual puppet-master of the Trump campaign. Its contents were very much flagged-up to a non-book reading but less than amused President by the Kushners, Kelly and Cohn, among other Bannon critics in the West Wing. So was Bannon’s brazen dismissal of Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric against North Korea and contemptuous rejection of the President’s suggestion of “military action”.
In addition, The Donald is known to have regularly ranted over the Saturday Night Live sketch where Bannon looms large as The Grim Reaper behind the Resolute Desk, leaving Trump relegated to a tiny neighbouring desk, playing like a child with an expandable plastic ball.
And if that initial post-sacking pledge of support had left Trump wondering what his former chief strategist’s definition of loyalty amounted to, he didn’t have long to wait. It came with Breitbart News’ reaction to his major policy reversal speech on Afghanistan, a decision that delighted Trump’s generals but drew derision from Bannon’s Breitbart News and may well play badly across much of the President’s core support base, even if it temporarily rallies support from some of his Republican critics on Capitol Hill.
“Trump’s America First Base Unhappy With Flip-Flop Afghanistan speech”, ran one Breitbart headline. Another mockingly dubbed Trump “His McMaster’s Voice” and the overriding theme was to paint this latest Trump U-turn as a “surrender” to the Washington political/military “swamp” establishment and a betrayal of his campaign promises to keep American troops out of foreign conflicts. “A waste of time”, Bannon’s Breitbart was eager to remind us (with archive footage to reinforce it), was how Candidate Trump had repeatedly dismissed President Obama’s Afghan involvement policy.
Cast as Brutus to The Donald’s Caesar again and Breitbart News is the dagger with which Bannon The Barbarian apparently either intends to politically assassinate a treacherous President or rescue him by slaying those enemies (family included) in the White House who have taken him hostage and ‘forced’ him away from the ‘true path’ laid out by his ousted strategy Svengali.
The prospect of more US troops being committed again in Afghanistan, with more body bags inevitably coming home, could well become the political battleground between President Trump and many of those who elected him on that “America First” ticket devised by Bannon and, with the weapon of Breitbart News back at his disposal, it’s a battle Bannon seems hellbent on leading from the front.
As this column also forecast last week, Bannon stands to become a bigger threat to Trump outside the White House than in it. Quite apart from his enhanced public profile, he can count on megabucks donor backing from extreme right wing billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Robert Mercer, the hedge fund and big data tycoon.
Nigel Farage, once a close confidant and ally of Trump, Bannon and Mercer, was one of the few international politicians to publicly back Bannon, tweeting “Very sorry to see my friend Steve Bannon go. His political brain will be badly missed”. But Farage’s lament may not be unconnected to the fact that the Kushners and chief of staff Kelly have succeeded in persuading Trump the former UKIP leader is bad news and have shutdown his access to the President.
US media circles are rife with speculation that, with their fiscal muscle behind him, Bannon plans to build a right-wing TV, radio and digital media empire aimed at eclipsing Fox News. After Rupert Murdoch’s role in backing his sacking and James Murdoch’s withering condemnation of Trump’s Charlottesville response, there are clear signs that Fox News’ historical support for Trump may be cooling.
To the undoubted chagrin of anti-Murdoch friends in the Labour and Liberal parties, I didn’t view James Murdoch’s intervention as a PR exercise designed to take the heat off Fox News’ own sexual harassment scandals and support its Sky takeover bid. For what it’s worth, I thought his email to all Fox staff was one of the best and boldest by any major figure in the US and it also put Theresa May’s lame response to shame in the process.
“I can’t even believe I have to write this: Standing up to Nazis is essential. There are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen. Or terrorists. Democrats, Republicans and others must all agree on this and it compromises nothing for them to do so,” declared the young Murdoch. It was powerful language that infuriated Bannon, Breitbart and their disciples, along with the decision by Murdoch and his wife to donate $1m to the Breitbart-baiting Anti Defamation League. It also certainly cost Fox News some regular viewers, even that’s likely to be countered by a boost from big advertisers shaken by the Charlottesville horror and President Trump’s deeply divisive, dangerous mishandling of the crisis.
Certainly Bannon’s Breitbart no longer view Fox as sufficiently right-wing enough and regard it as ripe to be challenged by a still more conservative rival with greater appeal to the kind of hard alt-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white nationalists and neo-Nazis who turned out at Charlottesville. Ironically, it’s a revival of the media empire project Trump and Bannon cooked up together when they expected to lose last year’s presidential election and then had to abandon when they and not Clinton won the keys to the White House.
Meanwhile, POTUS is now under increased pressure to rid himself of the rest of the ex-Breitbart cadre still in the West Wing on the basis that their loyalty lies primarily with the man whose patronage put them there – Bannon. The far right British-born adviser Sebastian Gorka, a man frequently accused of links to neo-Nazi groups, and the anti-immigrant senior policy adviser and speechwriter Stephen Miller are hardly in line for West Wing long-service medals apparently.
But can clearing out Steve Bannon and his placemen and reversing policy on Afghanistan repair the race relations damage caused by the catastrophic train crash of his Charlottesville mitigation on behalf of those white supremacists, KKK supporters, neo-Nazis and other assorted far right nasties? It certainly wasn’t helped by social media death threats and general hate messages sent to the mother of Heather Heyer, the young anti-fascist protester murdered there. Or by her mother’s refusal to take calls from POTUS, one of which was so crassly misjudged by the White House they made it in the middle of her daughter’s funeral.
And in a further display of Trump’s crass insensitivity, his reaction to the Barcelona terrorist atrocity included tweeting the historically debunked myth of how US General John Pershing put down an Islamic uprising in early 20th century, US-occupied Philippines by executing Muslim prisoners with “bullets dipped in pigs” blood’ and thus, boasted a deluded POTUS, “ended Islamic insurgency for 35 years”.
Later in the week “perfect” was how Trump described his response to the Charlottesville horror at a Make America Great Again rally in Phoenix, Arizona and guaranteed raising the US racial tension thermometer higher still.
He again blamed the “fake news media” for its coverage of Charlottesville, as police used pepper gas to disperse a face-off between rival crowds.
Can The Donald, the ultimate narcissist ego-tripper, somehow be dragged by wiser counsel along the path toward something faintly resembling a normal, mainstream presidency?
Can the reality of big businessmen deserting him, along with much of the Republican party establishment, concentrate the hubristic butterfly mind of a man whose political hero remains Richard Nixon and who too often seems to echo Nixon’s infamous Watergate assertion “When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal”?
Big question with highly unpredictable answers. Such is the growing hostility toward the Trump presidency, even among Capitol Hill Republicans, that the respected Brookings Institute has just forecast that he could be within half a dozen votes of impeachment after the Summer Recess.
Hanging over the survival, or otherwise, is the Russian Connection criminal investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Grand Jury he’s already empanelled. Mueller is now starting to work his way through questioning White House staffers, past and present, together with Trump campaign members and business associates of the Trump family business empire. Among those due to be quizzed are Bannon and his Breitbart crew in the West Wing. After the events of the last week or two, how they decide to play it will be the stuff of frenetic Washington gossip.
With a growing number of senior Republicans teaming up with their Democrat rivals to block POTUS’s powers to try and sack Mueller as he threatened to do not so log ago, the spectre of another potential Watergate refuses to go away.
But as one senior Republican senator admitted to me: “Afghanistan may rally us behind the President briefly, but it can’t cancel out the tidal wave of doubt over his integrity, competence and the contempt so many of us on Capitol Hill feel toward him over his Charlottesville disgrace.
“When I watched the publicity footage of the President and the First Lady staring at this week’s eclipse – with the President even having to be reminded to put on his protective spectacles – a kind of symbolic vision engulfed me. What America needs now is a total eclipse of this dark presidency and somehow letting the light of decency back into our public life.”
Paul Connew is a media commentator and broadcaster