Bannon: Robespierre of the Right
Events since Wednesday—when excerpts of journalist Michael Wolff’s new White House profile surfaced, prompting an unprecedented White House response—have roiled Bannonworld like never before. Since then, the former White House chief strategist has publicly lost his most generous financial backer, the secretive Mercer family, and is reportedly in the throes of surviving a coup attempt against him at Breitbart News.
“Yesterday morning, he was key,” eminent immigration hardliner Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told The Washington Post Thursday. “Today, I’m not sure.” For some on the Right, this has been a long time coming. “Bannon’s importance has always been overstated, especially on policy formation,” American Affairs editor Julius Krein, who supported the broader Trump movement before renouncing it last summer, told me last month. And allies of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, think they are nearing a rout of their old foe. Further, Matt Drudge, who hates Bannon, is certifiably out for blood.
The president is, of course, a day to day player. Earlier this week, the idea that Steve Bannon could successfully run for the nation’s highest office himself was treated as implausible, but not outlandishly so, among those who entertained the idea in Washington.
A sudden, Wednesday afternoon invective against his old ally replete with the letterhead “PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES” abruptly shook all that up. Given the depth of personal criticism Bannon is said to have levied against the president’s family in this book, allies of the president insist the move was more than fair game.
It is clear inertia and reporting in recent weeks brought out in the open what was openly whispered in the former White House chief strategist’s orbit for some time: that Bannon doesn’t see himself as just the man behind the curtain.
Should the broader Russia matter, or fatigue, or political impossibility preclude a re-election bid by Donald Trump, an attempt by Bannon, his putative ideological heir, to succeed him seemed near-assured. More daunting would be a direct primary challenge to the president himself.
But should the president be vulnerable, or should the president drastically abandon nationalist-populism, would the former businessman, Hollywood producer, military man and Richmond, Virginia native attempt to vault himself to the world-historical significance he sees for himself? As one veteran political observer notes to me, Bannon’s barnstorming around the country for candidates of his choosing mirrors Richard Nixon’s approach in the run-up to 1968: “You’re officially there for someone else, but you’re really, in part, campaigning for yourself.”
“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon told the historian Ronald Radosh at a party several years ago. Bannon is said to have been recently reading a biography of Robespierre, not exactly dispelling the impression he has a penchant for this sort of thing.
Today, to much of the establishment, Bannon’s White House ambitions, and perhaps his broader ideology of nationalist-populism, look doomed. Rosie Gray and McKay Coppins conclude as much in The Atlantic: “The Death of Trumpism Without Trump.” “Bannon was delusional,” budding millennial conservative star, and Breitbart apostate, Ben Shapiro told the pair, “There is no Trumpist movement, there is just Trump.”
Others fervently disagree, including the influential Ann Coulter. “Unlike so-called conservative intellectuals, Trump’s base loved him BECAUSE OF HIS IDEAS,” she told the outlet.
Coulter’s influence has been laid bare by the Wolff book as well: she reportedly personally told President-elect Donald Trump to limit the White House influence of his family, to obviously mixed success.
“I always thought that Trump needed Bannon to provide some sort of ideological ballast and direction, and the split between the two men surely moves Trump towards the GOP establishment and Wall Street types,” Scott McConnell, founding editor of The American Conservative, tells me. “I dread the Trump administration without Bannonism.”
Bannon has mostly been the subject of a sort of perverse media fascination (bolstered by the portrayal of him as the literal grim reaper on “Saturday Night Live”) leading some, including conservative journalists such as former White House correspondent Alex Pfeiffer to argue he’s overrated—honestly near about as harsh a headline as Bannon has ever garnered. What Bannon has not been the subject of, unlike survivor Donald Trump, is rounds of media and political establishment obituaries. That’s all changed now.