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Brain AWOL

On the end—and endurance—of the Bannon era

It was only fitting that a week like this would culminate in the departure of Trump’s brain—one of many half-admiring titles the media lavished on Steve Bannon, white nationalist king of trolls and senior policy adviser to the Trump White House. Bannon’s shitcanning (still evidently an official work-in-progress) had been rumored to be under way for more than a week among administration Kremlinologists—though the former Breitbart captain’s dismissal, like his ascension, defied all manner of rational explanation. To hear Bannon himself tell it, he submitted his resignation on August 7, but was either asked or felt emotionally compelled to stay on longer in the wake of the Charlottesville “blood and soil” rally—maybe because this moment evidently cried out for still more spittle-flecked identitarian rage from the entitled white power elite? Or perhaps the master of nationalist strategy was staying on past his formal envoi to put the finishing touches on the grand China trade war?

That was the gist, in any event, of a surreal conversation Bannon initiated with American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner earlier this week, as he was evidently looking to fill his rapidly expanding share of Oval Office downtime. The ever-eloquent provocateur-without-portfolio told Kuttner that the establishment bureaucrats in the State and Defense departments were “wetting themselves.” “To me,” Bannon explained, “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away . . . ten years at most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.” When it comes to matters like piracy and patent-infringement from Chinese firms, Bannon announced “we’re going to run the table on these guys. We’ve come to the conclusion that they’re in an economic war and they’re crushing us.” He then proceeded to explain how he was staking the official East Asian Defense desks with “hawks.” “That’s a fight I fight every day here. . . . We gotta do this. The president’s default position is to do it, but the apparatus is going crazy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s like, every day.”

The blood-and-soil media strategist can feel with no small justification that his work here is done.

Even allowing for all the standard Talmudic disclaimers of White House leaking—that Bannon might have used Kuttner to float a trial balloon to save his job and in the process incite some good old-fashioned economic nationalist outrage against his enemies—this is not the talk of someone who recently handed in his resignation. Indeed, he rang off with Kuttner with an invitation to discuss China policy with him at the White House after Labor Day—an appointment that now evidently would have to be kept at a park bench in nearby Lafayette Square.

But either way, the rolling disaster of the Trump era has long transcended the Beltway sport of anxious Oval Office second-guessing. Bannon’s pet policy initiatives, from the Muslim travel ban to the great-powers-for-dummies vision of resurgent global trade wars, were only of value to Trump to the extent that they furnished the president with what he fondly imagined was a position of righteous America-rescuing moral authority. Now that Trump himself has decisively sullied that fanciful presidential image with his own unprompted defenses of alt-right racists, there’s nothing Bannon can do to help shore up the foundering myth of White House competence. Trump suggested as much himself during Tuesday’s unhinged press conference, when in reply to a question about Bannon’s standing, he noted that Bannon had been a late addition to the 2016 campaign’s inner circle of strategists. (In reality, the Bannon-Trump alliance dates back to at least 2014.) For good measure, Trump also insisted that Steve Bannon, like every entitled white racist reactionary wreaking havoc through the land, had been treated very unfairly by the press—and was, indeed, not at all a racist, and a very fine man.

By all accounts, this very fine man will return to the helm of the MAGA-besotted Breitbart shop. And he will leave behind a full retinue of Breitbart-trained advisers, from the alt-right Slender Man Stephen Miller to the resume-padding fascist sympathizer Sebastian Gorka.[*] So, far from signaling a longed-for shake-up of Trump senior staff designed to put the adults in charge at last, Bannon’s departure comes at a time when the blood-and-soil media strategist can feel with no small justification that his work here is done. He’s installed a president who seeks, entirely under his own steam, the closest possible identification with white-nationalist bigotry and thuggery. He’s helped galvanize a hard corps of like-minded ideological enforcers in the center of White House power. And he’s also a savvy enough media hand, in all likelihood, to recognize that these alliances will only benefit further from Bannon-branded propaganda back at the Breitbart homestead. Throughout his three-year dalliance with Trump, Bannon would in unguarded moments call his future boss a “blunt instrument” or an “imperfect vessel.” Now that we are all living amid the true moral calamity bred by such bluntness and emptiness, Bannon can retire to the heart of the white-nationalist agitprop industry and admiringly chronicle his own handiwork.


[*] Update: This article has been revised to reflect the preliminary reports that White House aide Julia Hahn may also be leaving her job.