The sad spectacle of Sloppy Steve

January 10, 2018

Danny Katch relishes the humiliation of Steve Bannon--first, because it's fun, but second, because understanding why it happened can help us settle some other scores.

AMONG THE hopeful signs that this new year has more promise than 2017, Steve Bannon's fall from grace doesn't rank as high as the protests rocking Iran or the continuing development of the #MeToo movement.

But I'll take it.

Yes, I know we shouldn't get sucked into the trap of seeing politics as entertainment, where important issues are hidden behind big-name beefs and shifting poll numbers.

Likewise, we should be clear that whatever happens to Steve Bannon's career now that he's been excommunicated by Trump for his unflattering quotes in Michael Wolff's new White House tell-all, Bannon's politics--both in xenophobic content and trolling form--are here to stay, and were, in fact, a growing part of the Republican Party back when Bannon was just a fringe and failing movie director.

Bannon may have been forced to resign as executive chairman of Breitbart News, but the right-wing fanatics who run the website are hoping that will allow them to continue acting as an ideological blunt instrument.

Finally, we know by now that the president's break with Bannon isn't a sign of a turn toward White House "moderation." There were similar hopes last August when Trump's new Chief of Staff John Kelly forced Bannon to quit his official position as chief strategist. Two weeks later came Trump's comments about the "good people" with swastikas in Charlottesville.

Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon (Gage Skidmore | flickr)

Now that we have those caveats out of the way, let's talk about how great it's been to watch Bannon's rapid decline from disruptive genius to Sloppy Steve: a pathetic nobody reduced to groveling for forgiveness from Donald Trump...Junior!

I hate to give Junior's dad credit for anything, but the elder Trump kind of killed it in his blistering press statement about Bannon after the release of Wolff's book: "Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn't as easy as I make it look."

Bannon's public roasting isn't just fun. It's peeling away yet another false narrative--the evil grand master behind the curtain, pulling all the strings--that supposedly explained how the most powerful empire in the world was taken over by a clown and ignoramus.

Nobody was more eager to push that narrative than Bannon, who had a blast trolling a political establishment going through a rare moment of self-doubt after Trump's shocking election.

Bannon also put forward a frighteningly credible vision of turning the Republican Party's contradictory mix of reactionary agendas into a European-style hard-right force that could use nationalism and protectionism to win some workers over to its racist call.

That's still a threat on the horizon of U.S. politics, but at least it's clear now that Sloppy Steve's probably not the guy for the job.

IN HIS own way, Bannon is just as much of a con artist as the president.

Trump's brief statement against his former aide--easily the sharpest thing he's said in many months--included this telling "don't bullshit a bullshitter" nugget: "Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well."

Bannon is a self-proclaimed populist fighting for the forgotten white working class...whose political career was bankrolled by billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer. It was this sugar daddy and sugar sister who, in 2011, gave Breitbart News $10 million on the condition that their Stevie be put on the company's executive board.

When the New Yorker's Jane Mayer reported that story, Bannon told her that there was no conflict because "the Mercers, despite all their luxuries, are 'the most middle-class people you will ever meet.'"

During Trump's first year in office, Bannon's self-proclaimed reputation as a master strategist also turned out to be a sham.

His plan to push for extreme right-wingers like Roy Moore cost the Republicans a Senate seat in Alabama, and he somehow didn't anticipate that, as the New York Times reported last week, wealthy donors would lose interest in backing his primary challengers more mainstream Republicans once they got their loot from the tax bill.

Even more disastrous has been Bannon's overconfidence that racism is a winning issue for the right--leading to the conclusion that Trump shouldn't distance himself from the openly racist "alt-right." Trump followed that advice in the wake of Charlottesville, and ever since, he's been so toxic that Bannon's plans for a "left-right" protectionist alliance have evaporated.

Bannon was fired soon after Charlottesville. At the time, it was reasonable to worry that he might be poised to do even more damage in building the far right outside of the White House than inside.

Instead, it appears that Bannon spent his months out of power trying to regain his relevance among the billionaires. After the passage of the Republican tax bill last month, anonymous Bannon aides told Fox Business Network that their boss had helped to deliver a loophole that would save billions for private equity.

That's an odd thing for a populist to take credit for, but Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf offered a knowing explanation: "This is the way for him to tell the business community and wealthy donors that he's very relevant and someone they should be talking to on a regular basis. It's very smart on his part."

OF COURSE, the clearest proof that Bannon isn't a genius is that he's repeatedly done the one thing that everybody knows not to do when working for Donald Trump: threaten the big dope's ego by calling attention to himself while mouthing off to reporters. But Bannon apparently can't help himself--just like his former boss.

Remember that Bannon got himself fired in the first place after he cold-called Robert Kuttner of the liberal American Prospect for a bizarre rant that included directly contradicting Trump's statements about North Korea.

It couldn't have been that hard for many of the reporters and officials who interacted with Bannon to figure out that he's a blowhard. But he was still able to successfully sell himself as a "right-wing mastermind" for a long time. There are a couple of reasons why.

First, because someone had to be. The only thing more terrifying than an evil genius pulling the strings of a presidential dummy is an entire White House full of dummies. Someone had to take the blame for being the puppet master.

Second, because Bannon's arrogance after last November was a mirror image of our despair. The heart of his "strategy" is that the right wing can and should push ahead as far and as fast as possible because the left is powerless to stop it, and our futile outrage will only galvanize and entertain Trump's base.

Michael Wolff reports that Bannon celebrated our protests at the airports that helped to stop the first iteration of Trump's Muslim travel ban.

Just days after Charlottesville, he told Kuttner: "The Democrats...the longer they talk about identity politics, I got 'em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."

Putting aside the question of whether the Democratic Party is the same thing as the left, this is the heart of Bannonism: that right-wing racism is a more powerful force than left wing anti-racism.

The real arrogance of Steve Bannon comes from the fact that he knows how racism has helped build up reactionary figures from Andrew Jackson through Ronald Reagan, but he seems ignorant of how the fight against racism has fueled every radical movement this country has ever seen.

Bannon badly underestimated the depths of revulsion that followed Charlottesville. By mobilizing in large numbers against the far right in Boston, Gainesville and elsewhere in the months that followed, the left can rightfully take some credit for pushing Sloppy Steve to the political margins.

In the long run, it's up to us to make sure the same thing happens to the whole right wing.

Further Reading

From the archives