Steve Bannon is a man in a hurry. After all, when you’re dedicated to engineering a revolution in human consciousness, patience is a luxury. Transformational cultism is nothing without conflict, and the president’s former chief strategist has always been eager to get on with it.
That eagerness is perhaps why he went behind the president’s back in August to tell a liberal journalist that Donald Trump’s overtures toward China amid negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program were folly. Not only was the effort a waste, Bannon told his flabbergasted and adversarial interlocutor, this misguided project interfered with the Sino-American confrontation that had long haunted his imagination. Bannon’s overthought strategy quickly backfired. The liberal journalist in whom he had confided eagerly exposed the White House chief strategist’s efforts to undermine the administration in which he served.Forty-eight hours later, Bannon and Trump parted ways.
Untethered from government, Bannon’s immediate post-White House career held some promise. The former Breitbart proprietor came home, promising to continue inspiring a revolutionary consciousness in the masses while simultaneously undercutting the president’s allies in Congress. It might have worked. By all accounts, Bannon still had the president’s ear when he wanted it. His deep-pocketed financial backers were still with him. And just a few weeks after Bannon’s ouster, he took the lion’s share of credit for Roy Moore’s unlikely Alabama Senate primary victory over two better-qualified candidates who nevertheless had varying degrees of establishmentarian stink on them. If Bannon couldn’t have his conflict abroad, he would engineer a “civil war” at home. But then, the bottom fell out.
Roy Moore lost, and Alabama elected a Democrat. Under pressure from his board, hedge-fund manager and Breitbart financier Robert Mercer resigned from his firm, withdrawing his support for Bannon and his progeny. Trump’s former campaign manager irritated the president when he provided the author Michael Wolff with on-the-record quotes, and savaged the president’s son, daughter, and son-in-law. Bannon was forced to resign his post at Breitbart. Robert Mercer’s daughter and Breitbart funder, Rebekah Mercer, laid the blame for the website’s image and traffic problems at Bannon’s feet. Suddenly, the man who fancied himself the nationalist-populist movement’s Lenin was transformed into its Trotsky.
Despite his setbacks, though, it is easy to see why this figure who has cultivated an image of malevolence has discovered a new sense of vindication. The trade war he wanted with China is on. H.R. McMaster is out, and John Kelly seems likely to join him soon. Jared Kushner has been stripped of his security clearance. Don Jr. and Ivanka are reduced to symbolic presences in Trump’s orbit. Bannon is not, however, waiting for the president to realize that his alt-right whisperer wasn’t such a malign influence after all. He’s making his own luck.
The civil war Bannon hoped to ignite within the GOP might have fizzled for now, but he hasn’t given up on the promotion of a new nationalistic paradigm. He’s set on sowing discord in what was once fertile soil for racially tinged absolutism: Europe.
This month, Bannon set off on a tour of the Old World. He headlined a conference of the French far-right National Front party, serving as the opening act for its leader, Marine Le Pen. He joined the representatives of Germany’s nationalistic leaders in Zurich for a planning session. He’s glommed onto the head of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement, which recently won a surprising mandate from the voters. Finally, he visited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban whom he called a “hero” and “the most significant guy on the scene right now.” Orban has positioned himself as an alternative to the ideals of the far-right, anti-Semitic Jobbik Party, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between them. In a speech this month, Orban denounced the “enemy” who is “crafty,” “international,” “speculates with money,” and “does not have a homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” Subtly is not a nationalist virtue.
Bannon wants to make himself as menacing and outsized a figure as he can, presenting himself as a one-man pole in opposition to the kind of classical internationalist liberalism that has prevailed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet his antics are the uninspiring sort you would expect from a rabble-rouser in desperate need of a new benefactor.
At a Financial Times-sponsored event on Thursday supposedly centered on the “Future of News,” Bannon revealed the “three pillars of his new ideology,” according to Daily Beast correspondent Max Tani: “nationalism, cryptocurrencies, and digital sovereignty.” Far from striking fear into the hearts of “globalists,” Bannon transformed himself into a punchline. This is the kind of self-indulgent nonsense that should dribble out of an unnaturally dry mouth amid a late-night dorm-room jaw session, but there’s a method in Bannon’s madness. Proof-of-stake cryptocurrencies is precisely the kind of marketplace in which you’d want to park your capital if you had a paranoid aversion to the existing financial ecosystem, which its detractors insist is an environment based in the trust of governmental fiat. In short, it’s the latest carny act designed to separate a rube from his money. And it will probably work.
This kind of hucksterism may be necessary to fund nationalist revolutionary activities, but it has rendered Bannon a spent force. His utility to Trump is negligible, and his attacks on the president’s beloved children probably ensure that Bannon is beyond rehabilitation. His value to populist movements abroad is thus diminished. Bannon wants to portray himself as an intriguing and approachable thought leader and yet, also, an opponent of enlightened egalitarianism who once said “darkness is good” and meant it. These two conflicting impulses cancel one another out. In the end, the man who once occupied the role held by the likes of Valerie Jarrett and Karl Rove comes off as a joke.