“Look at the policies he has had over the last year—I couldn’t be happier with what the president has done,” Stephen K. Bannon declared Tuesday night to a couple of hundred cheering acolytes—a rare gathering of Donald Trump supporters on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“It’s historic!” Bannon added, to whoops of approval in an airless basement ballroom at the Cosmopolitan Club.
He warned darkly, however, that if Republicans don’t retain majority control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections next month, the president and his agenda will fall victim to an ongoing “Nullification Project” being pursued by his enemies on the “cultural-Marxist left,” i.e. Democratic office-holders.
“That’s what life is gonna be like every day if the Democrats take the House of Representatives,” Bannon said, predicting a welter of subpoenas, investigations and show trials, to say nothing of an impeachment proceeding. “They are going to grind the Trump movement and the Trump program to a halt… It’s a version of the French Revolution, and I don’t say that lightly. That was a mob. That was an out-of-control mob.”
Despite the stuffy atmosphere, and a thermostat that apparently had been turned up to oppressive, Bannon was wearing several layers of shirts and a ratty-looking suede coat—that is, his trademark fashion statement that might be described as “homeless chic.”
The star attraction at a screening of his recently released propaganda film Trump@War, an event sponsored by a right-leaning group called Viewpoint, Bannon had a private camera crew following him around to memorialize his wisdom. Bannon, as usual, was, by turns, entertaining and earnest, occasionally giving the audience reading assignments—J.D. Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy; a 1999 tome by two Chinese colonels on Beijing’s strategy to beat the United States economically and strategically on the world stage; and the attorney general of Pennsylvania’s 300-plus-page report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Even so, Bannon looked spent, and maybe a tad fragile as he bravely smiled through the apocalypse.
Anyone who’s had his heart broken in the savage game of love may feel some degree of empathy for the soon-to-be 65-year-old Bannon.
A mere three years ago, when he was executive chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon placed his entire alt-right, angry-populist, aggrieved-nationalist media juggernaut at the service of his inamorata—or at least the political version of same, Donald J. Trump.
The Bannon-Trump romance blossomed as Breitbart News abandoned all pretense of journalistic ethics in favor of feral populism, in order to help the former reality television star win the Republican presidential nomination while trashing the Republican establishment and cruelly vanquishing every single one of his opponents.
Bannon was ultimately welcomed into the marriage bed, as it were, when Trump chose him to run his miraculously successful general election campaign against that nasty woman, Hillary Clinton, and then rewarded him with the awesome title of Chief White House strategist.
And then—hardly unusual for two men with five divorces between them—their marriage began to fray. The president became annoyed to the point of rage that the mainstream media, aka “the enemy of the people,” regularly credited Bannon, and not Trump, with his victories, views and most compelling talking points. “THE GREAT MANIPULATOR,” shouted a Time magazine cover that featured Bannon’s gigantic, brooding, rosacea-graced visage.
Bannon, who had persuaded the president to give him a seat on the National Security Council—an honor that was promptly rescinded by a new national security advisor, Gen. H.R McMaster, amid rising protests inside and outside the administration—lasted only eight months. It was a fractious period marked by public embarrassments—such as several seat-of-the pants anti-Muslim executive orders overturned by the federal judiciary—and unwise bureaucratic skirmishes with more powerful colleagues, especially first daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner (whom Bannon openly derided as “Javanka” and “the Democrats”), before he agreed to leave the White House staff in August 2017.
The last straw was Trump’s well-founded belief that Bannon had been a primary source for Michael Wolff’s January 2018 book Fire and Fury, a mega-bestseller that portrayed the 45th president as an incompetent ignoramus—at least in the opinion of a White House staff that considered him not only unqualified and possibly nuts, but also a danger to the country.
Suddenly the entire White House communications operation—which usually operated with the ruthless efficiency of a clown car—was laser-focused on turning Bannon into a burnt little cinder. Trump’s take-no-prisoners personal lawyer, Charles Harder, sent Bannon a cease-and-desist letter accusing him of violating his nondisclosure agreement.
The blowup resulted in Bannon losing his perch at Breitbart and being cast into the outer darkness. On Twitter and elsewhere, the president himself dubbed him “Sloppy Steve” and speculated that he had “lost his mind.”
Bannon, who these days tends to travel with a team of bodyguards, went on to back a series of losing candidates, notably accused pedophile Roy Moore, who lost a solidly Republican Senate seat to a Democrat in Alabama. Thus wounded, Bannon left the country to wander the world like the Flying Dutchman, attempting to gin up angry populist movements in Europe and Asia.
But on Tuesday night, back in New York, Bannon was determined to be upbeat and affect a mien of sangfroid concerning the president’s vicious insults.
“Remember, I come from a five-kid Irish family. I’ve been called a lot worse. I have two brothers,” Bannon said when I asked him if he has managed yet to get himself back into Trump’s good graces. “I graduated from junior high about 40 years ago,” he added—though actually it was more like 50 years ago. “I don’t care if the guy likes me,” he insisted. “I don’t care.”
Bannon continued: “I dedicated my life for the last nine years to this populist movement. OK? I’m about one thing. I’m about winning. OK? The West Wing is like junior high school: Do they like you? Are in favor? Are you out of favor?
“Here’s what I know: Last night, on national TV, in front of thirty or forty thousand people, with 100,000 tickets sold, he called himself a ‘nationalist.’ If you look at his policies. If you look at the way he’s running this [Midterm election] campaign, if you look at the way he’s made this into a national referendum, I couldn’t be happier with the president. He’s a good man.”
Bannon added that it’s important for Trump’s supporters to differentiate between “the signal and the noise”— that is, to ignore the noise and listen to the signal.
“There’s an awful lot of noise, right? You’re gonna have a flash-bang grenade. You’re gonna have Stormy Daniels called ‘horseface,’ right? He’s gonna say ‘Sloppy Steve, you’ve lost your mind, et cetera.’ You gotta accept it. You’ve got to take that with everything else. I have nothing but admiration for him. He’s a terrific guy.”
Certainly Bannon’s protracted documentary-polemic—which he conceded is probably 15 or 20 minutes too long—leaves no confusion as to whether President Trump is a heroic, courageous and brilliant figure who strides the nation, and the planet, as a giant among Lilliputians.
The movie—which includes particularly gruesome footage of a prisoner of ISIS being burned alive, along with repeated cutaways to bloodied Trumpkins, and left-wing protesters vandalizing storefronts on Inauguration Day in Washington—focuses on Teleprompter Trump as opposed to Twitter Trump.
Nor does it mention the neo-Nazi carnage in Charlottesville (or Trump’s disturbing acceptance of it), or any number of alarming presidential behaviors that Bannon no doubt discarded as “noise.” The film’s narrators—really hagiographers—include such worthies as Corey Lewandowski, Sebastian Gorka and Fox News personality Pete Hegseth. There’s even a heartwarming clip of Bannon’s former adversary Ivanka introducing her father at the Republican National Convention.
In his remarks after the screening, Bannon was at pains to say nice things about former foes, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a leader of the GOP Beltway establishment whom he famously threatened to destroy; he even mentioned Kushner in a positive light, noting that they joined together to persuade Trump to make Saudi Arabia his first foreign visit.
Under questioning by a second journalist in the ballroom, media writer Jon Levine of The Wrap, Bannon stressed the value of Trump’s strategic relationship with the desert kingdom, called Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman “a reformer,” and minimized the importance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal Oct. 2 murder, with his body apparently hacked to pieces with a bone saw, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“It takes me more than 30 seconds to answer your questions. You want me to say, ‘No. It’s absolutely terrible.’ I’m not gonna say that, OK? This is the problem with the media,” Bannon chided Levine, adding cheerfully, “OK, I’m gonna field-strip you.”
Bannon did concede, however, that “this situation with Khashoggi is a very concerning situation,” and added: “What the president has done is to try to reach out, get as much information as possible.”
When Levine pressed Bannon on what Trump’s response to Khashoggi’s death should be, the crowd shouted him down and booed.
“Jon, I’m just trying to help you buddy,” Bannon said with a grin, while declining to answer his question amid audience laughter.
There’s no doubt that Bannon had a much better read on the room than his interlocutor from The Wrap. Shortly after that exchange, an elderly man sitting next to me chuckled and said softly into my ear: “Watch out—don’t get dismembered.”