Anthony Trollope once observed that "the apostle of Christianity and the infidel can meet without a chance of a quarrel; but it is never safe to bring together two men who differ about a saint or a surplice."
From their nationalist ideologies (to the extent that either man has a coherent worldview), to their authoritarian tendencies, to their penchant for leaking and generating publicity, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon were always too close for comfort. Interestingly, the scandals erupting from the publication of Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury required both men to make similar errors.
According to the author, his intimate access was granted almost by accident. Wolff says the book came together after he asked Trump if he could hang around and act as a journalistic “fly on the wall”—a request Trump never directly addressed. “Since the new White House was often uncertain about what the president meant or did not mean in any given utterance,” Wolff writes, “his non-disapproval became a kind of passport for me to hang around—checking in each week at the Hay-Adams hotel, making appointments with various senior staffers who put my name in the ‘system,’ and then wandering across the street to the White House and plunking myself down, day after day, on a West Wing couch.”
That’s right: According to Wolff, his amazing access was the product of Trump’s staff not fully comprehending whether the president had actually consented to Wolff’s request.
Likewise, consider that Steve Bannon was reportedly “only minutes away” from releasing a statement disputing the quotes Wolff had attributed to him and praising Don Jr., when Trump issued his harsh statement condemning Bannon. “He was literally just about to respond but backed off when the White House issued the statement,” one source told The Hill. “Bannon had a lengthy window to respond after the book excerpt was first released early Wednesday morning.”
In both instances, this blowup might have been avoided had either man (a) comprehended the seriousness of the situation and (b) communicated clearly.
I bring this up because anticipating problems before they happen and quickly and effectively communicating instructions to your team are necessary skills for people who aspire to work in the highest levels of government. This scandal highlights deficiencies in two very similar men.
In any event, Bannon finally issued a pseudo apology—days later. It came after a string of denunciations, including Trump’s statement; Don Jr.’s vicious Twitter attacks; Bannon’s patron, Rebekah Mercer, cutting ties with him; and President Trump labeling him “Sloppy Steve.” In his tardy statement, Bannon said, “I regret that my delay in responding to the inaccurate reporting regarding Don Jr. has diverted attention from the president’s historical accomplishments in the first year of his presidency.”
I don’t know whether Bannon will ever be welcomed back into Trump World, but I do know that this situation poses an existential threat to his career. Bannon has already been cut off by both the left and mainstream conservatives. His only remaining niche just happens to be Trump’s base. And if it comes down to a choice between Trump and Bannon, Trump wins seven days a week and twice on Sunday. Bannon clearly understands that. Now. Which is why he has issued his statement.
I’m probably not the only one who finds this groveling distasteful. While Trump’s detractors are all too quick to make Hitler references, what we are witnessing feels more Stalin-esque to me. Bannon, who has reportedly described himself as a “Leninist,” actually reminds me more of Stalin. Bannon outmaneuvered better revolutionaries to seize control of Breitbart.com after its visionary founder, Andrew Breitbart, died, much as Uncle Joe did after Lenin’s death. As F. A. Hayek lamented, “The worst get on top.”
Now, the political tables have turned, and Bannon finds himself on the wrong side of a political purge. Less than one year ago, Bannon was so powerful as to be placed on the National Security Council, a security clearance that put him on par with generals. And just a couple months ago, he was flying high, talking about taking down Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and “primarying” every incumbent Republican senator save for Ted Cruz. Now, his ex-friends have been forced to ritualistically bash him, and he has been forced to write an apology. Will he be airbrushed out of pictures? Will he be told he lacks the revolutionary spirit or that he is an “obscurantist” and an “enemy of the people”? If this is season two of a reality show, one is left wondering: Will there be a humiliating show/trial in Bannon’s future?
My guess is that Steve Bannon will make a reappearance in the New Year. He will occasionally whisper in Trump’s ear. But you’re never really fully rehabilitated.