The populist former CEO of Breitbart News has so far done a masterful job of climbing the ladder of power in Trump world. Starting as a Trump whisperer and promoter at Breitbart, Steve Bannon managed to maneuver himself onto Donald Trump’s campaign and then into a senior position of power in the White House after Trump’s surprising victory.
But we may look at Bannon’s stunning appointment to the National Security Council and his role in Friday’s poorly executed immigration executive order as the apotheosis of his power in Trump world, though not for the reason one might expect.
According to reports, Bannon and young Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller were the masterminds of the immigration executive order that Trump signed on Friday. But the immigration EO could lead to Bannon’s demise in Trump world not because of the policy it instituted or the PR disaster its poor implementation created, but because of the narrative it birthed.
That narrative is that Bannon, not Trump, is the real power center in the White House, the ideas man behind the Trump revolution. Just go on Twitter. Liberal activists and conservative Trump critics are now employing #PresidentBannon to hammer home the idea. A humiliating cartoon showing a diminutive Trump sitting on Bannon’s lap in the Oval Office by a little-known artist has already garnered 15,000 retweets and 20,000 likes.
There is some basis to believe this narrative. Bannon is an ideologue. He has a particular vision for the United States and the world in a way Trump most likely does not. According to The New York Times, Bannon told colleagues during the presidential campaign that he viewed The Donald as the “imperfect vessel” through which he could achieve his populist revolution. One definition of a vessel is a “hollow container.” This is not high praise.
How do you think Trump will react if he gets word of this new narrative? Do you think he will take it in stride if someone shows him that cartoon? No chance. Trump will tolerate infighting among his staff, but as a narcissist of the highest order, he will never tolerate a narrative that suggests someone other than himself is running the show.
Most of those who last in Trump world know this. That’s why every time Mike Pence opens his mouth to answer a question he begins by paying homage to the brilliance and greatness of Donald J. Trump. That’s why Miller, who is widely credited with writing Trump’s inaugural address, opened his Sunday night interview on Fox News by correcting the host for noting what’s been widely reported.
“Great to be on your show, first though, and I hate to start with a correction, but President Trump wrote his own inaugural address,” Miller implausibly contended.
This isn’t the first time a member of the president’s staff has been portrayed as a presidential puppet master. Take George W. Bush. The 43rd president’s opponents called Karl Rove “Bush’s Brain” and later claimed that Vice President Dick Cheney was really in charge.
But the difference between Bush and Trump is that Bush is confident in his own skin and doesn’t have the emotional maturity of a toddler. Like Trump, Bush’s legitimacy was also questioned by his political opponents who said he was “selected, not elected” because of how the 2000 presidential election ultimately concluded. Unlike Trump, Bush did not melt down and demand his spokesman harangue the press with obvious falsehoods to bolster his legitimacy.
Similarly, even though narratives came and went that various members of the Bush administration really ruled the roost, he did not lash out and impulsively fire or sideline anyone on his staff. Don’t be so sure with Trump.
Bannon is no dummy. He knows Trump needs his ego fluffed as well as anyone in Trump world. To date, he’s done a very good job of staying out of the spotlight. As far as I can tell, he didn’t create the #PresidentBannon narrative.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the narrative has been created. If Trump gets wind of it—perhaps, say, by one of Bannon’s internal enemies placing this article on his desk—it might lead to the diminution or even end of Bannon’s role in the White House.
Twitter hashtags might not be able to end wars, as some seemed to think in the Age of Obama, but in the Age of Trump, it is not inconceivable that they could end White House careers.
Jamie Weinstein is host of The Jamie Weinstein Show podcast. He tweets at @jamie_weinstein.