Saturday, January 28, 2017

Who is Stephen Bannon? Some surprises here.

In the shock of Donald Trump's win in November, the one man assumed to be the mastermind behind it all is Stephen Bannon, who came on board in mid-campaign as the CEO and chief strategist.   In most people's minds he is the darkness, combining Darth Vader, Dick Cheney, and Satan.   But is he the reflection of all that coming from Trump himself?    Or is he the source?

[Spoiler alert:   I suspect that, with Trump and Bannon, each thinks that he is using the other one to carry out his own purposes.   With Bannon, it's ideological, and he sees Trump as "a blunt instrument" that he can influence;   with Trump, it's power and winning, and he doesn't care much now he gets there.]

Most people don't know much about Bannon except that he was the head of Breitbart News when he agreed to take over the Trump campaign.   Breitbart News implies Alt-Right, ultra-nationalism, right wing -- even flirting with the KKK and White Supremacists.  
Michael Woolf wrote an article in the Hollywood Reporter several weeks back that sheds some light.   But we're still left with more questions than answers about whether and how this can work.

Woolf first met with Bannon in late summer, soon after he had formally joined the Trump campaign.  At that time, he predicted that Trump would do surprisingly well with voters who were expected to shun him:  women, Hispanics, and African-Americans.   He predicted a win by taking Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.  When Woolf made a return visit after the election, Bannon greeted him with "I told you so."

The typical liberal attitude toward Trump and his team, as Woolf points out, was that they were all too disorganized, outlandish, out of touch, and lacking in nuance.   Bannon only added to the image of dark danger he brought with him from Breitbart News, along with the white-power anger of its constituents.    How did someone described by the New York Times, as it did Bannon, as "so wrong -- not just wrong, but inappropriate, unfit and loathsome" come to be the most powerful person behind the new president, and thus in large measure virtually in control of the White House?

And what of Bannon's recent phone-call to the Times, in which he ordered the news media to 'just shut your mouth'?   What does this imply about his role, or about how dire they perceive the situation to be?   Was it really meant as a threat to freedom of the press?

In trying to understand Bannon, according to Woolf, we begin with the fact that Bannon does not look the part.  His usual office garb, even in the White House, is rumpled and scruffy, with no tie, open shirt collar, and a "tatty blue blazer," looking like a "62 year old graduate student."    Bannon is fond of saying things like "Darkness is good" and expounding on the "myopia of the media" that only tells the story that confirms its own view -- and is therefore incapable of seeing an alternate outcome.   Woolf refers to the "parallel realities in which liberals, in their view of themselves, represent a morally superior character and Bannon - immortalized on Twitter as a white nationalist, racist, anti-Semite thug -- the ultimate depravity of Trumpism."

Woolf continues:  "[Bannon] is the man with the idea.   If Trumpism is to represent something intellectually and historically coherent, it's Bannon's job to make it so. In this, he could not be a less reassuring or more confusing figure for liberals - fiercely intelligent and yet reflexively drawn to the inverse of every liberal assumption and shibboleth. A working class kid, he enlists in the navy after high school, gets a degree from Virginia Tech, then Georgetown, then Harvard Business School. Then it's Goldman Sachs, then he's a dealmaker and entrepreneur in Hollywood - where, in an unlikely and very lucky deal match-up, he gets a lucrative piece of Seinfeld royalties, ensuring his own small fortune - then into the otherworld of the right wing conspiracy and conservative media. (He partners with David Bossie, a congressional investigator of President Clinton, who later spearheaded the Citizens United lawsuit that effectively removed the cap on campaign spending. . . .  And then to the Breitbart News Network, which . . . he pushes to the inner circle of conservative media . . . 

"What he seems to have carried from a boyhood in a blue-collar, union and Democratic family in Norfolk, Va., and through his tour of the American establishment, is an unreconstructed sense of class awareness, or bitterness - or betrayal. The Democratic Party betrayed its working-man roots, just as Hillary Clinton betrayed the long-time Clinton connection - Bill Clinton's connection - to the working man. . . .  And, likewise, the Republican party would come to betray its working-man constituency forged under Reagan. In sum, the working man was betrayed by the establishment, or what he dismisses as the 'donor class.'"

So, in this article, Woolf portrays Bannon as the man who has been a part of the working class as a Democrat, then been part of the Wall Street and Hollywood "elites," and landed squarely on "the battle line of the great American divide - and one of the people to have most clearly seen this battle line.

Woolf continues:  "He absolutely - mockingly - rejects the idea that this is a racial line. 'I'm not a white nationalist, I'm a nationalist. I'm an economic nationalist,' he tells me. 'The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f - ed over. . . .  It's everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I'm the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. . . .  it's the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We're just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution - conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement."

Bannon sees the enemy as the establishment and the media.  "The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what's wrong with this country," he continues. "It's just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no f - ing idea what's going on. . . . .  It's a closed circle of information from which Hillary Clinton got all her information - and her confidence. That was our opening."

*     *     *
So that's Steve Bannon.   Someone who has known him well for years, and who is a liberal herself, says:  He is not a racist. . . .  I think he is using the alt-right for political purposes."  Several family and friends insist that he is not a bigot but that he "was infuriated when people like his father, a longtime phone company worker, saw their retirement funds shrink because of the 2008 financial crisis."    His brother describes him as "the man for the forgotten man."

But, my question is this:   How do Bannon and Trump actually mesh, not so much their views as in their lived experiences?    I can see how Trump took up the blue-collar rage and fanned the flames for political purposes.    But does he really get it, so that his instincts are influenced by it as he makes decisions?  Bannon insists that Trump does "get it intuitively."

Then why has he appointed billionaires to his cabinet?    Why, instead of a labor leader for Secretary of Labor, did he choose a big business owner who fights unions?  Why for Treasury a man who embodies the worst of Wall Street over Main Street?   Why talk about "infrastructure improvements" that will be funded by tax incentives to wealthy investors, rather than government spending on projects that create jobs.    Every choice he has made so far seems to be an effort to reward the establishment, the wealthy donor class -- not to fix the problems of the working class or the real infrastructure needs that are not profitable for investors -- like repairing water systems, rebuilding bridges, repairing roads.

Are Trump and Bannon on the same page?   Who is really calling the shots?   I don't see how this ends.   It's certainly not beginning very well.


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