A Fish Called Bannon

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A Fish Called Bannon

The White House chief strategist may think he knows what he's doing but bluster isn't enough to get what he wants—or is it?

Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/ flickr CC 2.0)

Whenever I read or hear something White House chief strategist Steve Bannon says or thinks, I’m reminded of Otto, the character Kevin Kline plays in A Fish Called Wanda. You know, the self-proclaimed ex-CIA hit man who believes he’s super-intelligent but really, really isn’t?

It finally takes Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, Wanda, to put Otto in his place. “Let me correct you on a couple of things, okay?” she tells him. “Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not ‘Every man for himself.’ And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.”

Am I the only one who hears Otto when Steve Bannon speaks? Apparently not, because here’s the redoubtable editor and essayist Andrew Sullivan hitting said same nail on said same head. A couple of weeks ago, commenting in New York magazine on some of the mediocrities Trump has ushered into the White House, Sullivan wrote about Bannon’s now-infamous Skype address to a conference in Vatican City:

“I’ve read and reread his 2014 speech at the Vatican to see if I can find any coherence in it, and I confess I failed. It’s a hodgepodge of melodrama, hysteria and a defense of some kind of ‘enlightened capitalism’ along Judeo-Christian lines, in the face of an imminent Islamist takeover of the planet. It’s the 1950s versus jihad, an attempt to convey the gist of the entire Drudge Report every day and turn it into a thesis. He argues that we are just ‘at the very beginning stages of a global conflict’ that could eradicate 2,000 years of Western civilization. It reads like the apocalyptic, paranoid fantasies of someone who writes letters to the editor, single-spaced, in all caps.”

This is the same speech in which Bannon shrugged off evidence of bigotry in the tea party and other right-wing movements worldwide, saying:

“[T]here’s always elements who turn up at these things, whether it’s militia guys or whatever. Some that are fringe organizations… over time it all gets kind of washed out, right? … I think when you look at any kind of revolution — and this is a revolution — you always have some groups that are disparate. I think that will all burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement.”

And yet here we are today, confronting an upswing in hate crimes since the candidacy and abhorrent rhetoric of Bannon’s boy Donald Trump took hold, including the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats, swastikas spray painted and scratched on doors and walls, mosque burnings, the killings at a Canadian mosque (allegedly by a young man who professed support for Trump on social media) and last week’s fatal attack on an Indian immigrant in a Kansas City bar by a man shouting, “Get out of my country!”

At best, this is indicative of an administration in terrible disarray and at cross-purposes; at worst, it is sheer madness.

Trump, Bannon and their cohorts have done little beyond the occasional perfunctory remark to denounce these attacks. As he began his speech to Congress Tuesday night, Trump read from his teleprompter:

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.”

But he also announced the creation of an egregious new agency just to report immigrant crimes, and to this day, Trump has never commented on those deaths at the mosque in Quebec — although White House representatives had plenty to say about non-existent attacks by Muslims in Bowling Green, Kentucky and Sweden. What’s more, on Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before his speech, Trump seemed to indicate to Pennsylvania’s attorney general and others that some of the anti-Semitic threats might be false flag operations, a favored notion of right-wing conspiracy nuts.

At best, this is indicative of an administration in terrible disarray and at cross-purposes; at worst, it is sheer madness.

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Rewind to last Friday’s CPAC conference outside Washington. Here comes Bannon again, announcing to an enthralled audience of right-wingers that Trump’s goal is “the deconstruction of the administrative state” and that Cabinet appointees “were selected for a reason… the deconstruction.” In other words, to destroy government regulations and agencies that might impede his master plan — whatever that is — regardless of how well they protect the public. And you thought all those Cabinet positions were to pay off high-rolling donors and Wall Street executives — no, they’ve been chosen for a mission!

The saving grace for the rest of us may be that a lot of this is hot air without the substantive administrative or legislative skills to back it up.

What does Bannon mean by all this? Does he even know? Conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin asks:

What is he against? [her emphasis] The post-World War II international liberal order — that is, the rules-based international capitalism and devotion to democratic norms that revived Europe and Asia and brought a couple of billion people out of poverty. How the common man benefits from eviscerating all that remains unclear.

“… Bannon might seek to destroy the characteristics of the ‘administrative state,’ the rational, rules-based system that ideally does not play favorites and impartially administers justice. Those pesky rules and objective criteria — as opposed to the elevation of favoritism, racial identity or brute force — were thought to be a good thing for the last couple of hundred years.”

Apparently not to Steve Bannon.

The saving grace for the rest of us may be that a lot of this is hot air without the substantive administrative or legislative skills to back it up. Exhibit A: the hopelessly bungled (thank goodness) January travel ban. Not to mention that so far, Trump and his team have failed to produce a single piece of significant legislation for the consideration of Congress.

(A new report from Joshua Green at Bloomberg BusinessWeek claims that actually, Bannon wanted the mass protests that followed the travel ban order, believing they would galvanize Trump supporters, but the plan “veered off script.” Maybe. As others have pointed out, many of Bannon’s post facto statements sound like the kid who accidentally trips over a cracked sidewalk and proclaims, “I meant to do that!”)

It’s one thing to pontificate and blow smoke with your lunatic views from the helm of Breitbart, as Bannon once did, but another to make your fever dreams come true. As The Wall Street Journal editorialized on Tuesday:

“The central problem is that the Bannon agenda and style can’t produce the results they promise and may undermine the rest of Mr. Trump’s agenda… All of this has begun to build incentives for Republicans to distance themselves from the White House, as Senate Republicans did when they abandoned Labor nominee Andy Puzder… The Bannon style is uniting Democrats and starting to divide Republicans.” Such dissatisfaction indicates that Bannon’s strategy — or lack thereof — “has a political ceiling.”

Bannon seems to believe in everything and nothing; one moment an economic libertarian, the next a white nationalist, then a worldwide conspiracy guy but ultimately, perhaps just someone who enjoys the rush of having power, like so many within the Beltway. Yet as Matthew Yglesias notes at Vox, “just because Bannon is talking nonsense doesn’t mean he isn’t good at it… Trump isn’t popular, but he won. And to say that Bannon is kind of a faker — it’s entirely vacuous to rant against ‘the establishment’ while sitting in the West Wing of the White House celebrating a stock market boom — isn’t to say that he can’t do harm.”

Incompetent and ignorant or not, they can still do a lot of damage. In the movie A Fish Called Wanda, Otto’s character is a comic idiot, but he still wreaks havoc with stupid brute force. Bannon and his boss may not yet have mastered the ins and outs of legislative and political wrangling and it’s possible they never will. But they have time to learn and seem to possess little compunction about stomping on the rules — formal and otherwise — essential to a democracy. That’s a dangerous combination.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America-East, was senior writer for Moyers & Company and Bill Moyers’ Journal and is senior writer of BillMoyers.com.

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