Like many of you, I watched Charlie Rose’s Steve Bannon interview on 60 minutes. Lots there to make one sad, lots more to make one shudder. I was struck, though, by certain themes that periodically surfaced during the course of Bannon’s comments.The ideas of loyalty to a capital “L” leader and the identification of personality with policy colored almost everything Bannon said. I was also struck by his essential pathos; I saw a deeply sad little man, fearful of failure and desperate to be significant.
The German sociologist and philosopher, Max Weber, broke the types of socio-political authority down into three categories: legal-rational, traditional and charismatic. Bannon’s loyalty to Trump resembles the bond that exists between the charismatic leader and his devoted acolyte(s). Examples of such relationships, both positive and negative, abound. On the one hand there’s Jesus and his disciples (or, if you prefer, Robin Hood and his Merry Band), and on the other, probably more pertinent in the current situation, Hitler and his Brownshirts (although, given Bannon’s attire, a double layer of black shirts, perhaps Mussolini and his Blackshirts would be more apropos.) According to most accounts, the relationship of their followers to charismatic leaders are usually emotional in nature and involve deeply-felt, personal, often self-transcendent devotion. It’s constructive to consider Bannon’s numerous protestations of unconditional loyalty to Donald Trump during the interview from the point of view of an aspirational follower of a man he wants to see as an apocalyptic, charismatic leader.
Bannon’s loyalty to Trump is both absolute and extra-rational. He spoke of his litmus tests for others’ loyalty to Trump — not their ideology or acumen — and quoted a line from The Wild Bunch, that ”when you side with a man, you side with him,” adding that one accepts both “the good and the bad. You can criticize him behind, but when you side with him, you have to side with him.” In other words, for Bannon, policy, polity, and personal ethics are subordinate to personality and the interpersonal relationships it engenders.
Bannon’s loyalty is also militant. Although he praised the“Darwinian” management style that Trump cultivates, the clash of competing egos fighting it out for their master’s attention, once the great man speaks, the matter is settled, and his acolytes are expected to leap to his defense no matter where they stand intellectually or morally. Bannon, tellingly, speaks of himself as a ”streetfighter” who, now that he is exiled from the White House, promises to fight for Trump, whom he envisions as a type of head gangbanger, and act as his “wingman outside for the entire time.”
The glue that binds Trump and Bannon, he seems to believe, is a shared mission, which he, Bannon, articulates and which can be embodied in the person of Trump who serves as a type of totem. This implicit pairing of a “Big Man” and a personality driven political cult aligns with the consensual aspect of the shared, almost ecstatic, fervor often experienced by the followers of a charismatic leader. Bannon doesn’t just speak for himself, he tells us, but represents, in his mind, all American citizens:
… Economic nationalism is what this country was built on. The American system. Right? We go back to that. We look after our own. We look after our citizen, we look after our manufacturing base, and guess what? This country’s gonna be greater, more united, more powerful than it’s ever been. And it’s not– this is not astrophysics. OK? And by the way, that’s every nationality, every race, every religion, every sexual preference. As long as you’re a citizen of our country. As long as you’re an American citizen, you’re part of this populist, economic nationalist movement.
The big, happy American family led by Big Daddy Trump. Or not.
Except for Bannon, there’s no room for “not.” To deny Daddy is betrayal and traitors will be punished.
Public disagreement or even a hint of criticism will result in retribution. Hence, after the Access Hollywood tapes surfaced, Bannon happily agreed with Charlie Rose that he “took names” of those who failed to stand up sufficiently tall for The Donald. We are led to suppose Chris Christie, for instance, suffered the fallout of having been written up in Bannon’s “black book” at that time.
It is here that the sadness begins to manifest itself. When Rose asked him about his exile from the Trump administration, the red-eyed, hung-over looking Bannon almost literally winced, his eyes widened and he seemed to swallow slightly before quickly denying the notion that he had been cast out by the leader of his great “economic nationalist movement.” His assertion that he left voluntarily in order to reenter Trump political streetfight via Breibart.com, his weapon of choice, reeked of defensiveness.
The title of a Guardian column by Richard Wolffe proclaimed that, “if Trump read books, he’d sound just like Steve Bannon.” And while there’s an element of truth in that statement — and more than an element of truth in the Wolffe column which is mostly spot-on — it’s just a shade shy of the real deal. And that whisper of separation is the source of Bannon’s tragedy.
Bannon espouses, no matter how much he denied it to Rose, a racist, authoritarian nationalism with some populist overtones — a vision with serious similarities to that sold by Hitler to war-and-deprivation-weary Germans after World War I. This set of beliefs seem to represent sincere, if unfortunate, conviction on Bannon’s part.
Unfortunately for his “cause,” he persists in casting Trump as the instrument who can realize the dream. But while parts of Bannon’s formula for “making America great again,” seems to be attractive to Trump, he clearly prefers a formula, any formula, for making Trump, not America, great. The guy has problems with both abstraction and with empathy; Bannon’s grand vision has been subordinated to Trump’s intrinsic stupidity and his narcissism. Instead of the powerful instrument that could, under the tutelage of Bannon, create the chaos incipient to a new world order, Trump is a loosely-strung wind harp, subject to any stray breeze that stirs his vanity and triggers his impulses. Bannon is one and only one of those multi-directional breezes.
Make no mistake, Trump is virulent and corrupt enough to do serious damage. But, while he would obviously enjoy the perks of life as a Supreme Leader, he doesn’t have the chops to deliver the type of leadership for which Bannon seems to yearn. Consider that Hitler, absurd as he was, managed to write Mein Kampf all by himself. Although it’s a horrifying, clumsily executed compendium of centuries of continental anti-semitism and other ugliness, it reflects the actual thinking of its author. Trump, on the other hand, had to hire somebody to write The Art of the Deal, a collection of stale business aphorisms and self-glorification passed off as his own work. A man who is regularly and openly satirized via epithets like “the lemon chiffon comb-over,” or “Apricot Idi Amin,” will never cut a heroic figure.
And there it is, Bannon’s tragedy in a nutshell: no matter how much he loves daddy, daddy doesn’t have what it takes to deliver.