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The War in the White House

Months of palace intrigue have pitted the D.C. establishment against Steve Bannon – and made Trump more dangerous than ever.

Decades from now, if the planet is even inhabited by then, we will look back at one 72-hour period as the most crucial in the history of America’s last president, Donald John Trump. Between the days of April 5th and 7th, 2017, the Washington political establishment tried to reform our madman president and instead only made him infinitely more dangerous, pushing us closer to doomsday than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis.

Welcome to the Trump era, the flushing-toilet-bowl stage of America’s history, where every move any of us makes is part of a great swirling synergy sucking us with ever-greater alacrity down the hole of failure and destruction. Good news, bad news, it all heads in the same direction soon enough, after a spin or two around the bowl.

Wednesday, April 5th, began with what seemed like the greatest of news. Former Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, the Trump whisperer who had publicly pledged to destroy government from within, was on the outs for, among other things, calling the president’s son-in-law a naughty word. A deluge of gleeful media leaks from the leakiest White House of all time exulted: The witch was dead, Bannon was sidelined, and an “axis of adults” had finally taken over as the key voices behind the president. We were saved!

A few spins of the bowl later, even the sidelining of Bannon turned into bad news. Bannon may currently be America’s most infamous racial reactionary, but in the panoply of racist archetypes, he isn’t easy to characterise. He’s not a gun-toting, moonshine-swilling backwoods Klansman, which is at least a lifestyle one can sort of be born into. His background instead is as an effete suburbanite who went to Virginia Tech, Harvard and the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, made a small fortune in banking and entertainment (he worked for Goldman Sachs and, according to legend, owns a piece of Seinfeld), and only later made promoting ethno-nationalism as an intellectual choice his life mission. If you’re sending a child away to college, Bannon is pretty much the worst-case scenario of what might come back – someone who will spend a lifetime inspired by literature to get more in touch with his inner troglodyte.

Bannon is said to have spent much of his adult life reading books that contain some combination of the following elements: violent collapses of Western civilisation, invading hordes of dirty foreigners, elitist plots, murder and revolution. Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, a book so dumb it makes The Turner Diaries seem like Huck Finn, is a favourite; the novel is a grimy fantasy about Europe overrun by brown immigrants who have les bras décharnés de Gandhi (“bare, fleshless Gandhi arms”) and whose children are “all wormy inside.” He is also said to be a fan of Italian fascist Julius Evola, and of The Fourth Turning, a book that insists America goes to hell once every four generations. He has also said he likes Trump’s books, a seeming impossibility for a college graduate – about the only Trump-Hitler comparison one can safely make without trampling on Godwin’s law is that it is impossible to say which of the two demagogues is the worse writer.

Bannon drifted into politics after his career as a Goldman Sachs banker led him to Hollywood. He began producing movies with political content, including the historically awful Sarah Palin hagiography The Undefeated. This experience seems to have put him on the shortlist of figures to take over the leadership of the right-wing provocateur site Breitbart.com, after its Buttafuocoid windbag founder Andrew Breitbart died of heart failure. Bannon was in the process of turning Breitbart into a model of modern race-baiting efficiency when he was pegged by then-candidate Trump to help run his foundering campaign. Nothing underscored the limitless awfulness of Trump’s judgment better than a decision to make this nakedly abhorrent thinker his key adviser.

In the late Nineties, Bannon was a Hollywood banker who’d be in the room for important deals, but was never himself the most important person in the meeting. A reporter who knew Bannon in the early aughts recalls that even then he was sort of a misfit. Away from his job, he’d regale the reporter with his blistering observations about various film-industry titans, people like Disney chief Mike Ovitz and former Warner Music head Edgar Bronfman Jr., painting them as caricatures of dissolute nobles destined to piss away fortunes.

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Bannon in 2005. Credit: Marissa Roth/The New York Times/Redux.

“He was a great talker,” the reporter recalls. “He would go on and on about these people.” And he liked talking to the press, the reporter noted, hinting at a flaw that would later prove seriously problematic. This reporter never caught a whiff of the future culture-first ideologue who would become the pope of the alt-right movement. Bannon was then just an eccentric pseudo who didn’t quite fit into the world he had chosen for himself, a theme that followed him throughout his life.

History is filled with whisperers behind the throne: Machiavelli, Richelieu, even Thomas Cromwell, to whom Bannon once compared himself. Most of these were smart enough to stay in the background. Bannon went the opposite route. He burnished his Rasputinite legend at every turn, making himself the subject of a Time cover (“The Great Manipulator”) and pumping up his brand by dressing like a Banana Republic version of Charles Bukowski. The bloated and tieless Bannon’s permanent 10-o’clock-shadow look, which any man knows takes more time and narcissistic grooming to maintain than a clean face, stood out in a Trump inner circle made up of men in square suits and power ties.

Bannon embraced the role of the evil Svengali in a way no one in recent American history had, at least not since Joe McCarthy’s henchman Roy Cohn – coincidentally, one of Trump’s first mentors. “Darkness is good,” Bannon told The Hollywood Reporter, with Cohn-ian verve, in the weeks after Trump’s electoral win. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”

His signature moment came at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in late February. The elephantine Bannon waddled onstage with chief of staff Reince Priebus (a classic donor-stroking, risk-averse Beltway weenie who represented everything Bannon’s alt-right movement hated about the Republican Party) and announced a revolutionary agenda to the world. The Trump administration, he said, would seek nothing less than the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” This revolution would face its toughest opposition in a “globalist” and “corporatist” (read: Jewish) media that disavowed Trump’s “economic nationalist agenda.”

Trump seemed to embrace Bannon’s revolution, appointing to his Cabinet a string of dunces and anti-government zealots like Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt who fit the “deconstruction” plan. Bannon looked triumphant. The fact that The New York Times had dubbed him “President Bannon” no longer seemed like a joke.

Priebus, representing the Republican establishment, made a halfhearted effort at that CPAC event to look like he didn’t despise Bannon with the heat of a thousand suns. “We share an office suite together,” Priebus insisted. “We’re basically together from 6:30 in the morning until about 11:00 at night.”

I was in the crowd that day and could feel the discomfort onstage from 50 yards off. When Bannon reached over to affectionately touch Priebus on the knee, the latter recoiled like a schoolgirl sitting next to a subway flasher. The moment was an instant YouTube sensation and captured the untenable inner dynamic of the Trump White House, which had already become the locus of a mountain of Kremlinological speculation by Beltway experts.

Who was really running things in the new administration? How long could the Republican old guard and the alt-right revolution coexist under one roof? And how long would a notorious attention hog like Trump put up with the media calling someone else the president?

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Bannon with Jared Kushner in the Oval Office. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP.

“You can’t really call it Kremlinology,” says a renowned Sovietologist, “because with this White House, there are so many leaks, every one knows what’s going on.”From Day One – from before Day One, in fact – there have been few secrets in the Trump presidency.

At first, it was outsiders who did the dirty work. Intelligence sources hostile to Trump seemingly leaked almost everything Trump and his associates did to news agencies. Some of these leaks turned into explosive news stories, like a Washington Post report about Gen. Michael Flynn talking out of school to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Others involved more mundane embarrassments, like a play-by-play summary of Trump’s braggadocios phone call to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that made the newspapers.

“Officials” likewise told the Post that Trump had bragged about his inauguration-crowd size to Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. No matter where the new president went, or how private the setting, his bloopers kept ending up in the papers. It’s shocking that video of Trump’s first visit to a White House toilet didn’t make it to America’s Funniest Home Videos.

But by April, and despite Trump himself having essentially declared war on the media, calling reporters “the enemy of the people,” Trump’s closest advisers began to spend an increasingly large amount of time talking to the press anonymously.

On April 6th, in a piece by the Daily Beast, “senior officials” leaked a spate of sordid details about a growing feud between Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The headline read that Bannon had called Kushner a “cuck,” right-wing slang derived from the lurid porn term describing a white guy who likes to watch his wife take it from black men.

“Cuckservative” in the modern right-wing lexicon is the more hardcore replacement for what used to be called “RINOs,” or “Republicans in Name Only.” According to the Beast, Bannon spent a lot of time using such goofball slang terms to complain about Kushner – saying Trump’s son-in-law wanted to “shiv him and push him out the door,” adding that Kushner was a “globalist” – and apparently considered him worse than a Democrat.

To the surprise of no one, the Beast story also reported that Trump himself was irritated by the media’s depictions of Bannon as the real president. He was particularly upset by a Saturday Night Live skit showing Bannon as the Grim Reaper, manipulating Trump, played by Alec Baldwin – who in turn called Bannon “Mr. President.”

“Did you see this crap?” Trump reportedly said.

All of these lurid details coincided with news that Bannon had been removed from the National Security Council, where, of course, a political strategist like Bannon should never have been in the first place (even Karl Rove never wormed his way into that kind of job). Not long after, a Bannon confidante – fellow alt-right journalist Mike Cernovich, perhaps the most loathsome American left who hasn’t been hired by the Trump White House – promised to release a “mother lode” of stories that would “destroy marriages” if Bannon were fired.

“I know about the mistresses, the sugar babies, the drugs, the pill-popping, the orgies. I know everything,” said Cernovich.

By any normal standards this was all madness: a president perhaps making staffing decisions because of a Saturday Night Live skit, a chief White House strategist calling the president’s son-in-law a cuck, a Web journalist blackmailing senior White House officials in public. Worse, all of this took place with the whole country following along in real time with a flattening pulse rate, two years of lunatic politics having made the daily soap opera of our collapse as a global superpower seem normal, like no big deal.

No sooner had Bannon been sidelined than another set of signals came from the White House that Washington mostly applauded. Earlier that week, news had broken of a horrific chemical-weapons attack that left 86 people dead in the rebel-held Idlib province in Syria. And at first, Trump appeared determined to stick to his “I don’t want to be the president of the world” campaign stance, which was part of an isolationist posture seemingly chalked up to Bannon’s influence.

But that Thursday evening, with Bannon appearing disgraced, Trump suddenly reversed course and lobbed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria, killing seven and destroying at least six warplanes.

In an instant, the entire narrative of the Trump presidency was altered. Leading Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi took time out from calling Trump a Russian agent to praise the attacks. Even more bizarre, a smorgasbord of “liberal” press outlets now sang his praises. This was what happened on Day Two of Trump’s 72-hour makeover: The until-then unrelentingly hostile Washington punditocracy suddenly began slobbering all over the missile-throwing version of Trump.

The New York Times said that by launching a military strike “just 77 days into his administration” (what difference did that make?), Trump might yet “change the perception of disarray” in his presidency. CNN, which on the very morning of the missile strikes had run a monster investigative report detailing Trump’s alleged Russia ties, now breathlessly lauded His Orangeness.

Fareed Zakaria said, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.”

Over on MSNBC, a tumescent Brian Williams raved as he watched video of Trump’s missile attacks, twice calling them “beautiful.” He even stole a line from Leonard Cohen, saying, “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Trump responded to the press love with the obedient habituation of Pavlov’s dog. He’d spent his first few months in office trying (and failing, mostly) to fulfil campaign promises to his base: a “Muslim ban,” a face-plant effort to overturn Obamacare, an order to start building his “big, beautiful, powerful wall.” For his trouble, Trump earned nothing but Mendoza-line approval ratings and a string of vicious new caricatures on Saturday Night Live.

But fire a few missiles, Trump learned, and suddenly even your enemies love you. Encouraged, Trump began frantically chucking campaign promises overboard.

The man who once promised to label China a currency manipulator in the first 100 days of his presidency now said of the Chinese, “They’re not currency manipulators.” Candidate Trump courted end-the-Fed conspiracists by bashing Fed chief Janet Yellen (“Very political … she should be ashamed of herself”). New-and-improved Trump’s take on Yellen? “I like her, I respect her,” he said. Candidate Trump said NATO was “obsolete”; new Trump said NATO was “no longer obsolete.” Old Trump said it would be better “if we actually got along” with Russia; new Trump humble-bragged that relations “may be at an all-time low.”

All of these reversals had one thing in common. They ran in stark contrast to the nationalist, anti-globalist, Bannonite rhetoric Trump had sounded not only as a candidate, but in his much-ballyhooed joint address to Congress just a month before.

Trump in that speech described his own rise as a “rebellion” of voters who were upset that America had spent “trillions and trillions of dollars overseas” in military interventions while ignoring domestic problems. Those voters, he said, “were united by one very simple but crucial demand: that America must put its own citizens first.”

Now the would-be isolationist was bombing Syria, bear-hugging a Fed chair and glad-handing the bespectacled Euro named Jens who runs NATO.

Between all the leaks and dysfunction, by late April the American government looked to the outside world like a mad-house with glass walls. Here in America, of course, the reaction was different. Officially now, we’ve been in this water too long to notice it boiling. Instead of fleeing to the hills in panic, the most common reaction to the latest Trump rebrand was to cheer.

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April 07, 2017 – U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after delivering a statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airfield, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 6, 2017. Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

A week after the Syria missile attack, the Trump administration dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat on a remote corner of Afghanistan. The 21,600-pound MOAB, which stands for Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb in reality but is cheerfully known by bloodlusting Americans as the “Mother of All Bombs,” reportedly killed at least 94 people, all of whom we somehow determined were either ISIS fighters or commanders.

Ironically, even before the Tomahawk and MOAB attacks, Trump had overseen a massively increased campaign of bombing. According to the British monitoring group Airwars, the U.S.-led coalition killed some 1,755 civilians in Syria and Iraq alone in March, a nearly ninefold increase over last March’s total of 196.

But to the Beltway priesthood, even a mere massive increase in civilian deaths qualified as Trump accepting the “constraints” of Bannonite America-First-ism. To really win over the capital’s beautiful people, and convince them of his capacity for responsible interventionism, the new president needed to get rid of the one tiny part of his entire barking-mad worldview that made a small bit of sense, i.e., his reluctance to start schoolyard brawls abroad.

By firing missiles at a Russian client state and dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb in history, Trump won over both the Fox-watching bomb-porn crowd and the neo-liberal pros who run Washington. In Washington terms, he proved he was “serious.”

The revelations of the past month show the Trump White House to be a kind of bizarro version of Real World or Amish in the City – a bunch of loutish out-of-towners granted undeserving residence in a classy downtown mansion wired in every corner for the world’s amusement. Ditsy Kellyanne Conway rubs her feet on the furniture, blabbermouth Sean Spicer loses battles of wits to Rob Gronkowski in the press room, and grandpa Rex Tillerson spends every episode hiding from the press, maybe behind the new gold drapes (they really changed the color of the Oval Office drapes). The remaining zoo animals are split in a perfectly disgusting caricature of the modern American political divide. On one side rests Bannon, a fascistic creep who represents the tens of millions of “deplorables” who rallied to Trump because he validated their zombie-movie fantasies about armies of wormy Mexicans staggering up the isthmus (“tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border,” as Trump put it).

Bannon hasn’t been fired, and Trump’s recent bleatings about rewriting trade deals are supposedly due to his continuing influence. But there are many reports that Bannon has lost influence to Kushner and former Goldman Sachs deputy Gary Cohn, a noted monster of the financial-crisis era who represents the opposite vile brand of American politics, a Wall Street kleptocracy that has spent decades robbing Main Street blind through bubble economics and sleazy asset-hoovering schemes like sub-prime-mortgage fraud.

If there’s a better metaphor for the depressing nonchoice of modern Western democracy than the intramural struggle for influence between these two arch-fiends, it’s hard to imagine. Bannon and Cohn, two bilious, overweight ex-Goldman bankers, now sit on either side of the throne, each whispering his respective villainous ideology into the president’s ears.

It’ll be backlash ethnic nationalism against sociopathic finance capitalism, foreigners-suck versus screw-the-poor, depending on Trump’s mood. That’s assuming the president hasn’t been distracted by some insane civilisation-imperiling military adventure recommended to him by “adults” like Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Chief John Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Who’s really running things in the Trump White House? The more we hear, the less we seem to know, but none of the choices seem to be good. ‘Round and ’round the bowl we go; God knows when we will hit the bottom.

Illustration by Victor Juhasz.