Steve Bannon is banished from Breitbart. The Kingmaker is dead.
Or so it would appear. I’m old enough to remember when voting against the 2003 Iraq war was considered a political kiss of death. Years later, that “no” vote is one of the greatest assets a politician can have. Who knows—maybe calling out the Emperor’s lack of clothes today will serve Brannon well down the road.
In a sick way, I wish him well, and that wish is the fault of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. When I told friends that I felt Bannon came off entirely too well, some of them were surprised. Perhaps I only think so because Bannon comes off as a bookish, misanthropic radical with a Messiah complex, which I suppose most people find neither as appealing nor as sympathetic as I do.
After finishing the book, however, I think my initial instinct was correct: Bannon comes off entirely too well and I don’t think it’s accidental. Wolf portrays Bannon as trying to separate “Trumpian ideology” from from Trump the person in order to become the torchbearer for the new right. Bannon may have gambled on his ability to make that happen with this book.
He gambled, and he lost.
I have no idea whether Fire and Fury is true in an objective sense. The story presented fits the facts well: Donald Trump is as uncontrollable, scattered, narcissistic, and petulant as he appears from his speeches and tweets. Occam’s razor approves, which isn’t nothing. Regardless, this book will be used as a primary source for this bizarre historical period for decades to come, and we’ll get to have all kinds of debate about what is true and what isn’t.
I’m incredibly unequipped to have that debate, so let’s talk instead about the author’s perspective. In the immortal words of the Last Psychiatrist, what does the author want to be true?
One great way to figure out an author’s intent is to look for what isn’t there. In the case of Fire and Fury, what isn’t there is white nationalism. Oh, it’s mentioned, but very, very carefully. Maybe this is because the Trump administration itself is not explicitly racist, but crucially, the book does not say this either. The book, whenever it can, dodges or minimizes the question.
Let’s look at all the points in the book where Wolff addresses the white elephant in the room:
“Racist” vs. “Nationalist”
The word “racist” appears nine times within Fire and Fury. Only one of these instances involves a description of the historical purge of “racist John Birchers” from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The other eight directly describe Richard Spencer and/or his Charlottesville rally participants.
Spencer is a strange character within Fire and Fury in that it’s not immediately obvious why he’s included at all. In a book primarily about interactions within the Trump administration, Spencer is decidedly outside the administration. He never interacts directly with anyone, and no one else in the book so much as mentions his name. He appears once at the CPAC conference which Trump addressed in early 2016 (only to be immediately kicked out, mirroring that earlier, historical banishment of racists) then vanishes until Charlottesville. If you excised Spencer entirely, the overall narrative flow of the book would scarcely change.
Why, then, is Richard Spencer in this story? What purpose does he serve?
Wolff never uses the word “racist” to describe Steve Bannon, although he does does discuss—and downplay—Bannon’s possible anti-Semitism. This accusation first appears on page 140, leveled by Kushner, and is immediately diluted through a description of Bannon’s superior relationship with Israel. On page 142, Netanyahu—an old family friend of the Kushners—prefers to speak to Bannon. Kushner, in a seeming bout of paranoia, believes Bannon’s efforts to appear stronger on Israel to be an anti-Semitic attack on himself. More narcissism from the Trump family—yikes. Dismissible and dismissed.
The author describes Bannon—and Breitbart—as employing a “winking suggestion of anti-Semitism,” but only to enrage “liberal Jews” (141, 142, 144). None of this feels terribly serious. After all, Breitbart enrages all liberals, right?
Usually, Wolff skips this characterization altogether, preferring the term “economic nationalism”; a populist backlash against globalism. What does this mean, exactly? Is nationalism racist? Only Richard Spencer will touch that question. Extended quote incoming (pg 137-138):
“‘I don’t think Bannon or Trump are identitarians or alt-rightists,” Spencer explained while camped out just over CPAC’s property line at the Gaylord. They were not, like Spencer, philosophic racists (itself different from a knee-jerk racist). “But they are open to these ideas. And open to the people who are open to these ideas. We’re the spice in the mix.’”
Importantly, Spencer is saying this after getting kicked out by CPAC—an action which seems to contradict this assertion. The book, however, backs Spencer up—sort of:
“Spencer was right. Trump and Bannon, with Sessions in the mix, too, had come closer than any major national politician since the Civil Rights movement to tolerating a race-tinged political view.”
At last, after 137 pages of waiting, Wolff directly addresses the question of racism within the Trump administration. The relief after all that waiting perhaps distracts from the incredibly careful wording: equivocation on steroids. Observe: they are close to—but do not—tolerate—but not embrace—a “Race-tinged political view”—not racism. That’s a LOT of hedging.
After some ugly reflection about Jeb Bush’s Hispanic wife, Spencer continues:
“‘We are the Trump vanguard. The left will say Trump is a nationalist and an implicit or quasi-racialist. Conservatives, because they are just so douchey, say Oh, no, of course not, he’s a constitutionalist, or whatever. We on the alt-right will say, He is a nationalist and he is a racialist. His movement is a white movement. Duh.’”
At last we arrive at why Richard Spencer is here, in this book, at the fringes of the CPAC conference where he talks to no one and does nothing. Spencer, the open, philosophical racist, juxtaposes nicely with Bannon and Trump, who are neither open nor philosophical about their racism. Spencer can therefore explain that the real racists—himself and his followers—are actively claiming that people who aren’t real racists—Trump and Bannon—are racist in order to normalize racism. Conclusion: Trump and Bannon aren’t racists like Richard Spencer. Right?
When I see someone working this hard to do something, I get suspicious.
Wolff offloads as much visible racism as he can onto Richard Spencer, the boogeyman at the margins of this story. What he can’t offload onto Spencer, he minimizes: either through characterizing Trump’s racist-seeming actions as “instinctual” (p293), or through equivocating, or through deflection and distraction.
Wolff does a great job of appearing to take on the issue of racism and nationalism, yet once the mudslinging is over, a suspiciously small amount of it sticks to the administration generally and Bannon specifically.
This is representative of a general trend within Fire and Fury wherein Bannon, though the target of rude comparisons and descriptions, comes off better than he should. He appears important, prescient, intelligent—at least, in comparison with everyone else.
In a very real sense, Bannon, not Trump, is the main focus. The book begins with Bannon’s triumphant dinner after the election of Trump: an improbable victory snatched from the jaws of defeat by Bannon and Conway. Wolff mocks Bannon for “playing Cassandra,” and yet that’s exactly how Bannon comes across: someone whose vision is not perfect, yet who sees more clearly than anyone else. Bannon councils against the most egregious political sins of the Trump administration, such as firing Comey. Of all the walking catastrophes advising Trump in this book, he is the only person who comes off as even a bit competent.
The book ends with Bannon’s victory in Alabama, in which Breitbart-backed candidate Roy Moore wins the Republican primary over Trump-backed Luther Strange. Here, in the future, we know that Roy Moore went on to lose a dependably Republican senate seat due to a disturbing penchant for underage girls. At the time this book got sent to the printing press, surely no one knew or even suspected the extent and impact of these allegations. Bannon was actively attempting to break away from Trump and establish his reputation as a kingmaker—and as of September 2017, his efforts appeared to be paying off.
A right-wing kingmaker—one who wishes to make multiple kings—must walk a strange tightrope in order to appeal both to conservatives and the alt-right. Wolff does a lot of this work for Bannon in Fire and Fury. A conservative reader who wanted to find evidence that Bannon is not an alt-right racist could find that evidence in here. An alt-right reader who wanted hope of the opposite could find that as well.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the section about the Trump Administration’s response to Charlottesville (293-296).
Charlottesville: A Conservative Reading
Trump was very distracted by North Korea and a bill supporting veterans during the Charlottesville violence. He wrote a quick tweet about how we should come together as a nation—very appropriate. Trump eventually called Bannon to ask for advice, and Bannon advised Trump to condemn (racist) violence, but focus on the issue of monuments—our American history, which shouldn’t be erased. Bannon later advised Kelly to cancel the news conference where Trump ended up exploding about “violence on many sides,” which was good advice, because it made Trump look bad and it made Republicans look bad too. He’s not exactly like us, but we can certainly work with him.
Charlottesville: An Alt-Right Reading
Trump dashed off a quick tweet about coming together as one, but pointedly did not criticize racial violence. Bannon advised Trump to issue some generic condemnation of violence but to focus on the issue of (confederate) monuments, which would serve as a dog whistle for alt-right approval. It certainly would have been better than the script Ivanka and her Jewish husband forced Trump to read! Even though Bannon wanted to cancel the press conference where Trump said all that great stuff about violence “on many sides” and condemned the alt-left, it’s clear that this was for political reasons, not moral reasons. He’s not exactly like us, but we can certainly work with him.
Was this the intended message?
The Losing Gamble
Perhaps if Moore hadn’t lost in Alabama, conservative and alt-right individuals would be more ready to hear Don Jr. called “treasonous.” Perhaps not. Either way, they weren’t ready and retribution was swift. Mercer, Bannon’s sponsor, cut funding, and Bannon found himself with even less than he started with.
This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Wolff expressed regret on the View this morning, stating “It certainly wasn’t something I expected…it’s certainly not something I feel good about.”
I could be wrong about Wolff’s explicit intent. Maybe it’s just that Bannon was the major source for this book, so of course it’s tinged with Bannon bias. Whether Wolff intended this book as a vehicle for Bannon or not, the effect is essentially the same.
So read the book. It’s a good book—interesting, and certainly entertaining.
But keep in mind, while you read it, who and what the book may have been written for.