Politics & Policy

The Bannon Fallacy

No one destroyed Bannon save Bannon himself.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (including those of you with merely average-size nuclear buttons),

It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the downfall of Steve Bannon.

The most famous thing Anthony Scaramucci ever said was that Bannon kept trying to fellate himself (he used a more colorful phrase). Despite Bannon’s passing resemblance to Ron Jeremy, most observers rightly took this charge to be figurative. If Bannon actually attempted to gratify himself in such a manner, dozens of people would likely lose their eyesight as the buttons from all of Bannon’s shirts rocketed across the room.

But, figuratively, the charge rang true. Bannon’s motto is “honey badger don’t give a sh**.” In an interview with Gabriel Sherman for Vanity Fair, Sherman asked Bannon what he thought about the criticism about him. “I don’t give a f***. . . . You can call me anything you want. Do you think I give a sh**? I literally don’t care.”

If this were an episode of Arrested Development, the narrator would now chime in and say, “He literally cared a lot.”

First of all, people who create mottos about how they don’t care what people think tend to be precisely the sort of people who care what other people think. Another dead giveaway: When you repeatedly invite reporters from places such as Vanity Fair to follow you around and record your Stakhanovite disregard for the opinions of others. Similarly, people who famously call back every reporter seeking a quote are the kind of people who love being buttered up by journalists. Likewise, people who hungrily cooperate with authors looking to turn them into political celebrities are really into the idea of being political celebrities. Staffers who take credit for their bosses’ political victories, on the record, tend not to be aloof islands of self-confidence either. People desperate to let you know that their philosophical lodestars are obscure mystics and cranks — he studied Evola and Guénon! — tend to be compensating for something.

If Bannon truly didn’t care about the “Opposition Party,” his term for the mainstream media, he wouldn’t have lost his job in the White House, the favor of the Mercers, and what was left of his reputation. But he just couldn’t resist talking to reporters and claiming credit for the accomplishments of others. Lenin famously said that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” Bannon gave the Opposition the rope they used to hang him for free — but not before he and his band of comment-section Bolsheviks did enormous damage.

The Bannon Fallacy

Bannon is a common character in Washington: a megalomaniac who made the mistake of believing his own bullshit. Bannon believed he was the intellectual leader of a real grassroots movement, and all that was needed to midwife it into reality was to Astroturf as much rage and unthinking paranoia as the Mercer family’s money could buy. As I’ve said many times, Bannon’s self-proclaimed Leninism was mostly the kind of b.s. one spouts to rally the twentysomethings in their cubicles to churn out more ethically bankrupt clickbait fodder. There was, however, a grain of truth to it. Lenin was a real radical who wanted to tear everything down. But his motto wasn’t “Honey badger don’t give a sh*t” — it was “The worse the better.” Both men share a theory that by exacerbating social tensions — heightening the contradictions in Marxobabble — they would emerge victorious. The biggest difference between the two men is that Lenin knew what he was doing.

There is a Nietzschean quality to both Bannon and the host organism he fed off. Rhetorically, Trump extols strength and power and denigrates rules and norms. But Trump’s Nietzscheanism is almost entirely in service to his own glory. He simply wants praise for its own sake. Bannon’s fetishization of strength and power and his denigration of rules and norms stems from a potted theory about how to burn it all down so he can rule the ashes. He’s like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, ensorcelled by the sheer will of the Viet Cong who cut off the inoculated arms of village children:

I thought: My God, the genius of that. The genius! The will to do that: perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand it. These were not monsters. These were men, trained cadres — these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who have children, who are filled with love — but they had the strength — the strength! — to do that.

But instead of actual evil men of action, Bannon was infatuated with the will of Pepe the Frog and the minions of the alt-right. He marveled at the performance art of Milo not because of any intellectual merit, but because it was transgressive, which is its own reward to the radical mind.

People spend too much time trying to figure out if Bannon is a bigot. Who cares? Isn’t it even more damning that he was perfectly comfortable to enlist bigots to his cause simply to leach off their passion and intensity? Maybe on some obscure moral calculus being a neo-Nazi is worse than lending aid and comfort to neo-Nazis because they’re useful hordes to unleash on your enemies. But I cannot see how that is an exoneration.

Because Bannon consistently confuses means and ends, he was fine with forming an alliance of convenience with the alt-right when he thought it could help him. It was a stupid gamble, providing yet more proof that he has a thumbless grasp on how politics actually works. But his denunciations of the alt-right, including, most recently, Paul Nehlen, only came after the bets didn’t pay off. If the motley army of neo-Nazis, Russian bot accounts, Gamergate veterans, and comment-section trolls proved to be as powerful as Bannon foolishly believed, he would never have denounced them.

Bannon likes to talk a big game about the importance of ideas, but his idea of how politics works is entirely anti-intellectual, and that’s what spelled his doom. He talks a lot about the Trump agenda, and yet he’s made it his project to destroy any politician Trump actually needs if they dare stray from public sycophancy to Trump or fealty to Bannon’s dog’s-breakfast ideology.

That’s because he’s made the calculation that the most passionate disciples of Trump’s cult of personality are the feedstock for his nationalist army. He goes around the country stumping for crackpots and bigots, claiming to be the Joan of Arc of Trumpism, boasting incessantly of his courage and loyalty to Trump as evidenced by his willingness to stick with Trump during “Billy Bush Weekend.” He used his website to serve as a “journalistic” praetorian guard around Roy Moore, solely to defend Donald Trump from an inconvenient talking point. And, again, if the crackpots and bigots had turned out to be winners rather than the losers Bannon manages to find like a truffle pig, he would have stuck with them, because he thinks that’s how you build a national front: pas d’ennemis à droite.

Bannon goes around the country stumping for crackpots and bigots, claiming to be the Joan of Arc of Trumpism,

I think it’s a morally bankrupt and politically dumb strategy (even if it might be a lucrative one), but it has some internal logic. There’s just one problem: Bannon can’t stick to it. He just can’t help but boast to liberal reporters about how great and brilliant he is. He can’t resist talking smack about his rivals and denigrating the reality-show nationalist that plucked him out of relative obscurity, because despite all the impressive verbiage, Bannon can’t help but make himself the story. No man is a hero to his valet, particularly when the valet thinks he’s a world-historical figure in his own right.

That’s why this is all so hilarious. No one destroyed Bannon save Bannon himself. In his effort to fellate himself, he overshot the target, crammed his head up his own ass, and now finds himself confused and alone in a dark corner of his own making.

Various & Sundry

My apologies for last week’s lack of both a G-File and an installment of The Remnant. I was in Hawaii over the Christmas holiday, and as I was hurling across the Pacific in a flying disease vector, I picked up the flu and, as I learned earlier this week, a mild case of pneumonia. I’m still kind of out of it. Even writing saps my energy pretty drastically.

Canine Update: So last week, we got a call at 5:00 a.m. in Hawaii. Kirsten, our dogwalker, was in tears, calling from the vet. Here’s what happened: Kirsten had both dogs on leashes for a neighborhood walk. Pippa, who is terrible on a leash, usually runs free, but Kirsten thought it best to have them both on leashes given the heavily trafficked route she was taking. Well, some idiot had thrown some chicken bones on the street. Now, if you know dogs, you know that meat stumbled upon is twice as sweet as meat served. It is considered one of the great treasures in life. Zoë lunged for the bones and, shockingly, so did Pip.

Zoë, unsurprisingly, got her hackles up and defended her prize. Pippa, very surprisingly, somehow thought she could get the bones for herself. Even stranger, she wouldn’t heed Zoë’s warnings, and they got into a fight. Every time Kirsten tried to isolate one, the other would try to seize the advantage. I don’t want to blame the victim, but in many respects, it was Pippa’s fault for not deferring to Zoë, despite several warning growls and nips at Pippa’s snout. It turned into an ugly and unprecedented fight (in the past, Pippa always ran from a serious fight). Pippa got in a few figurative licks, but Zoë mopped the floor with her, as the leashes got tangled. It only ended when a guy with a leaf blower ran over and pulled Zoë away by her hind legs and tied her to a branch (to Zoë’s credit, she showed zero aggression to the human, maintaining a near-perfect record in this regard). Meanwhile, poor Pippa had to get a bunch of sutures on her face and snout. She also had to spend a few days in the Cone of Shame. There was a lot of blood. The two of them held a grudge for a day or two, but it’s all water under the bridge now. Or perhaps ice under the bridge. I’m taking Pippa to get the sutures out today.

It was all pretty terrible, and Kirsten wouldn’t send us pictures of Pippa’s mashed up face for fear it would ruin our trip. I think some of the backstory has to do with the stress of the family being away for so long and some kind of potted theory among the beasts about changing the pecking order in the new pack. Pippa has been much more assertive over the last few months. I think that’s over.

If there’s a larger point here, it’s that I wish people wouldn’t throw human food on the street. Chicken bones are dangerous for dogs in their own right. But with two dogs, particularly on leashes (which tend to bring out aggression in canines much the same way Twitter does for humans), it can lead to stuff like this.

ICYMI . . . 

Catch up on The Remnant — the latest episode was with Chris Stirewalt of Fox News.

The most recent G-File

Who deserves credit for Trump’s victories?

Why are things so weird?

The rise and fall of Steve Bannon

What new things has Fire and Fury really revealed?

The voter-fraud commission dies a partisan death.

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