The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Rise and Precipitous Fall of Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon won’t be going away any time soon, because he’s clearly addicted to the idea that he’s supremely relevant, and he’s surrounded himself with people who agree with him or are happy to be paid to say they agree with him.

But I’m struggling to think of a comparable figure in American political history who squandered real power and influence as completely and quickly as Bannon has.

Father Coughlin — a Bannon-like figure in more ways than one — was a major force in American politics for most of the 1930s, wielding significant popular influence. His power increased for years until his extremism, popular (and internal Catholic) exhaustion, and international affairs conspired against him. Other comparisons — John L. Lewis, William Randolph Hearst, William F. Buckley — and numerous other non-elected public figures made a much, much, better run of it.

Exact parallels are hard to come by, in part because the political landscape is so different today and in part because Bannon never seemed to figure out what his source of power was. In politics, real power and influence can stem only from a few places. The most obvious: An actual elected or appointed office of real significance; money and the willingness to spend it; control of a major institution; popularity among the voters themselves; significant ownership of an Idea Whose Time Has Come and the ability to sell it; the ability to anoint political rising stars, i.e., being a Kingmaker and, last, personal influence over a person or persons in power.

Bannon, while wealthy, was never rich enough to wield financial power. But he had all of the other ingredients. He had the ear of the Mercers. For a time, he looked like he would be — or at least could be — a major populist figure on the hustings in his own right. He had as much claim to represent this new nationalism hogwash as anyone. With his control of Breitbart.com he had a major outlet to get his message out. And, most of all, he had the ear of the president of the United States and was seen as his greatest champion. He squandered nearly all of it.

The Mercers are fed up with him. The president of the United States has not only called him a dishonorable loon, he’s made it clear that the Bannon agenda is not the president’s. Bannon’s reputation as a kingmaker is in tatters, while his reputation as a Jester-Hugger is solidifying daily. From Roy Moore to Paul Nehlen, Bannon’s thumbless grasp of the political moment led him to throw political capital down one rabbit hole after another. Sure, Breitbart is still out there, but every day it loses influence and credibility. The editor, Alex Marlow, recently admitted that they are not a journalistic organization but little more than a goon squad for Bannon’s agenda. Marlow confessed that he had believed Moore’s accusers, he and Bannon just didn’t care because they needed to protect the president. Bannon himself is quoted in the new Michael Wolff book conceding that Breitbart is not really a “legitimate” news operation.

Ironically, the last source of real influence the man has is his ability to get “The Opposition Party” — i.e., the globalist-cuck-mainstream-media-fourth-estate/fifth-column — on the phone. Bannon’s downfall had a lot to do with the fact that he couldn’t resist preening for the New York Times and other MSM outlets, and now those outlets have an investment in him to protect. But even that investment is rapidly hitting diminishing returns.

What’s remarkable is the speed of it all. On January 4, 2016, Bannon was a fairly obscure figure in American politics. On January 4, 2018 he looks on pace to end the decade as the answer to a trivia question.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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