What Was Steve Bannon Thinking?

Six theories to explain his scorched-earth break with the president that seems to have left him utterly isolated

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Donald Trump hired Steve Bannon as his campaign manager, gave him a job in the White House, and signed an executive order to give him a seat at meetings of the National Security Council’s principals committee, giving him access to some of America’s most sensitive secrets, even as his erstwhile adviser helped to make him the most powerful man on earth.

But now the two are fighting as if they find one another deplorable and irredeemable.

Bannon is quoted savaging multiple members of the Trump family in excerpts from a forthcoming book by the journalist Michael Wolff. And Trump now insists that a man he recently entrusted with a key national-security post is crazy and has nothing to do with his presidency. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind,” the president declared Wednesday in a statement. “Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well.”

What happens when an unpopular president propelled to power by the populist right feuds with a man who runs perhaps the most popular website on the populist right?

The answer may turn on unknowns including these:

  1. Is Steve Bannon correct in his judgment that there is a big enough constituency to refashion the Republican Party in the style of Pat Buchanan by electing anti-globalist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, anti-establishment candidates to the House and the Senate? Or is Trumpism inseparable from Donald Trump himself and his singular celebrity and charisma?
  2. If Buchananite primary challenges are possible, is Bannon savvy enough to judge which candidates are viable and which are not because, for instance, they dated young teenagers in their 30s or embraced anti-Semitism?
  3. How secure is Bannon in his perch at Breitbart? Is it in the financial interest of the site to break from Trump? Could it do so and retain its audience?
  4. What is the most damaging information that Bannon has about Donald Trump, his eldest sons, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and others in their orbit?
  5. If Trump continues to sign legislation and appoint federal judges like an establishment Republican, even as he wages a scorched-earth culture war on Twitter and elsewhere, will that be enough to satisfy loyalists in his base?
  6. Will the billionaire Mercer family give him money in the future?

But it may be that Bannon has destroyed himself regardless. I’m hesitant to reach that conclusion because I do not understand the course that he has chosen, but I don’t understand it precisely because it looks so much like self-immolation. His words seem likely to permanently alienate both the National Review-wing of establishment conservatism that already hates him and loyal Trump supporters.

The Bannon quotes excerpted in The Guardian, pertaining to a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer and Trump’s inner circle, are particularly inflammatory.

My colleague David Graham characterizes their significance:

In describing the Trump Tower meeting as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic,” Bannon becomes the first major Trump insider to say what is at this point clear to anyone willing to look at the facts: Whether or not there were any crimes committed, Trump aides colluded with Russia. The pattern runs from George Papadopoulos’s conversations with Russian agents, through the Trump Tower meeting, and up to Michael Flynn’s conversations with then-Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, about which he has pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents.

At Hot Air, Allahpundit asks, “What is Bannon thinking, legitimizing the Russiagate investigation when everyone else in populist media has spent a year insisting it’s a witch hunt based on lies and innuendo? At the very least you’d expect him to blame people like Carter Page and George Papadopoulos for driving the suspicion, not the Trump family. He might have gotten away with slamming Jared since their feud is public knowledge but going after Don Jr is an attack on POTUS himself. He’s practically forcing Breitbart fans to choose between him and Trump now, particularly by using a term as loaded as ‘treasonous.’ And Breitbart’s not challenging the veracity of the Bannon quotes, mind you.”

That this puts Bannon crosswise of much of the right is not speculation. He is as unpopular as ever among Never Trump conservatives, if David French is any indication:

Bannon is the public figure who has done more than any other person to introduce the evil alt-right into mainstream American life. He bragged about turning Breitbart into the “platform” of that movement, backed one of its most prominent politicians in Paul Nehlen, and relentlessly promoted its foremost apologist, the noxious Milo Yiannopoulos. He was also reportedly one of the driving forces behind perhaps the worst moment of Trump’s term so far: The president’s decision to equivocate following the alt-right rally and terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Va. Second, Bannon is the primary pseudo-intellectual advocate of the incoherent, destructive nationalist–populist ideology that he tried to transform into “Trumpism.” His isolationism would harm American national security, his protectionism would harm the American economy, and his populism veers dangerously into the realm of white-identity politics. If his influence over the president is truly at an end, the GOP will have a real chance to restore itself as a party of conservative ideas.

And here’s the #MAGA aligned populist Matt Drudge:

So what gives? In conclusion, a few theories that at least lay out some of the possibilities.

The ‘Trumpism Without Trump’ Theory

The conservative columnist and podcaster Ben Shapiro is the closest thing the right has to someone who opposed Trump and retains a large audience among both populists and establishment conservatives. He worked under Bannon during his time at Breitbart. And in a podcast published on January 1 at National Review, before the explosive book excerpts were published, he told host Jamie Weinstein:

Steve’s entire fame is built off his association with Trump. And now he’s trying to build up a movement outside of Trump … He believes he is the heart and soul of the Trump base because he was at these rallies with Trump and because when he speaks there were people there. I don’t think anyone is the representative of Trump’s base except Trump. I think it’s foolishness if Steve actually believes any of his own press.

Maybe we’re simply watching the manifestation of a belief on Bannon’s part that he can be an architect of Trumpism not only without Trump, but while feuding with Trump, who has outlived his usefulness or is doing more harm than good to the Buchananite, white-nationalist platform that Bannon believes in. One can string together past Bannon statements that support this theory, but it still doesn’t explain why Bannon would needlessly speak in ways that seem likely to alienate many whose support he could use in his political project.

The ‘Guilty as Sin’ Theory

Of course, trashing Trump and his family now would make a lot more sense if Bannon is playing a long game and knows something that we don’t: that Robert Mueller or someone else is going to expose the sort of collusion with Russia or other wrongdoing that will implicate the president, or at least his inner circle. If Trump is going to be exposed, or if Don Jr., Jared Kushner, or someone else in the inner circle is so dirty or corrupt that they’re going to have to take a fall for behavior that will itself alienate a large part of the #MAGA base, then perhaps it is savvy for Bannon to get out ahead of that information by positioning himself as a critic of the corruption rather than a party sullied by it.

This is the only theory that strikes me as likely to end with Bannon in a stronger position as a result of his actions. But it doesn’t explain why he would make such a break through a journalist rather than by attacking Trump at Breitbart.

The ‘Joker’ Theory

In this telling, some people just want to watch the world burn, and Bannon is one of them. This theory could explain a whole lot of otherwise mystifying behavior. But Bannon’s past behavior has been ambitious and calculating, not impulsive and chaotic.

The Great Betrayal Theory

If Steve Bannon emerges as the campaign manager for a Sarah Palin 2020 primary challenge to Donald Trump, or chief of staff in Mike Pence’s post-impeachment White House, credit this theory. But don’t bet on an outcome like that.

The ‘He’s Running’ Theory

Mike Allen is among those who reports that Bannon has his own presidential ambitions. But even if that is so, how would this advance that against-all-odds goal?

The In-Over-His-Head Theory

In this telling, Bannon was in over his head in the White House, tried to use a reporter to prosecute his feuds with West Wing rivals for power, showed extreme indiscipline and lack of strategic acumen in what he said, and is now reaping the whirlwind of his shortsighted blabbing as his words are selectively quoted, with months of the most provocative tidbits strung together in a manner that makes it seem like the extremity of his critique was less unwitting than it was.

Or, as one of my Twitter followers put it, “It’s tempting to look for some complex motivation involving power or money. Most likely, it's just good old fashioned pettiness.” If forced to bet that’s how I’d wager—but I’m glad I’m not forced to bet.

Maybe we’ll know more about Bannon’s motives one day—or maybe the mystery will endure. But one thing is certain, as Josh Barro reminded his readers:

Remember, it was Trump's choice to make Bannon the CEO of his presidential campaign. Then Trump named Bannon his chief strategist and senior counselor—much the same position held by Karl Rove and David Axelrod in the Bush and Obama White Houses, respectively—with the added declaration that Bannon would be an "equal partner" to Reince Priebus, then the chief of staff designate. Upon taking office, Trump even named Bannon as a member of the National Security Council.

The man charged with staffing the White House, assessing foreign leaders, and making lifetime appointments appears to be a spectacularly bad judge of character. And so does the former adviser who helped tout Trump in that position.

They deserve each other—and Americans deserves better.