Thursday, December 21, 2017


I've admired Gabriel Sherman's work in the past, but his Vanity Fair profile of Steve Bannon is the work of a writer who developed a mild crush on his subject and allowed that subject to bamboozle him. Sherman is upfront about that. First he tells us that Bannon was a key participant in a smear campaign that led to threats of physical harm:
In August 2015, I received an e-mail from Kurt Bardella, who at the time handled Breitbart’s public relations. “Thought I’d reach out and just say that if you ever wanted to talk with Bannon on background, I think he’d def be willing to touch base with you,” Bardella wrote. I was shocked by his note—and also intrigued. For the previous three years, Bannon had tried to destroy my professional reputation. During this time I was researching a biography of the late Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. A legendary paranoiac, Ailes waged an elaborate campaign to discredit my book that included having me followed by private detectives and commissioning a 400-page dossier about my life. Bannon and Breitbart played a crucial role in the effort. He worked out of Fox News headquarters strategizing with Ailes about how to attack my book. Breitbart published many thousands of words about me, at turns calling me a “Soros-backed attack dog,” “harasser,” “stalker,” and “Jayson Blair on steroids,” a reference to the former New York Times fabulist. After one Breitbart article, my wife and I received a threatening phone call at home. We called the police.
But they meet -- and it's like a romance novel in which the heroine falls head over heels for exactly the kind of guy she thinks she hates:
A few days after Bardella e-mailed, I met Bannon for lunch at the Bryant Park Grill in Midtown Manhattan. I found him at an outdoor table, wearing an untucked shirt and cargo shorts. His hair was a tangled nest of platinum gray and it looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. If I didn’t know him I’d have thought he just rolled off a bus at the Port Authority. Bannon shook my hand graciously. He told me he enjoyed my book on Ailes. What about all the hit pieces he published? “Ha! Those were love taps, dude. Just business.” We proceeded to have a highly entertaining lunch swapping media and political gossip.

As much as I wanted to loathe Bannon—the Breitbart attacks were genuinely terrifying—I found myself liking him. He was strange and charismatic and slightly unhinged, and he possessed a sophisticated and encyclopedic knowledge of the modern political-media landscape. He personally knew the players, from the on-air talent and programming executives to the candidates and billionaire donors. And he was a gifted talker. He exaggerated but didn’t quite lie (at least most of the time). And during conversations he fired off laser-accurate descriptions of famous people that would make the best insult comics proud. In that way, he was like another New York blowhard: Trump.
Christ, it doesn't take much to impress insider journalists. He understand the political-media landscape? He knows the players? He can sling the bull and tell a joke? Dude, he's affiliated with people who threatened you and your wife with physical harm. What's your problem?

Sherman's problem is that he wants good copy -- and, presumably, continued access. He got the former, largely because Bannon is either the world's most caffeinated man (his libations of choice are Red Bull, multiple cups of coffee, Coke, and "Pocari Sweat, a popular Japanese energy drink") or because, well...

Bannon's speed-rants seem to persuade Sherman that his versions of events are true. For instance, he was totally planning to quit his White House job, and it's just an unfortunate coincidence that he was fired:
By this point it was Bannon who was on the way out. In late July, Trump replaced Priebus with John Kelly and gave the retired four-star Marine general a stated mandate to bring the warring West Wing factions to heel. Among Kelly’s first orders of business was firing communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Another, according to White House officials: telling Bannon he needed to go. Bannon told me he always planned to leave by the one-year anniversary of joining Trump’s campaign, and he told Kelly on August 7 he wanted to resign.

Whatever the case, Bannon said he knew Trump might try to control the narrative of his departure, so he told Kelly not to tell Trump. But later that night, Bannon said Trump called him after learning of the decision from White House lawyer John Dowd. Bannon said he told Trump he wanted to attack his G.O.P. detractors from the outside. “I said the establishment is trying to nullify your election,” he recalls. “Forget the Democrats. We got our own thing with the three committees” investigating Russia collusion. According to Bannon, Trump was reluctant at first to let him leave. And the threat of Bannon turning Breitbart loose on Trump and his family loomed. “He was very nervous about it,” Bannon said. “He just fuckin’ knows I’m a junkyard dog, and I was pissed at the time.” Bannon said Trump told him he needed to think about it....

On Thursday, August 17, ... The American Prospect published a remarkable score-settling interview Bannon had given to its editor Robert Kuttner. The fact that Bannon spoke to a magazine aligned with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party got people’s attention. But what likely got Bannon fired were his comments that there was no military solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. The remark sent the stock market tanking. If Trump understands one thing, it’s money, and he approved Bannon’s dismissal.
Oh, but Bannon got "a hero's welcome" when he arrived at Breitbart HQ the next day, Sherman tells us. ("'I don’t think Trump understands how dangerous Steve is. He just runs in and conquers shit, like Charlemagne,' a Breitbart journalist told me at the time.") Bannon might run for Trump's job in 2020 if Trump doesn't. ("In October, Bannon called an adviser and said he would consider running for president if Trump doesn’t run for re-election in 2020. Which Bannon has told people is a realistic possibility.") And Bannon is a true champion of the working man:
Bannon’s blue-collar upbringing and conservative Catholic faith undergird his populist ideas.... Cutting immigration and erecting trade barriers will help people of color by tightening the labor market, thereby raising wages. In the White House, he argued to increase tax rates on the wealthy and has problems with the G.O.P. tax plan (although he ultimately supports it). Bannon also argued to end the country’s decades-long entanglement in Afghanistan and spend the money at home. “You could rebuild America! Do you understand what Baltimore and St. Louis and these places would look like?” ...

Raheem Kassam, a former adviser to Nigel Farage who now edits Breitbart London and travels in Bannon’s entourage, told me, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bannon and Bernie campaigning together in a couple years.”
That's a bridge too far even for the otherwise credulous Sherman -- but for the wrong reason:
There’s not much evidence that that notion is more than a fantasy. Not only because of Bannon’s pariah status on the left, but also because it’s difficult to reconcile Bannon’s homilies about helping minorities with a worldview that America is a Western European, Judeo-Christian culture that must close its borders and build a wall at a time when the immigrants are brown-skinned people.
That's not the primary reason it's a fantasy. It's a fantasy because Bannon has done nothing, either as a Breitbart editor or as a Trump adviser, to attack the pro-plutocrat policies of the Republican Party. If he'd wanted to, he could have quit the White House when it became obvious that there'd be no infrastructure plan in the first year, and no other real economic help for the working class. As the top man at Breitbart, he could have attacked the tax bill as a giveaway to the elites he claims he despises.

But he'll never do that, because he's a fraud. But he's an entertaining fraud, so Sherman doesn't care.

No comments: