Among the qualities that have enabled President Trump to get this far is his “gift” for changing the subject. He’s demonstrating it as I write this with his trip to Saudi Arabia, where he is speaking respectfully about Muslims, whom he vilified all last year, when that suited his purpose.
We’re used to presidents who seek to change from an unhappy (for them) to a happier subject, but Trump has demonstrated that he can do so turning on a dime and without ever really answering the most basic, most serious unanswered questions about the previous subject. Until recently, the media and the American people have let him get away with it.
That pattern may to be changing with the current incumbent’s recent string of disasters, leading to the appointment of the widely admired Robert Mueller as special counsel to take over the investigation of the Russia collusion question. To those of us steeped in history, that development has a certain Nixonian-Archibald- Cox-ian feeling, and we recall how that ended.
But Nixon was a piker and an amateur, compared to Trump, at the change-the-subject maneuver. Trump seems to grasp something, and not a good thing, about our national attention span. We should still be asking, demanding, constantly to see his tax returns, at the very least and to just give one example. But he has left behind a much longer lists of unanswered questions, and we have let him get him away with it, insofar as electing him president without hearing serious believable answers to those questions constitutes letting him get away with it.
Bannon, the chief strategist
A Frontline documentary that premieres tomorrow (Tuesday) on PBS stations, including KTCA Channel 2 (at 9 p.m.) gives us an in-depth look at the man who seems to have helped Trump master the tactic of surprise-distract-change the subject.
That man is Steve Bannon, who currently holds the title of “chief strategist” for Trump’s White House. Much of what we’ve heard about Bannon recently has involved a decline in his status within the inner circle relative to First Son-in Law Jared Kushner. But the documentary, which I highly recommend, reminds us of the impact Bannon had on the election and on the early days of the administration. The film is called “Bannon’s War.”
Right from the get-go, the film identifies Bannon with the pattern of sudden, often unexpected, Trumpian changes of topic backed by questionable, arguably illegal executive actions, like banning arrivals from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, including many who were in the air on U.S.-bound flights when the order was issued.
New York Times reporter Peter Baker explains in the film’s opening minutes:
‘Just throw everyone else off balance’
“That’s Steve Bannon’s idea, to just throw everyone else off balance, to knock ‘em back before they have a chance to resist,” said Baker, one of many political journalists who gave on-camera interviews to Frontline.
Bannon didn’t just want to catch the public off-guard by the travel ban. Key relevant members of Trump’s Cabinet had little warning of the sudden and simultaneous announcement and implementation of the ban. Joshua Green of Bloomberg/Business Week tells Frontline that Bannon sees disruption and the ability to cause very public chaos as an important element of power. Green suggests that Bannon arranged for the announcement and immediate implementation of the ban on a Friday night, with planes carrying many of the ban targets already in the air, because he knew opponents would be off work for the weekend and would be able to organize protests that would add to the chaos and generate still more unavoidable news and still more evidence that the Trump administrations was going to be anything but business as usual.
Bannon has a lot of nerve, and a lot of ideas, which he puts together in ways that could be called radical. Central to the thinking that he brought into his big job in the Trump administration was the idea that the defining problem of the age was the clash between Western civilization and what he called “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” (which Bannon also liked to call “the Beast”). That, in Bannon’s War, is the central event of the times in which we live.
Radicalized by 9/11
Bannon grew up working class in Richmond, Virginia, in a Democratic-leaning family. He went from a Catholic military academy to the Navy, to Harvard Business School, to Wall Street, to Hollywood, where he financed movies and TV shows and grew rich. He became a big Reagan admirer, and made a film about Reagan, the PBS documentary tells us. Bannon was radicalized by the attack of 9/11, which also fed his strong belief that elements of Islam threaten the United States. Bannon made another film (“The Undefeated”) about 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, whom he hoped to see run for president in 2012. She didn’t, and Bannon had to wait for the next cycle for his opportunity to play for the big prize.
While in Hollywood he became close to Andrew Breitbart, founder of Breitbart News, and ended up taking over the organization after Breitbart’s sudden death. He transitioned the website from a previous interest in the entertainment industry to a much closer focus on right-wing politics.
Nowadays, Bannon cuts a strange, somewhat creepy-looking figure. But in person during the years of his rise, the film says, he impressed people as “engaging” and “charismatic.” Trump, the film tells us, was a big reader of Breitbart News, which became a leading voice of the so-called “alt-right,” a term that is used to imply not only populist conservatism but elements of racism sometimes bordering on fascism.
Trump and Bannon became acquainted, but not in a big way at first. Breitbart formed a connection to Stephen Miller, who now works for Trump but then worked for Sen. Jeff Sessions (now Trump’s attorney general) and this nexus led Bannon deeper into the Trump orbit.
Early influence on Trump
The film suggests Bannon influenced Trump toward the anti-Muslim stuff and Trump’s campaign rhetoric began to refer more and more to the threat represented by radical Islam. The Trump-Bannon connection grew stronger and Breitbart News, still under Bannon’s leadership and control, began attacking whichever member of the Republican presidential field seem most threatening to Trump’s chances for the nomination.
Those Breitbart journalists who weren’t comfortable with blatantly promoting Trump left the site. One who felt that way and quit over it speaks in the film, saying, “The reason I quit Breitbart is that they were working so closely with Trump. When a news outlet decides that it’s more important to maintain close ties with a particular candidate or politician than it is to maintain the integrity of their journalists, it’s no longer a journalistic organization – it’s now a propaganda platform.”
Bannon, of course, dropped what little pretense he had ever made of caring about old-school journalistic values when he quit Breitbart to officially join Team Trump as top strategist. I guess he was pretty good at it, since the guy for whom he was strategizing, who was widely expected to lose, is now president.
One ugly but perhaps effective move that the film credits to Bannon was this: In the aftermath of the notorious Access Hollywood, grab-them-by-the-pussy tape that rocked the Trump campaign heading into the second presidential debate, it was Bannon who came up with the plan to – with little advance notice — bring several of the women who had been groped and worse by Bill Clinton to join Trump for a public event which, I suppose, succeeded in confusing some voters about whether they should be more disgusted with Trump the pussy-grabber or Hillary Clinton for staying married to and even defending her husband the incorrigible serial sex predator.
‘You have to surprise the media’
Breitbart News editor Joel Pollak appears in the film to explain what that incident showed about Bannon’s growing skill as a strategist, he figured out that “you have to surprise the media.”
Robert Costa of the Washington Post says in the film that in the early days of the campaign, Trump was “a candidate of gut instinct” who knew little about public policy. Said Costa: “It wasn’t until Bannon came on in August of 2016 that you really saw Trump, working with Sessions and Bannon, putting policy to his gut instincts. … By the end of the campaign, Trump had, in effect, adopted Bannonism.”
Trump’s dark “American carnage” inaugural address strikes some of the observers in the film as more Bannonish than Trumpian. The flurry of executive orders struck Peter Baker of the Times as Bannonism: “Bannon’s theory was bam bam bam. Keep Washington off-balance. A new [executive] order. A new order. Boom boom boom. At one point [Bannon] wanted to do hundreds all on a single day.”
Maybe too prominent for Trump
Bannon became so prominent that it began to bother Trump — who prefers the spotlight to be on himself, various observers say. A big moment was when Bannon actually gave a speech at the CPAC (Conservative PAC) convention and said (in a tone that may have suggested this was his doing), “If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a specific reason, and that is the deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Perhaps that struck Trump’s ego as implying that it was Bannon’s Cabinet and Bannon’s agenda. “Saturday Night Live” included a monster-ish portrayal of Bannon alongside Alex Baldwin’s usual portrayal of clueless Trump.
At the same time, the rocky start to Trump’s administration may have undermined any feeling Trump might have harbored that everything had gone well since he started taking Bannon’s advice.
In the film, Marc Fisher of the Washington Post says: “Every executive who has ever worked for Donald Trump and succeeded has quickly absorbed the lesson that in all things Trump, if something succeeds, the credit goes to the boss. If something fails, the blame is distributed to the nearest available target.”
A decline in prominence, but …
Trump rescinded his earlier (unprecedented) decision to put Bannon on the National Security Council. When asked about Bannon’s change in status, Trump began his answer this way: “Steve is a guy who works for me.”
Bannon’s clashes with Trump son-in-law Kushner have also been mentioned in the decline of his prominence. But Bannon is still chief strategist, and the film doesn’t leave us with a clear idea of whether Bannon is rising or falling in Trumpland.
After a rough first 100 days, Team Trump put on a rally for the base in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Trump gave a speech of pure Bannonism and got the cheers he had been missing. Trump in recent days is returning to classic hits, like the threat represented by illegal aliens. The film, which I highly recommend, leaves us with a three-word sentence: “Bannon’s War continues.”