In successfully ensuring the election of President Trump, Bannon dragged American politics into the filthy murk with him.
Steve Bannon was finally relieved of his position as senior advisor to Donald Trump yesterday, bringing an ignominious end to a tumultuous, off-again-on-again shadow presidency that managed to survive for seven months despite the fact that one of its explicitly-stated goals was to destroy the executive branch from within. In the midst of all that is bleak about American politics, it is perfectly acceptable to raise a glass to the long-overdue departure of an Islamophobic goon who was reportedly “thrilled” with the president’s spirited defense of white supremacists, as long as you do so with the understanding that, termination and all, Steve Bannon won anyway.
Bannon’s exit from the White House came almost exactly one year after he was hired away from Breitbart to chair the presidential bid of Donald Trump, whose floundering candidacy some Republicans were already beginning to dismiss as doomed to fail. But instead of pulling the standard campaign manager moves, rolling out a “new and improved” candidate and making an impassioned appeal to those elusive centrist voters, Bannon steered the entire thing sharply to the right. Trump played the hits during the campaign’s final weeks, doubling down on his performative populism, his thinly-veiled nationalism, and his defiant anger. He eagerly fanned birtherism flames by inviting President Obama’s half-brother to the third debate. He yelled a lot about Mexico. When he wasn’t threatening to put his political rival in jail, he was publicly wondering whether he could have her deported. And so on and so forth.
As you may be aware, this master plan worked spectacularly. On the day Bannon was hired, Trump trailed Clinton by nearly six full points in national polls. Less than three months later, Trump was elected President of the United States, and Bannon’s subsequent appointment as White House chief strategist cemented the Breitbart ethos’ improbable ascendance from fodder for a niche anti-immigrant blog to the driving force behind some of this administration’s most horrifying, un-American stunts. The president might resent the credit that Bannon receives for engineering November’s upset victory, but it’s clear that he learned from the tactics Bannon employed to get them there, too.
Trump’s victory sent an important message to prospective far-right politicians everywhere, who may have been too dubious about their chances of winning an election to seriously consider running for office: You don’t have to downplay the more, um, “controversial” aspects of your platform. You don’t have to politely dance around debate questions about immigration policy in the hope that the moderator moves on before exposing you as an avowed xenophobe. And you don’t have to choose between holding public office and openly advancing the argument that the benefits of living in America should flow primarily to people who look like you. Just as white supremacists now feel emboldened to march through Charlottesville in broad daylight, aspiring public servants who believed themselves to be at the fringe of the political right now know that their beliefs are much closer to the new mainstream than they previously assumed.
As the Daily Beast‘s Olivia Nuzzi sagely notes, many of the people who have been “forced out” of the Trump administration of late still have the president’s ear, and can sail into the White House with relative impunity to try and nudge their agenda along even from beyond the grave. Bannon might not have West Wing credentials, but he still probably has the number for Trump’s Android saved in his phone. And even if you believe, based on the the insane post-apocalyptic rhetoric coming out of the Breitbart hivemind right now, that Bannon’s exit might be more permanent and more acrimonious that those of his dearly-departed peers, his influence on this administration—and on the conservative movement that now grips this country—ceased long ago to be dependent on his physical presence in the White House. Look at the first public statements he made after rejoining Breitbart on Friday, all of which sound like lines of rejected dialogue from a Mad Max knockoff:
I feel jacked up. Now I’m free. I’ve got my hands back on my weapons.
Someone said, “It’s Bannon the Barbarian.” I am definitely going to
crush the opposition. There’s no doubt. I built a fucking machine at
Breitbart. And now I’m about to go back, knowing what I know, and
we’re about to rev that machine up. And rev it up we will do.
Steve Bannon is gone from the White House, but we are very plainly living in an America shaped in his image. The fact that he lost his job on Friday doesn’t change that.
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