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The Myth of Steve Bannon the Kingmaker

There was always a deeply contradictory thesis at the heart of the media’s narrative on Steve Bannon, and Michael Wolff’s controversial new book Fire and Fury [1] has brought it to the fore. If the narrative was to be believed, Bannon was kingmaker, mastermind, manipulator—and master publicist [2]—all at the same time. There’s just one problem: these characteristics are antithetical if one examines the history of advisors to the powerful.

Bannon, erstwhile leader of Breitbart News turned presidential advisor, was pulling the strings in the Trump White House and masterfully executing his secret alt-right agenda, so the story went. He was the “Great Manipulator,” Time proclaimed on its cover, accompanied by an article [3] that posed the question: “Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?” Saturday Night Live parodied this pervasive narrative with Bannon as the Grim Reaper, maniacally manipulating Alec Baldwin’s childlike Trump to do his evil bidding. Even after enduring months of Baldwin skits and Melissa McCarthy’s withering mockery of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the portrayal of Bannon left Trump “especially upset,” aides reported [4] to the Washington Post.

And why wouldn’t it? In the skit, Trump was, as the Post put it, “relegated to a miniature desk, playing dolefully with an expandable toy.” Soon enough, the president began to publicly downplay Bannon’s role in his presidency, saying that Bannon had joined “very late” and adding in an interview [5] to the New York Post, “I’m my own strategist, and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies…” Trump clearly resented [6] the narrative that he was a puppet on Bannon’s strings.

Whether obsequious sycophants or strategic masterminds, kingmakers are not known for trumpeting their successes. Indeed, their power is derived from the quiet ways in which they exert their wills. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “He that would keep a secret must keep it secret that he hath a secret to keep.” An advisor can never publicize that he has power, because doing so risks losing his master’s trust. As queen’s counsel to Queen Elizabeth I and then lord chancellor to James I before he had to resign in disgrace, Bacon knew a thing or two about advising the powerful.


Unlike the sly and self-deprecating ways of history’s great kingmakers, Bannon was well-known for his brazen interview forays [2] into the media. His website Breitbart happily credited itself [7] with every electoral victory and after Trump’s win declared war on “establishment” Republicans in office. They congratulated themselves with developing the intellectual underpinnings of “Trumpism” and populism, [8] and named themselves the driving force behind Trump’s agenda. In an administration that became notorious for embarrassing leaks, Bannon was reportedly behind most [9] from the Trump White House.

Contrast that with Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a statesman and diplomat who worked under the regime of French King Louis XVI, survived the upheaval of the French Revolution, and then devoted himself to Napoleon I, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe. Talleyrand was known for his distinctive realist brand of cynical diplomacy. His ability to survive at the highest levels of successive French governments with competing agendas is cited as a model for advisors. He switched sides so many times that a contemporary cartoon shows [10] him with six different faces, one for each regime he served.

“The first of all qualities in life is the art of showing only a part of oneself, of one’s thoughts, one’s feelings, one’s impressions,” Talleyrand wrote in his Memoirs, adding that “man was given the power of speech to conceal his thoughts.” Indeed, the ability to disguise one’s true self is a common theme embodied by history’s most successful and powerful advisors. T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” a clever chameleon and the quintessential kingmaker, reshaped the Middle East while being everything to everyone and nothing to himself. He wrote:

In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other, and had… a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do. Such detachment came at times to a man exhausted by prolonged physical effort and isolation. His body plodded on mechanically, while his reasonable mind left him, and from without looked down critically on him, wondering what that futile lumber did and why. Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.

Bannon was never capable of this kind of self-erasure. He may have imagined himself in the role of the same Talleyrand who said, “They think that I am immoral and Machiavellian, yet I am simply impassive and disdainful. I have never given perverse advice to a government or a prince, but I do not go down with them.” But that isn’t what Bannon ultimately did. His actions betray not a mastermind or a power behind the throne, but a ship without a harbor, having alienated every port in the game of politics. Even his original backers, the billionaire Mercer family, have reportedly abandoned him in the aftermath of Wolff’s devastating book [11], and Breitbart may force him out next. [12]

After he was jettisoned from the Trump administration last summer, Bannon claimed he had resigned, although the White House said he’d been fired. [8] The author of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff, isn’t a credible journalist, and the revelations in his book may or may not be accurate—it’s impossible to know. Certainly the furious response [13] from the White House denouncing Bannon suggests there may at least be some truth to Wolff’s accounts. Whatever the case, Bannon, the ship adrift, now says he “regrets” his comments [14], some of which were deeply negative against Trump kin Donald Jr. [15] and “Javanka,” [16] his nickname for Jared and Ivanka Kushner.

The truth is that Bannon was never the mastermind he was given credit for. As a skillful publicist, he played up and perpetuated the mythology about him, which conveniently fed the media’s confirmation bias. But as a sloppy and narcissistic advisor, his downfall was probably only a matter of time.

Barbara Boland is the former weekend editor of the Washington Examiner. Her work has been featured on Fox News, the Drudge Report, HotAir.com, RealClearDefense, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere. She’s the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General Patton in World War II, and is a summa cum laude graduate of Immaculata University. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC [17].

49 Comments (Open | Close)

49 Comments To "The Myth of Steve Bannon the Kingmaker"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 9, 2018 @ 2:02 am

I’m pretty sure it’s to his credit that Bannon wasn’t a thoroughly amoral Machiavelli of the sort said to have wielded power successfully amidst the manipulative intrigues of royals.

About what you’d expect of a genuine populist.

#2 Comment By SDS On January 9, 2018 @ 6:38 am

Hmm…. Hit pieces on Bannon so soon…..
And unsubstantiated attacks on Wolff…
“A furious response from the White House ….suggests there may be some truth…” This White House?? This writer appears too adult to actually believe this…..
I sense a new pattern here at TAC…..

#3 Comment By Eric Mader On January 9, 2018 @ 10:40 am

Meh. All in all a too confident a take-down of Bannon. Especially, what grounds is there to assume he was responsible for the leaks? It’s just more dirt picked up to throw at him. Trump made a mistake letting him go. It’s Jared and Ivanka who should have lost some of their clout.

Bannon’s taken a few serious hits, but he’s far from done.

#4 Comment By RVA On January 9, 2018 @ 11:47 am

Barbara: I was on the verge (again) of giving up reading political posts, as all seem to be exercises in confirmation bias, but thank you for the T E Lawrence quote. Very poignant. Talleyrand also. Literate perspective. This happens often enough to have me keep reading TAC.

#5 Comment By One Guy On January 9, 2018 @ 11:49 am

If the Wolfe book is all lies, why is the White House so mad at Bannon?

#6 Comment By M. Orban On January 9, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

@Eric Mader
“Bannon’s taken a few serious hits, but he’s far from done.”

If the money dries up, he is done. The Mercer girl has already cuy him off.

#7 Comment By Wezz On January 9, 2018 @ 1:18 pm

“Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty.”

It would appear Steve’s philosophy is alive and well in the White House.

#8 Comment By Geoff On January 9, 2018 @ 2:09 pm

I liked the quotes and enjoyed the historical parallels but this piece would have been more impressive if TAC had published it before Bannon’s downfall. Hindsight is always…

#9 Comment By Hexexis On January 9, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

Media have begged decades for a tabloid pres’y. Now they’ve got one, & suddenly they’re chagrined that they’re being maligned by their tabloid Pres. & his minions.

I’d never heard of Bannon B4 he was a Trump associate, have never looked into the Breitbart scandal page; but now I see that what passes for news since Clinton & Trump announced candidacies is nothing more than the peripheral winds of gossip, intrigue, scandal: topics formerly consigned to Natl. Enquirer, People mag, & World News Weekly.

Only, following the example of their Ingrate-in-Chief, the “respectable” media decline to acknowledge their pedigree.

#10 Comment By ukm1 On January 9, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

Stephen Kevin Bannon is permanently finished.

His epitaph on tomb-stone will read one day that Stephen Kevin Bannon was a failed American political apparatchik of early 21st century America.

#11 Comment By Celery On January 9, 2018 @ 5:18 pm

Now that the base whisperer has lost his place at Breitbart, what will the base do now without someone to constantly whip them into a frenzy? Will someone else try to step in and do what Bannon did? I think that was Steve’s gift, and I don’t know that anyone could do it as successfully. Will we see the base drift away?

#12 Comment By M. Orban On January 9, 2018 @ 5:31 pm

Wow,… Things happen fast. With a firm grasp, twist and a yank, Bannon is out at Breitbart. Good job, Rebeccah…

#13 Comment By grumpy realist On January 9, 2018 @ 5:52 pm

Supposedly Bannon’s out at Breitbart.

For a modern Machiavelli, Bannon doesn’t seem all that bright at strategy.

#14 Comment By One Guy On January 9, 2018 @ 7:14 pm

Trump’s advisors are falling like dominoes. Who is next? Sessions? Tillerson? Dozens, after January 20?

So much winning…

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 9, 2018 @ 8:25 pm

Having noticed the references to Machiavelli, it would be good to remember that Mchiavelli found himself out and when he was in, the moment never materialized.

Yet, he is on the lips of every political science course around the globe. He surpassed his rivals – even the Medici’s.

I would say he is and – time is on Mr Bannon’s side.

#16 Comment By Minnesota Mary On January 9, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

I can hardly wait to read Bannon’s “tell all” book. He’d better hire some body guards first.

#17 Comment By Intelliwriter On January 9, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

Bannon thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. And with Trump, that was probably true.

#18 Comment By Justin McCarthy On January 9, 2018 @ 10:46 pm

Sadly, I liked Bannon’s take on the adverse nature of our trade policies and need for economic nationalism. Unfortunately, like many champions of the country and its abandoned citizens, Ross Perot comes to mind, Bannon seems to be more intent on imploding than actually sustaining a long term strategic campaign.

#19 Comment By MountainMan On January 9, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

Spot on! Bannon proved himself not to be the legend he wanted us to believe he is.

#20 Comment By Johnny Ringo On January 9, 2018 @ 11:02 pm

I thought there was an article recently about Bannon securing another billionaire backer.

If that is the case, I doubt he is far from “done”.

#21 Comment By Gordius On January 9, 2018 @ 11:14 pm

bannon is no more gone in the American experience than the tea party. His wisdom and his patriotic passion will affect our discourse just as much as robert bork’s writings do right now. There is the best comparison; judge bork. But for his courage antonin Scalia would have remained off the court. But for bannon there would have been no passion to campaign against global elitist oligaechy. He is the adult drum beater in the spirit of 1776.

#22 Comment By DJ Tanyan On January 9, 2018 @ 11:15 pm

…another Icarus….plop!

#23 Comment By Peter Anastos On January 9, 2018 @ 11:39 pm

Bannon was always a bloviating phony. He never had any power in the WH and was summarily fired by Kelly and Trump. Good riddance. All hysterical posts here miss the point. Bannon is a nothingburger

#24 Comment By Fred On January 10, 2018 @ 12:00 am

The left’s hit job on Bannon is now complete, thanks to the dutiful cooperation of Establishment Republicans, Trump, and the democrats advising him in the White House. Overall, a sad day for those of us who hoped middle America’s voice would finally be heard.

I had high hopes for Trump, but it appears his ego and blind spot for his unqualified kids will likely be his undoing.

The swamp is safe; we are not.

#25 Comment By gen On January 10, 2018 @ 3:45 am

Breitbart was a truecon publication, vehemently against Trump during the primaries. Since it was headed by Bannon during those days, my assumption is that he was never forthright about trying to help Trump. Truth is, Bannon was working to destroy Trump and set up a puppet to run in 2020.

#26 Comment By Lee On January 10, 2018 @ 4:30 am

I can only hope he is gone.

#27 Comment By Julia Welch On January 10, 2018 @ 4:38 am

The original Breitbart website was great and always interesting. Too bad the real Breitbart
suddenly died young. It was about more than politics and had some great columnists.

I guess Bannon bought it from his estate.

#28 Comment By Robert On January 10, 2018 @ 5:13 am

Without Bannon Trump is rudderless.

#29 Comment By Pascal On January 10, 2018 @ 6:02 am

The attempts to vilify or marginalize Bannon seem part of the plan to bring Trump back to the establishment GOP. If we can kill off the lead nationalist, perhaps Trump wI’ll embrace DACA, globalism, cheap labor, etc.

It may work. But the Nationalists aren’t fooled and Bannon will be back.

#30 Comment By Johnny T On January 10, 2018 @ 6:06 am

“Meh. All in all a too confident a take-down of Bannon. Especially, what grounds is there to assume he was responsible for the leaks? It’s just more dirt picked up to throw at him. Trump made a mistake letting him go. It’s Jared and Ivanka who should have lost some of their clout.

Bannon’s taken a few serious hits, but he’s far from done.”

I Agree!

#31 Comment By we were screwed On January 10, 2018 @ 6:18 am

Whatever. Trump can’t blame Bannon for the growing anger of Trump voters like me.

He said he’d drain the swamp but right off the bat he hired cronies, crooks, even his own family members. He said he’d build a wall and stop immigration, but even more immigrants are pouring in now than under Obama, and he handed out even more work visas to foreigners than Obama did. He said he’d bomb Isis to smithereens and get us out of the Middle East, but instead he’s dragging us into even more wars. He said he’d stop foreign countries ripping us off, but then he sends billions of dollars to Israel. The bad trade deals are still bad. And the whole tax code reform thing turned out to be a way to make his rich friends richer.

All I hear from him is about foreigners and what they want: what he’s going to do for Israel and Saudi Arabia, what he’s going to do to Iran and North Korea. What happened to “America First”??

Bannon can do us former Trump voters a favor and start looking for a Trump replacement. We need one.

#32 Comment By What Gives? On January 10, 2018 @ 6:44 am

Base whisperer? Hardly. The rank-and-file Trump voters had probably never heard of Bannon or Breitbart before he joined the team.

#33 Comment By vaporland On January 10, 2018 @ 7:43 am

Bannon was always a much bigger threat to the status quo than Trump.

Suddenly everyone and everything has turned against him. It’s hardly a coincidence.

I hope he isn’t done yet. I was rather enjoying Godzilla as the mayor of Tokyo, and Bannon made this movie even more entertaining.

#34 Comment By Arthur Taylor On January 10, 2018 @ 8:37 am

Bannon’s gone because he was a back stabbing gossip. I really liked his ideas, though. I also thought highly of his speaking abilities and the message he was getting out to a good many who had never really heard a comprehensive plan for regaining American greatness.

It’s a self inflicted loss of a voice that was very much needed.

#35 Comment By John Whitworth On January 10, 2018 @ 8:39 am

Bannon Betrayed President Trump in a big way. Its Karma

#36 Comment By DigDug On January 10, 2018 @ 8:50 am

Gossip and hearsay countered with gossip and hearsay! Credibility, who needs it!

#37 Comment By Steven Hebbard On January 10, 2018 @ 9:49 am

I don’t understand how the narrative in the conservative ranks to so quickly move in favor of the direction of the globalists in the Trump administration. This is Trump using his bully pulpit as he’s done several times before. Those who take in the narrative are those who willingly give themselves over to the embrace of a person over their cause. For a second Trump had a beating heart and it was Steven Bannon.

#38 Comment By Prof Watson On January 10, 2018 @ 9:53 am

Bannon got too big of a head and lost touch with reality. He made an error of judgment and now he is history. I have seen this same situation in large corporate politics.

#39 Comment By William Spencook On January 10, 2018 @ 10:07 am

The article leaves probably THE MOST important point. Steve Bannon supported Ted Cruz, and jumped on the Trump Train only when it was clear that Cruz was mathematically eliminated from winning the nomination. Also, Bannon’s sloppy appearance is intentional. He is emulating the late Andrew Breitbart’s disheveled appearance.

#40 Comment By Yez Iam Wontoo On January 10, 2018 @ 10:29 am

You gotta know when to holdem, know when to foldem, know when to walk away, know when to run…Bannon, has no skills, he’s just another in a long line of boisterous loud mouth bullies.

#41 Comment By Dean Furnia On January 10, 2018 @ 11:08 am

Having listened and spoken to Steve Bannon and on his national radio I can tell you he is true nationalist. Let’s face it, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s stated positions were not far apart. Steve Bannon was compatible with either one. But DJT came out the winner. So the swamp, the Dems and the globalist had to stop nationalism. It’s an all out attack from every angle: fake news stories from mysterious sources, fake Russian collusion claim, fake senility claim, fake obstruction claim, remove all his internal support in the WH (Flynn, Bannon….Miller will be next), defunding his personal businesses, bogusly filing injunctions through the 9th circuit against every decision he makes. This will not end well FOR THE COUNTRY. All I can say is Trump better be careful because I remember 1963.

#42 Comment By Larry Conners On January 10, 2018 @ 11:39 am

Very interesting piece…enjoyed the historical quotes…Do not agree with your conclusion that Bannon is dead meat, or that the “base” is fading away…The sleeping giant of middle America has been awakened and will not rest until the corruption, incompetence, immoral rot that is today’s Washington swamp is drained, and justice returns to a morally bankrupt American political system…

#43 Comment By Take Five On January 10, 2018 @ 7:55 pm

“Bannon got too big of a head and lost touch with reality. He made an error of judgment and now he is history. I have seen this same situation in large corporate politics.”

We’ll see about that. Unless Trump starts keeping his big promises on immigration and getting us out of the Middle East, he’s history. I voted for him for “America First”, “End H1-B visas” and “Drain the Swamp”, not “Israel First”, “Hire All The Foreigners You Want” and “Hire My Own Family Members”.

#44 Comment By yours truly On January 10, 2018 @ 9:14 pm

“Traitor”? Bannon? Who exactly did Bannon betray? The voters? Hell no.

Trump seems to think we’re all chumps and losers. He thinks we don’t care what he promised to do and that now he’s president he can kick his voters in the teeth. He has the goddamn nerve to imagine that we love him for being Donald Trump.

Well, we don’t love him for being Donald Trump. We don’t much like big talking New York real estate developers, especially when instead of “draining the swamp” they start hiring their buddies and creepy family members with foreign agendas.

If Trump doesn’t make good on the big talk about immigration, manufacturing jobs, infrastructure, and ending the wars, then he’s going to get one hell of a big surprise later this year and again in 2020.

And it will be people like Bannon who arrange that big surprise. Because so far as I can see Bannon has stayed true to the voters, whereas Trump is betraying them.

#45 Comment By Viet Vet On January 11, 2018 @ 2:08 am

@yours truly

Right on. Trump is the traitor, not Bannon. Trump is betraying us, his voters. Bannon still believes in “America First”. It wasn’t Bannon who just went to Davos and said he was ready to sign an immigration bill designed by foreign globalists. It was Trump who did that.

#46 Comment By Whine Merchant On January 11, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

The title of this article, “The Myth of Steve Bannon the Kingmaker” should more accurately be:
Bannon, King of the Myth-makers”. He fell for believing his own self-made myth about his importance to Trump.

#47 Comment By maybe not sure On January 11, 2018 @ 8:33 pm

@Viet Vet : “It wasn’t Bannon who just went to Davos and said he was ready to sign an immigration bill designed by foreign globalists. It was Trump who did that.”

Not yet. Check your facts. He hasn’t gone to Davos yet and maybe he still won’t. But what he is doing is even worse, which is openly, publicly letting Dems like Feinstein drive the immigration agenda. He’s presiding over the return of “Gang of Eight” style immigration legislation, which is pretty ironic.

#48 Comment By sinking in On January 12, 2018 @ 2:07 am

Bannon looks to me like someone who’s basically a standup guy, trying to keep faith with what Trump voters wanted, trying to identify the filth around Trump who encourage Trump to betray those voters. And Bannon’s trying to do that without sticking the knife too deep into Trump himself, whom Bannon clearly likes.

But that can’t all be done. If you’ve got a choice, keep faith with the voters. They’re what matters most.

#49 Comment By Watching the Clock On January 14, 2018 @ 5:45 am

@Whine Merchant — “He fell for believing his own self-made myth about his importance to Trump.”

That may be, we’ll see. I think Bannon did what he could and then threw up his hands.

What’s abundantly clear is that Trump fell for believing his own self-made myth about his importance to voters. He’s betraying us left and right, and come 2020 he won’t know what hit him.