Steve Bannon Is Less Important Than Ever

But he sure is good at inserting himself into the news.
January 4, 2018, 9:34pm
Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty

For those who follow the White House the way more balanced people follow Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the past few days have been the equivalent of a blockbuster. A new gossip-filled book from journalist Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury, appeared from the ether like a late Christmas gift to Donald Trump's many haters. Going by initial excerpts in New York and British GQ, it portrays Trump as an addled narcissist and describes his inner circle as a bunch of self-interested dolts convinced he would lose the 2016 election. And, in what might be its biggest bombshell, it features former White House adviser Steve Bannon describing a meeting Donald Trump Jr. took with a Russian lawyer as "treasonous" and "bad shit."

Predictably, these comments drew the wrath of Trump, who promptly insisted Bannon "lost his mind." Trump's lawyers have since accused Bannon of breaking a nondisclosure agreement and even threatened to sue Wolff's publisher. Bannon responded by saying on Twitter that his words were "taken out of context" and reaffirmed his support for the president he helped elect, a man he called "the great white hope for the USA." (Trump on Thursday acknowledged his wayward acolyte's mea culpa without explicitly accepting it.)

Bannon's remarks also set off a wave of commentary—is he right to suggest the Russia probe might end in even more prosecutions? Is he actually not all that bad of a guy? Can Wolff's reporting even be trusted? Trump and Bannon (and Wolff) are naturals at ginning up controversy, so this bomb cyclone of a spat is naturally consuming a lot of oxygen in the media world. But it's important to pause between bites of popcorn to ask a different question: How much does Steve Bannon even matter at this point?

Bannon might argue that he's very, very important. He's spent an awful lot of time selling himself as a political prophet, if not quite a Sith Lord. "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power," he told Wolff in 2016 after Trump's victory during an interview in which he also said his new political movement would "get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we'll govern for 50 years" if Trumpism—or Bannonism—could "deliver."

At the time of that interview, Bannon's power was at its apex. The journalist Joshua Green's book Devil's Bargain has since described him as a sort of visionary, seeing a path to victory for Trump that no one else did. And it may be that he deserves some credit for embracing a scorched-earth strategy—a combination of economic populism and xenophobia with unhinged attacks on Hillary Clinton—that put a reality star in the White House. Certainly a lot of people, including many liberals, have given him the kind of man-behind-the-curtain attention he so obviously craves, with SNL going so far as to portray him as the Grim Reaper.

But since Trump's win, Bannon's record—and his portrayal in the press—has taken a nosedive. The most prominent candidate he's backed in a subsequent election, Roy Moore, managed to lose a Senate race in Alabama despite being on the Republican ticket. Similarly aggro Republicans also lost in Virginia and New Jersey this past November. The crop of anti-establishment challengers Bannon is currently supporting looks like a list of crackpots and literal ex-cons likely to flame out in general elections if any even get that far.

Strategists and politicians from the establishment wing of the Republican Party have been openly disparaging Bannon since Moore lost, and more and more conservatives seem to be abandoning him. The billionaire Mercer family, whose hedge fund wealth has historically helped finance his many operations, have reportedly dropped him. (He may have a new benefactor, a Chinese billionaire who has attacked his home country's corruption, which apparently makes him acceptable to a man who sees China as America's number-one threat.) On Thursday, right-wing media impresario Matt Drudge tweeted compliments about other Breitbart executives but not Bannon, a fairly obvious bit of shade. Even Alex Jones is going in: The Infowars host said on Thursday that Bannon looks like “he has organ failure” and “has been run over by a truck with dandruff all over him.”

Without Trump and the Mercers in his corner, Bannon doesn't have nearly the same kind of access to levers of power. Among the Trump base, he may not be especially popular or well known, either: An April poll from Quinnipiac found that 61 percent of Republicans, and 51 percent of whites without a college degree, still didn't know enough about him to have an opinion. (In all, Bannon's favorability was at 11 percent.) That doesn't bode well for his supposed political ambitions.

If Bannon is not forced out at Breitbart, a move the company's board is apparently debating**,** he'll be able to play some role in shaping the conversation on the hard right. But that website's vitriol hasn't proved effective at influencing policy or elections by itself—and with Bannon in Trump's doghouse, that doesn't seem likely to change. He'll pop up now and again in the news, because if there's one thing he's good at, it's appearing in headlines. But he's not the grim reaper anymore, if he ever was. He's just a guy with too many shirts.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.