Until its quick interruption, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon's rise was turning into a kind of legend. The ex-Goldman Sachs man had moved quickly from making low-budget populist documentaries, to dominating the right-wing internet via Breitbart News, to becoming an adviser to the president of the United States. Not just any adviser. Bannon had rapidly acquired the reputation of being a political mastermind who had transplanted his own brain underneath President Trump's much more famous mane. He was America's Rasputin, acting with a kind of mythic power to turn the president or the right-wing noise machine in coordinated directions to achieve his desired results.
It was Bannon exercising final control over the infamous travel ban. It was Bannon, and his disciples, who were provoking the young left into the kind of unruly street theater and rioting that would solidify a crooked Republican's hold on power.
And then a funny thing happened. It evaporated in a joke. Popular culture and the media on their Twitter accounts latched onto the idea that they could get Bannon fired by portraying him as the real power behind the throne. Call him President Bannon and activate Trump's jealousy was the theory. And ... maybe they were right.
In the past two weeks, rumors of Trump's displeasure over the skits on Saturday Night Live dribbled out. Bannon has been tossed from the National Security Council, where his presence was once considered a scandal. This leaky White House team leaked that Bannon had been instructed to "lay low." And then Trump put a dis for Bannon in the papers. "I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late," Trump said in an interview with the New York Post. "I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn't know Steve. I'm my own strategist and it wasn't like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary." Oof!
If Bannon has really been exiled, he's only the latest in a line of discarded populists. Previously General Mike Flynn and the slippery political consultant Paul Manafort excited too much opposition, and too many embarrassing headlines, for Trump to keep them around. For Bannon, the Trump campaign is a kind of cosmic joke.
Bannon wanted to drag Trump, the Republican Party, and the American republic to his populist nationalist vision. In reality, it looks more and more like his role was to organize and enflame the populist and nationalist constituencies in the GOP, and then reconcile them to the latest Republican president who would betray them in office. Instead of Bannonite paleo-conservatism, Trump may just use the office to make himself popular and pursue the dearest political hopes of his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. The role of the hard-right turn was to empower another RINO who is trying to impress The New York Times, a paper that despises him. Instead of using Trump as a "blunt instrument," it was Trump who made Bannon look like the tool.
Within 100 days, Trump has already ditched his foreign policy revisionism. Ivanka is rumored to have had influence over Trump's decision to launch a punitive strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Bannon was supposedly protesting in his last days on the National Security Council that intervention in Syria contradicted Trump's promises. In another interview with the paper the populists used to hate, The Wall Street Journal, Trump sells out the nationalists on trade and the dollar, issues he is now willing to cede to China for some help on North Korea. In the same interview, Bannon becomes just "a guy who works for me."
It must hurt. Bannon's crew invested the time with Trump. Breitbart had been sympathetic to Donald Trump as far back as the 2012 election, running little hits on The Donald's media enemies. And they've championed Trump over all his conservative critics. And now the Trump presidency is handed not to the populists and nationalists like Bannon, but to the normal tax-slashing Goldman insiders, the ambitious generals' generals, and to the Trump family itself. The consolation prize is that Bannon and other populists are returned to the state of life they spent so long cultivating: the snubbed and passed over.