Opinion

Bannon was meant for another age

His talents were wholly unsuited to the politics of America in the 21st century — or even the 18th

The first lapsed Catholic, self-described Leninist-Satanist, pro-darkness Sith aficionado, and erstwhile video-game-gold entrepreneur to hold the office of White House chief strategist has, by mutual agreement with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, resigned from his position following interviews in which he mocked his boss, his colleagues, and the coterie of neo-pseudomedicine enthusiasts popularly known as the "alt-right."

Stephen K. Bannon's tenure in the White House was short-lived. This was something he had himself predicted. The former executive chairman of Breitbart News lacks many admirable qualities, but self-awareness is not among them. Eight furious months presiding as the ringmaster-cum-alchemist extraordinaire over a shadowy faction of backbiters, misanthropists, ideologues, and outcasts in a carnivalesque administration in which gossip, character assassination, spite, vitriol, and hatred are exchanged as welcome currency was probably longer than he expected.

Thousands of pages of digital ink have been spilled in the last year or so on the subject of what Bannon really believes. Is he a reactionary populist seeking the destruction of traditional libertarian economics in the Republican Party, an "America First" isolationist obsessed with the breaking of NATO and the immolation of our trade relation with China, a depraved traditionalist longing for the revival and hegemony of mores from which he considers himself excused? All of these? None? I would like to suggest that these efforts, while not wholly lacking in interest, have been misguided. The simplest explanation is, in this case, the correct one: Bannon believes in nothing.

This is not to say that he has never had concrete goals, but rather to acknowledge their exclusively negative character. Bannon wants to disrupt, to despoil, to liquidate, to lay waste, zap, fry, and doom his enemies. The villains of Bannon's worldview are a miscellaneous and wide-ranging group: Wall Street, Hollywood, Goldman Sachs, careerists at the State, Treasury, and Defense Departments, the vast swathes of the media establishment, most prominent Republican politicians, the heads of foreign governments, much of the Roman Curia, proponents of compromise and toleration everywhere.

Bannon's imagination is not well suited to modern democratic politics. His heart is not in the tiresome business of electioneering, except insofar as it provides a staging ground for assaults on the fortress of liberalism, whose improving language and meliorist assumptions he despises. Nor does he seem to have an interest in the very dull and mechanical work of devising and implementing policy. Nothing could matter less to such a man than the means by which, say, China is destroyed — only that she is, and anyone who would prefer a more sober course of action ruined with her.

His talents are wholly unsuited to the politics of America in the 21st century, or even the 18th. It is easier to imagine him flourishing as a cold but smiling magister officiorum in the golden dance of court under His Imperial Majesty Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos or as a leering chief eunuch in the palace of the Manchu Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi at the height of the mystic Boxer Rebellion. He might have superintended the spoliation of the monasteries at the behest of a Henry VIII or whispered secret doom in the ear of some nameless Vandal chief before an ill-considered campaign of plunder. He might even have been good on Game of Thrones.

As it happens, I rather like Bannon: Many of the president's men are moved to exercise restraint, to consider forgiveness or moderation, even to stoop to apology; but to Bannon, all such instincts are utterly foreign. He prefers darkness to light, blazing fires to cool water, daggers to guns. He would rather heap himself on the pyre of his enemies than leave a single match unlit.

It is a shame that we will have to wait at least a century or so for the history of this administration to be written properly. Journalists lack the necessary historical imagination and the aesthetic sense to capture the lunatic abilities of such an actor.

Bannon was a foe unworthy of all of his adversaries.

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