If you’re any student of politics, you saw Steve Bannon on the cover of Time magazine in early February — “The Great Manipulator,” it called him — and knew to start the countdown then.
Dead strategist walking.
He’d crossed the line that a politician’s advisers mustn’t, to a place and prominence where only the most foolish of them tread. Or at best he’d failed to prevent the media from tugging him there.
He was fine so long as he was a whisperer. On the campaign trail and on the Potomac, you can whisper all you want.
He was damned the moment he was cast as a puppeteer. That means there’s a puppet in the equation, and no politician is going to accept that designation, least of all one who stamps his name in gold on anything that stands still long enough to be stamped. Or whose debate performance included the repartee: “No puppet, no puppet. You’re the puppet.”
“I’m my own strategist,” the president said, and the message to Bannon couldn’t have been louder and clearer if it included a four-letter word.
Bannon is “a guy who works for me,” he said to The Wall Street Journal, lumping the lumpy tactician together with the concierges at Trump Tower, the groundskeepers at Mar-a-Loco and the makers of the meatloaf in the White House kitchen.
Donald Trump went so far as to suggest that he was barely acquainted with Bannon before August 2016, when Bannon joined his presidential campaign. Wrong. Trump had been a guest on the radio show that Bannon used to host nine times. But his rewrite of history was telling. Bannon needed to be erased because he was taking up too much space on the page.
Politics is a tricky business, Washington is a treacherous place and Trumplandia is downright brutal. In all three realms, you have to strike the right balance of self-promotion and self-effacement. The media’s no help: We love few archetypes better than that of the brilliant mastermind who’s the real power behind the throne. But the savviest operators find ways to resist that assignment, deflecting as much credit as they claim.
“It’s important to remember that you’re always a supporting actor, never the star,” David Axelrod, one of Barack Obama’s closest campaign and White House advisers, told me. “And depending on who the star is, it’s even more important. Donald Trump’s self-image doesn’t really allow for co-stars.”
George W. Bush’s self-image had slightly more allowance, but even so, nothing made Karl Rove’s stomach knot like the nickname — “Bush’s brain” — that a few journalists hung on him. It was both compliment and curse, and to interview him or any of Bush’s other top aides back in the day was to be pummeled with sentences that all started with the same subject, adjusted for whichever title Bush held at that point.
“The governor believes.” “The president-elect has decided.” Ask them for their opinion, and they’d tell you what he thought. That was the pecking order, which was reinforced by Bush’s own nickname for Rove: “Turd Blossom.”
Rove endured as one of Bush’s two or three pre-eminent advisers for about a decade, and his eventual diminution was largely a function of Bush’s waning popularity in the second term of his presidency, when Rove was moved from a corner suite in the West Wing to a windowless office across the hall.
Donald Regan, Ronald Reagan’s second chief of staff, was forced to resign after just two tumultuous years, partly because he’d lost sight of his place, infuriating the first lady. In her memoir, “My Turn,” Nancy Reagan complained that he “often acted as if he were the president.”
That behavior reflected the ease with which senior advisers “get caught up in feeling smarter and more powerful than the principal,” said one veteran Republican strategist, who added that the advisers who survive are able to reject or mask that grandiose sense of self.
Bannon is an amateur masker. While he didn’t give Time any quotes for its “manipulator” story and the photograph of him on the cover had been shot for a different reason three months earlier, he has spent plenty of time talking off the record with political reporters, too little of it actively tamping down his legend.
He wasn’t vigilant enough about patrolling the way his allies inside and outside the administration deified him in their own murmurings to the media, which included the nugget that colleagues awed by his knowledge called him “the encyclopedia.” He didn’t grasp that you can’t be “the encyclopedia” if your president is barely a pamphlet and didn’t see the traps that would have been obvious to a Washington insider.
He didn’t grapple with who Trump really is. Trump’s allegiances are fickle. His attention flits. His compass is popularity, not any fixed philosophy, certainly not the divisive brand of populism and nationalism that Bannon was trying to enforce. Bannon insisted on an ideology when Trump cares more about applause, and what generates it at a campaign rally isn’t what sustains it when you’re actually governing.
Bannon stupidly picked a fight with Jared Kushner that he was all but certain to lose, and not only because Kushner is kin. Consider Trump’s obsession with appearances, then tell me who has the advantage: the guy who looks like a flea market made flesh or the one who seems poised to pose for GQ?
Bannon is still on the job, and Trump may keep him there, because while he has been disruptive inside the White House, he could be pure nitroglycerin outside. He commands acolytes on the alt-right. He has the mouthpiece of Breitbart News. He has means for revenge. He also has a history of it.
But it’s hard to imagine how he ever again ascends to a status as lofty as the one he held; others have rushed into that airspace. SuperJared flies high. Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, is flapping his own wings.
And “Trump’s got a new favorite Steve,” according to a headline in Politico on Thursday. The story below it charted the rising fortunes of Bannon’s deputy, Stephen Miller, who has been cozying up to Kushner and, according to Politico, complaining that “Bannon tried to take too much credit for Trump’s successes.”
Today’s Steve appreciates where yesterday’s went wrong. He understands that if you want to be the Svengali, you have to play the sycophant. That was a performance beyond Bannon’s ken. He never had a chance.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.