A philosophy scholar at Oxford once spent a long evening in hot discussion of the meaning of life, lubricated by various wines and whiskies. Later, as he reeled toward bed, he was seized by a flash of insight into humanity’s greatest question. Fearful that it would vanish by morning, he scribbled his brilliance on a scrap of paper and fell into a drunken sleep.
When he woke, he looked with bleary eyes on what he had written: “More holes in bigger cheese.”
That story came to mind as I watched President Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon explain his thinking, and Trump’s, to interviewer Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” on Sunday. Much of what Bannon said — and wow, did he say a lot! — was spot-on. Bannon is a mile-a-minute talker in the grand tradition of Wall Street deal-spielers and Hollywood touts, which happen to be two of his previous occupations.
But Bannon sought to project something bigger than just insight and scuttlebutt. As the commissar of Trumpism, Bannon portrayed the president — and himself — as philosophers and men of principle guided by a few big ideas. On the flame of close inspection, those big ideas boil down to a residue of nonsense — more holes in bigger cheese.
Bannon was absolutely right when he said of the Washington bog that Trump pledged to drain: “The swamp is a business model. It’s a successful business model.” The D.C.-area nexus of lawyers, lobbyists, consultants and contractors has grown into the highest-paid region of the United States. What tech is to Silicon Valley, government is to Washington, so the swamp resists efforts to reform it, cut it, devolve it or streamline it.
And he was correct when he located the root of Trump administration dysfunction “in the 48 hours after we won.” As campaign chairman, Bannon had done little to prepare for victory. “Our whole campaign was a little bit the Island of Misfit Toys,” he explained. “So [the president-elect] looks around and I’m wearing my combat jacket, I haven’t shaved . . . he’s thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve gotta put together a government.’ ” Trump’s search for competent help inevitably clashed with Bannon’s insurgency.
And he was illuminating when he chalked up the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey to Trump’s naive inexperience. New to Washington, the president missed the deep-seated importance of institutional cultures and thought a personnel change at the top of the FBI could somehow steer the entire Justice Department. The result was the worst mistake in “modern political history,” Bannon said with laser accuracy.
On the evidence of this interview, Bannon has the makings of a great pundit. But he aspires to something bigger: an encompassing political philosophy. That’s where the hangover set in. His big holey cheese was an idea he called “populist economic nationalist,” which certainly sounds impressive but in the light of morning turns out to have almost nothing to do with the Trump presidency.
Take Obamacare, for example. Bannon bitterly attacked Republican leaders of Congress for their failure to repeal the law and replace it with a new health insurance architecture — all in the ridiculously short window between the inauguration and the Easter recess. But health care is one of the least globalized industries we have. And the goal of Obamacare (however unevenly achieved) is to make access to medical care more widely available. So why would this be the urgent Job One for a supposed populist economic nationalist?
Later in the interview, Bannon evoked his grand theory to justify deportation of the “dreamers,” and called on Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay’s “American system” to back him up. But Hamilton (an immigrant) was the opposite of a populist, and Clay was the archenemy of populism’s high priest, Andrew Jackson. Clay and his disciple Abraham Lincoln — another Bannon name-check — were strong supporters of virtually unchecked immigration.
Like Trump, who criticizes free trade with China unless it involves neckties with his brand on them, Bannon approaches political philosophy, shall we say, fluidly. One day he urges the president to hang Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office. Another day, he extols Clay’s anti-Jacksonian economic policies. All in the empty name of populist economic nationalism. I suppose his favorite baseball teams are the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Bannon’s rapid-fire patter and canny insights, as well as his grandiose pronouncements and half-baked historical allusions, reminded me of an earlier would-be swamp drainer, Newt Gingrich. And like Gingrich, Bannon is likely to persist in our political lives as a voluble but ineffectual figure.
And the swamp is likely to remain well-watered, and Obamacare unrepealed and the Wall unbuilt, because getting things done in Washington requires clear thinking and relentless discipline. Two qualities noticeably absent in this unphilosophical president, whose main idea is simply to be the Big Cheese.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.