Donald Trump seems to think he’s still on his reality TV show shouting, “You’re fired!” while President Stephen K. Bannon is busy drafting executive orders with his favorite black crayon.
Such is the surreal universe in which we find ourselves. Those who thought they were electing Trump to the presidency likely have never heard of Jerzy Kosinski — author of the novel and later the movie “Being There,” in which protagonist Chance the gardener, a simpleton who worked for a wealthy benefactor, is mistaken for an aristocrat named Chauncey Gardiner through a grand misunderstanding born of magical thinking.
When Gardiner’s employer dies and the gardener is forced to enter the larger world, his body of knowledge consists only of what he has seen on television. When he speaks about flowers and plants, others interpret his simple words as insightful and profound observations on economics and foreign policy. They hear and see what they need to see and hear. Finally, Chauncey is selected as the perfect next president based solely on people’s utterly incorrect interpretation of him.
Similarly, candidate Trump shouted nonsense to cheering crowds who decided that he was brilliant and insightful. He’s no simple mind, as far as we know (though one wonders why so much family is constantly in attendance), and the titular president of the United States is currently Trump. But it’s Bannon who seems to be pulling the levers — running the show — unelected, inaccessible and unaccountable.
The rumpled former naval officer and filmmaker must be given credit where due. He obviously has a Soviet’s grasp of the power of propaganda, an admitted mission to restore economic nationalism and a high tolerance for the intolerant. His Breitbart news franchise was a welcoming haven for white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
If Karl Rove was George W. Bush’s brain, Bannon is Trump’s conscience.
The noted parallels to Kosinski’s inspired character, meanwhile, are almost too on the nose to merit further comment. But even those who noticed the similarities much earlier in this electoral psycho-saga may be forgiven if they’re surprised by the accuracy with which life imitates art.
With little more than a week in office, President Bannon has been operating at a frantic pace. As Trump sits dutifully at his desk, signing executive orders and memorandums — banning mostly Muslim travelers and doing away with acting attorney general Sally Yates — Bannon grabs a seat on the National Security Council.
Though true that previous administrations have approved visits by political advisers, including David Axelrod during the Obama years, there’s at least one significant difference. Within a day of the Friday afternoon blitzkrieg that ultimately deleted Yates, two council members specifically required to advise the president on security matters — the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — were stripped of their regular seats on the NSC’s principals committee. Now why would this be?
Perhaps Bannon needed a little more elbow room and fewer ears during discussions about which American citizens should die in the name of national security. Until now, such targets have been limited to al-Qaeda militant Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011. As, too, was his 16-year-old son two weeks later. As, also, reportedly, was his 8-year-old daughter this past Sunday during a raid that also cost the life of a member of SEAL Team 6.
To what end? Was this yet another of Trump’s measuring schticks?
The precedent for killing an American citizen was set by President Barack Obama, to be sure. But who knows where the lines will be drawn now? Every day is a jack-in-the-box — or a dozen — a fresh page from Hieronymus Bosch’s sketchpad. Even some of the so-called deplorables are beginning to get twitchy. At first they wrote me to say, “I’m slightly terrified,” and, more recently, “I’m downright scared,” as just one example.
The smart set says, why are you surprised? Trump is doing what he said he would. He’s a different kind of president. Different rules. The media should sit down and shut up. People who don’t like the president’s policies should get lost.
Whatever tiny ray of hope people held out in the belief that Trump ultimately would behave rationally — respectful of protocol, with caution and care, without haste and with wisdom — has been extinguished by a strategy of maximum chaos executed by shock and awe. With heads spinning, if they’re not rolling, most won’t know what hit them until it’s too late. It’s called distraction.
Just as President Bannon intended.
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