Stephen K. Bannon seemed to come out of nowhere in August 2016, taking over Donald Trump’s struggling campaign and leading it to the most shocking upset in U.S. presidential history. Few people, even in Washington, had heard of Bannon before then. And because he liked to cultivate an image of himself as a dark, nationalist political Svengali — a portrait the media mostly accepted — a number of myths have arisen about Bannon and his beliefs. Here are five of them.
After Trump’s win, Bannon was cast in the popular imagination as a kind of puppet master pulling Trump’s strings, someone who used his wiles to seduce the president into carrying out his agenda. This idea was popularized by the #PresidentBannon meme and a February Time magazine cover that featured Bannon’s brooding image above the headline “The Great Manipulator.”
But Bannon’s influence has waxed and waned — and he’s never been in full control. None of Trump’s advisers can keep the president on message for very long or stop him from attacking people on Twitter. Certainly, Bannon can’t.
Trump chafes at the puppet master portrayal and periodically takes steps to demonstrate that Bannon doesn’t have nearly the sway ascribed to him. For instance, in April, Trump removed his chief strategist from the National Security Council and roasted him in a series of interviews. “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump told the New York Post. “I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve.” This wasn’t true — Trump had known Bannon for years — but the president made his point.
Bannon managed to stick it out and return to a position of power. But the recent appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director shows the limit of his influence: Bannon opposed the move and was overruled.
Although he has a long history of making inflammatory statements about what he calls “Islamic fascism,” and he was an architect of the ban on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries, Bannon is not reflexively anti-Muslim. His nationalist philosophy is built upon ideas drawn from a personal guru of sorts, René Guénon, an early-20th-century French metaphysician who was raised Roman Catholic, practiced occultism and Freemasonry, and later became a Sufi Muslim and observed sharia. Guénon is the intellectual godfather of a movement known as Traditionalism, many of whose followers converted to Islam because they believed that it was the path to esoteric knowledge lost to the West (though he admires Guénon, Bannon is a Tridentine Catholic).
Guénon’s philosophy is built upon the belief that the world has been in decline since the Enlightenment and is now in the midst of a “dark age” — a theme Bannon has echoed and channeled into Trump’s politics and speeches. As Guénon wrote in 1924, he wished to “restore to the West an appropriate traditional civilization.” Trump’s tweets Wednesday saying that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military was a gesture in this direction — and a gesture Bannon supported.
Bannon’s political brand, like his boss’s, is something he calls “America first” nationalism — a kind of hard-right, muscular populism that thinks of itself as being in opposition to what Bannon calls “globalism.” Globalists, he argues, are members of the “Davos class” who subordinate the interests of their own country to those of the transnational financial elite. “I’m a nationalist,” Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter shortly after Trump won the election. “I’m an economic nationalist. The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f---ed over.”
But Bannon is a globalist in the sense that he considers Trump’s rise to be the American culmination of a right-wing-populist global uprising that includes Brexit and the ascent of nationalist politicians and parties in France, Italy, Poland and elsewhere. Of course, Bannon’s Traditionalist philosophy also inclines in a globalist direction. While his focus in the White House may be the United States, he thinks in much broader, global terms.
When I first profiled Bannon for Bloomberg Businessweek in 2015, I included a colorful detail he told me about his time in Hollywood: that he owned a piece of the hit television show “Seinfeld.” As Bannon told the story, he was running a boutique investment firm and helped negotiate the sale of Castle Rock Entertainment (which owned “Seinfeld”) to Ted Turner. In lieu of his full adviser’s fee, he accepted a stake in five TV shows. One of them was “Seinfeld.” “We calculated what it would get us if it made it to syndication,” Bannon told me. “We were wrong by a factor of five.”
After my piece was published, speculation ran rampant as to just how rich Bannon had gotten from the show, which has earned more than $3.1 billion in syndication. As the Wrap pointed out last November, if Bannon owned just 1 percent of the show, he’d have netted $31 million. But in a May profile of Bannon, the New Yorker’s Connie Bruck went looking for evidence of his “Seinfeld” residuals and couldn’t find any, noting that “neither CBS nor Castle Rock nor Warner Bros. has records of payments to Bannon, if those records are as they were described to me.” Bruck seemed to wonder if Bannon’s claim was even true.
To find out, I tracked down Kim Fennebresque, who was the chief executive of SG Cowen, a subsidiary of the French bank, Société Générale, that bought Bannon’s firm and who was later his boss. “I know he got a piece of ‘Seinfeld,’ ” Fennebresque told me. “Steve told me about it one night in ’98 or ’99 when we were on the subway to a Yankees game.”
A source familiar with the deal told me that the “Seinfeld” rights went to Société Générale when Bannon sold his firm, but that he and his partner still receive payments. Sure enough, Bannon’s White House disclosure form showed income from Société Générale of between $50,000 and $100,000 last year. Another source said the number was closer to $100,000. It’s been 20 years since Bannon struck the fateful deal, meaning that he’s probably collected as much as $2 million. That’s hardly pocket change, but it also means “Seinfeld” has had a relatively small impact on Bannon’s net worth, which may be as big as $48 million, according to financial disclosure forms.
After Bannon created chaos with the original travel ban, the Washington Monthly’s David Atkins wondered what he was up to and noted: “His actions are seldom random and always deliberate.” When a White House visitor tweeted a picture of Bannon in front of a white board displaying the administration’s to-do list, a writer for the Guardian said, “It would be naive to think Bannon’s great whiteboard reveal is a gaffe.” The notion is that every apparent blunder can be explained by a grand strategy.
But for all his success as an investment banker, film producer, conservative publisher and campaign strategist, Bannon — who had no prior experience in government — has had a much tougher time succeeding in the White House. Although he was credited with being a tactical genius at critical junctures in the campaign, helping Trump battle back from crises such as the leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape, Bannon hasn’t shown nearly the same facility in manipulating the levers of government.
The travel ban he supported was blocked by the courts (although a revised version has been allowed to take partial effect). He appears unlikely to get the “border adjustment tax” that he hoped would be a key component of tax reform. On Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican leaders announced that they were dropping it. Bannon’s strategy of making an enemy of the media may be keeping some Trump supporters in the fold, but it hasn’t done anything to advance Trump’s legislative agenda — a black mark for the chief strategist’s image as Machiavelli.