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Fever Swamp

Steve Bannon Was Never a Genius

He just recognized that everyone hates American politics as they exist.

Up until Thursday, I half-expected Steve Bannon to swoop in at the last-minute in an attempt to save the failing Trump campaign. Then he got arrested for fraud, with the help of the United States Postal Service.

It’s almost insane to think that Bannon’s stay as America’s Most Brilliant Political Strategist lasted roughly thirteen months, from Donald Trump’s victory to Doug Jones’ victory, considering the plethora of profiles and interviews with the guy about the war for Western Civilization he was waging and his economic protectionism and his library full of dogeared copies of The Art of War and Hillbilly Elegy and blogposts by guys who use Roman philosopher pseudonyms to warn about the emerging Islamic threat and the death of the West and how a new Chinese Constantinople would be headquartered in Missoula or whatever.

But Bannon’s career since leaving the White House has been a series of grifts meant to keep the money flowing and himself relevant in the white nationalist and “populist” circles he’s been so credited with growing due to Donald Trump’s win in 2016.

There was the weird school for far-right populists he’s been trying to set up in an Italian monastery. He also embedded himself into the upper echelons of the Brazilian far-right. But overall, Bannon’s project to build an international coalition of far-right politicians and parties across the Western world—and to reap the benefits of that, like some fascist Jim Messina—has largely failed to materialize.

He went on the nominally left-leaning Red Scare podcast and invited The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner—the guy who conducted the interview that cost him his White House gig—onto his own show, because, having blown all of his goodwill with the American right on Roy Moore’s Senate campaign in 2017, he figured it would be easier for him to find some suckers on the left who would buy his “Bernie and Trump aren’t so different after all” routine.

In the end, it wasn’t any of these grifts that took Bannon down, but a simple (alleged) GoFundMe scam. As Greg Walters wrote for Vice News:

Bannon and three others are accused of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars from an online “Build the Wall” campaign to a man named Brian Kolfage, the Southern District of New York said in a statement Thursday.

All four men allegedly profited from the scheme, prosecutors said. They were arrested Thursday morning.

“As alleged, the defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction,” said Audrey Strauss, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement.

“While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle,” Strauss said.

Bannon is facing 20 years in prison for this. Given his soured relationship with Trump, it seems deeply unlikely that he’ll get the Roger Stone or Paul Manafort treatment from the president.

All of this highlights a key point: Steve Bannon was never the genius that he was portrayed as by himself, his allies, the media, and Republicans and Democrats who had no idea what hit them when Trump won. What he was right about was that in 2016, the American political establishment was deeply unpopular because it hadn’t actually done anything for the average person in this country in years.

The period from 2011-2016 was a prolonged fight over whether we wanted Austerity Light vs. Austerity Heavy, and how much useless war was responsible to do. The chief accomplishment of Barack Obama was the Affordable Care Act, and still, healthcare was not affordable for millions of people in this country. While the national political narrative focused on the national debt and the deficit and the notion that our economy would disappear if we put one more cent into public spending, people continued to drown.

And so, like Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, and other Brains Behind the Operations before him, Bannon found a candidate willing to play on racial and ethnic and religious bigotry to convince white people that the source of all of their problems wasn’t a government which takes their money and gives them very little in return—certainly not healthcare or education or livable wages or good air to breathe and water to drink—but rather the vulnerable people they believed were getting that money instead.

Who knows if Bannon’s shtick would have worked again in 2020, given the pandemic and the fact that Trump is no longer able to credibly run against the establishment because he’s the president. But the problem of our dysfunctional government and Americans’ dissatisfaction with it is still there, and if these comments from longtime Biden confidante Ted Kaufman are any indication, the next administration has zero plan to deal with that.

It’s an open question of what happens to the Republican Party after Trump. 95 percent of its leaders are deeply opposed to anything aside from unfettered free trade and the other five percent—your Josh Hawleys and Tucker Carlsons—are playing at something resembling a shred of concern for workers because they recognize that capitalism’s wheels are falling off and the car is on fire.

But if the center-left party does not come up with a plan to beat these people into the ground, and to neutralize their base by implementing an actual positive vision for a conscious and humane government, the Bannon types will come back into power, meaner and with fewer inhibitions than they left with. If you want something worse than Trump, that’s how we get there.

Screenshot: Oxford Union/YouTube