Fire and Fury is a book written by “journalist” Michael Wolff and is a partially fictional account of the events that occurred in the first few months of the Donald Trump administration. This is the fifth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.
According to Wolff, Bannon was the first staffer brought into the White House after Trump’s inauguration. The first thing he did was turn his office into a war room. He moved out almost all the furniture so people would have no place to sit and installed whiteboards on which to write battle plans. He isolated himself from everyone else in the administration and set about developing a no-holds-barred plan to take ideological control of the White House.
Bannon’s philosophy centered around total domination of his environment. It seemed to result from his believe that he was the only person with a finger on the pulse of a nationalist movement. If Wolff is correct, Bannon felt a calling to a higher moral purpose than the rest of Washington, including the White House staff. To this end he focused on avoiding compromise and causing conflict wherever possible. In particular, anything that sent liberals into a panic was, he thought, a good thing. Bannon didn’t know how Washington worked, how laws were negotiated or any of the power structures, but he didn’t care, either. His philosophy was to not worry about the damage and “just do things”.
Wolff describes Bannon as the oldest inexperienced staffer to work at the White House. From Wolff’s writing, one gets the idea that Bannon is a kind of schemer who somehow failed upwards. Much was made of Bannon’s past business credentials prior to Breitbart, but according to Wolff, no one of significance can remember him in just about anything. He is described as a man convinced of his destiny, but unmemorable to virtually anyone else.
Many of Bannon’s business ventures seemed to be around crisis management with an eye towards dismantling whatever he was in charge of. Basically, he entered business ventures that were failing and would on rely on conflict, nastiness and hopelessness to pull some percentage of money away from an already dying project. While Bannon saw himself as a rebel for the unappreciated hard-working American, others saw him as a cruel backstabber. This working-man vision combined with his hungry cruelty made him ideal for conservative media. This is what led him to to the Mercer family.
Wolff portrays the Mercers as ideological zealots. Robert Mercer, the patriarch comes off as someone with autism. That is, brilliant with numbers, but unable to interact with other human beings on a fundamental level. His daughter Rebekah is portrayed as a pure ideological zealot for whose ideas and principles were above challenging. In short, they were billionaires willing to throw their money away and Bannon was happy to help.
With the Mercer’s help, Bannon was installed into Breitbart. Breitbart, thanks to Bannon’s bomb-throwing, became defined by the anger it caused in liberals, thereby becoming an alt-right darling as well. It was Bannon’s belief that by driving liberals insane he could expose their hypocrisy and create a split in society. It was Karl Rove’s playbook on steroids. Bannon thought he could drive the nation to conservatism by angering liberals to the point where others would move right to escape them.
This vision, however, mean-spirited, made Bannon the de facto brains of the Trump campaign. Where everyone else was simply “there”, he had vision and was at campaign headquarters all the time. While he seemed to view Trump as more-or-less a vehicle for his own ideas, Wolff suggests they did bond over issues. On immigration, Trump and Bannon landed on the same page, with Trump often heard to be uttering choice quotes as “Who are these people?”, “Why are they here?” and “Isn’t anyone American any more?”.
All the same, Bannon was desperate to drill into Trump that he had limited time to push his agenda. Trump wanted to be treated just like before he was President, which was a problem. That meant he would do whatever he felt like and leave things up to subordinates, which wasn’t really possible as President. On the other hand, it allowed Bannon to play a little bit more than otherwise.
One of the interesting aspects of the Trump administration was that, prior to General Kelly, there was no organization. No one had a specified role. This allowed everyone to more or less do as they pleased. According to Wolff, Bannon took advantage of this to use Stephen Miller for help. Stephen Miller was another person who more or less failed upward. He was not skilled in speech writing, he had no knowledge of policy and he seemed to anger everyone who wasn’t Donald Trump or Steve Bannon. Bannon, proud of the fact that he knew nothing about how Washington worked, told Miller to go on the Internet and find out how to write an Executive Order. This was how the famous immigration ban EO got written.
When chaos erupted, Bannon could not have been happier. When he was asked why, he pointed out the chaos and anger it caused. The chaos was the point in and of itself. Somehow, in some way, he thought it was the smart thing to do.
If Wolff is even half-accurate with this chapter, then Bannon can only be incompetent. Bannon’s strategic and tactical philosophy are pure Internet troll mixed with the personality of a sleazy hustler. Unless Wolff omitted something important, there’s simply no way Bannon would be able to create his imagined utopia. He had no idea how Washington worked, he didn’t care to find out and he thought throwing bombs would get him somewhere. The reality is, if Wolff’s reporting is true, the man was completely out of his depth and a legend in his own mind.