The Devil Doesn’t Make Mistakes
When I first read that Steve Bannon spoke to Robert Kuttner at The American Prospect on the weekend prior to August 16th 2017, I was immediately suspicious. Why would the man considered by many liberal circles to be the brains behind Trump policy pull something so silly? Why would the man, who notoriously maintained a checklist of every campaign promise on a dry erase board in the Whitehouse, the man behind a multi-million dollar conservative website, and the brains behind some of the now-famous immigration-related executive orders, be stupid enough to openly chat with a publisher solidly planted in opposition to most of his positions?
Why would he expose Trump to that scrutiny, or be dumb enough to forget to stay off the record? After all, according to Kuttner, “He’s probably the most media-savvy person in America.”
Then it hit me. He isn’t stupid.
Someone like Bannon knows where he is and what he’s doing. Compared to the President, the Devil on the shoulder is quiet, organized, methodical, and conniving. I therefore concluded that Bannon does not make mistakes in regards to his interactions with the press.
If I were to prove this hypothesis, I would need proof in his language, history, and current scenario. For instance, what did he say specifically? What events were driving the decision? Would Bannon consider it politically beneficial? How could he guarantee his views received the most exposure (attention)?
Let’s start with a simple sales tactic Bannon used in introducing reaching out to Mr. Kuttner: prospecting (Name exists ironically in context).
In sales, prospecting includes researching potential for the purpose of maximizing success and maintaining exposure to your product during a Client presentation.
Bannon is an internationally known contact to likely hundreds of journals and papers. Compared to President Trump, who’s current phone contact list consist of “Vlad”, “the Doocy” and “Scummy Scarborough”, Bannon likely knows several contacts at Fox, Breitbart and more. Why did he need the ear of a relatively smaller publication consisting of known liberal leaning journalists? It’s not because North Korea was such an interesting topic. Bannon needed the right audience for his sale.
Bannon needed a place that would not just publish his voice; it would project it from the rooftops of the internet and mainstream media alike.
Continuing the sales balance between manipulation and mutual self-gain, Bannon relinquished some control: “We’re at economic war with China.” This was for his client. He was telling Kuttner, “Here’s something you can take back to your boss. A big catchphrase you can pitch to get attention.” The following sentences gave the same impression, “There’s no military solution”, “ten million people in Seoul don’t die”, and “they got us”. These were all planned quotes intended to give anyone willing to listen a headline. Naturally, based on previous literature, Bannon likely believes that “we’re five years away” from being on the losing end of an economic war with China, but this was not even his primary message, which was planned for later.
We will return to Bannon’s plans in a moment, but let’s think about the sale. As mentioned, Bannon knows the media. He founded an entire media organization. He knew one major rule in journalism: When a story comes to you, you stop your vacation, and write the damn story, which is what TAP did.
The sale worked majestically. Every single mainstream media (MSM) outlet picked it up the story within hours. Everyone wanted the story about Steve Bannon pulling a Scaramucci, contradicting Trump, calling out China, claiming we’re at war, and more! -Which makes sense, reporters book interviews with experts, everyone tunes in to their shows, and clicks the annoying ads at the bottom of their pages. Bannon’s message just flew off the shelves in a way that a subtle interview on Fox or a publishing in Breibart would never do. And now he has a full nation’s attention. What could possibly be said that required everyone to listen? After all, everyone knows North Korea is weak and that Kim Jong Un is likely unstable.
The problem is that Bannon cares much more about domestic issues than international ones. He’s famous for his economic nationalist (EN) views on trade. In February, 2017, The Independent laid out Bannon’s views in detail. A quick read demonstrates that Bannon’s hardline attitude toward other countries, hate of Islam, extreme trade protectionism, and fear of Globalism differentiates his version of EN from traditional views. These generally include slightly higher tariffs on imports, higher corporate tax, and a careful questioning of traditional unregulated Laise Faire economics. Economists debate the value of implementing various levels of this system; however Bannon’s EN beliefs fall far to the right of these, even becoming conspiratorial and hostile toward other countries.
But how to get a strong message about Bannon-Style Economic Nationalism to all sides as quickly as possible?
When asked about ethno-nationalism, Bannon stated “It's a fringe element”, and that everyone should “crush it more”. The key phrase in his language was that “These guys are a collection of clowns”. When I read this, I questioned why he would use that wording. He did not say white supremacists, who make the news beating African Americans, or driving cars into crowds were bad people, evil, or any other adjective along these lines. He called them “clowns”.
By framing them this way, he helped soften their image. Any member of these groups already expects to be called names, and even be denounced by those they see as allies. They recognize they’re seen as monsters in most circles, and allies in the public sphere must denounce them to maintain support. The fact that Bannon used “Clowns” and “Fringe” instead of “hate groups” and “terrible people” was a message that would be interpreted as distancing from them by outsiders and soft on them by insiders. Additionally, being a clown paints a silly image, like that silly uncle at your daughter’s birthday party, or your neighbor who can’t keep his job, but means well when he holds the door open for you at the convenience store. Overall, social clowns are non-threatening and generally harmless.
From Bannon’s perspective, he knew the media relies on headlines like the story in Charlottesville. With the clown language, Bannon carefully threaded together a channel between hesitant conservatives friendly to his views on nationalism, and the White Supremacy/Nationalism brand. He needs the support from both ends to drive his nationalist agenda. Strategically, this gives those “non-racist” conservatives an out by simply telling them, “Your Neo-Nazi neighbor is just a clown, but his views on economic exchange between other nations and the United States are justified.”
Bannon never intended to be in the Whitehouse all four years. He needed to lay down the seeds for his nationalist policy; which means threading a careful needle between the clowns and information deprived conservative voters. In addition, on the surface, careful economic nationalism has some appeal to many progressives who feel large multi-national corporations run the world economy against the average American. If he can reel in all three groups to his far right version, he might have more policy control. So, how better to get his to his agenda than create a safe linguistic space for both the “clowns” and the “regular Republicans” to occupy in addition to reaching the progressives by contacting a liberal paper?
Interestingly, Bannon manipulated every single media outlet by being the Wolf after so many silly and false alarms. My earlier questions were quickly answered. Recent events showed him he needed to get his message out. The establishment conservatives were quickly closing in by decrying Trump statements on the Nazi chants. Kuttner may have ended his article rhetorically; “We’ll see if he’s still there,” but he trusted Bannon’s intentions far too much.
Bannon had no plans to be there by Labor Day. With his Mucci-Style Firing, he is now a martyr for the far-right, who want his hostile version of economic Nationalism, whether you’re the clowny uncle, or enjoy watching that uncle “who makes sense sometimes”. Finally, Bannon cannot reach the third portion of his trifecta, the economically concerned Progressives, while standing behind Trump. By being the next Scaramucci, Bannon is freed from White House obligations while potentially holding Trump’s ear. No need to drive policy from the inside when one can begin touring the ideas across the country, and on Breitbart, as an ‘independent’ entity.
Bannon needed to get on the road. There are too many people ready to receive his far right ideas, since they’re “not Nazi clowns”, after all. Ultimately, we will have to see how this plays out, but I’m under no illusion that Bannon is similar to Trump’s traditional inner circle. On the contrary, he’s more conniving and slicker than any hair gel the Mooch could provide. He knows what he’s doing because the Devil on your shoulder doesn’t make mistakes.