When CBS producers scored Steve Bannon, President Trump’s ex-chief strategist, for his first interview with what Bannon terms with some disdain as the mainstream media, they may have relished the chance to expose him as the sinister tactician they believed him to be.
And they did — partly.
Yes, Bannon came off as a ruthless strategist. But malicious, bigoted, idiotic? No way.
Who else, for example, would ever characterize the “swamp,” the political establishment in DC reviled by Trump during the campaign, as a “successful business model”? That’s what Bannon did last weekend in his feisty interview with Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes.” After all, he said, “Seven of the nine biggest, wealthiest counties in America ring Washington, DC.”
It takes a quirky, impolitic intelligence to see this Beltway reality in that way, especially when nobody who is part of it wants to hear it called out. But that impertinent astuteness helps explain why the political tornado that Bannon brought to the Trump campaign last year produced success, not the collapse that was expected by just about every voice of “political wisdom.”
They must have watched him speak on Sunday and thought such a graceless, impossible fellow with no inside experience was just right to accompany a candidate who never should have been admitted to the primaries in the first place.
The man quoted a line from “The Wild Bunch,” for goodness sakes, just before that 1969 Western concludes with the longest, bloodiest shootout in film history. (“William Holden uses it right before that huge gunfight at the end. ‘When you side with a man, you side with him,’ okay? The good and the bad. You can criticize him behind, but when you side with him, you have to side with him.”)
But this is precisely what social and religious conservatives have been waiting for since Ronald Reagan’s departure — someone to turn the tables on liberal scorn and condescension.
Hillary Clinton filled her “basket of deplorables” with stupid and phobic white men, while Democratic leaders and left-wing celebrities piled on with glee. Bannon answers back cleverly with one of the favored liberal terms of the moment: “President Trump triggers the left, and they can’t handle it rationally.”
Conservatives are tired of the media’s judgments, too. Rose challenged him repeatedly, but Bannon replied to the host’s querulous banter with a joke about the “pearl-clutching mainstream media.”
Rose went for the kill with solemn accusations about President Trump’s post-Charlottesville remarks which seemed to encourage neo-Nazis and white supremacists. But Bannon shrugged those tiny groups off as “irrelevant,” implying that liberalism must be in pretty bad shape if it has to elevate a few thousand marginal characters into a national political force to justify its indignation.
That tactic has intimidated Republican leaders for years, of course, and it has frustrated right-leaning voters. But Bannon just doesn’t care and he says so: “I don’t care what they say. They can call me an anti-Semite, they can call me a racist . . .,” so long as Trump is heading the agenda.
That’s the freedom of a man with nothing to lose, who seeks no patrons and scorns public repute.
The carelessness goes for Democrats and Republicans both. Back in 1999, John McCain thrilled journalists with his Straight Talk Express, but the Bush campaign took him out in South Carolina with, among other things, charges that the senator had forsaken veterans.
Here is Bannon’s straight talk on those “geniuses” in George W. Bush’s administration: “I hold these people in contempt, total and complete contempt,” then nodded as Rose named Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. No Democrat was ever so blunt about the architects of Iraq.
And he didn’t let the old liberal charge of conservative hypocrisy stand, either. When Rose asked him how he, a devout Catholic, could oppose the church’s open position on immigration, citing Cardinal Dolan of New York, Bannon shot back, “the Bishops have an economic interest in unlimited immigration.” The newcomers, that is, help fill the pews.
This is political hardball, a game the left has played relentlessly ever since “the personal is political” became an axiom of conduct a half-century ago. The advent of Donald Trump and his crusty, canny lieutenant Steve Bannon evens up the teams.