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Thursday, August 20, 2020

The spectacular fall of a center-of-power populist


In just a few short years, Steve Bannon went from being the most dangerous man in American politics to being in federal custody.

The onetime champion of America’s forgotten man and an architect of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, Bannon was arrested Thursday morning, reportedly aboard a Chinese billionaire’s yacht.

His indictment — on charges involving an alleged internet fundraising scam for helping build Trump’s southern border wall — marks an era that has catapulted a series of unlikely figures to the highest reaches of politics, only to see them suffer spectacular falls.

In Bannon’s case, an itinerant entrepreneur with a mixed record in media and finance charged into the center of a turbulent presidential campaign and emerged as the White House chief strategist. Later, he was even rumored to be eyeing his own presidential run.

Instead, he has followed others from the president’s inner circle into serious legal jeopardy. The 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates; Trump’s first national security adviser, Mike Flynn; his longtime political mentor Roger Stone; and his former personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen — all have been convicted of federal crimes since Trump took office.

“My first reaction when I heard the news was that this was inevitable,” said Kurt Bardella, who worked under Bannon as a spokesman for the far-right Breitbart News. “For someone who traffics in greed and divisiveness and is part of a group of people who just have no regard for the law, this is the predictable outcome.”

A spokeswoman for Bannon, Alexandra Preate, did not respond to requests for comment.

A self-described propagandist, Bannon has cited the German filmmaker and Nazi sympathizer Leni Riefenstahl as an inspiration, and has generally portrayed himself as a revolutionary. “I’m a Leninist,” he reportedly told a new acquaintance at a party in 2013. “I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”


Bannon’s devil-may-care attitude may have brought about his own destruction instead.

“For Steve Bannon and his ilk across the ideological spectrum, politics is just another game to be exploited for maximum profit,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from South Florida who ran afoul of Breitbart for his support of immigration reform. “In their dark world, dividing societies and destroying institutions are simply means to personal enrichment. For now, this appears to have caught up with him.”

Bannon first gained notoriety in Washington as Breitbart’s chairman during President Barack Obama’s second term, making the far-right populist site a thorn in the side of the Republican Party’s establishment leaders.

“Leadership are all c***s,” he wrote in one leaked email to a Breitbart staffer. “Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty.”

Bannon famously described the site as “the platform of the alt-right,” later backing away from that characterization.

Under the patronage of the hedge fund tycoon Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, Bannon carved out a prominent place among conservative activists and worked for the Mercer-backed Cambridge Analytica. The controversial political data firm marketed its ability to compile “psychographic profiles” of voters to better micro-target messages. Rival firms panned its offering as snake oil.

But in August 2016, the megadonor father and daughter oversaw Bannon’s installation as chief executive of Trump’s campaign.

He appropriated Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” description of Trump supporters as a badge of honor and referred affectionately to Trump’s base as “hobbits.”

He received much of the credit for Trump’s upset win and went on to serve as Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, where he inserted himself into the deliberations of the National Security Council. He battled more moderate elements in the administration — he called them “globalists” — to push for the most extreme version of Trump’s populist agenda, which critics condemned as xenophobic, racist and fascist.



Publicly, he dubbed the news media “the opposition party” while cultivating reporters and leaking furiously against his rivals behind the scenes.

In championing initiatives like Trump’s failed Muslim ban, he came to be viewed as a powerful, frightening figure.

“Saturday Night Live“ portrayed him as the grim reaper in the Oval Office, and a Time magazine cover labeled him “The Great Manipulator,” implying that he was the real power behind Trump’s throne.

Bannon embraced the image. “Darkness is good,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.”

In buttoned-down Washington, Bannon stood out for his shambolic personal appearance — his trademark look was to sport multiple collared shirts at once — and unorthodox personal life. After he vacated one residence in Florida in 2015, a landlord complained that the bathtub seemed have been disfigured by acid. During the heat of the 2016 campaign, he registered to vote from the Florida address of a friend with whom he also shared a checkered record of small-time business ventures. The friend, Andy Badolato, was indicted along with Bannon on Thursday.

Bannon’s high profile irked Trump, as did the chief strategist’s constant jousting with the president’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. Bannon lasted seven months in the White House before returning to Breitbart in the summer of 2017. He left days after encouraging Trump to embrace participants in a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that had turned deadly.

Traders on Wall Street cheered the news of his firing — Bannon had been a vocal critic of trade and a proponent of populist economics — and markets rallied in response.

Outside of the White House, he continued to position himself as the leader of a populist movement, and at one point rumors swirled in Washington that he was considering a 2020 primary challenge to Trump. But his movement-building flailed, especially his backing of the Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore, who lost his Alabama race in December 2017 after allegations emerged that he had sexually pursued underage girls in his 30s.

Unlike other members of the president’s inner circle, Bannon emerged mostly unscathed from investigations of connections between Trump and Russia. His habit of leaking to the press would catch up with him instead.

Bannon served as a key source for Michael Wolff’s sensational 2018 book, “Fire and Fury,” which painted a damning — and in some cases exaggerated — picture of the dysfunction inside the West Wing.


The book quoted Bannon trashing the president and his family. Trump disavowed Bannon, who lost the backing of the Mercers and left Breitbart for good.

Undeterred, he attempted to knit together right-wing populist parties around the world into an international coalition and sought to kindle a new Cold War with China.

Unlike other high-ranking Trump lieutenants who went down for crimes closely related to their boss, Bannon has gotten into more trouble the farther he has drifted from the president’s inner circle.

After losing the support of the Mercers, Bannon’s agitation against Beijing led him to a new sponsor: the mysterious Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui. Guo portrays himself as a dissident bent on exposing corruption in China’s ruling party, but his exact motives remain a matter of debate. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI was investigating Guo’s funding and his relationship with Bannon.

In a statement, Guo’s lawyer, Daniel Podhaskie, said the fugitive billionaire stood by his American partner, calling Bannon “a strong ally in fighting for freedom and democracy in China.”

It was on Guo’s yacht, in Long Island Sound off Connecticut, that federal agents reportedly caught up with Bannon on Thursday morning. In the afternoon, after Bannon pleaded not guilty in a virtual hearing in U.S. District Court in New York, a federal judge made it a condition of his release on $5 million bail that he not board any more private boats without the government’s permission.

As Bannon sought to continuing channeling pro-Trump populist energy without the president’s backing, he attached himself in late 2018 to the crowd-funded border wall project that ultimately led to his indictment.

As soon as the wall project launched, critics charged that it was a scam designed to make money off gullible immigration opponents.

Normally, the involvement of a former chief White House strategist would dispel concerns of fraud, but federal prosecutors arrived at the same conclusion as Bannon’s critics: that in the Trump era, political prominence does not preclude criminal mischief.

“There seem to be a number of people grifting on the president’s name and positions right now,” said Michael Steel, who served as a longtime press aide to former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, a frequent target of Breitbart’s wrath. “If he continues to lag in the polls, the grifts will get more and more desperate over the next few months, as they try to cash in before the party is over.”



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