There were many disturbing moments in Steve Bannon’s CBS interview, but perhaps the most harrowing for sensible viewers was his comparison of the Trump team to the gang in the Hollywood Western the Wild Bunch.
Bannon is the only truly powerful aide to resign from the Donald Trump White House. He gave his first extended interview to CBS’s 60 Minutes last week. During the interview with Charlie Rose, Bannon reminisced about the attitude he took during perhaps the most odious episode during Trump’s very frequently odious rise to power. Rose asked him to cast his mind back to when it emerged in 2016 that Trump had boasted about obscenely groping women.
Bannon passed the test at a crucial meeting back then when he told Trump to keep going. He explained his attitude.
“It’s a line I remember from the movie ‘The Wild Bunch.’ William Holden uses it right before that huge gunfight at the end. ‘When you side with a man, you side with him,’ okay?” said Bannon. Bannon said he repeated the line to new Chief of Staff John Kelly during the Charlottesville controversy – another shameful episode, when Trump failed to adequately condemn the deadly activities of neo-Nazis.
I discovered many things during the interview, including that I resemble Bannon in two ways – we are both Catholics and we are Hollywood Western fans. So, for those readers less familiar with director Sam Peckinpah’s iconic western the Wild Bunch, it is a violent story about a gang of fading outlaws who have outlived their heyday in the old West. Now, either Bannon doesn’t quite get the Wild Bunch or he didn’t watch it to the end, but the gang led by Holden and Ernest Borgnine are not great role models for the rulers of the world’s most powerful democracy.
Continuing to speak about the infamous boasting, Bannon praises how Trump dealt with it.
“All you had to do, and what he did, was go out and continue to talk to the American people… People didn’t care. They knew Donald Trump was just doing locker room talk with a guy. And they dismissed it. It had no lasting impact on the campaign. Yet, if you see the mainstream media that day, it was, literally, he was falling into Dante’s Inferno,” he said.
Bannon is putting it very simply – you will succeed with Donald Trump if you don’t criticize the insecure leader. Tell him it’s OK to grab women in such a way and you will stay on, like Steve Bannon. Another campaign member, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, told him to end the madness and he was dropped.
When I watched Donald Trump’s entourage at a lunch on Capitol Hill a few months ago, I could see Steve Bannon had real power. And unlike the other members of the stream of flunkies and aides who have handed back their White House security passes since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, we really wanted to hear from Bannon.
As CBS’s 60 Minutes tantalizingly released the interview with Bannon in segments, many in America found his references to a virtual Republican Party coup against Trump most compelling. Bannon told Rose that “the Republican establishment is trying to nullify the 2016 election. That’s a brutal fact we have to face.”
Bannon believes that the Republican Senate Majority leader and House Majority leader Paul Ryan do not want to see “Trump’s populist economic nationalist agenda to be implemented.”
Bannon’s evidence for this was an early meeting Trump and Bannon had with McConnell.
“Oh, Mitch McConnell when we first met him… in Trump Tower with the president, as we’re wrapping up, he basically says, ‘I don’t wanna hear any more of this drain the swamp talk.’”
“He says, ‘I can’t hire any smart people,’ because everybody’s all over him for reporting requirements and the pay, et cetera, and the scrutiny. You know, ‘You gotta back off that.’ The drain the swamp thing. [McConnell] wanted us to back off.”
Sensible people would interpret McConnell as making a discreet plea to Trump, who was now the president, to tone down the rhetoric. But Bannon, and clearly Trump, have interpreted it as criticism. And when they analyzed it further, it became a conspiracy.
Bannon’s interview confirms what we suspected. This deeply immature and insecure president cannot accept mature advice that carries any implicit criticism. And he rationalizes this irrational behavior by finding a conspiracy behind it.
Many observers believe that the Republican establishment has swallowed its pride as Trump rampages around the America and the rest of world insulting fellow politicians.
He offends much of America, too.
But the Republicans believe Trump is attempting to pursue their legislative agenda. There have been no overt attacks from the Republican-dominated Congress.
They have tolerated his excesses because they believed he would help them get rid of the hated Barack Obama legislative program, particularly Obamacare. Many have agreed with his tough stance on immigration and his other conservative policies.
Bannon is somewhat correct. They may not oppose Trump yet, but they are certainly likely to turn on him. But they will turn on him only when they accept that he can’t do the business – Republican business. Trump is too divisive and reckless to work with politicians in Washington DC. He failed to squire a bill to repeal Obamacare through Congress. It was finally killed off by veteran Republican Senator John McCain. And he is likely to fail on tax reform too.
Trump’s agenda will fail because of Trump, not because of Republican intransigence.
The Bannon interview, like the Wild Bunch, has a simple theme. Bannon was part of a renegade team. If you questioned them you were the enemy and you had to be eliminated.
Expanding on the violent script, Charlie Rose asks Bannon if he plans to go to war with McConnell, Ryan and the Republican establishment.
“Absolutely,” replies Bannon.
What makes this so compelling is that it is rare for such a senior advisor to emerge from a mysteriously dysfunctional administration so early. We had to wait years for senior Richard Nixon aides to speak about the darkest secrets of that administration. It was the most reviled and malfunctioning administration until this one.
A career observing political gatherings teaches you to recognize who has the power in a room, and one day in the White House as I observed Trump’s entourage, I could see Bannon had it. You could see by how other aides like Kelly Ann Conway and Sean Spicer deferred to him.
Throughout the day, as I watched Trump, he always kept Bannon close. We can be sure that the kind of worrying statements we heard in his interview with 60 Minutes, which airs in full on Sunday night, were cheered on in the White House.
Bannon is of Irish descent. Though from a Boston Irish Catholic family who were admirers of John F. Kennedy (his father knocked on doors for Kennedy), Bannon has little empathy or understanding of the heritage of the Irish or any other Catholic immigrants to the United States.
This may be partly because after his parents became Tridentine Catholics, he followed.
The Latin Mass had been banned after the Vatican II council, but in 1984, Pope John Paul II permitted limited use of the Latin-only Tridentine Mass.
Tridentines are often social conservatives. Certainly, Bannon hates the liberal secularism that many conservative Catholics believe have swamped the true Church.
This philosophy is blended with an in-depth reading of the French writer Rene Guenon, who wished to “restore to the West an appropriate traditional civilization.”
These views give Bannon an apocalyptic view of world affairs, and he has, according to many, imposed these thoughts on a less than razor sharp president.
A new book portrays Bannon as fundamentally providing the Trump presidency with the intellect the president lacked. And so, these unusual quasi-religious beliefs will pervade.
“If I didn’t come along, the Republican Party had zero chance of winning the presidency,” Trump told Bloomberg Businessweek correspondent Joshua Green.
As an Irish Catholic, cognizant of all the deep discrimination and abuse Catholics of all nationalities have suffered in the US, I watched with horror one segment of the interview.
Bannon was discussing the president’s decision to end the DACA program.
The Obama policy protects nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children from deportation. The interviewer tells him that Cardinal Dolan of New York is opposed to this policy.
Bannon explains the Catholic Church in the US is “unable to really come to grips with the problems in the church.”
He says “they need illegal aliens, they need illegal aliens to fill the churches.”
“And… they have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.”
Anti-Catholicism and hatred of Catholics has deep-seated historical roots in America that goes back to the first Protestant Puritan settlers who came from England in the 1500s.
It was virulent in the US in the 1840s, as poor Catholics from Germany, Ireland, and Italy swept off the boats from the Old World. They were abused and attacked.
It has never fully abated, only being swept under the carpet when John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, was elected president in 1960. Even he faced anti-Catholic bias in the 1960 election.
A member of JFK’s administration, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, said anti-Catholicism was “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”
The Ku Klux Klan is a deeply anti-Catholic group.
Bannon, an intelligent man, may be Catholic, but he is summoning up all the old anti-Papist hatreds that stretch down from the post-reformation religious wars, bringing all the irrational fear of the outsider.
And this is the man who has been in the ear of the president. Many hold him responsible for his ascension to power. And now we see that this is the kind of thought and talk that pervades in the White House.
Perhaps Bannon’s much-loved Wild Bunch offers us a glimpse of the future.
Along with these dark tidings, I will offer you a spoiler alert before you read on. I’m going to tell you the ending of the Wild Bunch.
William Holden utters the immortal words “let’s go!” and after one of the great western tough guy walks down a (aptly) Mexican street, we see one of the great shootouts.
This unlamented band of outlaws who have overstayed their welcome meet their bloody doom.
By John Lee