By Blog Writer Matthias Jarosz
The first of Robert Greene’s 48 ‘Laws of Power’ is surprisingly simple; “never outshine the master".
Power is jealously guarded by those who possess it. To maintain their power a master needs lieutenants who are loyal and efficient. Competition among the adherents is actively encouraged to ensure that ties of allegiance are woven around the master alone. Yet, these individuals must not be so politically effective as to constitute an threat to, or alternate source of, power. Fidelity might just as easily turn to enmity should the lieutenant represent a rival, real or imagined, for the master in the limelight. A dilemma therefore faces those who sit within precarious proximity to the seat of power; compete against others for the master’s favour but do not compete so hard that you become seen as a source of competition to the master himself. It follows that the downfall of Steven Bannon indicates a remarkable ignorance of Greene’s ‘First Law’.
Presidencies evolve much like a moth. Power remains in a state of flux during the pupa stages of any administration. Even a politically experienced president experiences a fledgling phase, cocooned within circles of advisers and unsure about the extent of their own authority. For the first few months traditional hierarchies are not yet fully formed and political relationships evolve from week to week. It is during this brief period of development, when an administration’s structure is still undefined, that the competition for influence over the president is fiercest. Campaign allies grapple against established networks of power, such as the Republican Party and the Presidential family. The transition from campaigning to governing is therefore rarely instantaneous.
The presence of Steven Bannon within the President’s inner circle reflected this. In January 2017 Bannon was granted an unofficial seat on the National Security Committee, a position normally reserved for military professionals and career diplomats. Furthermore, Bannon enjoyed walk-in privileges to the Oval Office. This direct access to the presidential cocoon seemingly translated into direct influence over its development.
However, Steve Bannon’s political lifespan was as such a farce played out in two acts; the first charting his rise within the White House, with the second narrating his protracted fall outside of it. Act one played out last summer when Bannon assumed the role of the favourite who outgrew the master and was accordingly exiled.
Bannon was widely regarded as the brains behind Donald Trump during the President’s first six months in office, in which he occupied an increasingly visible position. He was credited with having orchestrated the travel ban in January 2017 and was said to have simultaneously authored the ‘American Carnage’ address which Trump delivered during his inauguration that same month. ‘Trumpism’ was beginning to resemble little more than ‘Bannonism’ within the American media’s perception of the administration. Foreign Policy subsequently mused that “This is looking very much like a Bannon Regency” while the front cover of a February issue of Time Magazine labelled the advisor “The Great Manipulator”. A disavowal was soon forthcoming from the president who tweeted:
By April 2017 Bannon had been political exiled and during August his physical expulsion from the White House was finalised. By contrast, Act two has only recently run its course. This second act was a discernible battle over the succession, from which Steve Bannon has emerged as a decisive loser.
Labelling the conflicts within the White House as a battle for the succession seems a tad dramatic. Nevertheless, it is an accurate means of framing the administration’s first year. After all, faced with the increasing velocity of the Russia enquiry and an irascible president edging into his mid-seventies the question of the succession is looming larger by the day. Conflict around the White House has remained largely focused around two loose interest groups; former campaign ideologues like Bannon versus members of the Presidential family such as Ivanka and Jared Kushner. Make no mistake that this was ultimately a fight over presidential power; who had access to it, who therefore influenced it and who eventually stood best placed to inherit it when Trump fell, whenever that was. Indeed, this divide is partly about the political direction of the presidency; the ideologues seeking to codify nativist pledges made on the campaign trail, while ‘Jarvanka’ demonstrates liberal tendencies which are at least lukewarm.
However, this is little more than political mudslinging in comparison to the far more significant question of who will lead ‘Trumpism’ after Donald Trump himself is gone. Both parties agreed that the coalition of ‘rust belt’ states and the swathes of middle America mobilised during the 2016 election constitute a valuable political inheritance. What they disagreed about was who deserved to wield that electoral power. Ivanka’s own presidential ambitions are widely suspected. By contrast Bannon, once outside of the White House, demonstrated vociferous support for anti-establishment senatorial campaigns, such as the one run and lost by evangelical Judge Roy Moore in Alabama. It suggests that the exiled advisor saw Trump’s successor as a reflection of the populist America which had elected the President rather than the cosmopolitan family which surrounded him.
It is within the context of this second act that we should see the downfall of Steve Bannon; with his firebrand influence inside the White House having contributed far less to his eventual demise than his ongoing quest for power outside the administration with Breitbart. As Bannon himself stated; “In the White House I had influence. At Breitbart, I had power”. Bannon seemed to be suggesting that he would steer the presidency as the external leader of Breitbart. The problem was that these efforts to outshine the presidential progeny, Ivanka, inavertedly detracted from the power of the incumbent. Factional strife made Trump look weak. Michael Woolf’s 'Fire and Fury' merely pulled back the curtain on this successional vendetta, exposing Bannon’s partisanship and thereby politically destroying him in the process.
As the Trump administration enters into 2018 several phenomenon may now become discernible. The muzzling of Breitbart, and the remainder of the conservative media following their denouncement of Bannon, may herald a centrist realignment within the administration away from conservative sabre rattling into the more stable ground of traditional Republican policies.
It follows that political systems formulated during the first year in office will also become more static and regulated. The fall of Bannon therefore marks not only the survival of the Trump family within these structures, but also their continued influence, however partial, over the policy decisions which are determined inside of the White House. It therefore looks as if the constellation of ‘Jarvanka’ shall continue to glimmer weakly throughout 2018 in the absence of Steve Bannon’s shadow. Whether or not this faint political light will ever shine stronger than Donald Trump’s own ethereal glow remains to be seen.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Robert Greene, ‘The 48 Laws of Power’, (Penguin, 1998).
- Arwa Mahdawi, ‘Ivanka Trump wants to be the first female US president. Perhaps she already is’, The Guardian, (7 January 2018)
- 'Steve Bannon: The Trump-whisperer's rapid fall from grace’, BBC, (14 January 2018)
- David Von Drehle, ‘Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?’, Time Magazine, (2 February 2017)
- Gabriel Sherman, ‘“I have power": Is Steve Bannon running for President?', Vanity Fair, (21 December 2017)
- Niall Ferguson, ‘Rages, scandal, chaos: it’s a normal White House’, Niall Ferguson: Journalism, (14 January 2018)
- Sarah Ellison, ‘Exiles on Pennsylvania Avenue: How Jared and Ivanka were repelled by Washington's elite’, Vanity Fair, (October 2017)
Image: Gage Skidmore @Flickr