Steve Bannon went to war with Donald Trump. At least, he tried to. In recently published excerpts from Michael Wolff's new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Bannon lashed out at the administration, taking special aim at the campaign's connections with Russian operatives, which he deemed "treasonous" and "unpatriotic". Trump slapped back in a written statement, saying Bannon "has lost his mind".
Since the release of the excerpts, Bannon has mounted a strategic retreat, calling his former boss "a great man". Coincidentally, Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of mega-funder Robert Mercer, and a minority shareholder in Brietbart News, distanced herself from Bannon's remarks, leading to speculation that his job at Breitbart was under threat.
While the feud was largely fuelled by Bannon's desire to stay relevant in the aftermath of his dismissal from the White House, it also came at a pivotal moment in the Trump presidency. Having styled himself an economic populist, Trump has just signed into law a tax bill that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthiest Americans. Nearly a year into his presidency, he has little to point to in terms of legislation that aids the working-class Americans he purports to represent.
For Bannon, it appeared the ideal moment to try to steal the populist crown from Trump.
Bannon wants to do this, in part, because he sees himself as the person who bestowed that crown on Trump in the first place. It was Bannon who, looking for a vessel for his populist message, zeroed in on Trump in 2013 and 2014, hoping the blustery billionaire with a penchant for protectionism and racist attacks – (by then Trump was already America's leading birther conspiracist) – could be moulded into an avatar for Bannon's nationalist policies.
And while, in his recent statement, Trump insisted Bannon had nothing to do with his "historic victory", Bannon was indeed a key figure in helping Trump first secure victory in the primaries and then in the general election. Throughout 2015 and 2016, Bannon used his media company Breitbart to barrack for Trump and savage competitors like Jeb Bush. And in August, Bannon officially joined the effort as Trump's campaign manager. He was the author of some of the darkest passages of Trump's inaugural address, and served for several months as White House chief strategist.
So intertwined are the two men that their relationship has already been explored in one book, Joshua Green's Devil's Bargain. The book came out a month before Bannon left the White House. The timing was not a coincidence: portrayals of Bannon as a puppet master or a political mastermind deeply irk Trump, who has little tolerance for sharing the spotlight.
The nature of the men's relationship – Bannon as the ideas man, Trump as the charismatic leader – explains the importance of the feud that Bannon tried to start with Trump, despite it quickly leading nowhere. After all, Bannon has no constituency. Even Breitbart readers are thumbing their noses at him, rebuking him for going after the president they support with such fervour.
Bannon has, at least in the near term, miscalculated. Trump's base does not like Trump for his policies but for his willingness to indulge their grievances. There, affect and rhetoric matter much more than actual legislative accomplishments. Whatever Bannon's intent in backing a Trump bid for the White House, he did not actually uncover a core base of devoted populists. The base instead seems far more interested in winning, and in defending the man they elected president. What Bannon helped cultivate was not a new wave of populism but a new cult of personality, and in that battle Bannon is poorly armed.
And yet, there is still something worth exploring in Bannon's attempt to become the champion of economic populism. Because while the Trump base may not be the devoted working-class populists often portrayed in the press, the United States is ripe for such a movement. Over the past decade, economic inequality in the United States has risen sharply. The Republicans' new tax plan will exacerbate that trend, while their planned cuts to the social safety net – rolling back food stamps, healthcare, Social Security – will make life even harder for the American working class.
Not only is there a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, the nature of poverty in the United States has changed dramatically as well. A recent UN investigation found a rise in extreme poverty in the United States, where citizens don't have enough money for basic needs like food and shelter. In Alabama, hookworm, a disease associated with extreme poverty in developing nations, has returned, despite having been eradicated in the mid-20th century.
Such conditions are fertile ground for a new wave of genuine populism in the United States. Bannon sees himself as the entering spear of that effort, positioning himself as the true champion of white workers in America. And perhaps, if Trump supporters allow themselves to be disappointed with their president, he can steal back the crown.
But Bannon will never be the leader of a genuine populist revival, because his narrow nationalist and exclusionary vision – one regularly promoted on Breitbart – excludes far too much of the working class, which in the United States is largely non-white. At best, he will be the leader of one of the splintered factions of the GOP. And even that is likely well beyond his reach.
Steve Bannon may not have lost his mind, as Trump charged. But he has lost.