His eyes were so blue under the lights, his lower eyelids a pink-lipped shade of red. Complete the look with the pale white sclera between: In Steve Bannon’s eyes, see red white and blue, see America burning. The former Chief Strategist of the Trump administration appeared on 60 Minutes Sunday night, not the first Trump refugee seeking sanctuary on the evening yak circuit. (Last month: Scaramucci. Coming soon: Spicer.) Bannon went to the media to assault the media, and his most profound assault was visual: quivering cheek-jowls becoming gill-like as they rage-quivered behind his smile.
Pointless to objectify his looks, easier to object to his words, but I suspect Bannon has thought hard about his appearance, like Michael Moore putting on the baseball cap. Here on 60 Minutes were two strands of declining masculinity, seventysomething Charlie Rose and sixtysomething Bannon, the former “smooth” in the manner of anyone who thinks before they speak, the latter “real” like that dude freshman year who stops shaving because there are no parents around to tell him otherwise.
The Bannon-Trump message isn’t just shallow, but the millionaire and his billionaire can always default to anti-elitist populism to prove their anti-bullying bona fides. Bannon mentioned “limousine liberals from the Upper East Side of New York,” said neighborhood the reputed residence of one Charlie Rose. So it does serve Bannon’s point, looking terrible, sounding terrible. “I’m a street fighter,” he said during the interview, and his face does suggest Zangief with a bad case of Blanka.
Besides the Upper East Siders, Bannon picked a fight with: the Republican establishment, children brought to the U.S. illegally, “all the Bush guys,” “all the geniuses in the Bush administration,” the last three administrations, China. He said, “there’s no room in American society” for Neo-Nazism while regularly espousing precisely the nationalist philosophy that throws faux-intellectual fuel on Nazi fire. One doesn’t sense a profound appreciation for irony here. Note how Bannon’s cheek-gills suddenly went all steady and statesmanlike when the topic of Russia came up. Why, Rose inquired, hasn’t Trump been harsher on Russia? Answer question with a question: “Why pick another fight?” said Bannon. This, right after he described high-level Republican politicians as idiots, right after he used the word “terrible” to describe the Catholic Church.
Obvious statement: Nobody wants to leave the White House. So here was a man in legend-printing mode, exiled from the Promised Land mere months after his arrival therein. A tragedy, to believe yourself Joshua and find yourself mere Moses! Bannon likes the Biblical stuff, no doubt. He claimed the “original sin” of the Trump Administration was embracing the political establishment, essentially saying, “The problem with us is them.” Pressed on the “drain the swamp” talk, Bannon declared it would take 10, 15, 20 years to destroy the permanent political class. (All of those time estimates are, notably, beyond the current term limits for the President of the United States, but maybe he had a plan for that.)
But the swamp was the least of Bannon’s worries, and if you’re able to take the cosmic view, there was a strange dark delight to his sit-down with Charlie Rose. Did I mention the Catholic Church? According to Bannon, bishops support DACA because “they need illegal aliens to fill the churches!” He claimed that the Church has “an economic interest in unlimited illegal immigration.” This is a statement of such stunning cynicism that you have to laugh: Whether you’re anti-religion, anti-capitalism, or anti-immigrant, Bannon’s got something for everyone!
Of course, Bannon can only see the Church’s “economic interest.” Officially, he only has economic interests. The view of American history he espoused was a careful celebration of the country’s manufacturing and financial system. He’s the kind of guy who can rattle off a history of the United States in the 19th century — “Hamilton, to Polk, to Henry Clay, to the Roosevelts” — and never mention slavery. Hell, he’s the kind of history bro who, called upon to explain what made America great, mentions James K. Polk before Abraham Lincoln.
Polk, of course, was a slaveholder, one of those notable facts that a troll might address with “THAT WAS JUST HOW LIFE WAS THEN FOCUS ON HIS POLITICS.” Polk fought a war against Mexico, and one imagines the latter matters to Bannon more than the former. I don’t want to relitigate the Mexican-American war here. (Ulysses S. Grant, dying from cancer and caring less than ever, called the war “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”) But the view of American history that Bannon espoused on 60 Minutes was identical to his view of Trumpism and Bannonism: triumphalist, uncomplicated, unwilling to allow for other sides of any argument. In the grand tradition of desperate résumé builders everywhere, he even turned his White House exit into an act of personal growth. “I’m not cut out to be a staffer!” he said, and now that he’s far away from Trump, “I’m gonna be his wingman outside!”
To which: Sure, pal. Every pilot wants their wingman to be far away. Look, I’m not sure this 60 Minutes interview could change anyone’s mind about this man. (I’m not even sure most Trump supporters know who Bannon is. He seems to loom larger as a dark figure for the left, and you can feel even the most ardent supporters’ eyes glazing over when he started to get wonky about China’s “forced technology transfer.”) Bannon clearly wants to steer the ship from outside, wants to reboot the administration backward to the basic essentials of “economic nationalism,” wants everyone to know that everything bad that happened was someone else’s fault. Lacking the actual political power you have in the Room Where It Happens, the tragic irony is that Bannon only has the media now: The part he owns, the rest that reacts to what he hast wrought.
Rose tried to keep the interview on track. Like most of us, though, he couldn’t help but default to basic principles. “People have been able to come here, find a place, contribute to the economy,” Rose said, coming very close to quoting Emma Lazarus on the bronze plaque outside the Statue of Liberty, the line about poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Bannon dismissed such talk; you get the sense he thinks the Statue of Liberty is too French and Lazarus is too womanly.
He did, at one point, describe the Trump campaign as “the island of misfit toys,” a hilariously unlikely reference to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. That story, as any first-grader could explain in their own words, is about a society built on conformity learning to love the Other. And it ends with Santa taking the poor huddled Misfit Toys to a new happy home; so, fair to say that Santa doesn’t support travel bans. But it’s not surprising that Bannon thinks he is Rudolph: Bullies always think they’re the misunderstood victims, especially when they’re rich white men who thought the world was supposed to defer to rich white masculinity.
What’s more surprising is that, in this same interview, he also compared the Trump campaign to The Wild Bunch. It was in his conversation about “Billy Bush Saturday,” when, according to Bannon, every non-Bannon human told then-candidate Trump to drop out of the race. He quoted William Holden to explain his loyalty to Trump: “When you side with a man, you side with him.” He said this line comes before “the huge gunfight at the end.”
Bannon isn’t a journalist, so we can’t necessarily blame him for getting this wrong, but his misremembering is telling. The line actually comes much earlier in Peckinpah’s dark western. When Holden’s outlaw says “We’re gonna stick together,” when he promises to never leave anyone behind, he’s already left a couple people behind (that we know of). That’s this thing called complexity and dramatic irony, and maybe if you’re watching you notice how these icons of archetypal American frontiersmanship can’t even live up to their own amoral code of ethics. But, of course, Bannon has the shallowest possible read of The Wild Bunch, the elder sibling to all the young dudes who think The Dark Knight Returns is a coherent plan for law enforcement.
One wonders, though, what Bannon makes of the end of the movie. A couple survivors ride off to fight in a revolution — Americans in Mexico, a century before any talk of a border wall. Maybe Bannon imagines himself that way, riding off to continue the fight. But The Wild Bunch doesn’t turn out well for the Wild Bunch. That’s the point of the movie, but apparently, some people didn’t get it.