Authors: Michael Wolff
Bob Mercer is an ultimate quant, an engineer who designs investment algorithms and became a co-CEO of one of the most successful hedge funds, Renaissance Technologies. With his daughter, Rebekah, Mercer set up what is in effect a private Tea Party movement, self-funding whatever Tea Party or alt-right project took their fancy. Bob Mercer is almost nonverbal, looking at you with a dead stare and either not talking or offering only minimal response. He had a Steinway baby grand on his yacht; after inviting friends and colleagues on the boat, he would spend the time
playing the piano, wholly disengaged from his guests. And yet his political beliefs, to the extent they could be discerned, were generally Bush-like, and his political discussions, to the extent that you could get him to be responsive, were about issues involving ground game and data gathering. It was Rebekah Mercer—who had bonded with Bannon, and whose politics were grim, unyielding, and doctrinaire—who defined the family. “She’s . . . like whoa, ideologically there is no conversation with her,” said one senior Trump White House staffer.
With the death of Andrew Breitbart in 2012, Bannon, in essence holding the proxy of the Mercers’ investment in the site, took over the Breitbart business. He leveraged his gaming experience into using Gamergate—a precursor alt-right movement that coalesced around an antipathy toward, and harassment of, women working in the online gaming industry—to build vast amounts of traffic through the virality of political memes. (After hours one night in the White House, Bannon would argue that he knew exactly how to build a Breitbart for the left. And he would have the key advantage because “people on the left want to win Pulitzers, whereas I want to
Working out of—and living in—the town house Breitbart rented on Capitol Hill, Bannon became one of the growing number of notable Tea Party figures in Washington, the Mercers’ consigliere. But a seeming measure of his marginality was that his big project was the career of Jeff Sessions—“Beauregard,” Sessions’s middle name, in Bannon’s affectionate moniker and evocation of the Confederate general—among the least mainstream and most peculiar people in the Senate, whom Bannon tried to promote to run for president in 2012.
Donald Trump was a step up—and early in the 2016 race, Trump became the Breitbart totem. (Many of Trump’s positions in the campaign were taken from the Breitbart articles he had printed out for him.) Indeed, Bannon began to suggest to people that he, like Ailes had been at Fox, was the true force behind his chosen candidate.
Bannon didn’t much question Donald Trump’s bona fides, or behavior, or electability, because, in part, Trump was just his latest rich man. The rich man is a fixed fact, which you have to accept and deal with in an entrepreneurial world—at least a lower-level entrepreneurial world. And,
of course, if Trump had had firmer bona fides, better behavior, and clear electability, Bannon would not have had his chance.
However much a marginal, invisible, small-time hustler Bannon had been—something of an Elmore Leonard character—he was suddenly transformed inside Trump Tower, an office he entered on August 15, and for practical purposes, did not exit, save for a few hours a night (and not every night) in his temporary midtown Manhattan accommodations, until January 17, when the transition team moved to Washington. There was no competition in Trump Tower for being the brains of the operation. Of the dominant figures in the transition, neither Kushner, Priebus, nor Conway, and certainly not the president-elect, had the ability to express any kind of coherent perception or narrative. By default, everybody had to look to the voluble, aphoristic, shambolic, witty, off-the-cuff figure who was both ever present on the premises and who had, in an unlikely attribute, read a book or two.
And indeed who, during the campaign, turned out to be able to harness the Trump operation, not to mention its philosophic disarray, to a single political view: that the path to victory was an economic and cultural message to the white working class in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
* * *
Bannon collected enemies. Few fueled his savagery and rancor toward the standard-issue Republican world as much as Rupert Murdoch—not least because Murdoch had Donald Trump’s ear. It was one of the key elements of Bannon’s understanding of Trump: the last person Trump spoke to ended up with enormous influence. Trump would brag that Murdoch was always calling him; Murdoch, for his part, would complain that he couldn’t get Trump off the phone.
“He doesn’t know anything about American politics, and has no feel for the American people,” said Bannon to Trump, always eager to point out that Murdoch wasn’t an American. But Trump couldn’t get enough of him. With his love of “winners”—and he saw Murdoch as the ultimate winner—Trump was suddenly bad-mouthing his friend Ailes as a “loser.”
And yet in one regard Murdoch’s message was useful to Bannon.
Having known every president since Harry Truman—as Murdoch took frequent opportunities to point out—and, he conjectured, as many heads of state as anyone living, Murdoch believed he understood better than younger men, even seventy-year-old Trump, that political power was fleeting. (This was in fact the same message he had imparted to Barack Obama.) A president really had only, max, six months to make an impact on the public and set his agenda, and he’d be lucky to get six months. After that it was just putting out fires and battling the opposition.
This was the message whose urgency Bannon himself had been trying to impress on an often distracted Trump. Indeed, in his first weeks in the White House, an inattentive Trump was already trying to curtail his schedule of meetings, limit his hours in the office, and keep his normal golf habits.
Bannon’s strategic view of government was shock and awe. Dominate rather than negotiate. Having daydreamed his way into ultimate bureaucratic power, he did not want to see himself as a bureaucrat. He was of a higher purpose and moral order. He was an avenger. He was also, he believed, a straight shooter. There was a moral order in aligning language and action—if you said you were going to do something, you do it.
In his head, Bannon carried a set of decisive actions that would not just mark the new administration’s opening days, but make it clear that nothing ever again would be the same. At the age of sixty-three, he was in a hurry.
* * *
Bannon had delved deeply into the nature of executive orders—EOs. You can’t rule by decree in the United States, except you really can. The irony here was that it was the Obama administration, with a recalcitrant Republican Congress, that had pushed the EO envelope. Now, in something of a zero-sum game, Trump’s EOs would undo Obama’s EOs.
During the transition, Bannon and Stephen Miller, a former Sessions aide who had earlier joined the Trump campaign and then become Bannon’s effective assistant and researcher, assembled a list of more than two hundred EOs to issue in the first hundred days.
But the first step in the new Trump administration had to be immigration, in Bannon’s certain view. Foreigners were the ne plus ultra
mania of Trumpism. An issue often dismissed as living on the one-track-mind fringe—Jeff Sessions was one of its cranky exponents—it was Trump’s firm belief that a lot of people had had it up to here with foreigners. Before Trump, Bannon had bonded with Sessions on the issue. The Trump campaign became a sudden opportunity to see if nativism really had legs. And then when they won, Bannon understood there could be no hesitation about declaring their ethnocentric heart and soul.
To boot, it was an issue that made liberals bat-shit mad.
Laxly enforced immigration laws reached to the center of the new liberal philosophy and, for Bannon, exposed its hypocrisy. In the liberal worldview, diversity was an absolute good, whereas Bannon believed any reasonable person who was not wholly blinded by the liberal light could see that waves of immigrants came with a load of problems—just look at Europe. And these were problems borne not by cosseted liberals but by the more exposed citizens at the other end of the economic scale.
It was out of some instinctive or idiot-savant-like political understanding that Trump had made this issue his own, frequently observing,
Wasn’t anybody an American anymore?
In some of his earliest political outings, even before Obama’s election in 2008, Trump talked with bewilderment and resentment about strict quotas on European immigration and the deluge from “Asia and other places.” (This deluge, as liberals would be quick to fact-check, was, even as it had grown, still quite a modest stream.) His obsessive focus on Obama’s birth certificate was in part about the scourge of non-European foreignness—a certain race-baiting.
Who were these people? Why were they here?
The campaign sometimes shared a striking graphic. It showed a map of the country reflecting dominant immigration trends in each state from fifty years ago—here was a multitude of countries, many European. Today, the equivalent map showed that every state in the United States was now dominated by Mexican immigration. This was the daily reality of the American workingman, in Bannon’s view, the ever growing presence of an alternative, discount workforce.
Bannon’s entire political career, such as it was, had been in political media. It was also in Internet media—that is, media ruled by immediate response. The Breitbart formula was to so appall the liberals that the base
was doubly satisfied, generating clicks in a ricochet of disgust and delight. You defined yourself by your enemy’s reaction. Conflict was the media bait—hence, now, the political chum. The new politics was not the art of the compromise but the art of conflict.
The real goal was to expose the hypocrisy of the liberal view. Somehow, despite laws, rules, and customs, liberal globalists had pushed a myth of more or less open immigration. It was a double liberal hypocrisy, because, sotto voce, the Obama administration had been quite aggressive in deporting illegal aliens—except don’t tell the liberals that.
“People want their countries back,” said Bannon. “A simple thing.”
* * *
Bannon meant his EO to strip away the liberal conceits on an already illiberal process. Rather than seeking to accomplish his goals with the least amount of upset—keeping liberal fig leaves in place—he sought the most.
Why would you?
was the logical question of anyone who saw the higher function of government as avoiding conflict.
This included most people in office. The new appointees in place at the affected agencies and departments, among them Homeland Security and State—General John Kelly, then the director of Homeland Security, would carry a grudge about the disarray caused by the immigration EO—wanted nothing more than a moment to get their footing before they might even consider dramatic and contentious new policies. Old appointees—Obama appointees who still occupied most executive branch jobs—found it unfathomable that the new administration would go out of its way to take procedures that largely already existed and to restate them in incendiary, red-flag, and ad hominem terms, such that liberals would have to oppose them.
Bannon’s mission was to puncture the global-liberal-emperor-wears-no-clothes bubble, nowhere, in his view, as ludicrously demonstrated as the refusal to see the colossally difficult and costly effects of uncontrolled immigration. He wanted to force liberals to acknowledge that even liberal governments, even the Obama government, were engaged in the real politics of slowing immigration—ever hampered by the liberal refusal to acknowledge this effort.
The EO would be drafted to remorselessly express the administration’s
(or Bannon’s) pitiless view. The problem was, Bannon really didn’t know how to do this—change rules and laws. This limitation, Bannon understood, might easily be used to thwart them. Process was their enemy. But just doing it—the hell with how—and doing it immediately, could be a powerful countermeasure.
Just doing things became a Bannon principle, the sweeping antidote to bureaucratic and establishment ennui and resistance. It was the chaos of just doing things that actually got things done. Except, even if you assumed that not knowing how to do things didn’t much matter if you just did them, it was still not clear who was going to do what you wanted to do. Or, a corollary, because nobody in the Trump administration really knew how to do anything, it was therefore not clear what anyone did.
Sean Spicer, whose job was literally to explain what people did and why, often simply could not—
because nobody really had a job, because nobody could do a job
Priebus, as chief of staff, had to organize meetings, schedules, and the hiring of staff; he also had to oversee the individual functions of the executive office departments. But Bannon, Kushner, Conway, and the president’s daughter actually had no specific responsibilities—they could make it up as they went along. They did what they wanted. They would seize the day if they could—even if they really didn’t know how to do what they wanted to do.
Bannon, for instance, even driven by his imperative just to get things done, did not use a computer.
How did he do anything?
Katie Walsh wondered. But that was the difference between big visions and small. Process was bunk. Expertise was the last refuge of liberals, ever defeated by the big picture. The will to get big things done was how big things got done. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” was a pretty good gist of Donald Trump’s—and Steve Bannon’s—worldview. “Chaos was Steve’s strategy,” said Walsh.
Bannon got Stephen Miller to write the immigration EO. Miller, a fifty-five-year-old trapped in a thirty-two-year-old’s body, was a former Jeff Sessions staffer brought on to the Trump campaign for his political experience. Except, other than being a dedicated far-right conservative, it was unclear what particular abilities accompanied Miller’s political views. He was supposed to be a speechwriter, but if so, he seemed restricted to bullet points
and unable to construct sentences. He was supposed to be a policy adviser but knew little about policy. He was supposed to be the house intellectual but was purposely unread. He was supposed to be a communications specialist, but he antagonized almost everyone. Bannon, during the transition, sent him to the Internet to learn about and to try to draft the EO.