The Washington political establishment has ways of dealing with invading rebel armies like the one led by Donald Trump. For the last month, there has been a collective glee in pointing out the chaotic rollout of the White House’s executive order on travel, its contradictory messaging, and the unpredictability of Trump’s Twitter activity.
All of that is fair game, as is some of the skepticism about Trump aides. Michael Flynn, the retired lieutenant general who is now the national-security adviser, is under a microscope for possibly misleading officials about his pre-inauguration contacts with the Russian ambassador. Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, stepped over a line when she promoted Ivanka Trump’s fashion line during a TV interview (after being asked about the news that some stores have suddenly dropped the brand).
Then there is Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist. He is blamed for much of what critics see as dark and diabolical in the Trump White House. He is portrayed on Saturday Night Live as a skeletal Grim Reaper with a sinister voice worthy of Darth Vader.
Bannon is almost universally loathed by the Washington press corps, and not just for his politics. When he was the CEO of the pro-Trump Breitbart website, he competed with traditional media outlets, and he has often mercilessly attacked and ridiculed them.
The animosity towards Bannon reached new heights last month, when he incautiously told the New York Times that “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” He also said the media was “the opposition party” to the Trump administration. To the Washington media, those are truly fighting words.
Joel Simon, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told CNN that “this kind of speech not [only] undermines the work of the media in this country, it emboldens autocratic leaders around the world.” Jacob Weisberg, the head of the Slate Group, tweeted that Bannon’s comment was terrifying and “tyrannical.”
Bannon’s comments were outrageous, but they are hardly new. In 2009, President Obama’s White House communications director, Anita Dunn, sought to restrict Fox News’ access to the White House. She even said, “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent.” The media’s outrage over that remark was restrained, to say the least.
Ever since Bannon’s outburst, you can hear the media gears meshing in the effort to undermine him. In TV green rooms and at Washington parties, I’ve heard journalists say outright that it’s time to get him. Time magazine put a sinister-looking Bannon on its cover, describing him as “The Great Manipulator.” Walter Isaacson, a former managing editor of Time, boasted to MSNBC that the image was in keeping with a tradition of controversial covers that put leaders in their place. “Likewise, putting [former White House aide] Mike Deaver on the cover, the brains behind Ronald Reagan, that ended up bringing down Reagan,” he told the hosts of Morning Joe. “So you’ve got to have these checks and balances, whether it’s the judiciary or the press.”
Reporters and pundits are also stepping up the effort to portray Bannon as the puppet master in the White House. Last week, MSNBC’s Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski said, “Legitimate media are getting word that Steve Bannon is the last guy in the room, in the evening especially, and he’s pulling the strings.” Her co-host, Joe Scarborough, agreed that Bannon’s role should be “investigated.”
It wasn’t until four years after the passage of Obamacare that a journalist reported on just how powerful White House counselor Valerie Jarrett had been in its flawed implementation. Liberal writer Steven Brill wrote a 2015 book, America’s Bitter Pill, in which he slammed “incompetence in the White House” for the catastrophic launch of Obamacare. “Never [has there] been a group of people who more incompetently launched something,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross, who interviewed him about the book. He laid much of the blame at Jarrett’s doorstep. “The people in the administration who knew it was going wrong went to the president directly with memos, in person, to his chief of staff,” he said. “The president was protected, mostly by Valerie Jarrett, from doing anything. . . . He didn’t know what was going on in the single most important initiative of his administration.” How important was Jarrett inside the Obama White House? Brill interviewed the president about the struggles of Obamacare and reported Obama’s conclusion: “At this point, I am not so interested in Monday-morning quarterbacking the past.”
Brill then bluntly told the president that five of the highest-ranking Obama officials had told him that “as a practical matter . . . Jarrett was the real chief of staff on any issues that she wanted to weigh in on, and she jealously protected that position by making sure the president never gave anyone else too much power.” When Brill asked the president about these aides’ assessment of Jarrett, Obama “declined comment,” Brill wrote in his book. That, in and of itself, was an answer. Would that Jarrett had received as much media scrutiny of her role in eight years under Obama as Bannon has in less than four weeks.
I’ve had my disagreements with Bannon, whose apocalyptic views on some issues I don’t share. Ronald Reagan once said that if someone in Washington agrees with you 80 percent of the time, he is an ally, not an enemy. I’d guess Bannon wouldn’t agree with that sentiment.
But the media’s effort to turn Bannon into an enemy of the people is veering into hysterical character assassination. The Sunday print edition of the New York Times ran an astonishing 1,500-word story headlined: “Fascists Too Lax for a Philosopher Cited by Bannon.” (The online headline now reads, “Steve Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists.”) The Times based this headline on what it admits was “a passing reference” in a speech by Bannon at a Vatican conference in 2014. In that speech, Bannon made a single mention of Julius Evola, an obscure Italian philosopher who opposed modernity and cozied up to Mussolini’s Italian Fascists.
Bannon’s sole reference to Evola came when he mentioned that a leading influence on Vladimir Putin was Aleksandr Dugin, an ultranationalist writer “who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian Fascism.” The dictionary definition of “metastasize” is “to transform, especially into a dangerous form.” So Bannon’s mention of Evola is hardly an endorsement of fascism on Bannon’s part.
Nor was Bannon complimentary of Putin in this 2014 talk. After noting that Putin’s talk of traditional values was “playing very strongly to social conservatives” in the United States, Bannon explicitly warned:
I think it’s something that we have to be very much on guard of. Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that wants to expand.
It’s remarkable to see how a single passing reference to an obscure philosopher can be used to tarnish a White House aide. The Times piece linking Bannon to Fascism is being picked up. The liberal Forward newspaper ran a lengthy summary under the headline “Meet the Philosopher Who’s a Favorite of Steve Bannon and Mussolini.” The article claims that Bannon “seems to have an affinity” for the fascist Evola.
A lot more ammunition was provided by Anita Dunn, when she was the White House’s communications director. After she declared war on Fox News, some reporters discovered that she had actually cited Mao Tse-tung as one of her favorite political philosophers. In a speech given after she had joined the Obama White House, she said the “two people I turn to most” were Mother Teresa and Mao Tse-tung. She barely discussed the late nun but waxed at length about the lessons Mao had taught her.
The Mao comment prompted William Ratliff, an expert on China with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, to call her statement “outrageous and pathetic” given that Mao’s role in the deaths of some 50 million people “makes it impossible for any serious person to view him as a great philosopher.” Dunn said she was speaking ironically and that critics just didn’t get the joke. The story was a tempest in a D.C. teapot for half a day.
Here’s hoping that the Times’ effort to tie Bannon to a Fascist philosopher on far less substantive grounds is granted even less attention. It’s not surprising to me that the pugnacious Bannon is loathed by so many Washington media types, nor does it shock me that his refusal to provide news tidbits for reporters isn’t appreciated.
But some standards in Beltway career destruction should be observed. Of course, the media shouldn’t “shut up” when it comes to the Trump administration. But, yes, some listening and some introspection in evaluating the double standard by which they covered the Obama administration would be healthy and would help the public that consumes their reports.
— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent. https://twitter.com/@JohnFund