Like much of the world, I’ve been trying to understand Steve Bannon, the chief strategist and guiding force behind the chaos of Donald Trump’s bizarre presidency – chaos by design.
He has been called the most dangerous political operative in America, the second most powerful man in the world and the great manipulator. He reportedly compared himself to Vladimir Lenin, the murderous architect of the Soviet Union – not his politics, but his goal to blow up the state. In a rare interview last fall, Bannon mentioned some role models.
“Darkness is good,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” You certainly can’t accuse him of lacking ambition, but I think he cited that villainy all-star list to throw people off. In the same interview, he made another, more accurate comparison:
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“I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.”
It’s well known that Trump doesn’t read; he watches Fox News, then sends out inaccurate tweets about something he was unable to process. But Bannon is a voracious reader – of philosophy, theory and the hinge moments in history. Cromwell, who altered the course of the Western world in ways still being felt today, was Steve Bannon in feathered Tudor finery.
To the Irish, the name Cromwell still sends shivers down the spine, a name associated with a rampage of terror and slaughter in Ireland. But that was Oliver Cromwell, a distant relative.
Readers of Hilary Mantel’s revisionist novels, and viewers of the BBC series based on her work, know Thomas Cromwell as a brooding, brilliant master of the court of King Henry VIII, from 1532-40. The real Cromwell was a cunning conspirator who tore up the old order in service of a self-indulgent, wife-killing king who forced a breakaway religion on his subjects.
Or was he serving his own needs, an overarching plan? That’s the question we should ask about Bannon. Like Cromwell, the Trump-whisperer in the West Wing is brilliant and cunning, and full of contradictions. He appears to be a self-hating baby boomer, a self-hating member of the Harvard Business School/Goldman Sachs elite, a self-hating Hollywood director and a self-hating journalist. From his films on Sarah Palin to his time running Breitbart, he learned how to be a very good propagandist. It’s a role that has served him well in the White House.
King Henry was a Trumpian figure – imperious, vainglorious, explosive, a handsome charmer in his youth who became an embittered and slothful 400-pounder. Henry was married six times, though of course two of his wives were executed. Between them, Bannon and Trump have had six wives.
Cromwell was known for two things. First, he helped to orchestrate the annulment of the king’s marriage to his longtime wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that Henry could marry his mistress. When the Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t grant a divorce, Henry declared himself the Supreme Head of a renegade Church of England.
Cromwell’s second major initiative was to ensure that the church founded by a serial killer would wipe out the old order. He was responsible for the destruction of monasteries and relic-laden cathedral alcoves, transferring wealth to the crown. Monks and nuns who refused to take an oath to Henry were murdered. The haunting, beautiful ruins of the Benedictine monastery in Canterbury, founded in 598, is one indirect result of Cromwell’s deeds. And the British monarch’s current role as head of the Church of England is another legacy – dating to Henry.
Bannon is close to conservative Catholics who do not like the progressive bent of Pope Francis. They favor a clash of civilizations with Islam, rather than the pope’s openhearted approach.
Changing Rome will be a tough slog. But elsewhere, Bannon has been busy trying to destroy the existing order. Trump’s attacks on a free press, an independent judiciary and civil society are disrupters out of Bannon’s playbook. Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower had the smell of Bannon’s gunpowder.
Bannon has praised Joseph McCarthy, who was censured by the Senate for his 1950s witch hunt. In 2010, Bannon said, “What we need to do is bitch-slap the Republican Party.” The stunt of having women from Bill Clinton’s past appear at a presidential debate last year was a pure Bannon play.
As chief strategist, he recently vowed a daily fight for “deconstruction of the administrative state.” This is a Cromwellian task aimed at overturning not just the traditional work of the federal government, but also the existing international order of treaties, trade pacts and alliances that has kept the world relatively safe since World War II. Trump’s Cabinet is stocked with people whose goal is to neuter the agencies they head.
But before he gets gluttonous with power, Bannon should remember what happened to his historical doppelganger. Henry turned on him. Thomas Cromwell was executed in 1540, without trial, and his severed head was displayed on a spike on London Bridge.