Steve Bannon bounced: Chaos is the new normal at the White House

When the commander-in-chief isn’t all attitude, he’s all thumbs

By Todd Gitlin
April 9, 2017 3:29PM (UTC)
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(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

This piece originally appeared on

When the commander-in-chief isn’t all attitude, he’s all thumbs, so it’s not exactly astonishing when he shuffles his lieutenants around like greased toys as reporters gawk.

On Wednesday, April 5, Trump removed Steve Bannon from the National Security Council (NSC) position known, in Washington-speak, as the “Principals Committee.” The consensus among reporters, both loyalists and “enemies of the people,” is that this means a demotion for Bannon, who passes for an intellectual in Trump’s White House on the strength of his Manichaean media enterprises charged with a worldview that heralds global Judeo-Christian war against “jihadist Islamic fascism,” aka “radical Islam.” Meanwhile, longtime Trump buddy Roger Stone tells whackjob Alex Jones that Jared Kushner is responsible for issuing anti-Bannon leaks.


A demotion for Bannon this may well be, likely at the hands of national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, who evidently serves as the designated grown-up in the West Wing. It might also be that, from the start, Bannon was not long for the NSC. He might have been elevated to special guest status only long enough to baby-sit the lying, Russia-friendly beneficiary and Turkish lobbyist Michael Flynn during Flynn’s 23-day stay in the White House. But who knows? Now that Bannon has been bounced, Flynn’s extra-zealous son Michael Jr., renowned for crackpot conspiracy theories, was angry enough to tweet: “Is WH serious abt defeating our enemy?” Flynn Jr. is also irritated that Gen. McMaster, his father’s replacement, won’t speak the magic words “radical Islam,” the incantation that the White House’s true believers and their allies think that once spoken, will cause ISIS to be instantly plunged into a Judeo-Christian inferno.

Let us refresh our memories about the disorder that it is the new order. When it could not be ignored that Flynn Sr. had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about Russian contacts, Flynn’s head was first to fall from the National Security Council. What else goes on in the smoke-filled rooms of the White House is not (yet) known, but unnamed White House figures now tell the Hill that a White House “policy shop,” the Strategic Initiatives Group (SIG) — launched by Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief son-in-law Kushner, and headed by Bannon — actually “never even existed.”

Of course, two months ago, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president identified himself as a member of said Strategic Initiatives Group. Gorka, now an American citizen, may be looking for new employment soon, having been outed for coziness with far-right Hungarian groups. This week, a Forward reporter noted his 2007 support for the Hungarian Guard, “a violent racist and anti-Semitic paramilitary militia that was . . . later condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for attempting to promote an ‘essentially racist’ legal order.” That’s not the half of it. Readers of Gorka’s thin oeuvre know that, innocent of Arabic and with no Middle Eastern experience, he paraded as a “counterterrorism expert” while publishing the most banal drivel rendition of what everybody already knows about terrorists, presumably the topic of his expertise.


Not to worry, but fans of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who once wanted the Department of Energy disbanded and who, when appointed by El Caudillo de Mar-a-Lago to run it thought the bureaucracy pertained to the oil trade, will be gratified to see that he has now been promoted to the National Security Council table, where Bannon was warming a chair for him. You will recall that Secretary Perry was surprised to discover that one of the department’s missions is to “ensure the security of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.” But his fans will likely be pleased that he’s promoted to sit at the table when essential decisions about war and peace are made.

Trump operates with a third-grade vocabulary and not-quite sixth-grade grammar, so it may be surprising that his administration seems to have invented its own Beltway patois. “Susan Rice operationalized the NSC during the last administration,” Bannon told the Wall Street Journal. “I was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized. Gen. McMaster has returned the NSC to its proper function.”

“De-operationalized” is being translated to mean “de-politicized,” which is probably an opaque reference to the fact that, in its nonstop quest for bad guys to distract the press and the public from Trump’s heap of Russia connections, Susan Rice is this week’s designated villain in the White House.


With son-in-law Jared Kushner now designated as assistant to the president for government reorganization, Middle East stagnation and Mexico mediation, and Steve Bannon now removed from the inner circle of the National Security Council, Trump’s St. Vitus Dance of the Deputies is likely not over. As Bloomberg News reported last week, “White House Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh, a top aide to President Donald Trump, is leaving his administration to work for an outside group supporting the president’s agenda.” Was she Reince Priebus’s ally, as reported, or Bannon’s, or no one’s?

Authoritarian rulers, actual or aspiring, are given to lurching around. They tend to think their instincts are golden — after all, their gut tells them that their instincts brought them to power. When they look in the mirror, they see the shining face of success. So when things go wrong — say, the regime’s fake health care debacle — the chief finds a dog to kick, even if it’s a dog that he himself chose by taking instructions from his peerless instinct. This is more dramatic, and thus infinitely more satisfying, than hiring competent managers to staff “the administrative state,” much as such hires would please “the enemies of the people.” As journalists frantically peer through the smoke to find out (for example) whether a Strategic Initiatives Group actually exists, or existed, the ruler plunges on, operating as much by whim as by system.


This is the terrible truth, the new normal that journalists haven’t figured out how to address. The boss man is delusional. His vision is warped and he doesn’t know it. When his own eyes lie to him, he cannot distinguish between a better and a worse course of action. Delusion keeps him on the brink of chaos. Thinking will not help, because sober appraisal is not in his arsenal, so he must jump up to play action hero. When the world proves recalcitrant, the action hero resorts to a shake-up. He exercises his muscles by shoving scapegoats out the door. So, for example, one dictator in particular fired his son-in-law, Count Ciano, after Ciano served eight years in the Cabinet. At that point, Mussolini had six months left in power. Count Ciano died by firing squad early in 1944. Uneasy lie the heads who believe in nothing but power.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin teaches at Columbia University, writes regularly for and Tablet, and is the author, most recently, of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------ Jared Kushner National Security Council Steve Bannon Trump Administration