Like anyone with even a modest interest in politics, I’ve been reading the back-and-forth commentary both about and between Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and President Donald J. Trump.
I found Trump’s response to Bannon’s alleged remarks to be absolutely savage, I even e-mailed the team here saying as much.
‘When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind,’ Trump said of Bannon in a statement the White House issued. ‘Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look.’
I’m not sure how Bannon recovers from that given Breitbart’s readership is largely composed of people who most likely voted for President Trump in the 2016 election. Given the choice, I would bet the readership would be more loyal to Trump than Bannon.
Now, of course, Bannon may not have said those things to Michael Wolff, but as any number of people have commented, he hasn’t really denied saying those things while the President’s lawyers have supposedly sent out cease & desist letters to both Bannon and Wolff. So, what to make of things?
Frankly, if the last few years have taught me anything, it is to be slow to speak on these subjects. There are a lot of people who hate President Trump and, blinded by their emotions, will run with anything that might smear him or take him down another notch. Granted, he does say or “tweet” plenty of things that get himself into trouble, but not every bit of negative news on Trump has been true. Indeed, in quite a few cases we have found that the media or a “source” knowingly lied about the President. Due to social media and modern communications, the whole world knew the lie mere minutes after it was spoken. The truth, unfortunately, took many hours or even days to catch up.
So first, if you’re reading about the spat and the gossip and the hearsay, guard your mind and soul, be patient and let things play out.
As for Mr. Bannon, I do not know the man. I know a few people who do know him, but I’ve never met him and so I cannot be a judge of his character. He could be a good, decent man and the allegations are all false. Or the President’s savage description of him could be true. Or the truth could be something in between. We don’t know.
What I do know is that politics seems to make people a little crazy. Just a few months ago a woman commented to me about what a rush it was to get involved in an election campaign. It was her first time getting involved this Fall. The campaign was for a school board seat. In the grand scheme of things, a school board election is not that big of a deal -- but tell that to the people on the ground! For them it was as if Hell or Heaven were to take over depending on who won. And so it was a brutal, pitiless election that left many people forever enemies.
Now, ratchet that up a few notches to the level of presidential politics and I’m sure the rush and the opportunity for crazy is exponentially greater. And don’t forget that while all of that is true, it’s also intensely personal and out in the open for the whole world to see.
For a man like Bannon, there is an incredible amount of pressure, both self-imposed and external. Innumerable people want to see him fall. Only a few actually know the man, but many have read articles or blogs or reports about him written by their favorite authors and have judged the man unseen. Right or wrong, that’s how politics works. Additionally, there are people who are probably intensely loyal to him as well as some who are “friends” in the political world and, hopefully, a few true friends and family. There are others who believe he represents their ideas before the President and they want him to succeed. And then there is his own view of himself.
Again, I don’t know the man.
I have seen people in similar positions begin to believe they have far more power than they actually do. They forget that they are there to serve the leader not to be the leader. Such an occurrence isn’t limited to politics, it can happen in business, non-profits, and civic groups. When a person forgets his place, it generally gets ugly. Maybe that happened.
On the other hand, perhaps Mr. Bannon found that his vocation wasn’t sitting next to the President, but rather out on his own or back at Breitbart. And, perhaps, Michael Wolff is lying about or exaggerating remarks by Mr. Bannon.
If the former, though, then Mr. Bannon’s days in the spotlight are limited. Those who truly hate President Trump will use Bannon as long as they can in an attempt to tear down the President. Mr. Bannon may interpret it the wrong way, believing even more in his importance, but when it is over, they will not be there to help or support him. He will be cast aside as rubbish.
As for those individuals on the conservative or Republican side, how many are going to consider hiring him or even just associating with him? Only those who also wish to bring President Trump down. The other groups, even if they don’t like President Trump, will pander both to their supporters and to the President in order to get whatever it is they want done through legislation or policy. That’s just how things work.
Most of the people in D.C. will pinch their noses and do what they need to do on behalf of those they are beholden to, be they voters, activists, NGOs, corporations, rich people, etc. And for them, Mr. Bannon will be seen as radioactive no matter if he is innocent or guilty. He’s not worth the cost to the deal-makers.
For anyone thinking about getting involved in politics because of your principles and desire to do good, please keep all of the above in mind. You don’t need to be cynical, you simply need to be realistic. You can still achieve great things and stand for your principles, but you’re going to have to grease the skids in one way or another to get something done. You’re going to have to recognize that a great many people in D.C. care about their status and their money more than your principles. You have to find a way for them to see a personal benefit in order to win their support for what you care about.
As for President Trump, let me simply say that billionaires think differently than everyone else. Really.
I was raised by a single-mom who cleaned houses. We lived in a mobile home at times. She worked hard and sacrificed much so that I could have a chance at a different life. To my utter surprise, that chance at a different life has resulted in a bit of time spent with billionaires -- quick meetings, long meetings, dinners at home, lunch at a club, phone calls, presentations, and so on. So far, I’ve known three of them. And, no, they weren’t the Kochs or Soros. I’ve also known quite a few people who are very wealthy, but not billionaires.
I don’t know what it is, but there is something about the guys who are billionaires that is very different from everyone else. To you and me, having $500 million is practically the same as being a billionaire. Even having $50 million or just $5 million is a lot of money to me and far more than anything I have. But here’s the thing, the guy with $500 million is just like the guy with $5 million and just like you and me, he will go to his grave scared that he’ll end up destitute in some filthy poorhouse at the mercy of a nurse-maid who hates life.
But not the billionaires. Yes, they care about their wealth, but they’re after something different at the point they have nine zeroes in the bank account. They’re oddly beyond money.
Of the ones I have met, they have been good men and shockingly frugal. They’re very interested in the interplay between ideas, people, and institutions. They’re looking for trends and rely on their gut instinct quite a bit. They have a small group they trust because they know that the vast majority of people around them, no matter all the nice things said, just want some of their money. They must be detached and insulated from the world, while still able to touch and feel it, they need to have their fingers in things just enough to get a sense of the trends and currents.
The most important thing you can be for a billionaire is honest. Flattery and awards work for other men, but the billionaire doesn’t need any of it. The rare gem for him is honesty.
The position of the billionaire actually reminds me of Edward Gibbon’s account of Roman Emperor Diocletian in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
In his conversations with friends, [Diocletian] frequently acknowledged, that of all arts the most difficult was the art of reigning; and he expressed himself on that favorite topic with a degree of warmth which could be the result only of experience.
‘How often,’ was he accustomed to say, ‘is it the interest of four or five ministers to combine together to deceive their sovereign! Secluded from mankind by his exalted dignity, the truth is concealed from his knowledge; he can see only with their eyes, he hears nothing but their misrepresentations. He confers the most important offices upon vice and weakness, and disgraces the most virtuous and deserving among his subjects. By such infamous arts,’ added Diocletian, ‘the best and wisest princes are sold to the venal corruption of their courtiers.’
What does that mean for our President Trump and the spat with Bannon? Quite a bit actually. And, here, it’s important to set aside your personal beliefs about the man. Detach yourself as best as you can and then try to see the world from his viewpoint.
We know the man has an ego, but we also know that he has a résumé to back it up. It also appears that he relies quite heavily on his family to run his empire. They seem to have undying loyalty to him; they are who he trusts. That alone says a lot. He knows that a great many powerful people want him humiliated and even impeached. He knows that a great many of his courtiers and aides, possibly like Bannon, have their own interests and egos clouding their advice to him -- just like the courtiers of Emperor Diocletian.
One of the fascinating things about the 2016 election was the lack of former Trump employees talking negatively about him. Given how divisive the campaign season was, you would think that his opposition in the media could have found at least a handful of people who hated working for the man. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we even saw some of the people who were in more servile positions loyally praising him.
In the last year, we then saw President Trump move from a traditional inner circle with men like Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon to one dominated by his family. In that time, too, the White House has gone from chaos with leaks and a lack of discipline, to one that seems to be operating as a unit. It appears that he is taking the arrangement that worked for him in business and applying it to the Executive Office.
Keep all of this in mind when you’re reading or listening to either critics or supporters. The vast majority of people, especially those in politics and media, are never going to understand him. Far too often, they project their own thinking, fears, and desires on to him. They operate in a world where there are rules, there is always someone higher on the food chain, there is always something to worry about. President Trump is unencumbered by that mindset. As long as his courtiers are loyal to him, he will charge ahead.
If you were to ask President Trump what he believes and where we’re going, he will respond in a way that has gobs of heads nodding, “Yes!” in Middle America while those in media, politics, and academia shake theirs, "No!". He operates at the gut level, he has a sense of what he believes, but it’s unlikely that he could sit down and articulate it for academic or political purposes. He’s a builder. He sees what he wants in his mind and while not necessarily able to articulate it, is able to create it so long as his courtiers are the ones he trusts and who also know him at the gut level. That is why his family is so important.
We’re in an entirely new era for the presidency of the United States. It may be a short era or it may be a long one. It may be an era that you hate or one that you love. Whatever the case, expect more flare-ups like the one in the news, but don’t expect them to slow President Trump. And don’t expect the chattering class to understand what’s happening any time soon. They don’t think like a billionaire and they never will.