By John Cassidy
The Mercer family, who helped create Steve Bannon, will decide the fate of his war on the Republican establishment.Photograph by William Mebane for The New Yorker
Viewed from afar, the Trump Administration is a daily tragedy—one that is dragging down the United States and endangering the world order it has led for more than seventy years. From up close, the Administration is a comedy of errors, the latest of which was Donald Trump’s transformation of Michael Wolff’s new book, “Fire and Fury.” The President single-handedly turned the book from a racy tell-all that would have enthused the Beltway and media crowds into a must-have consumer product—the literary equivalent of a new iPhone—which, in Washington, at least, had crowds of people braving the “bomb cyclone” and lining up outside Kramerbooks on Thursday night for the midnight release.
Not only did Trump put out a lengthy statement on Thursday bashing Steve Bannon, his former senior adviser, for coöperating with Wolff on his “phoney” book, his lawyers sent a letter to the publisher, Henry Holt, demanding that it halt publication. From that moment on, every self-respecting Trump hater in the country simply had to buy a copy. No wonder Holt brought forward the publication date to Friday and Wolff tweeted “Thank you, Mr. President.”
If Trump’s intervention sent Wolff and Holt into rapture, it created shock waves in the conservative universe, especially when it was followed by a separate denunciation of Bannon from his longtime financial sponsor, the hedge-fund heiress Rebekah Mercer, who is a part-owner of Breitbart, the scrappy Web site that Bannon turned into a platform for Trump and the alt-right. “My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements,” Mercer said in a rare public utterance on Thursday.
Since then, much of Washington has been on a Bannon death watch. As Trump loyalists like Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and Roger Stone rushed to disassociate themselves from Bannon, rumors circulated that he was about to be fired from Breitbart, where he returned to the chairman’s role after being ousted from the White House, in August. The Wall Street Journal reported that “many members” of Breitbart's board of directors were supportive of dumping Bannon, but they were also mindful of Breitbart’s “contractual relationships with other entities, including Sirius XM radio,” where he has a show. On Friday morning, Trump revelled in Bannon’s woes, commenting on Twitter, “The Mercer Family recently dumped the leaker known as Sloppy Steve Bannon. Smart!”
As of Friday afternoon, Bannon’s fate still hadn’t been determined, and he was keeping a low profile. Axios reported that before Trump went nuclear on Thursday, Bannon had prepared a public statement expressing his loyalty to the President and contesting some of the details in Wolff’s book. “Some of Bannon’s closest allies are urging him to still issue such a statement and make peace with Trump and his family,” the Axios report said. “Bannon is resisting. He’s quite like Trump in this respect: he views any apology or admission of error as a sign of weakness.”
Even if Bannon does grovel to Trump and cling to his job, he will emerge from this episode as a marginalized and diminished figure. And that raises at least two important questions about the future of the Republican Party.
The first concerns the roles that Mercer and her father, Robert, a reclusive hedge-fund billionaire, will play in the future. When, in the summer of 2016, the Mercers pumped five million dollars into Trump’s campaign coffers and supplied him with a new campaign manager (Kellyanne Conway) and eminence grise (Bannon), they established a tie of sorts to the President-to-be. But, as Wolff relates, it doesn’t appear to be a particularly close relationship: “Trump thought the Mercers were as odd as everybody else thought. He didn’t like Bob Mercer looking at him and not saying a word; he didn’t like being in the same room as Mercer or his daughter. These were super-strange bedfellows—‘wackos’ in his description.”
For now, it appears that Trump and the wackos have reached an agreement that Bannon had to be defenestrated. But that raises the second question: What is the future of Bannonism without Bannon?
For months, Bannon had been saying that his firing from the White House marked not the demise of his ambitions to transform the G.O.P. into a nationalist/protectionist party modelled on the European right but the opening of a new front. Freed from the constraints of being inside the Administration, Bannon would be able to recruit candidates, raise money, and take down members of the Republican establishment. “Trump, in Bannon’s view, was a chapter, or even a detour, in the Trump revolution, which had always been about weaknesses in the two major parties,” Wolff writes. “The Trump presidency—however long it lasted—had created the opening that would provide the true outsiders their opportunity. Trump was just the beginning.”