On Sunday, Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, spoke with 60 Minutes. The media’s obsession with Bannon should be a curious one: Bannon was less a motor for President Trump’s success (or Andrew Breitbart’s, or Sarah Palin’s for that matter) than a barnacle riding a whale. But it makes sense for the media to feature Bannon as a sort of philosopher-king for the Trump era, first because they can easily castigate Bannon as Darth Vader (it’s how he bills himself), and second because they strain desperately to avoid the conclusion that President Trump is actually the font of policy at the White House.
In any case, Bannon’s interview was fascinating, less because he’s an important figure than because he represents the ultimate example of someone straining desperately to build a coherent movement around Trump. Bannon himself vacillates wildly between aggressive red meat–throwing and canny political strategery. At one point, for example, Bannon declares war on Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:
They do not want Donald Trump’s populist economic nationalist agenda to be implemented. It’s very obvious. It’s as obvious as night follows day. . . . The swamp is 50 years in the making. Let’s talk about the swamp.
Civil war, Bannon seems to say, is mandatory.
Then, Bannon swivels and slams President Trump for sending President Obama’s executive amnesty to the Congress, even though Breitbart spent years rallying for the utter abolition of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program:
My fear is that with this six months down range, if we have another huge — if this goes all the way down to its logical conclusion, in February and March, it will be a civil war inside the Republican party that will be every bit as vitriolic as 2013.
Civil war, Bannon seems to say, is avoidable.
What’s driving Bannon’s inconsistent rhetoric here?
To understand, we must first understand the dynamics of a typical political movement. Political movements operate almost like Freudian psyches. They’re composed of three parts: the id, the superego, and the ego. The id is the grassroots passion. Properly channeled, the id generates the energy and excitement necessary for all the on-the-ground work necessary for victory. The superego is the intellectualized philosophy of the movement — the thinkers. These are the people who sit around and dream up solid policy proposals and put them in line with central ideological principles, but they don’t have the popular support to press forward that agenda.
Trump sees intellectualization of his program as a fool’s errand.
Then there is the leader, the ego. The id and the superego and unify only in the ego: the decisionmaker, who mediates the conflict between the two opposing forces, moving them toward consonance. Ronald Reagan, for example, mediated between the grassroots conservative movement and the National Review crowd. The ego dictates whether an administration tends more toward the populist id (FDR) or the elitist superego.
But this description of a movement simply cannot hold for President Trump. That’s because Trump is the id. As the ego of the movement, he doesn’t care about the superego in the slightest. He sees intellectualization of his program as a fool’s errand; every time someone tries to generate intellectual consistency out of his knee-jerk reactions, he quickly undercuts them. Trump sees no reason to make deals with the superego; he sees them as a bug to be squashed. Their vagaries, he believes, have won no victories. Better to react, be strong, be tough.
Bannon, however, knows that the heart can’t survive without the head. And so he is attempting to act as both superego and the ego while pandering to the id. He wants to be the great unifier of the movement. He wants to be Trump.
He isn’t the first, and he won’t be the last. Ryan tried something of the same: He attempted to explain Trump as a wayward conservative, and Trumpism as a traditionally conservative philosophy that occasionally strayed from principle out of emotional necessity. He, too, wanted to be superego and ego; he wanted to redefine Trumpism as something beyond Trump, twisting Trumpism to mirror Ryan’s conservatism.
But Ryan isn’t the leader of the movement. Bannon isn’t the leader of the movement. Trump is. And Trump isn’t interested in any of this. Trump wants to do things when he wants to do them; he wants to tweet when he wants to tweet, legislate when he wants to legislate. There is no central principle to his governance.
The civil war that’s likely to occur over Trump, then, isn’t over Trumpism. It’s just about him. Those who wish to harness the power of Trump — the id of the movement — are mistaken if they think they can. The id and ego of the movement are one. And that means that wherever Trump leads, the movement will follow. That’s why Trump’s intellectual heresies in the eyes of both Bannon and Ryan will be frequent, but his emotional heresies in the eyes of the base will be minimal.
But the media, always searching for a decoder ring for Trump, will keep looking to those who do not represent Trump and construct Trumpism out of whole cloth. And we in the so-called intelligentsia will keep believing that perhaps there’s more than meets the eye to Trumpism, when in fact, Trump is the beginning and the end.
— Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of the Daily Wire.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its publication.