Jonah Goldberg says he’s “struggling to think of a comparable figure in American political history who squandered real power and influence as completely and quickly as [Steve] Bannon has.” The closest he comes is Father Coughlin from the 1930s.
I can come no closer. However, Bannon’s fall reminds me of what happened to David Stockman in the 1980s.
In some ways the comparison seems inapt. Stockman, who served as President Reagan’s director of Office of Management and Budget, was a buttoned-down policy wonk (or so he seemed at the time) with no apparent desire to lead a national political movement, though he had been elected to public office (the U.S. House) — something Bannon has never accomplished.
However, both share “revolutionary” dispositions to some degree. Steve Hayward tells me that Stockman has characterized himself as “the Trotsky of the supply-side movement.” Bannon may or may not have described himself as a “Leninist,” as been reported, but he has described the movement he wants to lead as “an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment, and it’s going to continue to hammer this city, both the progressive left and the institutional Republican Party.”
In the early Reagan years Stockman was almost as prominent — and for some, infamous — as Bannon became last year. He was the leading public exponent of “Reaganomics” and the major force behind Reagan’s budget, a serious attempt to rein in the welfare state.
Like Bannon, then, Stockman wielded real power and influence in an administration dedicated to new ways of taking on prevailing liberal orthodoxies. But like Bannon, Stockman’s power was contested. At times, he clashed with Jim Baker, Donald Regan, and Richard Darman over budget and tax policy.
Stockman’s downfall occurred because spilled his guts in an interview for Atlantic Magazine with William Greider, assistant managing editor of The Washington Post. Stockman provided Greider with 18 taped interviews.
In the interviews, Stockman expressed doubts about the Reagan administration’s ability to contain federal budget deficits. He told of his private delight at the administration’s failure to get as the drastic a tax cut as it wanted from Congress.
Most notoriously, Stockman told Greider that the “supply-side” economic theory underlying Reaganomics was really just “trickle down” economics. “Trickle down” was too unpopular to sell and thus needed to be dressed in new clothes, Stockman explained.
This, of course, is what Democrats and media liberals had been saying all along.
President Reagan took Stockman to “the woodshed.” His power waned, though he remained in his job at OMB for almost four more years.
Bannon, for all of his flamboyance, never bad-mouthed central substantive principles of the movement he’s associated with. For example, he has never said (nor should he because it wouldn’t be true) that Make America Great Again is really a gussied up version of xenophobia and racism.
However, Bannon, while still working at the White House told leftist Robert Kuttner that Trump’s “fire and fury” talk about North Korea is basically hogwash. And now, in conversations with the author of a hostile back about the Trump administration, he reportedly has rejected what I take to be the main tenet of Trumpism in practice — the view that there is nothing to Russia collusion allegations — and has used the word “treason” in connection with the president’s son.
As a result, what was left of Bannon’s power and influence appears to have been squandered completely, as Goldberg says.
What compelled Stockman and Bannon to speak to lefty journalists in ways contrary to the interests of the administration they served and/or were allied with? Frustration surely provides a partial explanation.
The deeper explanation, I think, is the strong sense of both that they are the smartest person in any room, and the desire to validate that sense. Any administration lackey can spout the party line to journalists. It takes the smartest man in the room to say he sees through it.
Similarly, any lackey can impress friendly journalists. It takes the smartest man to impress hostile ones.
Moreover, Greider and Kuttner aren’t hacks. Greider was an original thinker whose “Against the Grain” column graced the Washington Post’s Sunday “Outlook” section during the 1980s. Kuttner is a substantial journalist and intellectual who specializes in economics. According to Kuttner, Bannon told him it was “a great honor to finally track you down” and that he has “followed your writing for years.”
Stockman and Bannon probably thought that Greider and Kuttner (respectively) had the stature to validate their sense of being the smartest man in the administration. (Whether Bannon viewed Michael Wolff that way seems less clear).
I find it interesting that leading figures in liberal administrations don’t speak to conservative pundits in ways that harm the interests of their boss. Did anyone in the Clinton administration spill his guts for publication to George Will? Did anyone in the Obama administration vent on the record to Charles Krauthammer? I don’t think so.
What explains the difference? I think liberals are better team players than conservatives. I think they are less flaky.
I also think they are more secure — maybe less questioning is a better way to put it. Frankly, it’s easier for them to be that way. They get all the validation they need from the elites. Conservatives, especially if they work in a despised administration like Reagan’s or Trump’s, get their validation from less credentialed, less respected journalists and outlets.
This may partially explain why the ones with the biggest egos feel the need to turn to a Greider or a Kuttner, or others of whom one might expect them to be the most wary.
UPDATE: Here is what Steve wrote about Stockman in The Age of Reagan:
Stockman himself would later characterize his role as “the Trotsky of the supply-side movement.” He was touted as the youngest financial wizard since Alexander Hamilton, but ended up exciting Jeffersonian outrage.
In retrospect the signs of Stockman’s disharmony with Reagan should be have been more easily recognized, for the odyssey of David Stockman encapsulates the crosscurrents and confusions of the baby boom generation. Raised in a Republican family on a rural Michigan farm, Stockman got caught up in the radical fervor of the New Left when he arrived at Michigan State University in 1964, where he drew the attention and surveillance of the Michigan State Police. He intended to study agriculture and return to the farm; instead, he studied Marxism, joined the radical Students for a Democratic Society, burned his draft card, grew his hair long, bought a guitar so he could croon Bob Dylan songs to coeds, and eventually ended up at Harvard Divinity School, where God is barely a dying memory.
Stockman didn’t just strike the radical pose; he helped organize anti-Vietnam War protests, and participated in the most famous of the antiwar hijinks, the October 1967 March on Washington. Stockman downplays this period to some extent in memoir The Triumph of Politics, dismissing it as “my coffee house period.”
It was at Harvard, where Stockman went to avoid the draft, where he began to have second thoughts. About this time he encountered the anti-utopian works of Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann. “The scales fell from my eyes as I turned those pages,” Stockman recalled. Then in one of those strange twists of fate that seem to occur with regularity in American life, Stockman contrived to become the live-in babysitter for Pat Moynihan, who at that time was commuting back and forth from Cambridge to his post in the Nixon White House. This ended up providing Stockman with his entrée into the real world of politics.
Through Moynihan’s connections Stockman went to Washington in 1970 to work for Illinois Congressman John Anderson. Anderson was chairman of the House Republican Conference, and he installed Stockman, then just 25, as its executive director. Anderson, Stockman’s congressional patron, was a liberal Republican, as became evident when he ran for president as a left-leaning independent in 1980. (It was Stockman’s history with Anderson that originally brought Stockman to the Reagan campaign’s attention as they sought someone to be a stand-in for Reagan’s debate preparations in 1980.)
Though Stockman was thought to be an ideological conservative when he arrived on his own in the House, his outlook was close to Anderson’s. He voted with Anderson 80 percent of the time in the House. Stockman supported abortion, opposed school prayer, and joined the last outpost of Rockefeller Republicans, the Ripon Society, which by then was long past its peak influence. He boasted that he had not voted for Richard Nixon in 1972. In his bitter 1986 memoir, he wrote: “I would never be comfortable with what I viewed as the primitive, right-wing conservatism of my grandfather or Goldwater—or Reagan.” (In 1979 Stockman delivered an astute observation about another young Congressman who entered the House the same year he did—Albert Gore Jr. “I’d give him higher odds at the brass ring than his father, the former senator, ever had,” Stockman wrote at the time. “Unfortunately, he inhales populist nostrums as naturally as he breathes.”)
Ronald Reagan was not Stockman’s first choice for president in 1980. “I considered him a cranky obscurantist,” Stockman wrote, “whose political base was barnacled with every kook and fringe group that inhabited the vasty deep of American politics.” Stockman would later express various signs of contempt for Reagan, such as referring to Reagan’s old speeches and writings as “The Scrolls,” and comparing Reagan’s intellect to “a trench—narrow, but deep.” Stockman initially backed John Connally in 1980, but quickly switched to George Bush when Connally’s candidacy proved stillborn. As Martin Anderson reflected later, “Anyone who could love John Connally, the godfather of wage and price controls under President Nixon, couldn’t be all good.” Pat Moynihan quipped: “Stockman is peerless. I have never known a man capable of such sustained self-hypnotic ideological fervor. One day he arrives at Harvard preaching the infallibility of Ho Chi Minh. Next thing you know, he turns up in Washington proclaiming the immutability of the Laffer Curve.”
Everyone missed the signs of what the Wall Street Journal’s Robert Bartley identified as Stockman’s “intellectual instability” and “congenital restlessness,” and James Q. Wilson called “ideological promiscuity.” He professed to be a supply-side true believer, and he brought to the coming budget battle the energy and intellect that Reagan needed. (Though for all his learning at Michigan State and Harvard, he apparently never took a course in economics.)
As Martin Anderson described Stockman’s ascension, “He joined the administration with the enthusiasm of a new puppy, eager and urgent, bounding and leaping through the federal budget with wild-eyed passion. . . Stockman tuned out to be a superb leader for OMB.” Another enthusiastic endorsement came from Alan Greenspan: “He’s the brightest guy around.” Whereas the Reagan team initially thought budget cuts in the $13 to $18 billion range would be hard to get, Stockman came along with a plan to cut $41 billion out of the next budget, and more than $100 billion a year by 1986. Reagan and his top aides were dazzled. Stockman’s confidence and fiscal command erased any doubts that might have been raised by his erratic history. One is reminded of the (mistaken) description of the 41-year-old Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, convincing “older and slower minds” that the Dardanelles offensive would work.
Bannon’s political history doesn’t feature the wild swings that Stockman’s does. However, he appears to have been a conventional conservative from the late 1970s, when he concluded that President Carter had made a hash of things, until the late 2010s, when he concluded that President Bush had too. It was then, he says, that he turned against “the whole establishment.”