Is Steve Bannon Donald Trump’s Rasputin? Da!
It has become painfully obvious who is running the show at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And it ain’t the guy with the orange skin.
The moniker “President Bannon” has become common when describing the white nationalist serving as Donald Trump’s alt-right-hand man: former Breitbart honcho Steve Bannon. But that description, while capturing the ultimate power grab, doesn’t accurately encompass the totality of the influence.
Past U.S. presidents have given others a majority stake during their terms in office. When Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated with a stroke, his second wife, Edith, made decisions on which matters to bring to the bedridden president’s attention. Certainly George W. Bush seemed second-in-command to Vice President Dick Cheney and adviser Karl Rove. All presidents have had strong advisers who influenced their decision-making.
But Bannon is in a class by himself. He was pulling Donald Trump’s strings before the election, even long before he became the campaign’s CEO. As President Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon first sucks up to Trump then bends his ear with his theories and beliefs of white nationalism, his anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic bigotry, his desire for a global populist movement for “Judeo-Christian” values, his paranoia. Bannon writes (or at least dictates) the ill-thought-out executive orders; Trump just signs them. Bannon overrode other agencies to say that yes, green card holders also would be affected by the Muslim ban. Bannon now is ensconced at the National Security Council and is (by some reports) running the show there, too. According to a story in Foreign Policy:
Even before he was given a formal seat on the National Security Council’s “principals committee” this weekend by President Donald Trump, Bannon was calling the shots and doing so with little to no input from the National Security Council staff, according to an intelligence official who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution.
“He is running a cabal, almost like a shadow NSC,” the official said. He described a work environment where there is little appetite for dissenting opinions, shockingly no paper trail of what’s being discussed and agreed upon at meetings, and no guidance or encouragement so far from above about how the National Security Council staff should be organized.
Writing executive orders. Setting national security policy. Telling Trump what to do. To me, the best reason to think of Bannon as Rasputin is …
Rasputin was Russian.
Grigori Rasputin was a Russian peasant, mystic, and faith healer who gained total influence over the Russian ruler Nicholas II, and especially his wife, Alexandra. He may or may not have had success “treating” their son, Alexei, for hemophilia, even if it was nothing more than calming the young prince and discontinuing the aspirin his doctors had prescribed, which is an anti-coagulant. But Alexandra was convinced that Rasputin was a savior, so he completely ingratiated himself with the Romanov rulers, especially in the last year of their rule. This is from a Guardian review of a 2014 biography, Rasputin: A Short Life by Frances Welch:
Rasputin took advantage of the Russian tradition of the wandering peasant holy man, walking from village to village and reputed to have a direct connection with God (even Tolstoy, toward the end of his life, visited one). He also exploited the loneliness and isolation of the last Romanov couple, Nicholas and Alexandra – the tsar a polite, indecisive man and the tsarina a German-born and English-bred granddaughter of Queen Victoria (“The tsarina was as happy ordering chintzes from the latest Maples catalogue as she was cultivating mystics,” writes Welch), who never quite adjusted to Russian life or shed her accent (she communicated with Nicholas in English). …
The worse things got, the more Alexandra came to rely on Rasputin’s judgment. In the summer of 1915, with the war going poorly for Russia, Nicholas decided to leave the capital and assume command of the Russian army. This was a moderately bad idea militarily, but it was a disastrous idea for the government, which was left in Alexandra’s hands. The tsarina was devoted to Russia, but inexperienced, and blinded by her belief in Rasputin. Under their joint direction a series of catastrophic decisions were made, as experienced ministers who disliked Rasputin were dismissed in favour of non-entities and incompetents.
Hmm. “Experienced ministers who disliked Rasputin were dismissed in favor of nonentities and incompetents.” The “loneliness and isolation of the last Romanov couple”—Trump is said to have almost no friends outside his family. Does this sound familiar?
Writing in Salon, Heather Digby Parton also calls Bannon Trump’s Rasputin:
Indeed, Bannon’s “understanding” of the world is exactly what has people concerned. Bannon has become Trump’s most influential adviser and (along with Stephen Miller, a former aide to attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions) seems to be guiding Trump toward his goals, even if the president is clueless about the details or the ramifications. Bannon is a radical white nationalist whose main objective, as he has openly admitted, is to blow everything up — essentially to destroy the existing social and political order. What that leaves us with after the smoke clears is anyone’s guess, since he is notably vague on the endgame. …
You can see this perfectly manifested in the first week’s orders on (nonexistent) voter fraud, immigration and deportation policies. The ban on Muslims from certain countries has particular national security implications, in that experts believe it will be a splendid propaganda tool for ISIS and will drive a wedge between the U.S. and many of its allies — something that fits perfectly with Bannon’s overall “blow it up” philosophy.
That worldview is reflected in far right movements and parties in the U.K. (the UK Independence Party), Germany (the Alliance for Germany), the Netherlands (the Party for Freedom) and France (the National Front), among others, and some of these movements have also been cultivated by the Russian president Vladimir Putin. (There is evidence of his government’s attempts to meddle in European elections, in a similar fashion to what allegedly happened in the U.S. during the recent presidential campaign.) This is the worldview that is likely to inform President Trump on policy.
As Bannon said last summer, Trump is just a “blunt instrument” and at this point it doesn’t matter if he “gets it” or not. In his new role as Trump’s Rasputin, Bannon is now in a position to literally make his dreams of destruction come true.
We don’t have to go into similarities between the two men, starting with bad taste in clothes. Rasputin was an infamous womanizer and drunkard; Bannon has been married and divorced three times, and let’s not even speculate about his interactions with women (one ex-wife filed a charge of domestic violence, but it was dropped due to “witness unavailability”).
There is ample evidence of Bannon’s ties to, or at least sympathy with, Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in whom many in the alt-right movement believe they have found an ally. Bannon has described himself as a “Leninist.” Of course, many others in Trumpland, including past campaign officials, current White House staff, and Trump family members, have ties to Russia as well, especially financial ones.
A Washington Post story quotes from a November Bannon interview in the Hollywood Reporter. This is how Bannon described himself:
“Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in November, embracing the comparisons of him to those figures.
In the same interview, Bannon compared himself to a powerful aide to England’s Henry VIII — an aide who helped engineer a world-shaking move of his era, the split of the Church of England from the Catholic Church.
“I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter.
For anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s excellent trilogy on Cromwell, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the upcoming The Mirror and the Light, you know it doesn’t end well for Cromwell, who lost both the king’s favor and his own head.
Speaking of killing: No doubt you’ve heard accounts of how Rasputin was a hard man to kill. The story always makes for entertaining reading and has been the climax of several films about the Russian “mad monk.” Here’s the gist:
Worried about his influence on the royal family, many in the Russian aristocracy banded together to hatch a plot to kill Rasputin. Five men formed an assassination squad: Prince Felix Yusupov, Grand
Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, Dr. Stanislaus de Lazovert, Russian Army Lt. Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin, and Vladimir Purishkevich, a member of the Duma.
The night of Dec. 29, 1916 (or Dec. 16; with calendar changes, the date of Rasputin’s death is given as either Dec. 30 or Dec. 17, as Russia did not accept the Gregorian calendar until 1918), Rasputin was lured to Yusupov’s palace in St. Petersburg with the promise of sex with Yusupov’s wife, Irina, while the other four co-conspirators waited upstairs. The plan was to kill Rasputin after midnight and dispose of his body before dawn.
First, he was offered pastries and wine laced with potassium cyanide, but he refused to eat or drink anything. Yusupov ran upstairs for advice. When he returned, Rasputin started eating and drinking the poisoned fare, but it seemed to have no effect.
A panicked Yusupov went back upstairs to confer with his cohorts and returned with a gun. He shot Rasputin twice, once in the chest and once in the back. Rasputin fell. When Yusupov checked the body an hour later, Rasputin reportedly lunged at him and ran into the courtyard.
At this point, Purishkevich chased and shot at Rasputin, hitting him in the back and the head. Rasputin was dragged back inside, and Yusupov began hitting him with a dumbbell. But Rasputin remained alive, so the five bound him with rope and wrapped him in cloth. They drove him to the Great Petrovsky Bridge on the Malaya Nevka River, where they dumped him off the bridge into a hole in the frozen river, although one of his bloody boots got caught on the bridge.
Rasputin’s body was found on a few days later. An autopsy showed that no poison was found in his system; there were three bullet wounds in his chest, back and head; and there was water in his lungs, indicating that he had drowned (one version says the autopsy showed no water in his lungs).
The five conspirators were placed under house arrest and received many letters of congratulations. But Tsar Nicholas stopped the investigation and trial, knowing the harm it would do to the monarchy. Yusupov was exiled, and Pavlovich went to fight in World War I; both men survived the Russian Revolution and the war.
Many of these details about Rasputin’s killing come from the memoirs of Yusupov and Purishkevich. What is fact and what is legend about this assassination probably will never be known; many documents concerning Rasputin’s death were destroyed in the revolution.
But enough history, even if the account can never be fully corroborated. Which Republicans today are powerful enough—or even are willing—to take on Steve Bannon, as these Russian aristocrats (for selfish reasons of their own) did Rasputin? I wish to stress that I am not advocating anyone’s assassination in the literal sense.
But someone needs to have the decency and love of country to stop this guy. House Speaker Paul Ryan? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? Craven weasels. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham? HA! Perhaps the upcoming battle might be between Bannon and Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. That would be a fitting parallel.
There may not be much difference between calling Bannon “President Bannon” or “Trump’s Rasputin.” But his undue influence gets more dangerous with each passing day, and it needs to be at least curbed, if not stopped altogether.
On Quartz, author Anastasia Edel compares the Trump-Bannon approach to the Russian Revolution and offers a possible solution:
But if Bannon can model his strategy after Lenin’s, so too can Trump’s opponents heed the lessons of the Russian Revolution. …
We should remember, however, that revolutions are only able to take hold when the majority remains complacent. …
This “silent majority” is not necessarily in the Trump camp. They did not vote to end Affordable Care, Medicaid, and Social Security. They do not necessarily believe that the best government is one that’s designed by billionaires, for billionaires, or that climate change is a hoax. It is these voters who need to be mobilized to protect our democracy.
If there is any lesson from the Russian Revolution, it is that active engagement with the base is critical.
Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 5, 2017.