In the short (what is this, day 11?) run of the nascent Administration, this is clearly a team with a small group of central figures exerting enormous control and influence over both internal White House processes, and the larger federal government. In part, that's a side effect of the surprise election, lack of planning and poor execution of this inexperienced team. In part, it's a kind of paranoia and right wing driven authoritarianism not seen since the Nixon years.
And God knows, that went well, right?
In these moments, it becomes essential to try and figure out what we face by figuring out who we face; in Nixon's Washington, that meant people trying to figure out HR Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, Nixon's two top lieutenants, who served as the President's principal policy men, enforcers, and strategists. And similarly, we are starting to figure out this President's inner circle... with one rather glaring exception.
Let's dispense with the easy ones - no one should have trouble reading Reince Priebus or figuring out where he's coming from - this is the former head of the RNC, a loyalist to his friends (like Ryan and Walker) from Wisconsin, trying to regroup after the seismic shift brough about by Trump. Kellyanne Conway, while important, does not seem to have real power, and her main role seems to be the same "say anything" approach she used to put Trump over during the campaign, a role similarly true for Sean Spicer. And New York based journalists have been doing a yeoman's job digging into Jared Kushner, his family and his past to get a sense of where he's coming from as both adviser and family support.
And that just leaves Steve Bannon.
By both rumor and facts on the ground, it seems clear that Bannon is the central player in Trump's hierarchy - he's consolidated control, sidelined potential opponents, and made himself central to almost every aspect of Trump's affairs (at least the presidential ones). Everything, from the ham handed "travel ban" executive order, to the tetchy "inaugural crowd" nonsense, to his own "I'm in charge now" order injecting him into the inner workings of the NSC bears his fingerprints and the reinforces centrality of his role. It's also telling that he's already insulating and isolating himself from speaking directly to the media, except in carefully chosen and controlled limited settings.
While we have some sense of Bannon's background and interests, and some selected quotes that seem to suggest at least some opinions on the issues of the day... I don't think we have an answer to a really key question that's driving this Administration in its first steps: what does Bannon want? What is his ultimate goal? It's a key question that's been lost in the fog (and yes, flood) of fast moving events and what some say is deliberate spectacle. Indeed, one question hanging over Bannon most centrally is wondering just how carefully planned all this spectacle and noise actually is.
From what I can see, the determining of Bannon's motivations for now is largely speculation and guesswork, based largely on the slender collection of quotes and comments he made in the past, and third hand anecdotes (at best). He's opinionated and controlling, may or may not harbor sympathies for white supremacists (or share some of their views), believes in some right wing ideology or possibly in nothing at all. Anarchy, nihilism, fascism, or simply plain old Republicanism... who can tell?
In part, this vagueness is a good indication of where, just now, journalism is failing us - too much noise and heat and repetition of how Bannon is hated or feared, not enough clear facts or supportive detail. In part, I suspect, the real story here is that Bannon's "philosophy" is just what it appears - badly formed, incoherent, self contradictory and vague. But until we know what's real, and what isn't with Bannon, we don't in fact know what we're dealing with. And the reality is, for now, that many people are flying blind, guessing at his motives, with no real sense of where this is going or what's coming next.
In a sense, yes, the confusion only adds to Bannon's mystique and sense of power. He's on the inside, only he knows how this works, and he's not showing his cards. Perhaps. If that's his plan for holding onto power, though, my guess is it's not going to last long. At some point, Bannon will be knowable, his views apparent, his plans plain. And once we know what we're dealing with, well, then we can deal with it. And at that point, we'll know if the real threat Bannon poses is just how extreme his views and plans actually are... or if all this sound and fury signifies, my bet, very little and a lot less than it seems right now (I often wonder, for instance, where we'd be had Andrew Breitbart had lived - and just what he'd make of this sudden rise to power of Bannon).
In a moment driven largely by fear and intimidation - even as simple as fear of the unknown and the intimidation of unpredictable behavior - I wish fewer people were reacting in predictable ways, even knowing that being afraid and intimidated are the natural, expected reactions. Building up Bannon's mystique (have you looked at the guy?) serves nothing and no one except the man's surely already well inflated ego. It seems more useful to keep in mind that he's human, that they're making mistakes and doing things wrong and much of what's happening now simply builds the bad feeling that will come to haunt this Administration down the road. What little we do know is that Bannon-driven exercises aren't especially interested in building bridges, finding new allies, or trusting anyone beyond a small coterie of loyalists. A good CEO - never mind a great one - would realize the destructiveness of such tendencies to the larger organization. Trump seems blind, if not ignorant, to such realities.
No one, though, can afford to wait much longer to get Bannon figured out. The damage he's doing, by leaps and bounds and the pressing of pen to executive orders, is breathtaking. The damage he could yet do, even with some sense of resistance starting to build, is immense. "Know thine enemy." We are nowhere near that moment. Not yet. Time is running out... and he's just getting started.