The downfall of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s philosopher king

Steve Bannon, the American president’s combustible former chief strategist, has gone down in flames, accused of milking a political fund for personal gain. It’s not the end we’d have expected, says Jane Lewis.

Steve Bannon © JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images
(Image credit: © JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

News that Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has been arrested and charged with fraud is bound to have ruffled a few feathers. Bannon may be yesterday’s man in US politics, but he still sits at the centre of a global “spider’s web of rightwing activists and politicians”, says Tortoise Media. Along with three others, Bannon is accused of milking the $25m “We Build the Wall” fund, says The New Yorker – allegedly “siphoning” off more than $1m from donations made by hundreds of thousands of Americans, and “hiding payments through a shell company”. Bannon denies the charges.

A taste for the high life

For years, Bannon – a former naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker and documentary-maker – has been promoting himself as a “thought leader… deeply interested in history, philosophy and economic supply chains”. Yet if these charges are true, the “would-be philosopher king” would stand revealed as “just another grifter looking to exploit Trump’s supporters” for his own gain.

Bannon, 66, used to boast that he had no worries on that score. “I’ve made enough money,” he told The Times two years ago. “I’ve got not just f*** you money, I’ve got f*** everybody money… I could live any lifestyle I wanted.” And for a “self-proclaimed man of the people”, he clearly likes the good things in life – living “in a state of perpetual motion” prior to his arrest, “flying private” when possible and staying in luxury hotels around the world. When arraigned last week, Bannon looked “as though he had just come off a long Grateful Dead tour”. He’d actually been “summering” off the coast of Connecticut on a $28m yacht belonging to exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui.

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Bannon’s life has been “a succession of Gatsbyish reinventions”, says Bloomberg. Born in Richmond, Virginia, into a working-class family, he joined the US Navy after graduation and dates his political awakening to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, where, from a vantage point in the north Arabian Sea, he saw “how badly Jimmy Carter f***ed things up”.

Transferring to the Pentagon, Bannon took a masters in national security at Georgetown, before being lured by “the siren of Reagan-era Wall Street”. He specialised in media and entertainment mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs, before moving to Los Angeles to become a Hollywood wheeler-dealer.

Bannon’s move into libertarian politics gained him a sinister reputation he enjoyed playing up: “Darkness is good”, he liked to say. It also coincided with an emerging talent for tapping the really big money, says Forbes. Both Breitbart, an alt-right opinion site he founded, and later the Trump campaign were bankrolled by the billionaire Mercer hedge-fund dynasty. He was, however, always a divisive figure in Trump’s court and, when the president “cast his former Svengali aside” in 2018, the Mercers followed suit, says The Times. Since then, Bannon has “travelled the world” on “a quest for relevance and funding”.

There was always a chance that “a character as combustible as Bannon” would “end up in jeopardy”, says The Times. But it was easier to imagine him “going out in a blaze of glory” making “grand declarations about revolution”. In this instance, Trump is probably right: Bannon’s downfall is a “sad event”.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.