The idea of a Machiavellian manipulator influencing the affairs of state from the shadows is as old as politics; both history and fiction are littered with examples. Edward the Confessor had Harold Godwinson. Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell. Nicholas II had Rasputin. Richard Nixon had Henry Kissinger. Donald Trump had Steve Bannon. Now, with Bannon out, we enter the uncharted waters of having a president whose chief strategist is the television. No staff member has replaced Bannon; the new power behind the throne is Fox & Friends.
Steve Bannon seemed perfectly cast for this role. He is utterly without personal appeal, but his ambition and skills at manipulating the gullible are limitless. His cadaverous, permanently sweaty presence in Trump’s shadow even bore a resemblance to Brad Dourif’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Gríma Wormtongue whispering evil into the ear of King Théoden in the Lord of the Rings films. Bannon’s brand of advice was rooted deeply in the foulest politics—white nationalism, conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism. That is what this president finds appealing, so he chose an oracle accordingly.
Bannon’s guidance was both appalling and coherent. So when he abruptly departed the Trump orbit in August, it appeared to leave the president at a loss for advice. In hindsight, the transition plan to a new power behind the throne was already underway.
Eric Alterman wrote in The Nation on August 10, a week before Bannon’s exit, that Trump was increasingly taking not only Twitter cues but also actual policy proposals from Fox News. Did Bannon resent his role’s being supplanted by growing “executive-time” Fox News morning binges, supplemented by evenings with America’s drunk uncle, Sean Hannity?
Future historians will summarize what happened to early-21st-century America simply by noting that the Cardinal Richelieu of our time is Steve Doocy. It is bad enough that the president of the United States, with limitless access to expertise and the institutional knowledge of a vast bureaucracy at his disposal, chooses instead to turn to cable news.
Morning shows are a necessary evil. Viewers need the news sugarcoated in a way that will not lead to despair. So it is, at its best, news with the edges polished. The delivery is caffeinated, unbearably upbeat, and rapid. It is news for people who can’t handle the news quite so early in the day.
But Trump doesn’t just watch any morning cable; he turns to Fox & Friends, the “News for Dummies” show on a news network already substantially oriented toward dummies.
For the unfamiliar, Fox & Friends is the morning show for the authoritarian-follower personality type that runs daily at 6 am Eastern time. It combines chirpiness with the endless reserves of anger and perceived victimhood that defines the Fox News brand.