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.
The hosts—Brian Kilmeade, Steve Doocy, and Ainsley Earhardt—are, to put it mildly, not quite the McLaughlin Group. Doocy exists in a state of permanent, total exasperation. Think of Chandler on Friends at his most overwrought, and that is Steve Doocy, always. Kilmeade’s schtick is a jockish “regular Joe” who just doesn’t understand and makes constant appeals to “common sense.” His résumé includes a stint in the early 1990s as a commentator for the UFC, back when UFC matches could be held only in certain jurisdictions and resembled human cockfights. Earhardt knows not to talk when the men are talking. Her role is to be the homecoming queen who married the quarterback (both literally true in her case), but doesn’t let that stop her from feeling marginalized, victimized, and, unceasingly, vituperatively angry.
These people have substantial influence over the president’s policy agenda and day-to-day priorities. That is not a conspiracy theory but a demonstrable fact.
Consider what Trump ignores in favor of the angry man’s Today show. The American military and intelligence apparatus is of a size and power unparalleled in history. What they are capable of, civil libertarians are eager to remind us, borders on unfathomable. Policy expertise of every conceivable type and quality is available not only from the standing federal bureaucracy but from educational institutions, think tanks, and the private sector. For political guidance, the Executive Office of the President in the White House can be staffed, mostly without Senate confirmation, by whatever experts the president desires.
Trump wants none of it.
History provides few analogues of leaders so temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to the job that not even a master manipulator could influence him. Mary Queen of Scots was politically tone-deaf. Richard II, Shakespeare’s tragic fictional portrayal notwithstanding, was startlingly incompetent. King Leopold II of Belgium was utterly without a soul. But all of them, by surviving accounts, understood the job they occupied.
They grasped that any position of national leadership is too much for a single person. It is in the nature of executive governing that only through copious delegation can any significant amount of the issues facing the state be addressed. Accordingly, all leaders lean heavily on the guidance they consider trustworthy. Even if no Talleyrand lurks around the court whispering to Napoleon, all leaders have spouses, children, political allies, personal friends, and hired experts they can utilize.
Despite the persistent hopes and expectations of the media, Trump’s children have shown no interest in moderating him. His White House is a clown car of amateurs, opportunists, sycophants, soulless tycoons, and grifters.
But the argument that the agenda of Fox News is the same as any of these advisers’ agendas falls apart quickly. Fox & Friends, as with most morning shows, is too much a mishmash of issues mentioned superficially and abandoned quickly to constitute an agenda. The show is anger and resentment fired scattershot. Trump’s utter unpredictability and inability to show any consistent ideology beyond racism and xenophobia makes perfect sense when his trusted source is considered. The jumbled collage he stares at every morning—jumping from shot to shot like the editing of a Michael Bay film—couldn’t sum to coherent guidance even if it tried (which it doesn’t).
The biggest and most damaging lie Trump told in 2016 was the myth that he would surround himself with “the best people.” Had he done so, or even if the bar was lowered from “best” to “minimally competent,” his administration might be less harmful to American interests, simply by demonstrating some basic predictability and day-to-day consistency. Instead, the world greets each day wondering what the random policy generator will produce and who can tamp down the inevitable fires.
There is a power behind every throne, sometimes malignant and sometimes benevolent. But a hyper-inflated ego and fragmentary attention span have combined to convince Trump to forgo counsel. Post-Bannon he is making decisions based on the incoherent prattling of the televised news equivalent of a “morning zoo” crew. Lashing out in random anger at perceived enemies is bad enough for America’s elderly who consume Fox News, but such behavior from a national leader is, in American history, unprecedented.