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It appears that President Trump’s appetite for chaos has its limits, which may be a restraint on top adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
On Wednesday, a senior White House official confirmed to Yahoo News that Trump was displeased by the disorderly rollout of his executive order temporarily banning refugees and immigrants from seven Middle East nations, as CNN first reported. White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, the official said, would now have more control over the process of drafting and circulating executive orders for wider review before release in the future.
Bannon and policy adviser Stephen Miller were widely reported to have drafted the refugee executive order and released it without following the regular process of interagency review, catching much of the government and the Congress off-guard and stranding some refugees at airports who had gone through lengthy vetting processes already.
Bannon is a fan of ancient Chinese military strategy literature, such as Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” which emphasizes the importance of using secrecy and trickery, as well as creating confusion, to accomplish one’s goals. A former colleague said it was his “bible.”
“All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tzu wrote in his 5th century tract. “Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”
There has been great speculation about the degree to which Trump and Bannon are creating chaos intentionally, as part of a strategy to confuse opponents and discredit the media, or just making things up as they go.
“There is no plan,” wrote a former colleague of Bannon’s, conservative writer Ben Shapiro. Shapiro mocked the many articles that have attributed evil genius to Bannon.
However, journalist Michael Wolff, who has spent extended time with Bannon, said he is “smart, considerate, interesting, someone who has given a lot of thought to everything he’s now saying.”
Regardless, the puzzlement over Trump’s goals could be in its own way the product of a Sun Tzu-like strategy. One Chinese commentary on Sun Tzu wrote that “the whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.”
Trump’s actions so far have certainly followed a pattern that matches Sun Tzu’s writings, and some other ancient Chinese strategy literature.
“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt,” Sun Tzu wrote.
Of course, much of this may just be that Trump entered the presidency less prepared for the job than any other occupant of the office and has made a career of being unpredictable and outrageous.
Trump has unleashed a flurry of executive orders in his first two weeks in office, and has continued to program the TV-driven news cycle with provocative comments on Twitter and in other venues.
His executive orders have been signed with little advance warning to the press and the public, and the actual text of these orders has often not been released until hours after the signing, leading to speculation and sometimes overreaction.
The executive order on refugees this past weekend stranded hundreds of refugees and others at airports across the country, and created mass confusion over whether green card holders could enter or leave the country. The weekend generated an avalanche of bad press for Trump: An Iraqi interpreter who worked with the American military was detained for 19 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York before being released; a Christian family fleeing Syria who had visas and green cards were stopped at Philadelphia International Airport and sent back to the Middle East. Massive protests erupted at airports around the country.
Trump’s actions so far have repeatedly provoked cries of outrage from Democrats and the press, leading many neutral observers and certainly Trump’s supporters to view the president’s opposition and the media as hysterical.
“The Trump strategy, conscious or not, is to invite overreaction — to program for it,” Wolff wrote recently. In other words, even the seeming ineptitude of the temporary refugee ban, which many say is a de facto Muslim ban, might have been strategic. Nothing in Bannon’s background or temperament suggests he’d be bothered by a little disorder if it helped frame Trump as protecting the country from terrorism and made his opponents look like they were too quickly dismissing the threat.
There are other elements in ancient Chinese military literature that might shed some light on Trump’s actions or provide clues to Bannon’s tactics. There are numerous references in a collection of sayings called the “The Thirty-Six Stratagems” to the usefulness of surprise and misdirection.
“Stomp the grass to scare the snake,” it says. “Do something unaimed but spectacular to provoke a response of the enemy, thereby giving away his plans or position, or just taunt him. Do something unusual, strange, and unexpected as this will arouse the enemy’s suspicion and disrupt his thinking.
“Feign madness but keep your balance,” it says. “Hide behind the mask of a fool, a drunk, or a madman to create confusion about your intentions and motivations.”
Certainly Trump’s first two weeks in office have created a constant guessing game about whether there is any strategy behind such bizarre behavior as disputing the size of his inauguration crowd despite clear photographic evidence, alleging widespread voter fraud without evidence, and bragging about himself in front of a CIA memorial to slain officers. Perhaps those were Trump’s natural instincts, but reports indicate Bannon encouraged him to follow his impulses.
Bannon and Trump clearly see the press as the easiest and most obvious foil for them as they transition from outsiders into becoming the establishment.
Another saying from “The Thirty-Six Stratagems” advises a warrior to “hide a knife behind a smile.”
“Charm and ingratiate yourself with your enemy. When you have gained his trust, move against him in secret,” it says.
While many Democrats may consider Bannon their foe, there is one prominent Republican leader who Bannon has referred to as his enemy: House Speaker Paul Ryan.
When Bannon ran Breitbart News, he would often refer to Ryan as “the enemy” on conference calls, and he used the Breitbart platform to run a steady stream of anti-Ryan content. One former Breitbart employee said Bannon viewed Ryan as part of a “one world government” conspiracy.
During the presidential campaign, Trump clashed more often and more violently with Ryan than with any other GOP leader. But late in the campaign, Ryan made peace with Trump, and since the election, Ryan has been supportive of the new president. He and Bannon have reportedly even gotten along well. But if Bannon’s fondness for ancient Chinese military strategy is any indication, Ryan may want to watch his back.
The stratagems also advise one to “slough off the cicada’s golden shell.” In other words, “mask yourself” and “masquerade.”
Those who know Bannon told Yahoo News that he has embodied this kind of behavior. One former colleague of Bannon’s at Breitbart described him as a chameleon who was good at charming those he wanted to influence — such as Texas billionaire Ed Bass, who gave him control of an experimental environmental project called Biosphere 2 in the early ’90s — but was abusive to those under him, and whose stated ideals would shift with the wind.
“He’s obsessed. He’s driven. He’s got huge amounts of energy, and he’s capable of really turning on the charm when he wants to,” the former colleague said.
Bannon would “berate and bully” those under him “into submission” all at the same time, said Kurt Bardella, who also worked at Breitbart with Bannon.
“Profanity-laced tirades were daily occurrences,” Bardella told Yahoo News.
But Julia Jones, who worked with Bannon on film scripts in Los Angeles for about 15 years up until 2008, said that while she would call her friends to complain about his angry outbursts, and called him Attila the Hun in her diary, he wasn’t vindictive and he was loyal to his friends. “I genuinely liked him,” she said. “I miss him.”
There has been much discussion of Bannon’s worldview recently and in the past several months. His comments in 2014 over Skype to a group gathered at the Vatican have drawn particular attention. Bannon said America and the West were “at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict” with radical Islamic terrorism, and said there was a need for a “church militant” that would “not just stand with our beliefs, but … fight for our beliefs.”
Bannon often talks about the demise of the Christian West. Other reports say he is deeply skeptical of China and sees it as an outright enemy that the U.S. has propped up for too long. A few years ago, Bannon was talking more often about the national debt.
“Accumulated debt at all levels of our society pose an immediate, existential threat to America,” Bannon said at a Tea Party rally in New York City in 2010. In 2011, Bannon said in Orlando that the political establishment “lacks the political courage” to deal with the national debt.
But Trump has promised to do nothing to change the entitlement programs that Bannon identified then as driving the long term debt: Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. These are the programs that Speaker Ryan first proposed to reform almost a decade ago, which helped bring him to political prominence.
And Bannon in November spoke not of debt, but of wanting to push a $1 trillion infrastructure spending program.
“The conservatives are going to go crazy,” Bannon told Wolff. “With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution.”
Bannon is driven as much by ambition as he is by ideas, if not more so, his former Breitbart colleague said.
“I think he’s mostly just a competitive person who lives to beat people, and that’s a much more powerful motivating force in his life than any ideological or intellectual beliefs,” the former colleague said.
Bannon did not respond to two emails seeking comment.
Bannon’s biggest challenge may be to follow Sun Tzu’s advice to keep a low profile. “O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible; through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands,” Sun Tzu wrote.
It’s possible that the latest reports of Priebus’ increased power are an effort by Bannon to reduce the focus on him. He has become less visible whenever his name has been mentioned repeatedly in the press over the past few months.
And yet it is Bannon’s ego that may be his downfall in the end, for he has failed to follow Sun Tzu’s warnings against self-promotion. In his conversation with Wolff, Bannon implied that he is the real genius behind Trump — a puppet master pulling strings — when he compared himself to Henry VIII’s adviser Thomas Cromwell just over a week after the election.
“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease,” Sun Tzu wrote. “Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage.”
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