Steve Bannon was both an architect and a cheerleader for Donald Trump’s attempted coup. He also threatened to “go medieval” on the Jan. 6 House select committee probing the attack on the Capitol. “We are going to savage our enemies,” he promised. “We’re not playing games.”
But when it came down to it, Bannon didn’t even take the stand at his own trial for contempt of Congress after defying the committee’s subpoena. And a jury of Bannon’s peers took only a few hours to convict the man who probably relishes being called “Trump’s Rasputin.”
Steve Bannon is set to be sentenced for contempt of Congress on Friday, Oct. 21 at 9 a.m. ET. Get expert analysis in real time on our live blog.
Until Friday, it was all a nihilistic farce, wrapped in bluster and bullying.
When it came down to it, Bannon didn’t even take the stand at his own trial.
Clearly, Bannon knew Trump’s whole “Big Lie” was fake — and he thought it was hilarious. Even before the November 2020 election, Bannon assumed that Trump would refuse to accept defeat and claim fraud. In recently leaked audio from late October 2020, Bannon is heard declaring: “What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory. Right? He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s a winner.
“He’s just gonna say he’s a winner.”
He knew that Democratic mail-in votes would be counted late and said to laughter: “Trump’s going to take advantage of it. That’s our strategy.”
That was the strategy. And Bannon, the strategy guy, loved it; he reveled in the prospect of the lie. He was in on the joke.
Day after day on his podcast, he wove fantastic tales of revenge, and revanchist visions of a restored Trump presidency that would burn down America’s institutions and savage its enemies. Wrapped in a cloak of MAGA impunity, Bannon boasted about his grand plans. Critics could be discredited, opponents purged and prosecutors intimidated. Crimes? Fuggedabouti! They could be wiped away with a single pen stroke.
Until Friday afternoon.
To be sure, Bannon's conviction on two misdemeanor charges in federal court may result in only the bare minimum of accountability. An appeal seems certain. Even if that fails, his jail time is likely to be relatively brief, and he will undoubtedly try to weaponize his legal martyrdom. In the post-shame, tear-it-all down political world that he has done so much to cultivate, his disgrace will be fleeting.
But here is the point: He has been held accountable, and these small victories have been rare over the past seven years. It may be a relatively small victory for the Jan. 6 committee, but it is a victory nonetheless. And it is a reminder that in our system, Congress matters and that the rule of law applies to all — even to the ex-president’s evil genius.
Moreover, this time, Trump won’t be able to give Bannon a "Get Out of Jail” card. (Lest we forget, the last time, Bannon faced federal criminal charges for defrauding and fleecing the MAGA faithful, Trump pardoned him.)
After all his threats, Bannon’s lawyers offered no defense witnesses. And the MAGA sense of impunity was dented.
So, despite the bluster, bullying and bombast, Bannon may soon trade in his multishirt finery for an orange jumpsuit. The effect may be largely symbolic, but in this case symbolism matters.
Bannon’s MAGA world was built on swagger. But this time the bully stumbled.
After months of giving Congress the middle finger, Bannon caved, offering to testify. No one bought he ruse, and the judge eviscerated his case. After all his threats, Bannon’s lawyers offered no defense witnesses. And the MAGA sense of impunity was dented.
Which brings me to Sen. Josh Hawley.
Like Bannon, the Republican senator is an elitist who plays at demagoguery and anti-establishment populism. The graduate of Stanford and Yale has cultivated an image of manly strength captured in his infamous raised fist salute to Capitol protesters. (He is so proud of that photo that he actually started selling coffee cups with his profile emblazoned on them.)
But, as with Bannon, there are real-world limits to the playacting, and Thursday night we got a glimpse of the ambitious prep-school grad fleeing the mob he pretended to lead. As rioters entered the Capitol, Hawley is seen on tape running away.
For many, the video felt like comedic comeuppance. But it was also a reminder of what happens when bullies are called out. “The ‘tough guys’ are never tough when things get sporty,” tweeted retired Gen. Mark Hertling.
The laughter directed at Hawley won’t end his political career, and Bannon’s conviction doesn’t mark the end of MAGAism. It may not even be the beginning of the end. But the two stories remind us that bullies are vulnerable. Even the one down in Mar-a-Lago. Maybe this is how MAGA ends. Not with a bang, but with humiliation.