There is an allure to believing in the man behind the curtain, the figure lurking in the Oval Office and manipulating the president like a marionette. For Donald Trump, that man is Steve Bannon, the former chairman of right-wing Breitbart News who shaped Trump’s nationalist appeal on the campaign trail and is converting the rhetoric into public policy one aggressive executive order at a time.
The political-svengali-turned-special-adviser role was played in recent years by Karl Rove for George W. Bush and David Axelrod for Barack Obama. Vice President Dick Cheney and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett often played shadow president. Sometimes called “evil geniuses” by foes, these advisers typically have a close bond with their presidents and can channel the people who put them in the White House. The term “kitchen cabinet,” trusted pals outside the normal decision-making structures, dates back to Andrew Jackson.
Bannon, then, is a familiar figure in some ways, but the question now rattling around the Swamp is whether his reach has extended beyond his predecessors. His vision can be found in Trump’s early moves more than that of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, the establishment-tied former Republican National Committee chairman. Bannon reportedly cowrote Trump’s “America First” inaugural address and pushed the blizzard of executive orders — including one Friday blocking entrants to the U.S. from seven countries, along with all refugees. And as protesters stormed airports across the nation, Trump signed an order Saturday organizing his National Security Council that established, in governmentese, just how critical Bannon is.
The 63-year-old former naval officer has a formal seat on the high-ranking Principals Committee, along with the secretary of state and other cabinet members. The director of national intelligence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not have such a formal role, as in past administrations, though they can attend as they like. “We don’t really have someone who is the equivalent of Bannon who has ever been at this kind of table,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and expert on political communication.
Bannon himself defies precedent. He joined the Trump campaign after heading up Breitbart News, an outlet that often channeled the energy of the white nationalist “alt-right” and gleefully attacked Republicans. He was a Goldman Sachs banker and Sarah Palin documentarian. His early investment in Seinfeld continues to pay dividends with every Festivus rerun. He also appears to be the first White House official to be depicted by Saturday Night Live as the Grim Reaper.
Rove and Axelrod, who came up through party politics, were the communications pros in their respective White Houses, divining and shaping public opinion in service of their bosses’ agendas. Bannon’s profile, at this point, appears broader, not least because his sharp use of language and bomb-throwing nature mesh well with Trump.
Bush excluded Rove from NSC meetings. Axelrod and then–Press Secretary Robert Gibbs attended at times, a fact noted by the Trump White House to justify Bannon’s seat. But Axelrod, writing in a CNN column, said he was merely a “silent observer” who would occasionally be called upon to explain the thinking behind a presidential decision. He rejected comparisons to Bannon’s “unprecedented” role in shaping national security and foreign policy.
But in many ways Bannon’s seat at the table is the natural culmination of political strategists’ rising White House clout, says Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer. “Why not let them sit in the meeting?” he says. “Why go through the pretense of not having them there?” In the age of the permanent campaign, the political strategist is always going to be one of the last people in the room with the president on a big decision. But Trump is still the unpredictable decider.