Whenever I think about Steve Bannon, I see the above photo. Taken by Jeremy Liebman, it accompanies a Bloomberg article describing Bannon as “the most dangerous political operative in America.” It was written in 2015, but made the rounds again before the election. Back then, I saw it and thought, “This guy’s going to vault the ramparts?” Now I look at it and think, “We lost to a Ralph Steadman drawing.”
There’s something about this photo in particular that reminds me, against my will, of Terry Richardson. Maybe it’s Bannon’s blank, vacuous stare, as if the photographer had caught him mid-(probably very racist) thought. Maybe it’s the washed-out color palette, or maybe it’s that penumbral effect around his head and shoulder. This picture is like an inverse of Richardson’s American Apparel ads; it shows the objectifier, not the objectified. Instead of a billboard showing a wan young woman in a leotard, we get the man who listlessly ogles her on a billboard while his car is stopped in traffic.
The internet loves to dunk on Steven Bannon’s appearance. His skin is liver-spotted and pallid. His eyes conjure Droopy Dog coming off a 36-hour amphetamine odyssey. He has an alcohol-distended stomach that is probably weirdly taut. When I look at him, I think of Dave Chapelle: “Look at you, Chuck — you look sick, man.”
Paul Begala said that politics was show business for ugly people. This implies that at least the ugly people get dressed up, which isn’t always the case. Easy as it is to mock Bannon’s appearance, I get the feeling he couldn’t care less. He’s a Hollywood guy, after all (where, per Bobcat Goldthwait, he once wrote a rap musical based on Titus Andronicus set during the LA riots; no shit). He understands that the people on screen get the recognition while the dumpy guy in the studio pulls the levers. Bannon is personally uninterested in the mundane pageantry and posturing of politics in a way that, if he were not a bilious white nationalist, would be almost refreshing.
This is not to say he doesn’t understand the aforementioned pageantry. I don’t subscribe to the pearl-clutching theories that Bannon is some sort of Machiavellian super-genius, but I do believe he knows the value of a dog and pony show. Now Bannon has an imbecile at his disposal — a gibbering, narcissistic lunatic just as enraptured by spectacle as the rest of us. The nihilistic, racist, xenophobic garbage that Bannon, via Trump, will shove on our country already sickens and depresses me. It’s also forced me to once again reevaluate the photo above. Bannon, even with his potbelly, his alcoholic’s nose, his fucking cargo shorts — is tremendously powerful. Potent. Terrifying. He is rumpled, furious America rising unsteadily from the couch, coming straight for us.