What is it about Steve Bannon? What is it about this slithering snake of a man, this fact-free fear monger, this red-jowled anarchist that he somehow has the one thing that nobody since that unscrupulous Queens slum-lord, Fred Trump, has had: the ear of The Donald? Why Steve Bannon?
After all, Trump doesn’t listen to anyone else. Everyone in Trump’s life, bimbos included, seems like they have to weather a spit-flecked tantrum or engage in routine bowing and supplication before he’ll bother to learn your name, or at least to go in front of the press and lie belligerently on His behalf. The only way Kelly Ann Conway knew how to get Trump’s ear was by making sure her words ended up on Fox at 3 am, when she knew he’d be watching. You don’t actually picture Trump listening to her; you picture him pouting when she tries to take away his phone.
I’m reminded of a crude joke told at a Trump roast by . . . it had to be Jeff Ross. I can’t tell this joke on a family blog (that is — because my family are likely the only ones reading it), but let’s just say the punch line had to do with Trump being the only person who could sexually arouse Trump. It also seems to me as I think about it that the only person Trump listens to is probably Trump.
Except for Steve Bannon. Bannon — who has recently been appointed to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the entire Supreme Court, who’ve all been reassigned to work as cocktail waiters in one of Trump’s casinos — is Trump’s political hit-man. Now, I get it — every president has to have a hit-man. Bush had Karl Rove. Obama had Rahm Emmanuel. Hillary Clinton had Anthony Weiner (self-inflicted hits). These men were known for having political savvy, electoral influence, much-photographed genitalia, and the moral scrupulousness of carnivorous fish. Next to Steve Bannon, these guys look like Malala. Plants wither when Bannon enters a room. College students demand safe spaces. And — most curious of all — Donald Trump listens. I guess that when your vision of modern America already resembles one of the “Saw” movies, the only person in the country who can tell you a terrifying enough bedtime story to keep you interested is probably Bannon. He’s sort of like Darth Vader’s bad conscience.
This is doubly strange because –as I said — Donald Trump doesn’t really listen to anyone else. In fact, I think the thing that bothers me most about Trump is that, for a man who says he speaks for the people, he is almost pathologically incapable of listening to them. Listening is fundamentally an act of patience and of humility, and Donald Trump I believe actively campaigned against both qualities, calling them un-American, a “disgrace,” and unlikely to bring jobs back.
When was the last time Donald Trump ever mentioned a private citizen, unless it was to publicly berate her? Barack Obama’s speeches were peppered with references to ordinary Americans. His campaign stops were built around fish fries, diners, and rib joints. His early days in the White House were often bookended by trips to Ben’s Chilli Bowl. Back in 2009 a reporter asked the newly sworn-in president what he missed most about private life. His answer: being able to listen to ordinary Americans outside the “bubble” of the Oval Office. Every evening, President Obama read ten letters from normal Americans.
For all the messiah-worship of his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama was a public servant. He’d worn out his shoes on the sidewalks of Chicago as a community organizer. Later on he did the same thing as a state senator. Neither job was glamorous. But both afforded him the chance to get to know people with very different lives than his own. These experiences shaped his time in the White House. He learned how to listen to these people because he worked for them.
Donald Trump has never worked for anyone in his life. That would show weakness. And it was part of his appeal. Nor was he a public servant. This too was part of his appeal. The enduring image of Donald Trump’s campaign is not of him shaking hands and talking with voters in real-life situations, but of him doing photo ops in airplane hangars in front of staged backdrops at his massive rallies. He’s not a public servant listening to voters; he’s a celebrity meeting fans. Unlike Barack Obama, Trump has very few of these real voters’ stories to guide his decision making in the Oval Office. Because the only time he was listening to voters was when they were cheering for him.
But that’s how it is for a narcissist, isn’t it? When your entire soul is a dark, sucking vortex that needs love, love, love all the time for me, me, me, there’s not a lot of space left over to listen to anyone else’s opinions.
We’ve all met these people before. They’re self-centered enough that they can’t grasp that other people besides themselves have opinions or feelings. It’s empathy that’s missing. Not the far-left, Brown University, give-everyone-a-trigger-warning sort of empathy, but the Atticus Finch version: the simple ability to climb into another’s skin and see the world from his point of view.
Make no mistake, to be president you need to possess a massive ego. You have to be self-confident almost beyond a normal person’s ability to comprehend. But you also have to listen, and listening requires it’s own kind of confidence — the confidence to hear criticism, to allow the camera to focus on someone else for a moment. No one would ever confuse Barack Obama with a back-slapping pol along the lines of Bill Clinton or even George W. Bush, but you always got the feeling that if you sat down and had a beer with him and talked to him about why you thought his educational policy was crap, he’d listen to what you had to say — even if he would probably counter with a menacing clarity.
With Trump, it’s not so much that he wouldn’t listen, it’s that he wouldn’t know how. It’s not in his genetic make-up. Listening and empathy both require a strength that Donald Trump does not possess. He is good at reading people, at finding their weaknesses. He can get the better of them. But this isn’t really listening; it’s sizing people up. And he can certainly listen to a crowd chant his name. But saying that Donald Trump can “listen” to people simply because he can lap up their adoration is like saying a heroin addict is self-reliant because he can always find drugs. Trump doesn’t listen.
Years ago, when I started teaching, I worked in a very poor school district where many students had inherited a legacy of academic failure. Frustrated by their rude behavior and lack of interest, I developed a belief that neither they nor their families cared much about improving their lives. How else, I thought, to explain their poor performance in school, their stubborn desire to remain what they were? I was, in short, equal parts arrogant and ignorant.
But as I began doing the job of a public servant and interacting with these families, I learned that most of them shared goals for their children that were strikingly similar to my own: a better future, more opportunities, fulfillment and happiness. In that work, I found myself taken aback at how lucky I’d been in my own life, and how baffled I’d be if I’d run into the obstacles many of my students’ families took for granted: disease, poverty, systemic racism, or simply not knowing the key that opens society’s doors. My interactions with these children and families fundamentally changed my view of our society. To me, this is what public service is all about: the ability to listen in order to understand that your fellow humans — whether they’re adversaries, or constituents, or the families in the community — are just that: fellow human beings, with stories of their own and points of view that are different from yours, but no less valid and no less worthy of being heard at the top.
But Donald Trump can’t do any of that. Born rich, he’s never had practice listening to other people except to get the better of them.
Seems to me that’s exactly what he has done.