With his appointment to the National Security Council and his grumbling that the media should “keep its mouth shut,” Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon appears to be wasting no time becoming exactly the dark Svengali many liberals feared when the champion of white nationalism’s White House role was announced. As Politico put it Sunday, “In the 10 days since Trump’s inauguration, Bannon—the former head of Breitbart News—has rapidly amassed power in the West Wing, eclipsing chief of staff Reince Priebus.” And sure, critics of the Trump administration are outraged about what Bannon has done so far and what he’s poised to do—but they’re also taking the time to point out that, in addition to being a favorite of neo-Nazis, Bannon does not exactly cut a dapper figure.
Witness a photo from this past weekend, in which the president and a team of advisers are gathered in the Oval Office. They’re all men, and they’re all white, to be sure, but only Bannon is wearing baggy khakis and a sport coat. Elsewhere, his beard is frequently unshaven, and his clothes are often not the fancy suits of the elite but the more down-to-earth-looking separates of populism. The overall effect isn’t so much “evil mastermind” as “overgrown frat boy.” With his Goldman Sachs background, Bannon can likely afford Brooks Brothers or some other pricey heritage brand, but you get the feeling he wants Trump supporters to think he shops at Sears. The New York Times has described his style thusly: “In top physical shape as a young Navy officer, and for years wearing the banker’s uniform of expensive suits, Mr. Bannon has in recent years sported flannel shirts and cargo pants. With a paunch and a sometimes scraggly beard, Mr. Bannon has a rugged look that Stephen Colbert described as ‘Robert Redford dredged from a river.’ ”
In recent days, Twitter users have been taking a page out of Colbert’s book and hurling further epithets at Bannon’s appearance and manner of dress. One writer and comedian went on a particular tear this weekend, putting together what he called “75 Tweets About Steve Bannon’s Rancid Nazi Face.”
People seemed to find some measure of solace in insulting Bannon on Twitter. As Twitter user Johnny McNulty put it, mocking him “may not be what stops this but y’know what? It’s fun.” It also led to some fair criticism: The point that no woman or person of color would dare dress so slovenly for a job in the White House is a worthy observation about power and privilege. But the jury’s still out on whether this discussion is at all productive. It may feel good to mock Bannon, to point out that he’s just as disrespectful about the norms of dressing for work as he is about those of democracy, but maybe some triage is called for: Who cares about that when we have to stop him from doing things like banning all Muslims from America?
As for whether it’s just liberals blowing off steam, there’s also the principle that making fun of people’s superficial attributes—even if those attributes are Trump’s Cheeto-colored skin or tiny hands or, in this case, how out of shape Bannon might be—is never fair game. Remember “they go low, we go high”? What if this is exactly the kind of thing that further divides the right and the left? Much of this discussion retreads the conversation about Trump’s tweets—are they a savvy distraction, or aren’t they? It’s not a question we ever really solved, come to think of it.
The conversation around Bannon’s clothes reminds me a little bit of the meme about two photos of Drake, one in which he’s dressed to the nines, one where he’s in sweats, captioned, “Get you a man who can do both.” Maybe the American public is just confused because we’ve never encountered such an effective “man who can do both,” where both is “look ridiculous” and “push through hateful policy.” Shouldn’t the former prevent him from doing the latter? If someone’s maybe a Nazi, isn’t he supposed to at least dress well? Like all things Trump, this is unprecedented, and Americans are struggling for the appropriate reaction.
And maybe all of this is beside the point. Bannon has said that he wants to destroy the state, the establishment, basically much of what we hold dear about this country. He’s not dressing for workplace success, to climb the ladder, to score points with the boss—he’s dressing for the apocalypse.