The master of the court of King Henry VIII was a cunning conspirator who tore up the old order in service of a self-indulgent king who forced a breakaway religion on his subjects. Was he serving his own needs, an overarching plan? That’s what we should ask about Bannon.
Like much of the world, I’ve been trying to understand Stephen Bannon, the chief strategist and guiding force behind the chaos of Donald Trump’s bizarre presidency — chaos by design.
He reportedly compared himself to Vladimir Lenin, the murderous architect of the Soviet Union — not his politics, but his goal to blow up the state.
“Darkness is good,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” I think he cited that villainy all-star list to throw people off. In the same interview, he made another, more accurate comparison: “I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.”
It’s well known that Trump doesn’t read. But Bannon is a voracious reader — of philosophy, theory and the hinge moments in history. Cromwell, who altered the course of the Western world in ways still being felt today, was Bannon in feathered Tudor finery.
To the Irish, the name Cromwell still sends shivers down the spine, a name associated with a rampage of terror and slaughter in Ireland. But that was Oliver Cromwell, a distant relative.
Readers of Hilary Mantel’s revisionist novels, and viewers of the BBC series, know Thomas Cromwell as a brooding, brilliant master of the court of King Henry VIII, from 1532-40. The real Cromwell was a cunning conspirator who tore up the old order in service of a self-indulgent, wife-killing king who forced a breakaway religion on his subjects.
Or was he serving his own needs, an overarching plan? That’s the question we should ask about Bannon. Like Cromwell, the Trump-whisperer in the West Wing is brilliant and cunning, and full of contradictions. He appears to be a self-hating baby boomer, member of the Harvard Business School/Goldman Sachs elite, Hollywood director and journalist.
Cromwell was known for two things. First, he helped to orchestrate the annulment of the king’s marriage to his longtime wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that Henry could marry his mistress. When the Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t grant a divorce, Henry declared himself the Supreme Head of a renegade Church of England.
Cromwell’s second major initiative was to ensure that the church founded by a serial killer would wipe out the old order. He was responsible for the destruction of monasteries and relic-laden cathedral alcoves. Monks and nuns who refused to take an oath to Henry were murdered.
Bannon has been busy trying to destroy the existing order. Trump’s attacks on a free press, an independent judiciary and civil society are disrupters out of Bannon’s playbook. Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower had the smell of Bannon’s gunpowder.
He recently vowed a daily fight for “deconstruction of the administrative state.” This is a Cromwellian task aimed at overturning not just the traditional work of the federal government, but also the existing international order of treaties, trade pacts and alliances that has kept the world relatively safe since World War II.
But Bannon should remember what happened to his historical doppelgänger. Henry turned on him. Thomas Cromwell was executed in 1540, without trial, and his severed head was displayed on a spike on London Bridge.