TIME magazine named Donald Trump “Person of the Year” for 2016, and we could have done the same. But this would have been to over-simplify a victory that millions of Americans believe has brought this nation back from the brink of destruction, and has done so against what seemed impossible odds. In the just completed election campaign, a vicious partisan press substituted character assassination for reporting and joined malicious Democrats in demonizing Trump and his supporters as racists, sexists, Islamophobes, xenophobes and religious bigots, while dismissing the candidate as “unfit to sit in the White House.”
From the outset Trump distinguished himself as a self-confident warrior who refused to be “politically correct.” Trump won the primaries and eventually the election because, unlike Republicans before him, he refused to be intimidated by leftist witch-hunters and their reputation-burning attacks.
But Trump’s very fearlessness, self-confidence and disregard for progressive bigotry – his indisputable strengths – came with a downside that threatened to undo him. Even as he responded to the defamation from whatever quarter it came, his campaign message was pushed into the background until it was in danger of being altogether lost. Questions began to be raised and not only by opponents. Could Trump be presidential? Could he stick to a winning message? Lackluster polling numbers sparked a panic among feckless Republicans who began demanding that Trump be replaced as the nominee. Even in the camp of the faithful, supporters began to wonder if their candidate was too thin-skinned and undisciplined to win, and – equally important - whether such a strong-willed individual could listen to a voice that was not his own. Could he ever trust and then avail himself of a counselor, who would focus his message and keep him on course?
The answer came within four months of the election when Trump, then trailing in the polls, shook up his team and made Stephen K. Bannon the CEO of his campaign. Within weeks the Trump ship began to turn around, then move forward until the final long push through the battleground states where the shape of a presidential winner at last came into view. While Donald J. Trump on his own had already changed the political landscape, if he had not hired Steve Bannon as his chief executive officer, it is doubtful he would be president-elect today.
A former naval officer, investment banker, movie producer, documentary filmmaker, and publisher of the online news giant Breitbart.com, Bannon was a kindred spirit to Trump and also a complementary one. “I come from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats,” Bannon said in a Bloomberg Businessweek profile last year. “I wasn’t political until I got into the service and saw how badly Jimmy Carter f---ed things up. I became a huge Reagan admirer. Still am. But what turned me against the whole establishment was coming back from running companies in Asia in 2008 and seeing that [George W.] Bush had f---ed up as badly as Carter. The whole country was a disaster.” Explaining his disdain for the Bushes, Bannon said: “[They are] not as cinematic as the Clintons, with their warlords and Russian gangsters and that whole cast of bad guys, Bush is more prosaic. It’s really just grimy, low-energy crony capitalism.”
In a sense Bannon and Trump were brothers under the skin. They both went to Ivy League schools (Trump to Wharton at U. Penn and Bannon to Harvard) and yet both had an affinity for working Americans, the blue-collar voters who eventually put Trump over the top. Both were businessmen who turned to politics to repair the damage they saw being done to their country. Both were passionate patriots, distressed over America’s progressive decline, determined to restore the values and virtues that had made it a symbol of liberty and national greatness to the world at large. Both were instinctively combative and not shy about using political speech as a blunt instrument to counter the attacks of the politically correct. Both were fed up with the accommodations Republicans had made to the destructive agendas of a Democratic Party that had become captive to its leftwing.
To this shared outlook, Bannon brought crucial additions. First, unlike Trump he had for decades been involved as a conservative partisan in the political and cultural wars that traditional Republicans were losing. He knew the terrain and its pitfalls as Trump, whose careers were in the popular culture and business could not.
Second, Bannon brought Trump his experience as an entrepreneur who in Breitbart.com had built one of the largest media sites in the world. Unlike others, Bannon was never horrified by candidate Trump’s stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed though he saw the need for more discipline in its contents. Unlike Trump’s critics, Bannon understood how important it was for the candidate to break free from the mainstream media filter that was busy crucifying him. With a feed that reached 40 million followers, Trump was able to speak directly to a larger audience than the hostile networks or the cable news shows could provide. Bannon helped Trump narrow his Twitter focus and become more effective as a candidate.
He also helped to persuade him to use teleprompters at his public events. This limited the degree to which the news media could distort his remarks and turn them against him. The teleprompters helped Trump to stay on message although the impulsive personality and direct address that so endeared him to his followers was still evident in the ad libs and asides which spiced his remarks. The results were immediately positive, as Trump began to climb in the polls.
Most importantly, Bannon and Trump shared a courage unique in Republican quarters. Call it character. The ability to stand firm under fire. The absence of this quality is the primary reason the Obama left has been able to steamroll Republicans in the past. Eight long years of incessant, in-your-face race-baiting by President Obama, attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, and the left-wing networks served to cow Republicans and cause them to abandon their own agendas. Even when Republicans controlled the House and Senate, President Obama still managed to get his major legislative priorities through. The millions of voters who flocked to the Trump camp understood and appreciated these facts. They had been waiting eight years – and more likely 28 years – for a candidate like Trump backed by a strategist like Bannon to stand up for them.
For Bannon and Trump getting things done - getting America back on track - took precedence over hurt progressive feelings. They did not back down under even the heaviest left-wing fire. Trump was maligned from the outset as Hitler, a misogynist and a racist. Once Bannon joined the Trump campaign, he too was smeared in the same dark colors. He was called a white nationalist, a racist and an anti-Semite. Yet he didn’t allow these calumnies to become a political distraction. He didn’t fire back. He worried about the candidate, not his personal reputation.
In these battles against the libels of the hate-driven left, epitomized by Hillary’s “basket of deplorables,” Trump has emerged as a paladin of integrity and common sense - therefore the nemesis of the politically correct. For they count on Republicans backing off for fear of their slanders. Faced with similar smears against his top political aide there is absolutely no other Republican president-elect who would have failed to throw Steve Bannon under the bus. Just to appease the left. Trump’s faith in Bannon and readiness to stand by him against those scurrilous attacks is an emblem of why Trump is the next president, and why Americans can take confidence in his ability to lead them in the predictable wars ahead.
But it is also the basis of Trump’s bond with Bannon whose own courage, bluntness, media-savvy, love of working Americans and ardent patriotism reflects his own. Donald Trump is America’s champion and deservedly TIME’s “person of the year.” But in the absence of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, the promise he now holds out for America - and freedom lovers everywhere - might never have reached the White House, the seat of power where he will have the ability to implement his agendas. Which is why an unsung hero, Steve Bannon, is our “Man of the Year.”