Bannon, Gorka and the Fall of Trump's 'Alpha Males'

Steve Bannon, Trump
President Donald Trump stands alongside his chief strategist at the time, Stephen Bannon, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on April 18. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The macho men came into Washington, D.C., like the Rough Riders of lore, ready to tear down this town-upon-a-swamp, then set it ablaze with the fury of their nationalist convictions. Eight months later, they're slinking away with a collective whine, reminding Americans once again of the vast gap between rhetoric and action, between tough words and tough choices.

It was supposed to be so glorious, this new Washington high on Republican testosterone. "The alpha males are back," declared Sebastian Gorka back in December on Fox News. The reference was to himself and, presumably, the many other members of the incoming Trump administration who would give no succor to terrorists abroad, or to seditionists at home, in particular those employed by The New York Times and CNN.

The alpha males didn't last long on Capitol Hill. First went Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser departed in February, after his extensive ties to Russia came to light; March brought the demise of Boris Epshteyn, a boorish media representative who once assaulted a man in a Scottsdale, Arizona, bar; spymaster manqué Ezra Cohen-Watnick got the heave-ho from the National Security Council in early August, following close behind unhinged colleague Rich Higgins; days later, the most alpha male of all, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, was fired by new chief of staff Gen. John F. Kelly; Gorka is gone too, reportedly axed in the midst of a two-week vacation that he surely devoted to some exceedingly alpha pursuit such as hunting killer whales with his bare hands or reading the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.

It's no accident that these alpha males either came from the alt-right or were celebrated by the sweaty trolls who comprise that strange and strident political faction. The division of masculinity into alpha and beta males is a favorite trope of those who deposit their political convictions in the darker corners of 4chan and Reddit. Many of them are also gamers, their blustery views on politics and human affairs informed to a disturbing degree by Grand Theft Auto. In Devil's Bargain, his biography of Bannon, Joshua Green describes how the future Breitbart News chief executive grasped that gamers were an untapped political force; Green perceptively calls the alt-right a "rolling tumbleweed of wounded male id and aggression," a battalion of betas convinced of their own alpha status.

It's one thing to partake in the relatively harmless onanism of a message board, or the comment section of a Breitbart article about the Clintons, quite another to occupy the West Wing. The alphas, apparently, weren't ready for the real thing, much as a juvenile PornHub devotee might discover that a real-life woman is rather more complex than the moaning starlet of Paula Does Palookaville. Their simplistic view of masculinity dictated the need dominate both congressional Democrats and international coalitions. Compromises were losses, as were treaties. You only won when everyone else was drenched in blood.

So what did the alpha males accomplish? They fired some missiles at Syria, without substantively deviating from President Barack Obama's approach to that complexly restive nation. They've alienated the world's Muslims by trying to ban many of them from coming to the United States. They've contravened established science by convincing Trump to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement on climate change. They've infuriated many while satisfying few.

There is creative disruption of the Steve Jobs variety, but that wasn't what the man-children in Trump's administration practiced. If they were masters of anything, it was of chaos coupled with deception. Flynn, the square-jawed lieutenant general, lied brazenly about his contact with the Russians. Cohen-Watnick, he of the thin résumé and boundless ego, fed the not-exactly-brilliant Devin Nunes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, information intended to muddy the investigation into Trump's possible collusion with Russia. Even more preposterous than Cohen-Watnick was Higgins, a buddy of Bannon who mused in a bizarre memo about the danger of "cultural Marxists." No word on whether he was worried about Leninists, too.

But, hey, at least that trio of mavericks did something. As Bannon was being pushed out, a White House insider told Axios that the chief strategist "has no projects or responsibilities to hand off," so thoroughly had his stature diminished within the West Wing. By the end, his sole job seemed to be leaking unflattering and probably untrue information about various administration officials to Breitbart News, the far-right website he has returned to running.

And despite his supposed expertise in terrorism, Gorka appeared to have no role in Trump's administration but to appear on Fox News, where Sean Hannity unfailingly praised him as "Dr. Gorka," world-renowned expert on his own importance. Rolling Stone tried to discover, earlier this summer, what else Gorka may be doing for his $155,000 salary. It couldn't find much. There was, however, plenty of dismay that he was there. "This is not somebody who should be working anywhere near the White House," one terrorism expert told the magazine.

The alpha males haven't met their demise with the stoicism of warriors bested on the battlefield. Bannon has vowed to go "buck wild" against his opponents, promising "war" against House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This sounds like a teenager threatening to run away to Canada for being made to clean his room. Breitbart won't swing a single congressional vote on taxes or the national debt. Everyone knows that—except Bannon and his not-ready-for-National Review foot soldiers.

Gorka, meanwhile, remains a Fox News staple, lowing in that self-serious way of his about "anti-MAGA forces" trying to corrupt the Trump administration from within. Those fifth columnists include, one is to assume, decorated veterans like Kelly, national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster and James N. Mattis, the secretary of Defense. For decades, these men have served country. They understand chains of command. They know that what the Constitution says is infinitely more important than the approbation of Fox & Friends. I doubt they spend much time worrying about their alpha status.

Of course, one alpha-lite male does remain: the one who sits in the Oval Office, with the nuclear football never far away. He is tough and strong, and he wants everyone from San Francisco to Pyongyang to know it. But his alpha minions, with their juvenile understanding of the federal apparatus, have helped Trump achieve an approval rating of 35 percent. The John Wayne imitation is starting to wear thin. The nation is ready for a little bit of beta.