Is Bannon a Thomas Cromwell?

Thomas Cromwell


After it emerged that former advisor and now former Breitbart Network News head Steve Bannon thinks of himself as Henry VIII’s Thomas Cromwell, I got to thinking that British historical dramas have provided powerful frameworks for people who get fired. Bannon appears to have seen himself starring in a Hillary Mantel novel, and James Comey, after Donald Trump fired him, invoked John Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, starring Cromwell’s historical rival Thomas More.

Mantel’s trilogy about Henry VIII’s consiglieri, the first two volumes of which won Bookers, sympathetically follows Cromwell’s trajectory from humble beginnings to Master Secretary to the King’s Privy Council to disgrace and execution (this last development in the yet unpublished third volume). Cromwell engineered many of Henry’s major policies, including his break with Roman Catholicism and the ending of his first two marriages.

Cromwell also ushered More to the chopping block although here the Bannon parallel fails. Supposedly Bannon saw the firing of Comey as a mistake.

If Bannon consoled himself by seeing himself as Mantel’s protagonist, however, he ignored one of Cromwell’s observations:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

Comparing himself to Cromwell actually reveals Bannon’s inflated sense of self since he cannot lay claim to any policies as momentous as those accomplished by Henry’s privy secretary. Nor did Cromwell ever forget who was boss.

Further thought: Here’s another Mantel quote, this from Wolf Hall, which captures the intoxication of power that overtook Bannon as he found himself buoyed up by Trump popularity and Mercer money:

There’s a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.

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