How Steve Bannon Types Secretly Control Everything

An interview with Amos Barshad, the author of "No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World"

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Amos Barshad Explains the Terrifying Effectiveness of Rasputins

Last week I solicited reader questions for Amos Barshad, the author of No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World, a book about people who secretly influence things from behind the scenes — the “scheming advisors, the dark figures who wield power in the shadows.” (It’s out April 9th.)

You guys sent a bunch in, and they were great. I dropped them all into Google Docs and asked Barshad to pick and answer his favorites. I had three copies of the book to give away but just couldn’t choose from among the five folks who had their questions picked, so I did a random drawing among that group. Congratulations to Bradley, Anna, and Xeno, and thanks to everyone for your questions.

Here we go:

Do you think that there’s a personality type that leads people to be Rasputins? Or, in your research, did you find any specific personal quality they all had in common? -Audrey

Before I started researching and reporting my book, I had a pretty good sense of the attributes the Rasputins would have in common -- they'd be clever, they'd be manipulative, they'd be subtly and quietly influential. What I didn't realize is they'd have deficiencies in common, too. Every Rasputin, I came to understand, lacks something. The pop producer can't sing or dance. The political advisor doesn't have the charisma or the looks to front a campaign.

My personal favorite example of this was Gordon Lish, the fiction editor who famously chopped Raymond Carver's first drafts down, often against Carver's will, into (totally beloved) minimalist creations. Lish actually wrote his own fiction, and was wondrously candid about how it was, relatively speaking, trash. In an interview with the Paris Review, he once said, "I’m a poseur, a potzer. The sublime . . . not with respect to my own writing. Only, if ever, through my acts of revising the materials of others.” Writing his own stuff, Lish just didn't have it. But in editing, Lish, for some reason, became a genius. From the same interview: "Had I not revised Carver, would he be paid the attention given him? Baloney!"

Why don’t these folks seize the throne? Fear of public spotlight? Social/cultural norms (e.g. not of royal blood)? The sword of Damocles? Because they are more powerful than their advisees? -Bradley

That's a great point: if someone is strong enough to manipulate power, why wouldn't they just take the power for themselves? Which circles us back to the first question: Almost always, a Rasputin doesn't seize the throne (whatever "seize the throne" means in that particular Rasputin's context) because they simply cannot. Ultimately, for some often fleeting period of time, Rasputins can cajole, can push, can prod the power. But they can't become the power. Like Lish, they just don't have it. Oftentimes, recognizing that early on is what spurs them forward to their inevitable Rasputiny destiny. Rasputin himself, of course, was an uneducated Russian peasant. Very practically speaking, he couldn't seize the throne of the Russian Empire. Ultimately, just being near it was enough to get him killed.

Do you think men like Rasputin get where they do because they capitalize on people’s yearning for security and certainty, much like authoritarians do? -Anna 

In my book, I touch on one obvious name, Steve Bannon, and one lesser-known one, Moscow's Aleksandr Dugin. A self-proclaimed philosopher with a worldview full of quasi-to-overt fascist sympathies, Dugin is at times said to be Bannon's Russian analog; others have tried to define him more explicitly as "Putin's Rasputin." In the actual details, there's many places where they differ wildly. (For one: Dugin is stranger than Bannon could ever dream to be.) But after interviewing Dugin, I definitely came away thinking that his defining characteristic, much like Bannon's, is that he's ready and willing to provide you with an answer to whatever question you might ever, ever have. Authoritarian leaders promise security and certainty in broad strokes. People like Bannon and Dugin will do it by referring to very particular, very archaic, quite possibly racist texts. But ultimately, absolutely, yes, Rasputins often get where they are by grandly promising that they have the cure. 

What do you do if the Rasputin is a large reason why an organization has any efficacy? -Xeno

I love this. And to answer, I'll quote Stillwater's Jeff Bebe in “Almost Famous”: "From the very beginning we said, I'm the front man and you're the guitarist with mystique. That's the dynamic we agreed on. Page, Plant. Mick, Keith. Blackmore, Gillan!" In my opinion, the reason it so disquiets people to discover there's been a Rasputin operating in the shadows is because they have been in the shadows. But what if you're totally up front about your operation? Admit one guy's the handsome charmer and the other guy's making all the calls, and no one ends up feeling duped! Transparency! 

I hate the spotlight but still want to change the world. Should I try and be a 'Rasputin'? If yes, any advice? If no, why not? -Michael

That got an LOL out of me. First -- to circle back again, as long as you're transparent with those you are Rasputin'ing, why not! Second -- I have a good feeling if you're the kind of person who is even entertaining the idea of becoming a Rasputin, then you won't let what I say affect you much one way or the other. And third -- if you do follow the path of darkness, please let me know how it all works out. Whatever happens, I bet there'd be a good book sequel in there somewhere. 

Questions? Comments? Suggestions for how I can more effectively manipulate people from the shadows, perhaps while cackling? I’m at, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Today’s lead image is of your best friend and mine, Steve Bannon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.