The Life-Changing Magic Of Destroying Your Fellow Man: My Week With Sun Tzu And Steve Bannon

‘The Art of War’ taught me and Bannon to keep your friends close and your enemies closer

Stephen Kevin “Steve” Bannon, who runs a white-supremacist website that he proudly describes as a “platform for the alt-right,” was charged with domestic abuse, refers to liberal women as a “bunch of dykes,” recently told the media to “keep its mouth shut,” was described by his former colleague as “legitimately sinister,” wants to “destroy the state,” openly praises Satan and Darth Vader, and takes verbal cues from Bane. Bannon is also, not incidentally, a chief White House adviser who now sits on the National Security Council and lords over the entire Trump administration.

One of Bannon's favorite things to do, besides hate Jews, is to talk about how he's read Sun Tzu's The Art of War, a sixth-century B.C. military treatise written by a Chinese general that comprises about 100 pages total, so really it's not that impressive, Steve. Our takeaway from these boasts should not be “Steve Bannon, unlike our president, is literate,” but rather, “Steve Bannon has read one book” and “Steve Bannon's one book is a savage disquisition on how to manipulate and totally fucking destroy everyone.”

I know this because I, too, have read The Art of War, in an attempt to briefly enter the demented minds of Steve Bannon and all of the chunky, jaundiced men before him who pore over this book in hopes of applying its bizarrely aggressive strategies to the corporate and political worlds. I read it with one goal in mind: to apply said strategies to my own life for a full week, essentially Freaky Friday–ing (and Mondaying and Tuesdaying) with Steve Bannon so that I might, on some level, begin to understand what it is like to be a repulsive, all-powerful man with zero moral compass and a melanoma-ridden finger hovering near the nuclear button. Here are some notes I took as I read:

What would happen to my life, I wondered, if I lived it like an unapologetically maniacal male? Would everyone begin to both fear and respect me, eventually leading me to a primo spot on the president's Cabinet, or, failing that, a better desk location? Or would I become an undeservedly confident lunatic overflowing with bloodlust, enjoying a close and personal relationship with the damned minions of the underworld?

There were a few adjustments I had to make to truly live the Art of War lifestyle in present-day New York as a twentysomething woman who does not want to go to prison. For example, the book consistently refers to “the general,” “the troops,” and “the ruler,” and I am just me, a writer who nobody listens to and very regularly tucks her dress into her tights. For the purposes of this piece, “the general” is me, “the troops” are me, and “the ruler” is also me. Everyone else on the entire earth whom I come into contact with, even briefly, is “the enemy.” The battlefield is “quotidian life.” In other words, I treated every interpersonal interaction as a tiny war in which the general (me) commanded her troops (me) to swindle and outsmart the enemy (anyone who was not me).

Also, I did not kill anyone.

Day 1:

10 a.m.: I am snowed in with my boyfriend, Adam, who is now a recurring “enemy” by sheer virtue of our cohabitation. We both work for most of the day, and I read The Art of War in its entirety in the bathtub. I underline everything that haunts me, including the entire foreword, which, in this particular copy, is written by a man named Stephen F. Kaufman. (Another Steve — coincidence? Or conspiracy?)

Kaufman is a white man whose author bio describes him as an “acknowledged Founding Father of American Karate” and who claims via his website that he created “the first, foremost, and original reality facilitation concept ever presented to the modern world, guaranteed to bring immediate and permanent results.” I don't know what this means, but here are some standout lines from his foreword:

“[The Art of War] has been called any number of things, but it remains a guide for the control of people, places, and things.”

“A hard-nosed, cold-blooded mentality is essential to personal development both on the field of battle and at the negotiating table. ... this mentality is required if you truly desire to be one among the few.”

“This book is a philosophy of management; it is not about how to change a lightbulb, although in final analysis, it could be.”

“I preserve the identification of all involved in a masculine format. This is not to belittle women, and no offense is intended.”

Thank you, Stephen.

11 a.m.: The first line in The Art of War: “Conflict is essential to the development and growth of man and society.” I get out of the bathtub and slosh water everywhere, including on my boyfriend. I do not clean it up.

1 p.m.: I slip on the water from before.

2 p.m.: One of my friends sends out a Doodle survey, trying to find a convenient date for our future book club. Sun Tzu reminds me that I must disrupt my enemies' alliances with other countries via educated subterfuge and outright lying. I fill out the Doodle using a fake name.

4 p.m.: My friend Jon texts me and asks if Adam and I want to get dinner with him and his girlfriend Kira. Sun Tzu tells me I must give orders without hesitation, so I inform everyone we will go to a hot pot place near my apartment. Everyone agrees because it is a good hot pot place.

7 p.m. At dinner, I eat as much of the communal hot pot as I want, because Sun Tzu tells me that I must control the needs of my troops with regards to their sustenance if I want them to be obedient and hesitate to turn on me in a mutinous fashion.

Sun Tzu also tells me, quietly, that the warlord should always look busy doing something else when he is in fact positioning himself intelligently and with strength. Throughout the meal, I talk about normal things, like how Adam and I are rewatching Twin Peaks and how I wish the hot pots were so spicy that I stopped being able to feel my lips (both facts). Inside, I am plotting my subterfuge.

9 p.m.: After dinner, we go to an ice cream place nearby. I ask the college student behind the register if she can layer the Oreos into my ice cream instead of have them just sit on top of the ice cream uselessly, because Sun Tzu thinks it is important to do whatever is necessary to accomplish your goals, irrespective of the needs of other who might wish you harm. She stares at me blankly. “No,” she says.

As we walk home, I turn to Jon, remembering Sun Tzu's orders to insult the enemy with subtlety where and when you can insult him; degrade him where you can degrade; and insult his wife — he physically joins with her, and it will force him to focus his rage incorrectly.

“Kira told me that she hates you,” I whisper with what I imagine is a very sinister cackle.

Jon stares at me. He turns to Adam and Kira. “Rachel is playing a weird mind game,” he informs everyone. We all hug and go home.

9:30 p.m.: On the walk home, Adam suggests we watch Twin Peaks. I agree because I love Twin Peaks (see: 7 p.m.). But then I remember Sun Tzu's words: “If the enemy moves right, you move right in an encircling gesture, leaving some men to move left.” I decide to take this literally and figuratively, subtly encircling Adam on the sidewalk, almost falling into a pile of curb snow. I then tell him that we will instead watch Secretary, a movie about a dom-sub relationship, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.

When we get home, I type notes from the day into my phone. “Day one was mostly successful,” I say, loud enough for Adam to hear me in the next room. He walks into the kitchen. “Day one of what?” he asks. I smile languidly.

Adam sends Jon and Kira a text: “Can I sleep over? Rachel just said, ‘Day one was successful’ out loud to herself.”

Day 2:

9 a.m.: Exhausted by the elaborate mindfuckery of day one, I work from home again. I do not speak to a single human soul (except for Sun Tzu). In a sense, I tell myself, I am taking Sun Tzu's advice to prepare for battle from a secret hiding place. Warlords who have mastered defense attack from hidden places to assure their own success.

6 p.m.: My friends and coworkers Hazel and Kasia come over to drink before we see Fifty Shades Darker. Kasia brings over fizzy pink champagne, and we pour it into a coffee mug to bring to the theater, because it is important not to be sober during Fifty Shades films (not technically a Sun Tzu parable, but I am sure he would agree). Sun Tzu would have me believe that this champagne is an attempt on my life, as the astute warlord brings the enemy to him by offering something of perceived value. But I drink the champagne bravely, because Sun Tzu also reminds me that intoxicating beverages, beautiful women, and expensive gifts whittle down the resources of the enemy.

I tell Hazel about my assignment, and she eyes me warily, as if I am becoming a demon familiar. I hear Sun Tzu's voice in my head: “The pressures of being a great leader, when they descend onto the shoulders of the mighty warlord, are not understood by lesser men. He is misunderstood, and until his authority is absolute, and heaven has smiled on him, he may be considered mad.” I inwardly forgive Hazel for considering me mad.

7:30 p.m.: “A warlord never enters a foreign country without as much information as he can get. To do so is extremely foolish. It is called having one's head in the clouds,” says Sun Tzu. Before entering the theater, I case the joint by wandering around with my notebook, looking at things like the bathroom and the line for popcorn. I listen to a conversation between a woman dressed like a low-key dominatrix and several theater employees. They have stopped her to compliment her outfit. I write this down in an attempt to understand the foreign country that is the Regal Union Square Stadium 14.

10 p.m. The movie is fantastically bad. I clean up the popcorn around my seat because the warlord of consistent skill never leaves traces of where he has been.

10:15 p.m.: Kasia, Hazel, and I walk back to my house. It is Friday night in the East Village, so we encounter dozens of potential enemies. Sun Tzu tells me that if you encounter an enemy on his march home, do not attack; he is leaving and has submitted to you. I smile at a lot of drunk people.

Day 3:

11 a.m.: I am now starting to feel vaguely ill every time I think of my chosen mentor Sun Tzu. His calm but insistent voice — he sounds kind of like Morgan Freeman, if Morgan Freeman were a malevolent warlord — haunts me, telling me to distrust everyone and create discord where there is none. I spend the day walking around and ignoring him, except when he tells me to be majestic in my countenance with an appearance of great strength and purpose. This is good advice in general.

8 p.m.: As we wait outside a raucous restaurant for a friend's birthday dinner, a random man walks up to our group and begins to sing a made-up insulting song about Jews. I idly wonder if he knows Steve Bannon. I give him the finger, which is something I would do anyway, but also because Sun Tzu believes it is important to rule with an iron first and not necessarily in a velvet glove. The man, who is roughly 40 years old, tells me that he is a Holocaust survivor. I tell him I doubt this. He pauses, looking miffed. “Actually, right, my dad is a Holocaust survivor,” he says. “I love Jews.”

I turn my back to this very bad and rude liar. Sun Tzu tells me that it is always best to let the enemy defeat himself with little effort on your part; you should encourage him to destroy himself. The fake Holocaust survivor who loves Jews gets angrier and angrier, yelling at me and asking why I won't engage with him. I continue to ignore him, except for when he grabs at my arm and I tell him not to touch me ever again. Eventually he leaves.

My friends ask me to explain what the hell just happened, and I remember Sun Tzu's words: “You will have to convince your troops that the enemy has been unreasonable, and therefore must be stopped at any cost; this is called propaganda.” I just tell them the real thing that happened, though, because it was bad enough to require zero elaboration. Everyone gives the man the benefit of the doubt (“maybe he really does love Jews”) and I wonder if I did, in fact, need propaganda.

10 p.m.: Sun Tzu believes that one should penetrate a battlefield with depth and escape at will. After eating a lot of chopped liver and knishes, I meet another group of friends at a nearby bar, where I make my way to the middle of the dance floor, penetrating it with depth. Midway through, I attempt to ghost, sneaking out the front door like a sloppy ninja. One of my friends sees me leave, so we all get pizza.

Day 4:

Noon: My wonderful dad is in town, and Adam and I meet him for brunch. The conversation quickly turns to politics, as it often does, and I remember that, politically, my dad is my sworn enemy.

As we start to argue about whatever maniacal executive order was laid down by Trump that day, I signal my need for backup to Adam by raising my eyebrows exaggeratedly. It is important to maintain a system of visual and secret signals, says Sun Tzu, because without them, brave warriors may move into battle without assistance. Adam does not understand the signals because we have never talked about them before.

I gracefully exit the battle by getting up to pee, as the wise warrior knows when it is appropriate to fight and when it is far more effective to leave the area without a contest, still emerging victoriously in the end.

3 p.m.: We all stop at Rite Aid. Sun Tzu reminds me that the simplest way to humble, humiliate, and debase your enemy is to cut him off from his supplies. The problem is that Adam and I share supplies. We buy some dish soap and go home.

5 p.m.: The men want to watch Arrival, which I have already seen. I graciously agree to rewatch it, because Sun Tzu tells me that presenting gifts to my enemy causes confusion among the enemy ranks by taking their attention away from the matter at hand.

We all sob hysterically. I have broken one of Sun Tzu's chief tenets, which is that a warlord must always remain serene and calm, be sage, and think of nothing except victory. “Heaven will not favor you if you show leniency where none is required,” Sun Tzu tells me. Now he sounds more like a disappointed Amy Adams.

Day 5:

7 p.m.: I have a lovely meal with my father and his friend. I gain the advantage immediately, taking the chair closest to the door in order to escape at will.

At one point, my dad's friend insults both the Kardashians and David Cronenberg, but I remain silent. Rage and passion are not substitutes for cold-blooded planning in the destruction of an enemy. Also, a great warlord constantly changes his plans and methods of administration so that nobody knows what he is doing. I don't know what I'm doing, either, but that is beside the point.

Day 6:

8 a.m.: Valentine's Day. I wake up with the beginnings of a sore throat. I eye The Art of War angrily from my bed. I know it is Sun Tzu's fault.

9 a.m.: On the way to work, an NYPD officer wishes me a happy Valentine's Day. I stare at him silently, suspicious. There are five different types of spies, says Sun Tzu, and sometimes the spies themselves do not know that they are spies. The judicious warlord is careful in selecting the men with whom he surrounds himself.

“Thank you,” I say carefully. Sun Tzu reminds me that, in physical confrontation, it is best to have the sun behind your back and in the eyes of the enemy. I walk backward for a few seconds, then get tired and turn around.

6 p.m.: Hazel, Teo, and I are getting drinks at a hotel near our office. We grab a couch-type thing big enough to hold several additional friends who are on the way, and order our cocktails.

Two women walk up and, without asking, take part of our couch. I clear my throat, remembering that ambivalent territory is bad for all parties, because it is a place where no one is in control. “Excuse me,” I say, “we were holding this couch-thing for our friends.” The women are apoplectic about this. “When will they GET here?” one says. “Soon,” I say, remaining calm and serene in the face of my enemy.

The hostess seats the women a few tables away, but they continue to glare at us from across the room. “The prudent warlord never responds to acts of bravado,” whispers Sun Tzu. “To initiate a confrontation when the enemy is not completely under your control is to invite defeat because of improper planning and disregard for potential strengths — apparent and unapparent.”

Then he contradicts himself. “Create disturbances where you can,” he says, “and constantly force the blame into places of innocence by means of rumor and deceit. Usually, the innocent are not that innocent and are predisposed to being picked upon.”

Confused, I ignore everything, including myself. Teo, Hazel, and I do not respond to the glares, but some of us cannot help but feel vaguely frightened by them. “I'm shook,” whispers Teo.

8 p.m.: Adam has made me pasta for Valentine's Day. Sun Tzu tells me that rewards, grand dinners, and impressive gifts, when given by the enemy, mean that he may be trying to maintain harmony while preparing his troops to attack the advancing army. “Are you trying to kill me?” I ask Adam. “No,” he says. I eat the pasta.

Day 7:

8 a.m.: My sore throat has unfurled into a full-blown fever. My mind and body are exhausted by the efforts of being suspicious and weird. One of my eyes has gone entirely bloodshot.

9 a.m.: I realize Steve Bannon always has bloodshot eyes. I wonder if I, too, will soon develop scaly patches of face skin and the burnt-sienna nose of a vengeful sociopath.

9:05 a.m.: I begin to panic, and consider burning my copy of The Art of War in effigy. “A fierce warlord must never question his own morality,” whispers Sun Tzu angrily. I hate Sun Tzu.

10 a.m.: At work, I decide to act normal again, because marrying a single bloodshot eye with weird behavior is not a good career move.

Noon: As I prepare a script for a podcast I'm recording that day, I slowly realize that any small gains I had made by following Sun Tzu's demented wisdom — getting a crazy fake Holocaust survivor to leave me alone, successfully lording over a bar couch, pizza — pale considerably to the physical and mental ramifications of living like a Powerful Unhinged Man. The entire past week has been an exercise in self-destruction. More significantly, I am starting to look gross.

My friend Sarah texts me and asks if I want to hang out later. “Create discord and disharmony by sending false messages and making false promises to the people,” Sun Tzu urges me. “No, Sun Tzu,” I say. “No more lies.” Sun Tzu abandons me, disgusted.

I tell Sarah I am probably dying and need to go home.

6 p.m.: Back at home, I stare at my fucked-up eye. It appears to be clearing up slightly. I spend the evening reading a novel about happy people with healthy social mechanisms and speaking to nobody.

8 p.m.: I realize with a jolt that this is why men die earlier than women.

8:10 p.m.: In this sense, there is hope yet for the republic.