When Steve Bannon was hired as President Trump’s chief strategist — one of the first two hires the president-elect announced after winning the election — it was correctly regarded as a symbol that Trump would govern as the same sort of populist he’d been during the campaign: loose-cannon attention seeking in style, “law and order” hawkishness about immigration, Islam, and crime in policy.
But the opposite isn’t true. Bannon’s departure from the White House, announced on Friday after weeks of speculation, doesn’t mean the Trump administration is pivoting away from “Trumpism” — the racialized populism Bannon represented. If anything, it means that Bannonian strategy has been so deeply embedded in the DNA of the Trump administration that Bannon’s own presence is no longer needed.
Consider Tuesday’s press conference — in which Trump said that the white supremacist march in Charlottesville featured “very fine people” and deflected blame for the violence that killed one counterprotester onto “bad people on both sides” — a commencement ceremony. Trump isn’t firing Bannon. He’s graduating from him.
Bannon wasn’t the driver of Trumpism within the Trump administration
For all the drama of the Trump White House, with its alarming turnover and constant backstabbing leaks, it’s easy to assume that no one in the executive branch has any idea what they’re doing. That might look even more true with the departure of Bannon, who cultivated (to Trump’s annoyance) a reputation as being the master puppeteer of the Trump phenomenon.
But it’s not. If the leaks are to be believed, Steve Bannon doesn’t appear to have been really doing anything in the Trump White House. When new Chief of Staff John Kelly made the rounds to figure out who fit where within the West Wing org chart, according to Politico, he apparently heard from multiple people that Bannon didn’t actually have any responsibilities. According to the New York Times, Bannon spent the last week “in exile,” with no face-to-face meetings with Trump — even as Trump’s response to Charlottesville seemed to reflect Bannon’s worldview as well as anything else the president had done. As the rumors of Bannon’s ouster circulated, one anonymous staffer snarked to Axios that at least his departure would be smooth because he didn’t have any projects to wrap up.
While Bannon has been swanning around with his whiteboard, though, other figures in the White House and the rest of the executive branch have been working to implement the social arm of the Trumpist agenda: to crack down on legal and unauthorized immigration, to re-empower police officers to do what they need to do to crack down on street crime and left-wing protest.
Take Stephen Miller, who helped write the RAISE Act — the only major bill the Trump administration has had a hand in introducing since inauguration, which would cut legal immigration to the US in half over 10 years — and who is increasingly central to the White House’s communications work. Take Sebastian Gorka, whose willingness to defend the Trump administration’s record on terrorism has made him a favorite of the president.
Take Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who, after a period of public tension, appears to have been reassured of his stature by Kelly, and who is plugging along with his threats to deprive cities of federal grants because they don’t do enough to help federal agents enforce immigration law. Or take Kelly himself, who was a staunch defender of the Trump administration’s fights against “bad hombres” of all stripes as secretary of homeland security.
Not all of these figures liked Bannon himself. And not all of them necessarily believe that Trump’s style is helpful to getting his agenda enacted, the way Bannon does. But they’re all doing the work of turning Trumpism into not just a political style but the policy of the United States government.
Bannonism has failed and Trumpism has won
But the “law and order” policies that have emerged as the core of Trumpism are only half of the governing philosophy Bannon himself supports. Bannon’s label for his own philosophy — “economic nationalism” — might be a dubious attempt to distance himself from the ethnic nationalists who make up many of his allies, but it’s also a reminder that economic populism is part of Bannonesque Republicanism.
And the Trump administration hasn’t seen much of that at all. The plum economic jobs have gone to Goldman Sachs bankers — whom Breitbart calls “globalists,” complete with globe emojis, in an increasingly unsubtle anti-Semitism.
Trump distinguished himself among his primary opponents for opposing cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, and for saying that government should make sure people don’t die for lack of health coverage. Then he proceeded to spend weeks at a time pressuring Congress to pass Obamacare repeal bills that would restrict coverage. He may have called the bill passed by the House “mean” after the fact, but it didn’t stop him from holding a Rose Garden party when it passed the chamber, or induce him to oppose a Senate bill that would also have stripped coverage from millions of people.
And then there have been all the doomed attempts to pivot to infrastructure.
The fact of the matter is that Trump has, since the election, ceded economic policy to the Republican establishment in exchange for them not attempting to “tame” him on social and racial issues (and simply on issues of style).
As Ezra Klein wrote earlier today, Trump simply doesn’t appear interested in doing the work that would push forward an economic agenda. He is much more interested in saying racially inflammatory things and getting people to pay attention to him. That might, on occasion, advance a policy agenda on “law and order” issues — it can’t really advance an agenda on economic ones.
Trumpism is becoming policy without Trump’s personal involvement. Bannonism would require a bigger lift. And it’s one the president is uninterested in providing.
Bannon’s genius is for attention. Trump had that talent from birth.
Despite Bannon’s lofty monologues about “economic nationalism,” though, his key contribution to the conservative movement and the Trump presidency wasn’t his ideology. It was a tactical insight: to treat American politics as a constant culture war.
Breitbart under Bannon was more hawkish on immigration than other conservative outlets, sure. But it was notable for its willingness to jump on stories outside Washington that could cast people on the “other side” of the culture war — liberals, higher ed institutions and academics, immigrants, people of color — as the villains. The site had a “Black Crime” vertical. The stories themselves weren’t politics stories, but they were part of a politics.
If people were outraged, at least they were paying attention. And if “the left” was outraged and overreacted, even better — it would make the Breitbarters look like the victims and their critics look like the ones who wanted to “divide” America.
Of course, all of these were tricks that Donald Trump was using long before Steve Bannon got on board. Trump didn’t actually need to be taught that saying inflammatory things was good for keeping all attention on you, or that there was a subset of Americans who were so hungry for an alternative to “political correctness” that they’d accept tired racism as blunt truths.
The reason Donald Trump was the Republican presidential nominee was because he knew these things. Bannon simply stepped in in the fall of 2016 to make sure Trump wasn’t steamrolled by the Republican establishment into forgetting them.
After half a year of the Trump presidency, it’s eminently clear that there is never any reason to worry that Donald Trump will forget how to say inflammatory things for attention.
Trump’s post-Charlottesville press conference on Tuesday, reportedly lauded by Bannon as a “high point,” was also a reminder that Trump didn’t need anyone whispering in his ear to remind him to praise the “very fine people” marching at a white supremacist rally and lie about who had initiated the violence. He did that on his own. Bannon was free to go.