Watching POTUS serially dunk on Mr Populism is shaping up to be one of the unexpected pleasures of season two of “The Apprentice: Oval Office.” Over/under on how long the feud lasts before they reconcile: Four days.
Over at NRO, Jim Geraghty claims that a Trump/Bannon war was always inevitable. Probably right.
Bannon has one setting, “war,” and he launches it against everyone who isn’t signing his paycheck. He’s incapable of working with anyone who is anything more than a lackey. In his first big test of Congressional negotiations, Bannon met with the leaders of the House Freedom Caucus and declared, “Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” Except, they did have a choice, and exercised that choice on the first version of the legislation. Perhaps at Breitbart.com, Bannon got used to negotiating with people he could fire…
The “war”/I-am-the-toughest-guy-here mentality means Bannon rarely even thinks to attempt to recruit allies or get buy-in on his ideas. Bannon and Stephen Miller wrote up and had the president sign the so-called “Muslim ban” without coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security, TSA, or any other government agency that needed to actually enforce it. This led to chaos at the airports and the first version got drop-kicked by the courts within two days. Subsequent, more carefully-written versions survived scrutiny from the courts, indicating that a version of this policy could have been Constitutionally-sound if Bannon and those around him had written it with a wiser eye towards the legal challenges it would face…
In this light, it is not surprising that Bannon would eventually lash out at the president for being yet another person who disappointed him, another person who failed to recognize and appreciate his genius, another person who wasn’t enough of a fighter and who didn’t have the guts to fight the “war.”
Bannon reminds me of Ted Cruz circa 2013, the enfant terrible who recognized that throwing roundhouses at the establishment phonies was a fast track to grassroots popularity and, eventually, power. The downside of that approach is that no one in the establishment wants to work with you. You end up getting nothing done and then, at a moment when you need allies with some influence, there are none. All you have in the end is appreciation from populists — but unless you’re top dog in the populist pecking order, even that appreciation depends on you not crossing the people who outrank you. Cruz and Bannon both made that mistake and both likely for the same reason, because they overestimated their own ranking vis-a-vis Trump. Cruz ended up being booed off the stage at the GOP convention and Bannon’s now out of the White House, out of the Mercers’ favor, and maybe even soon to be out at Breitbart. If you want to cultivate a fan base that admires soft authoritarianism, don’t buck the ultimate authority. You’re asking for exile.
But the Trump/Bannon war was inevitable for another reason. They represent two visions of populism just as Trumpists and anti-Trumpists represent two visions of Republicanism. They were bound to throw down for supremacy eventually. This bit from Ann Coulter on Laura Ingraham’s show last night made me laugh:
“It’s clear that the media has no idea why Trump won,” Coulter said. “I’m starting to wonder if Trump and Bannon have any idea why Trump won.”
The conservative author insisted that “immigration, immigration, immigration” as well as “trade,” and “no more wars” are what Trump ran on and what got him elected. She also dinged Trump for not backing Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) in the Senate primary, who she noted aligns with the president on immigration.
“That mistake was Donald Trump’s. That’s why I say, ‘I wonder if Donald Trump knows why he was elected,’” Coulter continued. “Why would he endorse Luther Strange, who was a disaster on immigration, when Mo Brooks was running. At least, in Bannon’s defense, he was still in the White House and couldn’t endorse anyone during the original primary.”
I’m starting to wonder if Coulter has any idea why Trump won. She and Bannon are sincere populists, at least on bread-and-butter issues like immigration. Coulter’s so frustrated with the pace of securing the border that she’s taken to doing daily “Miles of wall built to date: ZERO” updates on Twitter. Ask her or Bannon why Trump won and they’ll rattle off exactly the things she rattled off to Ingraham — protectionism, less interventionism, much higher barriers to admission for foreigners. I think all of those were legit contributing factor to his victory. Ask Trump why Trump won, though, and what would he say? “The people love Trump.” Or “because our elites are stupid.” He shares Coulter’s instincts on immigration but he’s never been hardcore about the issue. He’s been chattering about legalizing DREAMers since the campaign; he got into the idea of building the wall because it was a surefire applause line at his rallies. He hinted to the Times editorial board off-the-record way back in February 2016, at a moment when he was selling himself to primary voters as the mother of all border hawks, that he was open to negotiation on the issue.
I don’t think he cares much about immigration as an economic issue. I think he cares about it as a proxy for political convention writ large. There’s a consensus in the leaderships of both parties that multiculturalism and open borders are virtues. “Build the wall” was as direct and unapologetic a rebuke to that as one could formulate, the alleged proof that Trump really would drain the swamp without giving a fark how many establishmentarians were mortified by it. Imagine Steve Bannon as a candidate, though, running through the same “build the wall” sloganeering. Would he have beaten Cruz or Rubio without Trump’s phenomenal celebrity, his billionaire glamour, or his canny alpha-male ploys and putdowns? Of course not. The magic of Trumpism wasn’t just the fact that a presidential candidate sounded a lot like the people you grab a beer with after work but that he was sounding that way despite being every inch a member of the country’s glamorous ruling class. (Which is why that class hated him, almost to a man.) Bannon and Coulter place their faith in populism but I think most Trump voters place their faith in Trump himself, a guy whose instincts they trust without sweating the details of his policy preferences at any given moment too much. That’s also why there’s virtually nothing he can say or do to lose their support. When you’ve bought the idea of Trump as a singular figure, the anti-PC warrior who’s beaten the PC crowd at all of their financial and political games, you stick with him and let him figure out what the right thing to do is. Whether his answer conflicts with populism dogma or not.
One footnote, though: Because his immigration hawkishness is so crucial to his image as anti-PC, I think that’s the one issue where his base really might pause if he sold them out. He can do whatever he wants on trade or on intervening abroad and they’ll stick with him; those are complex subjects, after all, and the president has access to information about them that the rest of us don’t. But “build the wall” is straightforward. If he caves on that or gives away the farm on legalization in return for meager security concessions, that would be Bannon’s opening to push populism over Trumpism.
Just In: When asked if Steve Bannon betrayed him, President Trump said, "he called me a great man last night" although he hasn't talked to him.
— errol barnett (@errolbarnett) January 4, 2018