So this is what the media means when they claim that Bannon is “isolated” inside the White House. Even the one other semi-prominent nationalist in the West Wing doesn’t want to be seen as his ally.
To be clear, this Politico piece doesn’t claim that Miller has sided with Jared Kushner over Bannon, only that he’s been careful to work with both sides. He’s not a “Kushner ally” so much as he is neutral — although that’s surprising in itself given his nationalist sympathies and his pedigree as a Jeff Sessions staffer. Sounds like Miller has simply been cannier than Bannon has in discerning where power truly lies in the White House, namely, with the family, and in accommodating himself to that fact. Make nice with “the globalists” or perish. Although in fairness to Bannon, that calculation is easier for a young, junior staffer like Miller than it is for him. Bannon is a wealthy man with his own populist following online and a considerable media megaphone in Breitbart. He has a brand of his own to protect, and if he falls out of favor in the White House, he’ll remain a prominent political figure with an enviable soapbox. If Miller falls out of favor, he’s an unemployed 31-year-old speechwriter who blew a golden career opportunity. Of the two, who has more incentive to make friends with the “Democrats” in the White House?
The 31-year-old speechwriter is now working closely with Kushner’s Office of American Innovation, as well as on family leave, child care and women’s issues with Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, according to several people involved…
In conversations with colleagues, Miller has taken pains to distance himself from Bannon, despite their ideological kinship and long collaboration issues like immigration. Miller’s associates and colleagues inside and outside the White House say he’s griped recently that Bannon tried to take too much credit for Trump’s successes, as well as objected to Bannon’s combative style.
“He made it clear he isn’t a Bannon guy,” said one White House adviser…
If Miller has been a combative presence outside the White House, he has struck a more conciliatory tone on the inside, largely avoiding the infighting that has consumed the White House over the past several weeks, officials said—and his divergence with Bannon is more about style than substance. Though he has championed his views in meetings, he has generally reacted calmly if he doesn’t get his way, “not burning it all down,” in the words of one White House official.
Again, making a fuss when you don’t get your way is a prerogative of a chief strategist, not a junior advisor, even one as influential as Miller. But that may sell Miller short. It may be, notes Eliana Johnson, who co-wrote the Politico piece, that he learned quickly what Bannon seemingly has not, which is that the “abrasive, bombastic, take-no-prisoners approach” that helped Trump win the primaries doesn’t work as well as a style of governing. Or maybe he had an inkling early, for whatever reason, that Bannon had fallen out of favor with Trump and he shifted accordingly to protect himself. I speculated earlier this week that if Bannon got the axe, maybe others in the West Wing perceived as his allies would be forced out too in order to make sure there were no disgruntled Bannonites still inside the tent undermining Trump, Kushner, and Gary Cohn. Miller would have been a presumed ally because of his nationalist ideology and how closely he and Bannon worked on the travel ban. So, maybe, he set about early making clear to everyone that he wasn’t on Team Steve, he was on Team Trump. If so, that was smart. And if and when Bannon leaves, Miller will suddenly become a more valuable political asset to Trump and to Kushner. Precisely because he is a nationalist and a Sessions alum, he’s someone the White House can point to as proof that they haven’t abandoned the philosophy that Trump ran on just because Bannon isn’t there anymore. Miller’s continued tenure lets them keep some of their populist cred, even if they’re pushing a mostly Kushner/Cohn centrist policy platform.
What about Bannon, though? What does he do if/when he’s finally booted? Politico has a fun piece about that today too based on interviews with Bannon’s friends and foes. The man is famous for paying back his enemies. What happens when Trump becomes an enemy?
Taken together, their suggestions amount to an epic, Kill Bill-style revenge saga that starts with Bannon leaking personal dirt on his enemies to the tabloids, using the megaphone of Breitbart News to exacerbate divisions inside the administration, and siccing an army of internet trolls on his adversaries to harass and defame them. It ends with Bannon using Cambridge Analytica data to identify and primary their vulnerable allies in Congress, then releasing a “Where Trump Went Wrong” documentary on the eve of the November midterms and finally—in this revenge fantasy’s epic climax—running against Trump himself in 2020…
If it does come to open conflict with the president himself, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart tech editor hired by Bannon who often calls Trump a “God Emperor” and “Daddy,” made no bones about where his loyalties lie.
“It will be my very great honor to manage the Bannon 2020 campaign,” he said, before sending over three mock logos for the hypothetical presidential run.
I think Bannon would be cautious, at least at first, in attacking Trump himself. He’d have the same dilemma that conservative talk radio hosts had last year in assessing whether to dismiss him as a RINO or to praise him: If you force your base of right-wing populists to choose between you and the politically incorrect alpha male Trump, how confident are you that they’ll choose you? Bannon will be on firmer ground in a popularity contest with the White House than, say, Rush Limbaugh was because he’ll have been forced out by Democratic “globalists” like Kushner and Cohn, making him a martyr to the right and a hero for refusing to compromise his principles. He’ll present himself as Kushner’s enemy, I’d imagine, more so than Trump’s. In fact, one former Breitbart-er suggested to Politico that even if Bannon ends up being booted, he might go easy on Trump for awhile in hopes of eventually being re-hired if the Kushner agenda goes bust and damages Trump politically.
But if Trump continues to drift towards the center and right-wing populists continue to bristle at his transformation, maybe Bannon would eventually start to target Trump more directly. I joked on Twitter a few days ago that the Trump/Bannon primary of 2020 will be lit, but it’s only a half-joke; Bannon (probably) wouldn’t run himself, but with Breitbart having agitated so consistently on behalf of Paul Nehlen in his primary challenge to Paul Ryan last year, it’s easy to imagine Bannon trying to recruit a populist primary challenger to Trump in 2020. He wouldn’t get any big names to volunteer (unless Trump’s job approval is pure garbage), as someone with a future as a national candidate like Tom Cotton wouldn’t want to piss off the GOP establishment by undermining an incumbent president. But he could find someone off the beaten path and give him plenty of online media attention, not so much in the expectation that he’d defeat Trump — he wouldn’t — but simply to magnify the charge that Trump is a sellout who betrayed the blue-collar populists who made him president in 2016. That could do real damage in signaling to Trump supporters that it’s okay to be pissed off at him for failing to deliver — and, relatedly, that it’s okay to stay home in 2020 — and that in turn might force Trump to return to some populist positions despite the centrist pressure from his advisors. That is, to believe that Bannon would be a thorn in Trump’s side if he’s fired, you don’t need to believe that Bannon is motivated purely by revenge. He’d have understandable ideological reasons for attacking Trump. The more he can rile up nationalists against the president, the more the president will need to pander to that constituency to protect himself.