Obviously the answer is yes. “[B]y openly criticizing Mr. Bannon,” the Times wrote yesterday of Trump, “he has created an environment that makes it hard for the swaggering and self-assured chief strategist to remain in place without appearing undermined.” Exactly — he’s essentially trying to humiliate the guy into throwing in the towel. Removing him from the National Security Council was just the first step. He refused to tell the New York Post that he still has confidence in Bannon, then he described Bannon, his chief strategist, to the Journal as “a guy who works for me.” We’re maybe a day away from Trump saying, “Steve who?” Take the hint.
— Greta Van Susteren (@greta) April 12, 2017
Per WaPo, “one Bannon friend, reflecting on them Wednesday, likened Bannon to a terminally ill family member who had been moved into hospice care.” Does it matter if he resigns or is fired, though? Firing him would be seen as a declaration of war on Trump’s populist base, and would grant Bannon a certain degree of martyrdom on the right that he could leverage in attacking Trump. But after all the media hype about a Kushner/Bannon “globalists versus nationalists” death match, a resignation would operate the same way. No one will be under any illusions that Bannon left voluntarily. The globalists will have triumphed by forcing him out. That’s the casus belli for populists, not the particular means of Bannon’s termination.
Bannon’s fall from grace is disorienting since it seems to have happened so suddenly. A few weeks ago he was the kingfish of the West Wing, today he’s on the verge of being dropkicked out of the White House by Jared Kushner. Trump’s evolution towards a more centrist approach may have been in the works for awhile, though. Politico has a well-timed story today about how his friends in the New York business world have increasingly been influencing him (with Kushner’s encouragement); in particular, Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, was a key factor in getting Trump to back off from ending Obama’s executive amnesty for DREAMers, a decision apparently made months ago. (A chilling sentence for nationalists: “In private conversations, a number of Trump’s friends have told him he could be more popular — and accomplish more — if he embraced a moderate streak and listened to his business friends.”)
Business considerations are reportedly hurting Bannon in another way too, per WaPo:
Trump’s three oldest children — Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric — and Kushner have been frustrated by the impression of chaos inside the White House and feel that their father has not always been served well by his senior staff, according to people with knowledge of their sentiments. The Trump heirs are interested in any changes that might help resuscitate the presidency and preserve the family’s name at a time when they are trying to expand the Trump Organization’s portfolio of hotels.
“The fundamental assessment is that if they want to win the White House in 2020, they’re not going to do it the way they did in 2016, because the family brand would not sustain the collateral damage,” said one well-connected Republican operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s family. “It would be so protectionist, nationalist and backward-looking that they’d only be able to build in Oklahoma City or the Ozarks.”
Making America Great Again along nationalist lines is all well and good, but once it starts to hurt the Trump family’s bottom line it’s time to re-prioritize. The cruelest cut of all: According to WaPo, Stephen Miller, the other key nationalist in Trump’s inner circle, “has worked closely with Bannon but also has strategically aligned himself with Kushner, who came to see him last year as indispensable at Trump’s side.” This is what the media means, I think, when they write that Bannon has been “isolated” inside the White House without many allies apart from the unlikely figure of Reince Priebus. Even Miller seems to understand which way the wind is blowing and has adjusted accordingly.
And so, says Michael Brendan Dougherty, we arrive at an early irony of the Trump presidency. The great populist-nationalist revolution on the right has installed someone who may himself end up leading an establishment counterrevolution:
Bannon wanted to drag Trump, the Republican Party, and the American republic to his populist nationalist vision. In reality, it looks more and more like his role was to organize and enflame the populist and nationalist constituencies in the GOP, and then reconcile them to the latest Republican president who would betray them in office. Instead of Bannonite paleo-conservatism, Trump may just use the office to make himself popular and pursue the dearest political hopes of his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. The role of the hard-right turn was to empower another RINO who is trying to impress The New York Times, a paper that despises him. Instead of using Trump as a “blunt instrument,” it was Trump who made Bannon look like the tool…
It must hurt. Bannon’s crew invested the time with Trump. Breitbart had been sympathetic to Donald Trump as far back as the 2012 election, running little hits on The Donald’s media enemies. And they’ve championed Trump over all his conservative critics. And now the Trump presidency is handed not to the populists and nationalists like Bannon, but to the normal tax-slashing Goldman insiders, the ambitious generals’ generals, and to the Trump family itself. The consolation prize is that Bannon and other populists are returned to the state of life they spent so long cultivating: the snubbed and passed over.
“A candidacy whose supporters reviled so-called RINOs may produce a White House run by people who aren’t even RINOs,” writes Rich Lowry of Trump’s drift towards Wall Street Democrats. “The biggest middle finger the mainstream media has ever received in American politics may empower people who care deeply about what’s written about them in The New Yorker and Vogue.” It’s hard to imagine a more jarring shift from Trump’s populist tone during the campaign, which ended with a final ad about international bankers exploiting American workers, than forcing out Steve Bannon in favor of the former president of Goldman Sachs, but that’s where we are. It’s genuinely amazing.
Tell me one thing, though: What exactly did Bannon do wrong? Every one of these “Bannon on the outs” articles emphasizes that he bears blame for the Trump administration’s rocky start, but the case seems thin to me. It’s fair to slam him for the poor drafting and rushed implementation of the travel ban, over which he had great influence, but the key problem with the ban in court rulings has been Trump’s own declarations as a candidate about wanting to ban Muslims temporarily from the U.S. That was evidence of illegal discriminatory intent to judges who’ve ruled against the ban; Trump started talking that way long before Bannon joined the campaign in August 2016. The other big failure of the first 100 days was the collapse of the GOP health-care bill, but that proposal was much closer to fiscal conservatives’ vision for U.S. health insurance than the populist vision (e.g., more federal help for blue-collar voters) favored by Bannon’s allies. Bannon made a tactical error in reportedly warning the Freedom Caucus that they had to vote for the bill, but c’mon: Does anyone think Mark Meadows and his allies were preparing to say yes until he made that comment? They had ideological objections to the Ryan bill that went unresolved. Bannon’s tone was foolish, but surely not decisive. And it wasn’t Bannon who insisted on taking up ObamaCare before infrastructure, tax reform, and so on. That timetable was dictated by (a) the GOP promising en masse during the campaign to get rid of ObamaCare ASAP and (b) the need to bank some deficit reduction via health-care reform in order to make tax reform easier. All in all, the “blame Bannon” storyline seems less like a considered argument and more like a narrative being pushed by Team Jared to create a non-ideological pretext for forcing Bannon out. The problem isn’t that he’s a nationalist, see, it’s that he’s a screw-up.
Exit question: If Trump and Bannon end up as enemies, whom do the Mercers side with? They bankroll both men — they’re top donors to Trump and they’re part owners of Breitbart, which will complicate Bannon’s battle plan if he leaves the White House and wants Breitbart to wage war on Trump. Will the Mercers sacrifice their relationship with the president to be a part of that? Will they sacrifice their relationship with a populist leader like Bannon to cling to a White House that seems to be moving left? Which way do they go?