Just how devastating a political blow will Donald Trump suffer from cashiering Steve Bannon? Breitbart’s senior editor-at-large (and my pal) Joel Pollak argues that Trump just cut off his nose to spite his face, exiling his master strategist just when Trump needed him the most. All Republicans have to look forward to, Joel predicts, is a rerun of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s betrayal in California:
When he took office in 2003 as Governor of California, “The Terminator” carried the hopes of conservatives in the Golden State, who saw him as a vehicle for their ideas, even if he was not a doctrinaire conservative himself. The faltering California Republican Party looked to Schwarzenegger to reverse its long-term decline, and Republicans elsewhere saw his success as a model from which they could learn as they courted moderate, swing-state voters.
But after struggling with intense media criticism, and after losing a key referendum on reforms to state government, Schwarzenegger gave up on his agenda, and abandoned the political base that had brought him into office. He re-invented himself as a liberal, embracing policies such as California’s controversial cap-and-trade program, which had zero effect on climate change but has chased businesses, jobs, and middle-class families out of the state.
Politically, Schwarzenegger’s gambit was a success. He won re-election in 2006. But his second term was a disaster. When he left office in 2010, the state was in a financial shambles and the California Republican Party had begun a decline from which it still has not recovered.
This isn’t quite an apt comparison, at least not yet, because there’s not much to indicate that Trump will shift positions in the same manner Schwarzenegger did. Needless to say, Trump exhibits a whimsical attitude to policy preferences, especially in the specifics, but Trump went all-in with the nationalists well before Bannon came on board the campaign. Trump had tapped into that political vein on his own, and probably against the instincts of those close to him who still remain, such as Ivanka, Jared, and so on. Bannon’s entry to the campaign may have enhanced that approach and boosted its effectiveness, but it didn’t change Trump’s course. Why would leaving change it now?
Even without Bannon, however, there’s another check on that impulse. Schwarzenegger had enough clout on both sides of the aisle to have natural allies among Democrats. He read the writing on the wall and switched sides, and in large part California Democrats were happy to embrace the Hollywood A-lister. While he had campaigned hard and tough against the Democrats in 2003, he didn’t get excessively personal, and didn’t go out of his way to embrace their anathemas. Joel recalls Schwarzenegger being the last hope of conservatives, but he was mostly the last hope of Republicans. Conservatives wanted Tom McClintock, and predicted that Schwarzenegger would ruin them.
Trump simply doesn’t have that luxury. Democrats have demonized Trump to such a degree that they don’t want to have anything to do with him, even on infrastructure. Trump has made that easy for them with his reckless rhetoric and lack of message discipline, plus his personal attacks on their leadership. They’re planning to run the anti-Trump campaign in 2018, and after the midterms need to soften him up with enough body blows to win back the White House.
If Trump cuts ties with Republicans and populists, the dystopian future he faces would parallel that of another celebrity politician: Jesse Ventura. Ventura came into office promising reform as an outsider, but wound up alienating both parties and voters with nonsensical statements and self-serving stunts. Republicans and Democrats in Minnesota called a kind of truce to work out a veto-proof budget, cutting Ventura out of the loop, and he didn’t bother to run for a second term. I warned that might be the outcome of a Trump presidency in January 2016. If he tries to pull a Schwarzenegger, he’ll wind up doing The Full Ventura instead.
Trump’s smart enough to avoid that, though we’ll see if he does. So far, the furor of Bannon’s exit seems waaaaay overblown. At least for now, it’s all inside-the-Beltway noise, the kind of story that bores the populist voters outside of DC. Most of his voters have probably only the vaguest idea of who Bannon is, let alone think of him as Trump’s minder. They don’t care who has an office inside the West Wing — they worry far more about what Washington is doing for them, and too often to them to keep track of the scorecards. Trump knows that better than anyone.