Like the country as a whole, Washington today is characterized by radically different emotions as it contemplates the upcoming Trump presidency. Republicans are gleeful about all they’ll be able to do to roll back the progress of the past eight years, liberating the country from the cruel oppression of things such as expanded health insurance, regulations on Wall Street and reproductive rights. Liberals are horrified at the same prospect. And members of the media are looking desperately for signs that Donald Trump is not actually the person we all watched for the past year and a half. “I saw quite a change,” said CBS’s Lesley Stahl after interviewing him for “60 Minutes.” “He was much more subdued, much more serious.” It’s as though we’re talking about a child who managed to get through recess at the day care without punching any of the other children. Except this child is about to become the most powerful human being on Earth.
And as it begins to take shape, Trump’s administration is looking like some kind of mash-up of “Being There” and “American History X,” with just the combination of cluelessness and malice that you would have expected. Let’s start with the latter:
President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist in the White House has drawn a sharp rebuke from political strategists who see in Bannon a controversial figure too closely associated with the “alt-right” movement, which white nationalists have embraced.
Bannon, who was the executive chairman of Breitbart News before joining the Trump campaign in August, will serve as chief strategist and senior counselor for Trump; that will give Bannon authority over the strategic direction of the White House. Bannon will assume a similar role to that of Karl Rove during George W. Bush’s administration and recently by longtime strategist John Podesta under President Obama. He and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who will become White House chief of staff, will be among Trump’s top advisers.
The announcement has produced intense hand-wringing in Washington and sharp denunciations from political observers and strategists critical of Breitbart News’s close association with the alt-right, a fringe conservative movement saturated with racially insensitive rhetoric and elements of outright white nationalism.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-watch group, has accused Breitbart of explicitly embracing ethno-nationalism. After Bannon’s elevation was announced, the law center tweeted several controversial stories written by Breitbart under Bannon’s control, including a piece published two weeks after a mass killing at a black church in Charleston, S.C., last year: “Hoist it high and proud: the confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage.”
There has been way too much euphemizing about Bannon, so let’s talk plainly. He’s not just a “controversial” figure who ran a “provocative” web site. He is one of the foremost drivers of the spread of white nationalism in the United States today, and Breitbart is a firehose of thinly veiled racism and anti-Semitism, spewing its endless supply of poison into our politics.
“We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Bannon told journalist Sarah Posner this year. In the words of Ben Shapiro, a former editor for Breitbart, the alt-right is “a movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism.” Bannon disagrees — sort of. “Are there anti-Semitic people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. Are there racist people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely,” he told Posner. “But I don’t believe that the movement overall is anti-Semitic.”
Now let’s not forget that Trump was retweeting white supremacist memes and attacking a variety of minority groups long before Bannon joined his campaign as chief executive. Bannon didn’t make “Trump for President” into a white nationalist campaign, because it already was. So whatever Bannon suggests is going to find a ready audience in his boss.
And now to the cluelessness:
During their private White House meeting on Thursday, [President] Obama walked his successor through the duties of running the country, and Mr. Trump seemed surprised by the scope, said people familiar with the meeting. Trump aides were described by those people as unaware that the entire presidential staff working in the West Wing had to be replaced at the end of Mr. Obama’s term.
The man ran for president for a year and a half, and is surprised that the presidency is such a big job. Meanwhile, his aides were under the impression that the Obama staffers would stick around and be working for them now.
This is appalling, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Those of us who actually contemplated a Trump presidency during the campaign were particularly disturbed not just by Trump’s ignorance, but also by the fact that it was accompanied by a certainty that he knew everything he needed to know, despite the fact that he knew virtually nothing. He would regularly claim that he was smarter and more knowledgeable than everyone who actually had experience in government and policy, despite never having served a day in government or spent a moment thinking about policy.
Asked whom he consulted on foreign affairs, he said, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” On fighting terrorism, he said, “I know more about ISIS [the Islamic State] than the generals do, believe me.” I suppose that any day now he’s going to unveil that secret plan to defeat the Islamic State, which he said was “a foolproof way of winning,” but he couldn’t tell us what it was because then the Islamic State would know and it would be ruined. Even Republicans knew that he was just lying.
Nevertheless, the fact that Trump chose Priebus to be his chief of staff — in a role that is reportedly going to be co-equal with Bannon’s — is being greeted with a collective sigh of relief. What a wise, statesmanlike move, to make the person who runs the White House a rational human being with some experience in politics (though no experience in the federal government) and not, say, actors Gary Busey or Scott Baio. Impressive!
Meanwhile, the president-elect is tweeting out insults at news organizations whose coverage of him is insufficiently adulatory. If you thought that having won the election despite losing the popular vote Trump might display an iota of class, you were mistaken. And the chaos is just beginning.