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Opinion Steve Bannon: Post-Charlottesville racial strife is a political winner for Trump

(Jim Bourg/Reuters)


It had already been widely reported that President Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, was among the very few top officials around Trump who quietly cheered as he resisted pressure to unequivocally lay the blame for the deadly violence in Charlottesville on Nazis and white supremacists.

But now Bannon has gone public with this view, in a pair of new interviews. Indeed, he has gone even further: In a striking admission, Bannon confirmed that he views the racial strife and turmoil unleashed by Charlottesville as a political winner for Trump.

President Trump on Aug. 15 said that “there’s blame on both sides” for the violence that erupted in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

In the first interview, with the New York Times, Bannon explicitly defended the portion of Trump’s comments in which he seemed to defend the rallying white supremacists’ opposition to the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Trump asked rhetorically whether this would ultimately lead to the removal of statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Here’s Bannon:

Bannon … said in an interview that if Democrats want to fight over Confederate monuments and attack Mr. Trump as a bigot, that was a fight the president would win.
“President Trump, by asking, ‘Where does this all end’ — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln — connects with the American people about their history, culture and traditions,” he said.
“The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist,” Mr. Bannon added. “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”

In the second interview, with the American Prospect, Bannon (supposedly believing himself to be off the record) elaborated a bit more on this general theme:

“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Remarkably, Bannon is gleefully discussing the political dividends that (he believes) Trump will reap from the fraught aftermath of racial violence that led to the burial of a young woman who was murdered for showing up to protest racism and white supremacy. In so doing, Bannon endorses the general view, also expressed by Trump, that leftist violence (“tear down more statues”) is partly to blame for the ongoing racial strife, and defends Trump’s drawing of an equivalence between statues honoring Washington and Jefferson on the one hand, and those honoring the leading lights of the Confederacy on the other.

A car plowed into crowds at a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, killing one person and injuring 35 others. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

On Thursday morning, Trump doubled down on this view in a series of tweets, calling efforts to remove Confederate statues and monuments “foolish”:

Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also…the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!

Numerous historians have already pointed out the many problems with this equivalence. While Washington and Jefferson were indeed slave owners, they helped create the nation, while Confederate leaders sought to secede from it in order to set up a separate nation perpetuating slavery. Others have noted that the whole point of many of these Confederate monuments was to celebrate white supremacy during the Jim Crow era.

Indeed, since Bannon brought Abraham Lincoln into the discussion, let’s recall that Lincoln famously hailed Jefferson by saying that his authorship of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) had given voice to “an abstract truth” that would counter “tyranny and oppression” in all future times, including in the struggle to uproot and destroy slavery. Contra Bannon, Trump’s absurd conflation does not “connect” us with our history; it obscures it.

Ultimately, though, what is really significant here is Bannon’s frank admission that he believes the current ongoing turmoil benefits Trump. To be sure, a more cynical, self-interested motive may be at work. As the New York Times reports:

Mr. Bannon, whose future in the White House remains uncertain, has been encouraging Mr. Trump to remain defiant. Two White House officials who have been trying to moderate the president’s position suggested that Mr. Bannon was using the crisis as a way to get back in the good graces of the president, who has soured on Mr. Bannon’s internal machinations and reputation for leaking stories about West Wing rivals to conservative news media outlets.

There is ample evidence that this may indeed help Bannon’s standing with Trump. The Post reports that Trump — like Bannon — also believes his remarks reiterating that “both sides” are to blame for the Charlottesville violence will boost him politically:

Trump felt vindicated after the remarks, said people familiar with his thinking. He believes that his base agrees with his assertion that both sides are guilty of violence and that the nation risks sliding into a cauldron of political correctness.

With the special counsel’s probe closing in, and with his numbers sliding deeper into the danger zone, Trump plainly believes that valiantly defying the forces of political correctness (meaning, the forces that want him to unequivocally condemn racism and white supremacy) will rally his supporters to his side. Bannon is clearly feeding that instinct, at least partly to shore up his own standing with the president. Neither, naturally, recognizes any obligations or duties on the president’s part to try to calm the antagonisms that are being unleashed, and neither appears even slightly concerned about the damage they could do to the country, at a time when experts are warning that this sort of rhetoric could cause an escalation in white supremacist activity.

Indeed, as Trump’s new tweetstorm in defense of Confederate monuments confirms, he appears determined to keep feeding these antagonisms. And new polling explains why.

President Trump tweeted his anger at Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), on Aug. 17. (Video: Reuters)

* REPUBLICANS BACK TRUMP’S CHARLOTTESVILLE RESPONSE: A new CBS News poll finds that only 34 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s response to Charlottesville, while 55 percent disapprove. Only 35 percent say his description of the events is accurate; 55 percent disagree.

But among Republicans, 67 percent approve of Trump’s response, and 68 percent say he’s describing events accurately. So, while the American people are broadly rejecting Trump’s handling of the violence, Trump and Bannon may be right that it is rallying Republicans behind him, never mind what it is doing to the rest of the country.

* AIDES WONDER IF TRUMP CAN RECOVER: A striking bit of reporting in Thursday’s New York Times overview of the latest in the fallout from Charlottesville:

The president’s top advisers described themselves as stunned, despondent and numb. Several said they were unable to see how Mr. Trump’s presidency would recover, and others expressed doubts about his capacity to do the job. In contrast, the president told close aides that he felt liberated by his news conference.

Oh. Well, as long as he feels good about all of this, then everything must be just fine.

* WHY TRUMP REVERTED TO BLAMING ‘BOTH SIDES’: Politico reports that top aides to Trump say that he backslid to blaming “both sides” for the Charlottesville rally because he chafed at backing down:

“In some ways, Trump would rather have people calling him racist than say he backed down the minute he was wrong,” one adviser to the White House said on Wednesday about Charlottesville. “This may turn into the biggest mess of his presidency because he is stubborn and doesn’t realize how bad this is getting.”

big part of the story here is that at this fraught moment of national introspection, Trump seems to only care about whether he’s seen to be capitulating.

* SUPPORT FOR IMPEACHMENT GROWS: A new Public Religion Research Institute poll finds Trump is viewed favorably by 38 percent of Americans, mirroring other polls. And:

Support for impeaching the president has increased significantly over the last six months. Currently, four in ten (40%) Americans believe Trump deserves to be impeached, up 10 percentage points from 30% who expressed support for this action in February.

One other tidbit: Americans believe by 49-43 that Trump has violated the Constitution. Obviously, this is all the fault of #FakeNews.


Trump is set to hold a rally in Arizona next week. It looks like he’ll be endorsing Sen. Flake’s primary challenger. That should do wonders for relations with Senate Republicans.

A LOT OF DEMOCRATS ARE RUNNING IN 2018: Political scientist Seth Masket has a good piece reporting that relative to previous years, a very large number of Democrats are running for the House, which boosts the party’s chances of taking it back:

What a large number of challengers does create is a better recruitment environment. … Political science research suggests that the recruitment of high-quality candidates explains a good deal of election outcomes — if a party can convince a large number of skilled and experienced candidates to run for office, those candidates tend to do better and the party tends to win more seats.

There are other structural factors that make winning the House an uphill battle, and it’s still very early. Still, this is a good sign.

* HOW REPUBLICANS CAN REALLY DISTANCE FROM TRUMP: E.J. Dionne Jr. points out that while Republicans are mouthing nice words of condemnation of Trump, they could also be taking meaningful actions to distance themselves from white supremacy:

Now, for example, would be an excellent time for them to pass a revised Voting Rights Act and to end their voter suppression efforts. And let there be soul-searching in the party about racial dog whistles that exploit white resentment in ways more subtle than Trump’s but still scandalous. Party leaders failed to reproach Trump unequivocally for his birtherist attacks on President Barack Obama. Birtherism was a first step toward Charlottesville.

It should be interesting to see how Republicans react to the “findings” of Trump’s vote suppression commission.

* AND IS THIS A ‘PIVOTAL MOMENT IN TRUMP’S COLLAPSE’? Historian Tim Naftali makes an interesting prediction to CNN:

“Given the trend lines today, the Charlottesville episode is likely to be viewed by later historians as a pivotal moment in President Trump’s political collapse and a defining moment in the history of the Republican Party. If it isn’t viewed in those ways, then future historians may well be writing about a very different America.”

That last line contains an ominous suggestion, but most signs are that the implied scenario here is not going to come to pass. Right now, anyway.