As rumors about Stephen K. Bannon’s departure from the White House bubbled over the course of the week, President Trump’s now-ousted chief strategist took the opportunity to bend the ears of various reporters. On Thursday, he sent an email to The Washington Post to explain why he was still confident that the administration would be successful politically, even as he surely knew that he would soon be leaving it.
“This past election, the Democrats used every personal attack, including charges of racism, against President Trump,” Bannon wrote. “He then won a landslide victory on a straightforward platform of economic nationalism. As long as the Democrats fail to understand this, they will continue to lose. But leftist elites do not value history, so why would they learn from history?”
This is, of course, precisely the sort of statement we might expect from the guy who once ran Breitbart News (and who may well soon run it again): Heavy on rhetoric, less so on accuracy.
Trump didn’t win in a landslide; he won thanks to 78,000 votes in three states while losing the popular vote by more than 2 million. He did not have a straightforward platform of “economic nationalism”; his platform, as presented at the Republican National Convention, instead focused heavily on the sort of scaremongering that was pervasive at Breitbart as well. America was under threat from criminals, terrorists and immigrants who had entered the country illegally, and Trump would hold them at bay. Trade was included, too, mostly by way of disparaging trade agreements and pledging the return of manufacturing jobs, but that argument, too, was laced with anti-immigrant rhetoric.
What Bannon brought to his job as chief strategist was nationalism without the “economic” modifier. Sure, he opposed those trade deals, but it’s hard to extricate that from his broader sense of isolationism and distrust of global relationships. When Trump was a guest on Bannon’s radio show in late 2015, Bannon pushed Trump further on immigration than Trump himself was prepared to go, criticizing the increase in Asian immigrants in executive-level positions in Silicon Valley. Such concerns were included in the White House’s recently unveiled immigration plan, introduced at the daily press briefing by senior adviser Stephen Miller.
Bannon’s out of the White House, but Miller — whose relationship with Trump predates Bannon’s — is still there. So is the heart of the Bannon-Breitbart worldview, that sense of a nation under threat from immigrants and criminals and a need to protect working-class white American workers. It’s embodied in Trump himself.
Sure, Trump’s background is that of a moderate, international businessman. But over the course of the campaign and since his inauguration, he has been single-minded in his dedication to the voters who brought him to the White House, many of whom, he is convinced, hold to the views in the preceding paragraph. (Others hold to a strongly evangelical position focused on religious liberty and other social issues; Trump has gone out of his way to stay true to them, as well.) Some of this has been ascribed to Bannon’s influence, keeping Trump focused on delivering for that base. It’s clear, though, that much of it also derives from Trump’s unique sense of loyalty. His decision to, however obliquely, come to the defense of the white nationalists who protested at Charlottesville last weekend was something that came from Trump’s gut as he spoke to reporters Tuesday.
If Bannon decides to train his well-honed ability to mobilize anger at the White House, then, who is he likely to target? A president who largely agrees with the Breitbart agenda (thanks, in part, to being an avid consumer of it)? Or the people around Trump who might try to turn him back into the Manhattan moderate he once was?
The Post’s Robert Costa has been speaking with people close to Bannon, and he gets the sense it’s the latter.
One theme I'm picking up: Bannon believes next battle is *not* w/ Trump but w/ Kushner/Cohn/Dina/HR McMaster. "Save Trump," as one R put it.
— Robert Costa (@costareports) August 18, 2017
This makes sense. Sure, if Trump takes a position that Breitbart and Bannon see as antithetical to their agenda, some negative press would likely result. But Bannon has always been at odds with the more centrist parts of the White House, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Perhaps Bannon’s willingness to aim fire at those opponents was constrained to some extent by working side-by-side with those people, limiting his rabble-rousing to strategically leaked news items. Now, he is unconstrained. If a Trump adviser does something that Bannon feels will pull Trump away from the agenda he advocates, there’s no reason now for him to feel that same constraint.
What’s worth remembering here is that Trump’s agenda, as outlined at the Republican convention last July, preceded Bannon’s time working for Trump (which began a year ago this week). Trump was onboard with Bannon’s agenda before Bannon was onboard with Trump’s campaign team. If Bannon wants to use the power of his media empire to undercut anyone at the White House, his first targets will be the same people he would have targeted two years ago at this time: Those who, unlike Trump, aren’t sympathetic to his own brand of nationalism, economic or otherwise.
And then there’s this point, made jokingly by journalist John Herrman, but which is true to the history of how the president operates.
Steve Bannon Relegated To Merely Talking On The Phone With The President Every Day
— John Herrman (@jwherrman) August 18, 2017
Bannon will continue to have the ability to be heard by the president. His ability to put pressure on his former colleagues, though, just increased significantly.