Christopher Buskirk is editor and publisher of the website American Greatness and co-author, with Seth Leibsohn, of “American Greatness: How Conservatism, Inc. Missed the 2016 Election & What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn.”
You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, but President Trump is emerging from the furor over Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” as the winner. For all the seemingly damaging headlines coming out of Stephen K. Bannon’s disclosures to Wolff, the book represents a political victory for Trump, one that could improve his party’s prospects heading into the midterm elections.
The reasoning underlying this counterintuitive conclusion is simple: Trump’s disavowal of Bannon, his former campaign chief executive and White House strategist, and Bannon’s ensuing contrition reminds fractious Republicans that this is Trump’s party now. Political leaders must be either feared or loved. Trump showed that he should be feared by his rivals. This demonstration will help hold together the nascent congressional consensus that formed around the Trump agenda late last year after months of grumbling and inaction. The burgeoning sense of the possible and the politically necessary facilitated a long-sought tax bill that included a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate.
For Bannon, receiving a public excoriation at the hands of the president he once served must be excruciating. But for the president, it is liberating and politically beneficial.
Trump’s assertion that Bannon joined the campaign late, after the candidate had already developed his platform of border security, middle-class growth and interests-based foreign policy, is true. But it is also true that Bannon stuck with Trump and helped guide the campaign to ultimate victory. In the final dash to Election Day, Trump needed a Lee Atwater type — a street fighter. But once in the White House, Bannon’s role was less clear, and the president chafed at claims that Bannon controlled his administration’s agenda.
Accusations that Trump is being manipulated by his advisers — always wrong but nonetheless repeated so often as to take on the appearance of truth — must now cease. And so must the rhetorical conflation of Trump and Bannon. Trump must be seen as his own man and judged by his own words. Advisers, including Cabinet secretaries and their staffs, who have gossiped and leaked are on notice: Respect the man and the office or seek other employment.
This interpretation runs counter to the wishful thinking of those who see Wolff’s book as a means to resurrect the allegations of West Wing chaos that prevailed early in 2017. It won’t work. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly put an end to it months ago, and the manifest shortcomings of Wolff’s reporting undermine the narrative.
Despite the media circus surrounding the salacious but questionable allegations in Wolff’s book, most Trump supporters don’t care. Nor do they care much about the very public row between the president and Bannon. They care about what the president and his administration can do for them. They support Trump because he articulated and, increasingly, is enacting an agenda they believe will improve their lives and secure the future peace and prosperity of the country. It’s that simple.
What has been missed is that the split with Bannon strengthens the president’s position within the Republican Party. Peevish congressional Republicans should take note: This president is keeping score. What’s more, with Bannon clearly out of Trump’s inner circle, there can be no whispers of a power structure outside the White House. Like Ronald Reagan, Trump keeps his own counsel. There is no Valerie Jarrett or Karl Rove. It’s just the president and his agenda.
There is still a significant war of ideas taking place among conservatives, but Trump’s decisive and, frankly, ruthless action regarding Bannon is a step toward uniting the party ahead of the elections. It is also an overdue lesson in humility for everyone serving in government.
For Republicans, Bannon’s bad week doesn’t change the issues at stake in this year’s congressional primaries. There will still be old-school Republicans running against a crop of candidates arguing that the Trump policy agenda represents the future of the party. But with Trump firmly in control, the candidates can debate the policies and the ideas behind them without the distraction of an Avignon papacy.
Candidates such as Kelli Ward in Arizona, Josh Hawley in Missouri and Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee haven’t changed their plans because of Wolff or Bannon. They will still make the case to voters for economic policies that expand the middle class, for a pro-citizen immigration policy and for a foreign policy that is circumspect about foreign military engagement. And with Trump firmly in control, they will have a better chance of winning.