The empire always strikes back. And permanent Washington wants to retake the power and prestige it lost at the hands of Donald Trump over the past 18 months. The bipartisan media monopoly closed ranks in opposition to Trump and he won anyway. Desperate and discredited the same forces that opposed Trump before the election doubled down after he won.
Look at the desperate measures deployed against President Trump. There was no honeymoon period, no benefit of the doubt, no coming together—even if only temporarily—for the good of the country. There has been nothing but total war. From day one it’s been a take no prisoners, burn the boats, salt the earth, destroy the president by any means necessary, all out war on the Trump Administration.
And now Morning Joe, a reliable mouthpiece for the self-interested D.C. uber alles crowd, has decided they want another scalp. Realizing that sidelining a Mike Flynn, a KT McFarland, or an Andy Puzder isn’t nearly enough, but encouraged by their ability to draw blood, they’re hunting bigger game. This time they have set their sites on Steve Bannon and the stakes are significantly higher because of what he represents to core Trump supporters.
Donald Trump succeeded where so many other Republicans had failed because he had the strategic vision—and the courage—to forge a partnership with populists like Bannon and base Republicans like Mike Pence. That’s the Trump coalition and it works. Nonetheless, at least 50% of the Republican establishment alternately fears and despises Trump and are either actively working against him or secretly hoping he will fail so that they can regain lost status. Among rank and file Republicans that number is less than 10%. Remember: Donald Trump won more votes than any Republican ever.
That’s why Republicans who refused to campaign with Trump before the election and denigrated him publicly now appear to have undergone deathbed conversions. They are eager to appear to be working with the president but how many, in their heart of hearts, have really changed their mind?
Full frontal assaults on the Trump juggernaut failed spectacularly. If anything, they empowered him by making the D.C. Establishment—an amorphous blob but one generally despised by voters—appear corrupt and impotent. But Beltway insiders are nothing if not adaptable survivors able to shapeshift and change tactics as necessary.
The battle isn’t Bannon v. Kushner as some in the press would have us believe, it’s Washington v. Trump.
Unable to defeat Trump with a year of attacks that turned into kamikaze missions and have left reputations for political acumen in tatters they have adopted a more subtle strategy designed to break up his coalition. If his political adversaries can separate Trump from his base he will be defanged. Part of that strategy is to take down Bannon who is one of the only representatives of the populist wing of the coalition with a prominent role in the White House.
Coalition government isn’t difficult to understand but it requires a deft hand to maintain. The partners are naturally suspicious of the others and are always seeking the upper hand. But they can be both durable and effective if all of the partners realize that without each other they will lose power. That requires a strong, active executive that enjoys the trust and respect of all the members of the coalition. Reagan did it. And Trump can too. But it’s a new coalition—as Reagan’s was in the spring of 1981—and it requires nurturing in these early, tentative days.
Yet, Trump is in a more difficult place than Reagan was as he enjoyed the support of the major conservative, libertarian, and social institutions that formed his coalition. Many, if not most, of those institutions opposed Trump during the election and remain overtly hostile or maintain a wary silence even now. That makes Trump even more reliant upon his Main Street base who expect to see campaign promises kept.
Steve Bannon, like Jeff Sessions, embodies those promises to a significant part of the Trump coalition.
All presidents listen to someone—that’s not a knock on any of them, presidents need advisers—and voters want to know who has the president’s ear. Is it someone who is aligned with and believes in the president’s agenda like Bannon or Sessions or is it a representative of a revanchist counter-reformation?
The forces arrayed against the president couldn’t win the war at the ballot box so now they’re trying to steal the victory. Ronald Reagan won two massive electoral victories but it was Republican senators who blocked him from achieving some of his key domestic promises like shuttering the Department of Education. And though Reagan and Reaganism captured the imagination and loyalty of rank and file voters, it was the Bushes who captured the party and killed Reagan’s legacy.
The same dynamics are at play today. Donald Trump promised to drain the swamp. A lot of people make a very good living in that swamp—just look at housing prices in and around Washington, D.C.—so he shouldn’t be surprised that the plethora of parasitic fauna dependent for their survival on the swamp’s ecosystem see him (correctly) as a threat to their survival. Nothing unites like a common enemy.
What they couldn’t take with brute force they’ll try and get with fraud and fulsome words. But as the preacher in Ecclesiastes says, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” The formula is the same as it’s ever been: Whisper, flatter, promise the world and everything in it. The temptation of the president has the goal of separating him from his base and thereby from power.
Permanent Washington wields only one weapon: the promise of its own warm embrace. They’re the Mean Girls of American political culture. Fall in line and we’ll write nice things about you in our papers and say nice things about you on our shows. We’ll stop calling you a fascist and start calling you a statesman.
But as Reagan gamely observed, there’s a difference between critics and box office. A movie can succeed without the critics but never without the box office. Voters are box office. And voters want the Trump they saw during the campaign. Part of the attraction is the agenda but voters were also attracted to a man they saw was willing to take on the establishment and who would stay loyal to his friends and loyal to ordinary Americans not to permanent Washington.
The people who want to see Trump fail understand that if they can convince him to give up his advisers one by one that they will slowly separate him from his base. The promise of good press will prove ephemeral. Washington is built to destroy Republican presidents and right now the road to victory runs right through Steve Bannon’s office.
Giving him up won’t change the hostility to the president. It won’t make the forces arrayed against him suddenly support enforcement of immigration laws or an America First national security policy. It won’t make them give up on crony capitalism or the administrative state. And Jared and Ivanka won’t get the Camelot coverage they’re being promised.
And those making the promises? Their lips drip honey and their speech is smoother than oil, but in the end they are bitter as wormwood and their path leads to destruction. The more likely scenario is that if those calling for Bannon’s head get it they will target the Kushners next. That’s because the battle isn’t Bannon v. Kushner as some in the press would have us believe, it’s Washington v. Trump.
Donald Trump and the people who want to see him succeed need to remember a few things:
- The flatterers, phonies, and sycophants who disparaged him during the campaign, the transition, and the early days of his presidency still want his presidency to fail. They denounced him, his agenda, and his supporters in the most personal and vicious terms possible: fascist, thug, racist, etc. Nothing has changed.
- Democrats and the D.C. media will never support Trump or his agenda. The idea that there are 45 House Democrats who will form a bloc of swing votes to move that agenda is laughable. If you don’t think so, just try and make a list.
- As long as Trump can keep conservative populists and “the party” working together he has a 55%-60% governing coalition with broad, deep support.
- Throwing Bannon to the wolves is a political trap set by the president’s enemies to break up a new coalition that Democrats can’t beat.
- The perception is the reality—if the president is believed to lack loyalty then people who work with and for him will adjust their calculations accordingly. This will affect everything. It will encourage his enemies, harm his ability to pass legislation in Congress and make it more difficult to hire and retain smart, dedicated staff committed to prosecuting his agenda.
Newt Gingrich recently said that “Bannon is a brilliant pirate who has had a huge impact. But White Houses, in the end, are like the U.S. Navy—corporate structures and very hard on pirates.” Perhaps. But Queen Elizabeth made the piratical Sir Francis Drake an admiral so that he could defeat the Spanish Armada. There is an armada assembled against President Trump. Maybe this White House could use a pirate.