The departure of Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, from the White House on Friday may not mean much of anything.
When I described the eight main “power centers” in the Trump administration in an article earlier this year, I emphasized what I called the “Bannon Wing” and included in that bloc figures like Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both of whom remain in the government. This group, I argued, had the biggest potential to change U.S. policy because its policy preferences differed from much of the Republican Party establishment’s. On economic matters, the Bannon group was generally more populist than the rest of the GOP, wary of international free trade agreements like NAFTA and viewing China chiefly as an economic rival. And on issues of race and identity, this group was pushing a kind of conservative identity politics, from favoring limits on legal immigration and the building of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico to harboring deep skepticism about Islam.
But these views don’t die just because Bannon is leaving the administration. All evidence, both from Trump’s past and his seven months as president, suggests that he himself is a “nationalist” (as Bannon dubbed his own political ideology), with or without his one-time chief strategist.
More than a decade before he was the president, Trump complained that the U.S. was being ripped off in trade deals, and now, he is pushing his administration to reconsider such agreements. He was touting his proposal for a border wall well before Bannon formally joined the Trump presidential campaign. In office, Trump praised John Kelly’s work as homeland security secretary in deporting undocumented immigrants and then promoted Kelly to chief of staff. In a 2011 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump said that there was a “Muslim problem” and that the Quran “teaches some very negative vibe.” It’s not clear if Bannon urged Trump to make remarks this week suggesting that white supremacists were on an equal moral footing with people protesting racial injustice. But Trump made racially charged comments before Bannon started working for him, most notably his repeated (and false) claims that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.
So Bannon-style views will still be represented in the West Wing. It is hard to see Trump reversing himself on the border wall, the temporary ban on people from some majority-Muslim countries entering the U.S., or other issues because Bannon is gone. Miller, who is heavily involved in Trump’s speeches and policy stances, remains. So does Sessions, who is pushing Trump’s agenda on issues like stripping federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities.
And even while Bannon was in the White House, he wasn’t always swaying Trump anyway, particularly on economic issues. For example, the president has not declared China a currency manipulator despite his campaign pledge to do so.
So will Bannon’s exit change anything? Well, the administration’s internal feuds could be less tense and less public. Bannon and his allies viewed themselves as advancing the true views of the president while arguing that other members of the administration were trying to impose establishment views on Trump. That fight often played out in public. Bannon-aligned staffers on the National Security Council, for example, were allegedly the unnamed sources behind stories that attacked national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Several of those aides were pushed out a few weeks ago. Bannon aide Sebastian Gorka has issued statements on foreign policy that contradicted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s views. Gorka is rumored to be on the way out as well. Bannon himself gave a long interview to The American Prospect in which he publicly disagreed with the administration’s North Korea policy. He is now gone.
That said, even with Bannon out, Trump’s administration still includes at least seven power centers. (Virtually all the staffers who were aligned with Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, have departed, effectively eliminating the “Party Wing” of the White House. I think the Bannon Wing remains, even if its namesake is gone.) Trump’s administration contains a weird mix of strong conservatives (the wing led by Vice President Mike Pence), Wall Street types (White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn), foreign policy hawks (Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley) and his family members (Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump). These groups disagree with one another (Kushner and Ivanka Trump are less conservative on issues like abortion and LGBT rights than is Pence, for instance) and with Trump (his foreign policy team is much more skeptical of Russia than the president is). The federal bureaucracy is likely to remain in some tension with Trump, and figures like Kelly and Tillerson still have powerful jobs, even if they don’t fit into an obvious wing.
The administration may be less internally divided with Bannon gone, but it’s still a long way from being ideologically or politically united.
And ultimately, as this week showed, the Trump administration’s tendency toward chaos and its white nationalist rhetoric come from the president himself. Trump, not Bannon, is the architect of the administration’s nationalist policies. Trump, not Bannon, does the combative press conferences and tweets in defense of Confederate monuments. The chief strategist is gone, but the strategist-in-chief remains.