Presidential advisers feud. There was Colin Powell vs. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Valerie Jarrett vs. Rahm Emanuel. Jarrett vs. Bill Daley. Presidents change their advisers. Bill Clinton dumped his chief of staff and press secretary in the midst of a bumpy first two years. Barack Obama, whose supporters dubbed him “No Drama Obama,” shuffled through four chiefs of staff in a 16-month period during his first term. Clinton and Bush won second terms. Obama not only won re-election, he also stabilized his staff (he had a single chief, Denis McDonough, for his final four years) and left office with high approval ratings.
So when you read reports of infighting in President Trump’s administration, you should not necessarily take it as a signal of broader problems with the Trump White House. It would be entirely normal for a president in his first year to be trying to figure out who is most effective among his staffers and be potentially ready to dump some of the less-solid ones. It’s like when a losing basketball team starts fighting amongst itself: It’s hard to tell if the losing is causing the tension, or the tension is causing the losing. With some of the administration’s major initiatives (health care bill, travel ban) stalled and the president’s approval ratings in dismal territory, it would in some ways be surprising if Trump’s staff were not frustrated with one another.
I wouldn’t recommend, therefore, paying too much attention to the current raft of palace-intrigue stories regarding the Trump administration.
With one exception.
There’s one adviser whose stock you should care about: Steve Bannon. It’s not just that Bannon, as Trump’s chief strategist, has a powerful role. Rather, Bannon has advocated for a mix of nationalist and populist views that are distinct from the views of most of the people who create the Republican Party’s policies, including those in Congress, state governments and even the rest of the Trump administration.
Trump essentially has four kinds of Republicans in top roles: ideological conservatives like Vice President Mike Pence; more party-establishment figures like Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump, who had few deep ties to the GOP before Donald Trump started running for president; and the Bannon wing of nationalist-populist ideology. The personal feuds may be compelling, but they’re much less important than whether Trump starts governing mostly through one of those GOP styles — or whether he sharply abandons one. So watch not for the decline of Bannon, but for the decline of Bannonism.
What’s Bannonism? The former Breitbart editor opposes broad international trade agreements and favors an adversarial relationship between the Trump administration and the news media, as well as between the administration and the federal bureaucracy. He wants very tough policies on illegal immigration, has called for limiting refugees from the Middle East from coming to the U.S., and has expressed deep concerns about the rise of Islam, both at home and abroad.
It is hard to imagine Karl Rove, who was George W. Bush’s top political adviser, speaking about the need for America to “let our sovereignty come back,” bashing the “corporatist, globalist media,” calling for the creation of a “new political order” and emphasizing, “we are a nation with a culture — and a reason for being.” These are all lines from a single interview Bannon gave in February.
Bannon’s views are not shared by all Republicans or even all those who work at the White House. So if Bannon departed and that led to a decline in the amount of nationalism and populism that appears in Trump’s rhetoric and policies, that would be an important shift.
We don’t know, however, if Bannon is the sole protector of “America First” policies in the White House. Bannon has, at times, been covered that way by the press — the idea of the Time Magazine cover story in February, which dubbed Bannon “The Great Manipulator,” was that Trump’s strategist was setting the policy, in some ways more than the president.
But Bannon, according to The New York Times, met Trump in 2011. He became a top campaign adviser to the real estate mogul in August 2016. Trump has been complaining that the U.S. is getting ripped off in trade agreements since at least the 1990s. 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.” In 2014, Trump went to Iowa to campaign for U.S. Rep. Steve King, perhaps the most anti-immigration member of the United States Congress.
So Trump was espousing nationalist ideas long before he reportedly met Bannon. What if Trump hired Bannon because Bannon already agreed with Trump on the big issues? In that case, Trump might continue to put forward policies that Bannon would be likely to back, even if the chief strategist left the White House. Trump has already installed another strong opponent of illegal immigration, Jeff Sessions, as the head of the Justice Department, giving him broad authority to implement Trump’s vision.
That question of how committed Trump is to Bannon-style policies would be easier to answer if we knew who would replace Bannon if he left. If Bannon’s chief strategist role or many of his duties were handed to Kushner or Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, that could portend a broader shift, with Trump potentially governing from the center and trying to build more coalitions with Democrats. Cohn, like Kushner and Ivanka Trump, has few formal ties to the Republican Party and used to donate to some Democrats, including Hillary Clinton when she ran for president in the 2008 cycle.
On the other hand, Stephen Miller, Trump’s policy chief and another influential adviser, shares many of Bannon’s views. If Bannon were to leave the White House and be replaced as chief strategist by Miller or someone else who takes similar positions, it would be hard to read that as a decline in the president’s commitment to more nationalist policies.
Still, we know Bannon is a powerful advocate for a nationalist, populist agenda in the White House that, if implemented, would be a huge break with the status quo in Washington. If that agenda loses primacy, it’s news. And it might already be losing ground. Asked on Tuesday if he still had confidence in Bannon, Trump said, “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late.”