What if upon taking office in January, President Trump had carefully balanced the insurgent influence of Steve Bannon, his chief strategist (now gone), with the establishment-friendly approach of Reince Priebus, his chief of staff (now gone) — and governed as a kinder, gentler, more media-savvy populist?
It wasn’t so long ago that such an outcome seemed possible. In January, The Atlantic’s David Frum envisioned a scenario in which Trump passed a truly populist program of “big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits,” along with “restrictive immigration policies.” Such an agenda would prove fairly popular, Frum imagined, leading to Trump’s easy re-election in 2020. Trump would continue to push everyone’s boundaries but would also pick his battles somewhat carefully; there might be a border wall,1 for instance, but there would be no mass deportations of illegal immigrants.
Instead, almost the exact opposite has occurred. Trump has maintained most of populism’s rough edges — including its tendency to inflame racial resentment, as was evidenced by his comments on the Charlottesville white supremacist rally earlier this week. But he’s adopted few of the policies that actually make populism popular — or, at least, made it popular enough for Trump to win the Electoral College.
This isn’t Bannon’s fault — it’s Trump’s.
Take the various iterations of the Republican health care bill, which Bannon was reportedly lukewarm about. It proposed massive cuts to Medicaid spending and would greatly have reduced subsidies for older, poorer Americans — exactly the people who helped propel Trump to victory in November. And it would have done all of this partly to finance tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthy. It was one of the least populist bills that one can imagine. And it cost Trump politically; his approval rating fell significantly while the bill was first being debated in March and then again after it finally failed to pass the Senate last month.
Or take Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. There was nothing especially populist about the Comey firing, which put Trump — who campaigned as a “law and order” president — at odds with the intelligence community. And like health care, it’s brought nothing but trouble for him, having led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller and having further hurt Trump’s popularity rating. But it wasn’t Bannon’s doing; he reportedly opposed the firing. Instead, more establishment-friendly figures such as Jared Kushner had reportedly advocated for canning Comey.
But when Bannon prevailed and won internal arguments against Kushner or Priebus or new chief of staff John Kelly, it didn’t turn out all that well for Trump, either. The “travel ban” that Trump implemented at Bannon’s urging in January wasn’t all that unpopular, but its implementation was a mess, leading it to be repeatedly struck down by the courts until the Supreme Court finally allowed a narrow version of it in June. Trump’s Charlottesville response, which was reportedly cheered on by Bannon, has also been a disaster, producing a major backlash from the business community and from establishment Republicans.
The overall result is a president who has yet to sign any major legislation into law — and who has a much greater base of opposition than a base of support. (As of earlier this month, 47 percent of Americans strongly disapproved of Trump’s job performance, while just 20 percent strongly approved of it.) That could make it hard for Trump to “pivot”; he may have alienated too many voters to expand his support, but his base isn’t all that large either.
It’s easy to imagine how things theoretically could turn out better for Trump in the aftermath of Bannon’s firing. Trump could use the firing as an excuse to turn the page on Charlottesville, for example, or to repair relations, with Kelly’s help, with Republicans on Capitol Hill.
But Trump has more often gotten the worst of all possible worlds. He could wind up with Bannon as a dangerous outside antagonist who knows many of the White House’s secrets, for example, while elevating Kushner — who seems to have consistently given Trump bad advice — into a position of greater influence. And Trump’s most self-destructive impulses aren’t likely to be affected one way or another because they come not from Bannon or Kushner or Kelly but from Trump himself.