Steve Bannon is out.
And all that has happened in — and since — Charlottesville has had paradoxical effects. It is not simply whether Bannon, who once had unfettered access to the Oval Office, is now banished from the White House, gone outright, or to go first, in transition, to the adjoining Executive Office Building with the wannabes.
For the president, this is the paradox — does he make Bannon the Fall Guy for Charlottesville by dumping him quickly, as if Bannon is to blame for the ongoing melodramatic fiasco? Or does the president rebel — so as not to be seen as acting out of weakness by throwing red meat to the mainstream media who could then rejoice that he has repudiated the ‘alt-right’ — and keep Bannon around longer?
Recall not the presidents, but the precedents. President Trump erred egregiously in appointing Gen. Mike Flynn his national security adviser, but he loyally backed Mike Flynn “with his full confidence” until, hours later, he (properly) dumped him. But the president privately and then publicly denigrated White House chief of staff Reince Priebus before forcing Priebus out, i.e., a forced resignation. And previously, the president had been undercutting a Priebus colleague, press secretary-under-siege, Sean Spicer: the low-class Scary-mooch-ee humiliating the hard-working spokesman into a resignation to salvage what was left of Spicer’s self-respect.
The president tweeted against a cabinet member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an embryonic and quintessential Trump loyalist. Trump wanted Sessions out but relented only when his new chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, among others, insisted that firing Sessions would precipitate a national crisis of confidence. And the consequence of all this: senior Republicans in the Senate and House are more empowered, against a weakened Sessions: look for them to challenge the AG’s recalcitrance on criminal justice reform, a priority of the conservative movement, whose leaders hold in distain the AG’s infatuation with the discredited War on Drugs, his renewal of draconian punishments for drug offenses, his resistance to state’s rights on marijuana decriminalization. When I attended the libertarian Freedom Fest in Las Vegas last month, the mention of Sessions’ name was booed.
When and how Bannon’s fate is announced is, for now, still up (but not for long) to the Goldman Sachs alumnus-turned-populist. But time is running out for this iconoclast’s remotely dignified exit. Unlike the bumbling and obnoxious Scary-mooch-ee, who again proves that even a very rich guy can be a buffoon, Bannon was no opportunist seeking a media splash. He was content to be in the background, so unorthodox in his ideas in a Republican Administration, that he sought a tax hike for the wealthy, among other effects, a perverse assault on the affluent Hollywood elite.
Insiders know that, despite President Donald Trump’s degradation of Bannon’s role in the upset electoral victory, Bannon as the campaign’s principal strategist was sine qua non. Reince Priebus was the nuts-and-bolts guy who skillfully allocated the resources, but it was Bannon’s vision that was dispositive. And some others in the campaign, who celebrated in the glory of the media spotlight… they were, let’s be blunt, props. Indeed, the person most responsible for the proverbial “Hail Mary” play in what turned into the pivotal decisive state, notably, Michigan, was Steve Bannon.
Bannon’s fate was sealed with the elevation of Gen. John Kelly as White House chief of staff. Kelly, at least for the time being, has the authority that Priebus lacked, to assert hegemony over a chaotic White House with disparate factions and competing leakers. A White House divided, to paraphrase, cannot stand. Kelly would instinctively support any national security adviser, but especially another general, H.R. McMaster.
Consider the irony. A few days ago the Administration secured a unanimous UN vote, even including Russia and China (!), against North Korea. And now this totalitarian nation has, at least for now, repudiated its talk of “attacking” Guam. Does the Trump Administration get any credit for this? No, not because the mainstream media is biased against it, but because President Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville has upstaged a foreign policy triumph, just as he has upstaged other accomplishments of his Administration.
Would you think that Kelly and McMaster are exasperated? And what about Defense Secretary James Mattis, consumed with contingency plans for war against North Korea? Suppose our intelligence showed that rogue nation about to attack, and the U.S. military then moved, immediately and preemptively, and decisively; while war had started, there would then be a presidential address to the nation. Mattis wants a president whose credibility is intact when he tells the American people the truth. In other words, how the president acts and how he is perceived as a moral force is not unrelated to the existential — do we have war or peace?
As for H.R. McMaster: Bannon’s detractors reacted to Breitbart’s attacks on the national security adviser as if Bannon still runs Breitbart. But Bannon’s allies have made no secret of their contempt for McMaster, who is seen as unfaithful to Trump’s supposed flirtation with isolationism. In fact, Trump effectively sublet foreign affairs and national security to a triumvirate of McMaster, and two normally assertive leaders and abnormally frustrated cabinet members — Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Mattis is an easy fit at the Pentagon, but long-time corporate CEO Tillerson is undercut at State, not only by a diplomatic bureaucracy hostile generally to change and especially to Trump, but by White House kibitzers and the president himself.
Now, about Steve Bannon, who erred at the outset by seeking a seat on the National Security Council. This was hubris and a profound miscalculation. Then there was the premature rollout of a flawed travel plan, and Bannon’s enemies blamed Bannon, when the responsibility for this debacle included several others, at least one of whom has emerged inexplicably with his head high.
With his infatuation with the ‘alt-right’ nomenclature, Bannon became the icon of a rampant nationalism, apparently exploited by racists and bigots. Holding himself above the fray, Bannon condoned, if not enabled, this exploitation, and the consequent assassination on his own character. He is not remotely a white supremacist or a Jew-hater, but in his departure from political reality, he has allowed the charge to fester.
In all the tumult, it is worth discussing — this Orwellian assault on history, the idea that an evolving political correctness should determine which historic figure is sufficiently flawed, to remove his statute. Yes, we should continue to honor George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and so forth. But the president seems to be singularly inappropriate for such a reasoned discourse, given the rhetorical volatility he has fostered.
Instead, when it comes to morality, we are given to his fits and starts, and once again to symbols and sacrifice.
Steve Bannon is a symbol, and soon a sacrifice.