On July 31, 2017, John F. Kelly replaced Reince Priebus as the White House Chief of Staff. In the days that followed, Kelly ushered in the Administration’s first major leadership reshuffle. Estranged Republicans, disenchanted with the trajectory of the party under Trump, were simmering with hope yet again. Some found reason for optimism in the removal of Bannon. Others – even those of us who have followed Trump long enough to know the President’s flamboyance and impulsiveness were too great for any one person to tame – looked to Kelly to bring cold and rigor to the Oval Office.
Trump will be Trump but perhaps, our naive reasoning had it, new cabinet members would manage to brew a conservative antidote to the populo-nationalist fantasia taking over the GOP.
Today, the specter of Bannon continues to haunt Trump’s presidency. So what that the insurgent political operative has been out for close to six months and that Trump blissfully assures that he “lost his mind” and “has nothing to do with me or my presidency”? Trump’s actions, endorsements, and statements are indistinguishable from the Bannon playbook – the ultimate testament that their recent feud is rooted in self-aggrandizing personalities rather than ideologies.
In the U.S. Senate special election in Alabama in 2017, Trump briefly had Luther Strange’s back in the primary before shifting his support to Roy Moore in the general election. Judge Moore, a Bannon favorite and an omnipresent name in Breitbart editorials, established himself as an unabashed critic of the political class. Moore has repeatedly made inflammatory statements antithetical to the core national, conservative, and human decency ideals.
In his infamous interview with The Guardian that likely had President Reagan spinning in his grave, Moore contended that the declaration about the Soviet Union being “the focus of evil in the modern world” can be applied to the US for “promoting a lot of bad things in the world” – an addendum to his statements that “homosexuality should probably be illegal”; “Muslims cannot hold office in the United States”; and “9/11 might have happened because we distanced ourselves from God.” The toxic attacks put aside, Moore has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women – allegations that Trump, unlike many of his fellow Republicans, was much too willing to overlook.
Not only did Trump officially endorse Moore, but he was generous enough to record robocalls enticing Alabamians to cast their vote for the judge. At the time of the election, Trump and Bannon no longer worked together; yet the two, it seems, did not fall far from the same ideological tree. To Trump – just as to Bannon – the fact that Moore was riding the same tide of firebrand populism that had brought them to power in 2016 mattered more than the candidate’s record and fitness for office.
The president’s recent “shithole countries” remark at a White House meeting with lawmakers also reeks of Bannonism. Instead of approaching the all-important immigration question with tact and grace, Trump combined his usual vitriol with Bannon’s fierce anti-immigrant sentiment to spew out the generalized, highly insensitive, and offensive comment. There is a distinction between proposing to cut immigration levels and transition to a more merit-based system – the issue most of we Republicans feel strongly about – and denigrating a whole group of countries because of their unfortunate geopolitical fate and economic standing.
Underlying the carelessness of Trump’s statement is another Bannonian belief that how other countries feel about the United States is unimportant. So what if small, poor, and less powerful states are offended? And offended they are – Botswana, for example, summoned the U.S. ambassador to express its dismay at the comments made by the leader of the free world.
The Trump-Bannon thinking contrasts sharply with the mainstream conservative view that if our country is to remain the world superpower – one that enemies fear, allies respect, and freedom-loving people look up to as the greatest source of hope and inspiration – we should act prudently and diplomatically.
The Trump-Bannon feud is by no means an ideological disagreement over the future of our party – the party of Lincoln and Reagan. We are witnessing a standoff between the two men with the same ideology whose groundless ambition and self-serving desires outpace each other.