In first test, Trump makes big mistake

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Story highlights

  • S.E. Cupp: In first serious test of Trump's leadership, he made bad decision picking Steve Bannon for strategist job
  • She says Bannon's website is rife with bigoted, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist content.

S.E. Cupp is the author of "Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity," co-author of "Why You're Wrong About the Right" and a columnist at the New York Daily News. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)It was the first serious test of Donald Trump's leadership, and it would send an important and clear message to a country that is both excited by and terrified of his presidency.

And yet, in true Trump fashion, his appointment of both Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon to "equal" leadership posts in his cabinet has accomplished little but confusion and continued consternation over who Trump intends to be as president.
    His dilemma was clear. The chief of staff position was going to be scrutinized to the hilt, and he narrowed it down to two choices. In picking Priebus, the steady Republican National Committee chair with the folksy Wisconsin accent, he would reassure moderate Republicans and even some Democrats that he was shifting into a more conventional governance, and away from the more divisive elements he borrowed from Bannon's alt-right base.
    But in picking Bannon, president of Breitbart News, he'd pledge his fealty to his loudest supporters, reward their loyalty and show his commitment to the anti-establishment anger that got him elected.
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    Both appointments, however, were fraught with peril. Priebus is the embodiment of the establishment, which is why he is reassuring to anti-Trumpers, but often reviled by Trump's base. Trump himself once called Priebus's RNC a "disgrace" and said "Reince Priebus should be ashamed of himself" for running what he alleged was a rigged primary.
    Further, to many Never-Trump conservatives, Priebus is to blame for ushering Trump through the primary process, forgiving his many controversial transgressions, and forcing him to sign a loyalty pledge to a party for which he has shown little affection. Later, during the general election, Priebus threatened principled Republicans like John Kasich and Jeb Bush that if they didn't support Trump, they should reconsider ever running again, a move that little resembled the diplomatic Green Bay Packers fan and reeked more of his bullying nominee.
    But Steve Bannon was a far more controversial pick. His website is rife with bigoted, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist and just plain creepy content that got a huge platform boost thanks to Trump and Bannon's campaign collaboration. What was once just a fringy dark corner of the far-right came out of the shadows and into the mainstream, leading to disturbing moments on the trail, like the Trump supporter in Phoenix who yelled "Jew-S-A" at the press pen.
    The rise of Bannon's Breitbart has rightly terrified the left and the Never-Trump right. If we thought the kind of unabashed and open prejudice that marked earlier generations had been killed off by modernity, the alt-right was here to prove otherwise. The night before the election, Ann Coulter lamented on Twitter, "If only people with at least 4 grandparents born in America were voting, Trump would win in a 50-state landslide." White nationalism wasn't dead -- it had just been in hiding.
    Still, if we've learned anything about Donald Trump over the past three decades, it's that more is always better. So instead of choosing one of these two architects of the Trump presidency to become his top aide, on Sunday he chose both, appointing Priebus as chief of staff and Bannon as chief strategist.
    Splitting the baby to please everyone usually pleases no one. And this move has many wringing their hands in frustration. The country wants clarity, and this provides none. A Trump statement insists both men will have equal roles, but surely Trump will lean on one more heavily. Which one?
    This was a huge missed opportunity. The new GOP, under a President Trump, has three white guys at the top, one of whom runs a pro-white media company. This sure looks more like the America of the 1950s than one of the future.
    The idea that Trump only had these two options is also hugely shortsighted. If he were truly a courageous visionary, he could have chosen Kellyanne Conway, his tireless campaign manager who brilliantly steered him through the final harrowing months of his flailing campaign, attempting, with some success, to keep him on message and away from dumpster fires.
    Instead of head-scratching and more scrutiny, the appointment of Conway would have been met with immense positivity from both sides of the aisle and signaled to the country that he was both committed to his cause but also serious about uniting the nation.
    Empowering both Bannon and Priebus shows he's only serious about uniting the Republican Party, which isn't likely to occur with Bannon still in the picture.
    I didn't vote for Trump, but I want him to succeed, and that has to start with a clear vision that brings the country together. Hopefully, in his next crucial appointments, he can worry less about rewarding his accomplices and more about what's best for the nation.