Trump's populist wing on the rise

Story highlights

  • Trump is turning back to the populist, nationalist DNA that underpinned his 2016 campaign
  • His new direction clearly fits in to the "America First" ideology that fueled his rise

Washington (CNN)So much for the eclipse of the Steve Bannon wing of the Trump administration.

Barely weeks ago, after President Donald Trump described his firebrand political guru in a Wall Street Journal interview as just "a guy who works for me," speculation was rife that Bannon was on his way out of the White House.
But the former Wall Street investment banker and Breitbart News supremo, who said earlier this year the administration's goal is nothing less than the "deconstruction of the administrative state" put his head down.
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    Now, a string of sharp turns by the President back toward the populist, nationalist DNA that underpinned his 2016 campaign have Trumpologists, who keep track of who is up and who is down in the chaotic West Wing, sensing Bannon ascendent.
    Trump's recent embrace of populist positions has seen him announce an exit from the Paris climate accord. He unleashed searing criticism of NATO leaders in Brussels two weeks ago and is using the London terror attacks to renew his push for a travel ban on residents of a group of predominantly Muslim nations.
    All of those issues were important themes in an election campaign in which Trump harnessed extreme dissatisfaction in the heartland over the political establishment. And his new direction clearly fits in to the "America First" ideology that fueled his rise, and with which Bannon is closely identified.
    Trump doubled down on the campaign-style rhetoric on Monday night.
    "We need a TRAVEL BAN for certain DANGEROUS countries, not some politically correct term that won't help us protect our people!" Trump tweeted.
    He has also intensified his disruptive, convention-rattling behavior, for example picking a fight with Sadiq Khan on Twitter, even as the London mayor dealt with the aftermath of a horrific terror attack.
    The feud allowed the President to renew the charges that political correctness is to blame for a wave of terror attacks by homegrown Islamic radicals in Europe.
    It's possible that Trump's populist turn is the product of weeks of pressure on the President from Bannon. But it's just as likely that faced with the political crisis consuming his administration, Trump has decided to go back to his comfort zone -- the issues and rhetoric that made him such a political sensation last year.
    After all, Trump's populist positions on issues like terrorism, trade and immigration long predated Bannon's arrival on the campaign -- just months before Trump won the White House.

    Kushner's issues

    For now at least, Trump's populist direction seems to invalidate notions popular in the Washington punditry that his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump could exert a moderating influence on the improvisational commander-in-chief.
    Ivanka Trump had sought to convince her father to remain in the climate accord and her failure to do has raised questions about assumptions that she is a political force in the administration.
    Questions being raised in recent weeks about Kushner's alleged involvement in setting up a secret diplomatic back channel with the Russians meanwhile have dragged him into the imbroglio consuming the entire administration.
    That could give running room for his foes within the administration to drive a wedge between Kushner and Trump.

    Approval rating tanking

    Trump's turn toward the Bannon wing of his administration, in many ways, makes political sense.
    The President's approval rating has dipped below 40% in some polls, meaning that he can ill afford to lose the fervent support of his base -- one reason why his tough on terror pose that many of his voters like may work out well for him.
    By using his vast Twitter following, and striking themes like terrorism and climate change that electrify his supporters, Trump can solidify his political base.
    Already, Trump's hopes for staving off a rout of Republicans in the mid-term elections next year and even winning re-election in 2020 depend on keeping his most loyal supporters motivated.
    So it's imperative to provide them with a regular dose of authentic Trumpism.
    Yet Trump is also taking a big political risk.
    His tweets on the London attacks may delight his supporters, but they raise questions about whether he is besmirching he decorum that is inherent in the Presidency itself.
    The notion that an American President would personally single out a senior political figure in a closely allied nation that is counting its dead from a terror attack, rather than simply express empathy, seems barely credible.
    But somehow it's not surprising for Trump -- evidence that the unorthodox, outsider approach that delights his supporters and unnerves establishment politicians is still the animating force of the administration.
    There's another potential downside provoked by Trump's populist turn -- he is trampling all over his own White House's attempts to get his presidency back on track, as the Russia investigation's cloud swirls and his legislative agenda stalls.
    Just on Monday, the President's transatlantic Twitter tirade overshadowed his announcement of a plan to privatize air traffic control, a huge initiative for his administration, and an attempt to improve health care for veterans.
    "It takes away from their ability to drive their message," said Alice Stewart, a conservative and CNN political commentator said Monday.
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    'Many of his efforts are extremely helpful'

    Marc Short, Trump's director of legislative affairs, told reporters Monday that Trump's recent behavior is fully compatible with the way he won the White House.
    "I think that the President won an election by being somebody who is not a conformist candidate. He won by being somebody who American people were anxious to change the culture in DC. They understand that -- they were asking for a disruption to the way that DC operates," Short said.
    "He may not have a conventional of style of doing that, but many of his efforts are extremely helpful to us in getting our legislation accomplished."
    Still, Trump's Twitter storm provoked questions on Monday about whether his tweets should be seen as simply throwaway comments on social media, or a serious expression of administration policy.
    Several administration officials rebuked the media for taking the President's tweets so seriously. However, since several contradict the official White House line, it's hard to argue that the posts are not newsworthy.
    Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump's deputy press secretary, complained Monday that the media "obsesses over every period, dot."
    "I think it's just the obsession over every detail of the President's tweets," she added.
    But Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, said on CNN that the tweets were a faithful expression of the President's views.
    "I think everything the President says is something we take serious(ly)," Bennett told CNN's Kate Bolduan.
    "When he says something, I believe that's what he means. If it isn't they should put some crazy disclaimer on it."

    US allies nervous

    Trump's return to his political roots is not just being felt over his decision to pull out of the climate accord last week -- a decision that made many nations furious.
    US allies dependent on America's security backing are also nervous.
    It has been the working assumption of a number of the top US allies that while Trump's nationalist rhetoric was alarming, professionals like Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster would ensure that the conventions of the US-led international system would endure.
    Trump's lecture to NATO leaders during his European tour and his failure in Brussels to mention Article 5 -- which contains the notion that an attack on one member is an attack on all -- severely undermined that notion.
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    Politico reported Monday that Trump's national security team had fully expected him to reaffirm Article 5 in his speech at NATO headquarters -- yet he failed to do so -- spreading alarm among US allies.
    Both Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, have been in Asia trying to reassure Pacific allies that America remains engaged in the world despite Trump's earlier decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the withdrawal from the Paris pact that caused consternation in both Europe and Asia.
    "We want to remove any doubt, if there's doubt in anyone's mind, as to how important these relationships are to the United States and this administration," Tillerson said in Sydney, Australia, on Monday.
    Vice President Mike Pence attempted a do-over on Monday night in Washington for Trump's NATO omission on Article 5.
    "An attack one of us is an attack on all of us," he said at a speech to the Atlantic Council.
    Unless Trump publicly says the same thing, many US allies will not believe it.