Last month, thanks to the endless accidental-sharing power of social media, we got a revealing peek into the Trump administration. It came via a whiteboard in the office of Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. A whiteboard packed with promises and pledges Trump made during the 2016 campaign.
Here it is:
When he moved into the White House, Trump’s chief strategist removed the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and sofa from his office and positioned his desk in the corner to make room for giant whiteboards that are lined up in four columns beneath the campaign theme: Make. America. Great. Again. In the final hours of the first 100 days, the promises kept were marked with a red X, including abandoning a massive Pacific trade deal. The column without a single red X: Legislative accomplishments.
Bannon’s theory of the case was – and is – simple: If Trump makes good on the things he promised his base during the campaign, he will be well positioned to get re-elected. That the biggest danger for Trump is not saying impolitic things or fighting with the political establishment but looking like he “went Washington,” that all his tough talk on the campaign trail about going in, knocking heads and getting things done was just talk.
That strategy is built on the idea that if you keep your base happy, you win. And it’s not a bad one given that the last two re-election races of presidents – Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2012 – were, functionally, battles between the party bases each won by the incumbent.
It also appears to be the strategy Trump is following – to the extent he is following one at all – when he makes decisions on contentious issues in this first four months in office.
Take the Paris climate accord, which Trump announced Thursday afternoon he formally pull out of.
During the campaign, Trump was adamant that, if elected, he would end US commitment to the accord.
“We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of United States tax dollars to UN global warming programs,” Trump promised during a major energy speech in late May 2016. “This agreement gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use on our land, in our country. No way.”
Trump waffled somewhat over the intervening months as the influence of people like his daughter, Ivanka, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – both of whom support the US staying in the Paris agreement – was felt.
Bannon has long been a leading voice on the other side, insisting that Trump made a promise to his base during the campaign and should keep it.
This, from Foreign Policy last month, gets at the Bannon argument:
“Some White House aides, including Bannon, view a US withdrawal from the agreement as a campaign promise to be fulfilled and an explicit rejection of an accord championed by Obama.”
And, CNN’s story from earlier this week makes the same point:
“Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former head of Breitbart, had pressed Trump to stick with his campaign promise and leave the deal.”
Time and again, Trump’s default position has been to please his base by delivering on some promise or another that he made during the campaign. A short list:
Approving the Keystone Pipeline
Getting out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Instituting the travel ban
Repealing (or trying to) Obamacare
Nominating and confirming a conservative judge to the Supreme Court
Rolling back a series of environmental regulations
Reversing an Obama executive order on gun control
With each one of these decisions, Bannon marks a big red “X” on his whiteboard, a sign that Trump has moved a step closer to both fulfilling the promises he made to the people who voted him unto office and to ensuring they vote for him again come 2020.
You can argue about the strategy. You can say that Trump’s base is simply not big enough to win him a second term – especially if he can’t demonstrate an appeal to political independents. (Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 4 points among independents in 2016.)
And you might just be right! But if you are looking for a piece of connective tissue between Day 1 of Donald Trump’s presidency and Day 132, it’s all right there on Bannon’s whiteboard. Appease the base. Worry about all the rest later.