Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Julian Zelizer: Firing of chief strategist won't change presidency, as some may think
He says Bannon was a tool for Donald Trump, not his puppet master
In a stunning development, Steve Bannon – one of the masterminds behind Donald Trump’s presidency – was fired Friday from his job as chief strategist. But we should not overestimate the impact that Bannon’s departure will have on this White House. To paraphrase the Who – the new boss is the same as the old boss.
To be sure, the controversial former head of Breitbart News was instrumental in the development of Trump’s “America First” nationalist agenda and has helped the President understand how to amplify his words across the modern media landscape.
Bannon has been widely viewed as a point man connecting Trump to the noxious universe of right-wing white nationalists – euphemistically called the alt-right – who reared their ugly head in Charlottesville, Virginia, leaving one woman dead in the mayhem.
But this week, a series of events unfolded that made Bannon’s departure seem inevitable. The fallout from Trump’s sympathetic response to white nationalists, which has drawn harsh rebukes even from prominent Republicans, created strong pressure for the President to do something to disassociate himself from the relationships that Bannon brings with him to the Oval Office.
In recent weeks, Bannon clashed with some of Trump’s respected advisers, including H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, and on Tuesday gave a bizarre interview to Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect in which he contradicted many of the President’s policies.
Trump’s decision to oust Bannon – who many see as the brains behind the White House (similar, perhaps, to Karl Rove in his relationship to George W. Bush) – is big news, no question. And many will see this decision as signaling a fundamental change in direction in the White House that will allow the more traditional conservatives surrounding the President to exert greater influence.
We will inevitably hear how this decision is some kind of an olive branch to the many critics in both parties who have said that the stances Trump took on the Charlottesville violence are intolerable for the nation. As with the appointment of John Kelly as chief of staff, the experts will speculate about whether this can bring more normality to the Oval Office and lead to a Trump “pivot.”
The answer is no.
Bannon has always been used as an excuse to explain the more noxious statements and positions that the President has taken since his campaign began. He was nudging Trump to “play to the base” or “distract the media,” in this telling.
Indeed every time the President has lashed out against some group in American society or appears to be standing by the side of violent reactionary organizers, we’ve heard that this is a reminder of Bannon having too much influence on Trump.
Once again, this argument greatly understates Trump’s role in shaping his own presidency. It’s wrongheaded to assume that something else is behind the President’s strong connections to an extremist, nationalist agenda. When Trump decided to appoint Bannon, who proudly touted his incendiary news organization as a platform for the alt-right, it spoke volumes about what Trump believed.
At this point, many months into his term, we should assume that when we hear Trump speak at a moment like the infamous press conferences about Charlottesville, we are hearing the President’s own sentiments and beliefs. He was the one who refused to clearly and strongly condemn the white supremacists who terrorized Virginians, not Bannon.
Bannon’s role was to help the President implement his agenda, not vice versa. Bannon was a tool for Trump, not the person pulling the strings.
The coming days will be filled with incessant coverage of this announcement and the implications for a White House without Bannon, but it is safe to day that when the frenzy dies down, the Trump presidency won’t look very different.
Bannon served a big role for Donald Trump, and his appointment reflected the kind of values the President holds dear, but the true source of the chaos, turbulence, instability and controversy in Washington remains exactly what it was yesterday.