It’s hardly a surprise that Steve Bannon declared the Trump presidency – the one “we fought for and won” – dead a few hours after he was banished from Trump’s White House.
The former chief strategist to the President has always enjoyed a grand view of himself and, especially after helping guide Trump to victory last year, grandiose ideas about his ability to reshape the American political landscape. Bannon’s plans, though, were quickly interrupted when it came time to work the levers of government. His florid notion of an ascendant “economic nationalism” – the kind that could birth a generational coalition – has so far wilted after just seven months in the West Wing.
Bannon isn’t the first political operative with a better sense of how to sell ideas than realize them. Nor is he unique in seeking to cast his departure from the halls of power as the end of a hopeful era. But his suggestion that the administration is entering a new phase rings true.
Trump’s failure to gut Obamacare, followed by last week’s meltdown in the aftermath of Charlottesville – and the President’s own assessment of each – are the essential factors to consider when mapping out where his presidency is headed. The political capital poured into the health care push was a historic bust. Not only was Trump denied the “win” he so desperately craved, but in stumbling over such unpopular legislation, he diminished his dealmaking brand and with it, his ability to push the next item on the GOP to-do list: tax reform.
Now, with his economic agenda on the skids, Trump is dropping the pretense and pivoting to an outright culture war.
For all that is unprecedented about this President and his administration, his response to the deadly attack in Charlottesville was fundamentally unsurprising. Trump is a voracious consumer of political media and Fox News is at the core of his diet. Under pressure, he articulated his growing frustration as cultural grievance.
“You are changing history, you’re changing culture,” Trump said during his Tuesday press conference. Then, two days later, he returned to the point on Twitter, writing in a series of posts, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
That Trump, given his office, would line up so readily – so openly – on one side of this long-running feud is still somehow jarring to elected officials and pundits across the political spectrum. But that’s more an issue of style than substance. This is, after all, the same person who entered the presidential race more than two years ago promising a border wall to stem an imaginary tide of Mexican “rapists” into the country. He recently announced a plan – on Twitter – to ban transgender troops from serving in the military.
The rank irony here is that Trump will mock and scold liberals for their attention to “identity politics,” then in the next breath make the case for a more nuanced reckoning with white nationalists and neo-Nazis. Again, the logic is clear. Trump and the hate groups might not want precisely the same things, but because they share a similar slate of enemies, the President and some of his top advisers, official and otherwise, can’t help but see potential allies. Perhaps in those “very fine people” Trump saw marching in their midst. Bannon, before he was swept out, eyed opportunity too.
“I want (Democrats) to talk about racism every day,” he told the American Prospect last week. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
By then, of course, Bannon knew his days in Trump’s inner circle were numbered. That line is best read as a jab at the White House aides who outlasted him. Among them – a group mostly comprising military or Wall Street veterans – the appetite for populism is close to nil, except where it might create the kind of subtle wedges that help advance more traditional Republican policy goals.
The real question going forward then centers less on Trump’s willingness to stifle or rethink his positions on hot button social issues, but in how – and when – he articulates them. That’s the best news for Democrats and GOP opponents. Trump does not often speak in a way that allows much room for interpretation. He latched on to the “culture” and “history” of the Confederate statues only after sensing the heat of the backlash to his broader sentiments. Past performance suggests he will not hesitate to touch the stove again.
Trump’s rally in Arizona on Tuesday will provide him with a prime setting to further stoke passions on the right. By letting linger the potential of a pardon for former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, due for sentencing in the fall after defying court orders against profiling immigrants, Trump will arrive in Phoenix with a giant slab of red meet in his palm.
Expect it to become an increasingly familiar pose.