Steve Bannon was supposed to be the brains behind the Trump presidency—the “populist” ideologue who personified the the White House’s xenophobic, race-baiting, protectionist tendencies. Saturday Night Live literally depicted him as the grim reaper whispering evil commands into our half-wit commander in chief’s ear.
Now Bannon is out of a job, fired from the West Wing thanks to his penchant for intramural squabbling and gabbing to the press. But despite Bannon’s symbolic stature as the alt-right’s man in the West Wing, on a policy level it seems unlikely that much will change. There are two main reasons why. First, Bannon turned out to be a buffoonish operator whose biggest concrete policy contribution—a sloppily drafted and hastily sprung Muslim travel ban—galvanized the left and was held up in the courts. Second, there are plenty of people left in the administration who will carry the torch for most his principles (trade protectionism, hard-line immigration restrictions, Islamophobia-tinged stance on terrorism, and paranoia toward Iran), the most notable of whom is named Donald J. Trump.
On national security, Bannon was often described as an isolationist—but that’s not quite right. He certainly wanted to keep Muslims out of the United States. But he also argued for killing the Iran deal, which could have easily led to new conflicts in the Middle East, and he wanted to let hired mercenaries take over operations in Afghanistan in lieu of U.S. troops. A privatized war is still war.
Hopefully, the idea of letting Academi—né Blackwater—and DynCorp go wild in Kabul is dead for good. But there are still powerful critics of the Iran deal within the administration, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo and, of course, the president himself, who has said he would be “surprised” if Tehran were to be found compliant with the agreement the next time it needs to be recertified. Meanwhile, travel-ban co-conspirator Stephen Miller, who has successfully distanced himself somewhat from Bannon, is still very much ensconced in the White House. (Thankfully, Hungarian man of mystery Sebastian Gorka may well be on his way out as well.)
How about immigration? Well, Trump still wants to build his wall and has already backed a bill that would reduce the number of legal immigrants we let in each year. Stephen “Let Me Tell You About the Statue of Liberty” Miller is, as mentioned, still on the payroll. And chief of staff John Kelly oversaw the Department of Homeland Security during the early days of Trump’s term, when Customs and Border Patrol was busy detaining NASA scientists and French historians. Bannon’s exit isn’t going to make this administration any softer on foreigners.
The administration is also well-stocked with trade protectionists not named Steve who have already started implementing their vision. Vehemently anti-China trade guru Peter Navarro is still in action, of course—as of July, Politico reported he was literally “stalking the halls of the West Wing at night and on the weekends” in order to get private time with the president. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Rep. Robert Lighthizer are both committed to cracking down on Chinese trade barriers, and Trump has already signed an executive order that will likely lead to rare Section 301 investigation of Beijing’s alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property. Meanwhile, Lighthizer has already begun renegotiating NAFTA.
Aside from hard-line xenophobia, a clash of civilizations approach to the Muslim world, and a deep antipathy for trade deals, Bannon also occasionally spouted off about populist economic ideas like infrastructure spending (he wanted to get America’s shipyards and iron works “all jacked up”). But the issue has always been at the bottom of the congressional GOP’s to-do list, and the administration’s much discussed but never-detailed “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan” would still be on pace to pass some time after the 12th of never with or without Bannon around. His 44 percent tax rate for multimillionaires was likewise received as a joke.
Finally, it seems unlikely that jettisoning Bannon is going to cure the administration’s apparent soft spot for white supremacists, given the president’s apparently heartfelt response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which he suggested there were some “very fine people” wielding Tiki torches that weekend. We also still have Jeff Sessions—who Bannon credited as the godfather of Trumpism—running the Department of Justice, easing up on racist police departments and siding with states that want to crack down on voting rights.
Steve Bannon came as close as anybody to articulating a coherent Trumpist philosophy, but he was never skilled enough to implement it. Other, savvier, less colorful players were always going to have to implement his ideas. Now he’ll be loudly rooting for them from the sidelines.