The appointment of white nationalist Steve Bannon to the Trump White House as “chief strategist and senior counselor to the president” on Sunday quickly tested and disproved one theory that has drifted around Washington in the week since the election: that Donald Trump may be a dangerous demagogue, and he may appoint unhinged maniacs to his administration—but congressional Republicans will serve as a “check” on his most extreme policies and power grabs. We therefore needn’t fret too much about Trump’s promises to ban Muslims from entering the country or punish the press for criticism or revive torture or imprison his political opponents, because House Speaker Paul Ryan and his principled band of congressional conservatives will rein Trump in and force him to respect civil rights and basic democratic norms.
This theory was always nonsense—but the reaction to Bannon’s appointment spared us months of musings about how the white knights of the GOP could save the republic from Trump. Faced with the astonishing fact that Trump had placed a violent, anti-Semitic, misogynistic white supremacist in the White House, congressional Republicans simply rolled over and feigned total ignorance. The grotesque spectacle of their pathetic prostration before Trump may be ugly to watch, but this denialism provides an important lesson: The GOP will not serve as a “check” on Trump. They are his collaborators.
At BuzzFeed News, Tarini Parti has an excellent rundown of congressional Republicans’ response to the Bannon appointment, which range from evasive to mendacious. There’s Ryan, already sharpening his knives for the coming slash to the social safety net, babbling: “I’ve never met the guy. I don’t know Steve Bannon, so I have no concerns. I trust Donald’s judgment.” There’s House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy telling reporters, “I’ve always believed in giving someone a chance.” There’s Rep. Steve Stivers, explaining that Trump has “done a good job of doing an inclusive pick so far” and that “I don’t know a lot about Steve Bannon, so I don’t care to be an expert on him.” And here’s Rep. Lou Barletta, going all in: “Steve Bannon was very helpful to Donald Trump during the campaign. I think him and Reince Priebus will work well together. I think they can both add value to Donald Trump.”
Is Barletta worried about Bannon’s ties to the so-called alt-right, the openly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic branch of American conservativism? “I haven’t really looked at that. I’m not. No.”
If Barletta had “looked at that,” he would have discovered that Bannon proudly boasts of turning Breitbart, the website he runs, into “the platform for the alt-right.” (He also turned Breitbart into a Trump propaganda machine; the line between Trump propaganda and alt-right agitprop is essentially nonexistent.)
Ryan, McCarthy, and the rest of the pack are not stupid. Even if they don’t know that Bannon’s Breitbart created a section called Black Crime and ran headlines like “Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage” and “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture,” they must understand that his appointment ensures continuity between Trump the Campaigner and Trump the President. The calmer, more reasonable version of Trump that the Republican establishment dreamed up this week will remain a fantasy when Bannon is whispering sweet white nationalist nothings into his ear. White supremacists understood this immediately and rejoiced; my new fan David Duke gushed that the appointment was “a good sign because I think Mr. Bannon has really been right on about a lot of issues facing European-Americans.”
Let this sink in: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is unwilling to say a cross word about a David Duke–approved white nationalist icon taking a key position in the Trump White House. This cowardice portends darker days to come. If Ryan is unwilling to denounce Bannon, what would spur him to criticize Trump, let alone expend political capital opposing him? Why would Ryan step up to oppose the surveillance and registration of American Muslims, or the mass deportation of undocumented people, or a crackdown on the press—fundamental planks of the Trump-Bannon platform? He has “no concerns” about Bannon and his stated desire to “turn on the hate” today. Why should he suddenly grow a backbone and vigorously challenge Bannon tomorrow?
Republicans like Ryan are playing a game right now: They are refusing to acknowledge the obvious influence of white nationalism on the new administration in the hopes that they will be able to accomplish their agenda before Trump starts to seriously push his. Republicans think they can win this game of appeasement, but they will lose it, just like they lost control over the primaries when they tried to appease Trump. The Trump administration may sign off on Congress’ destruction of the safety net—something Trump doesn’t care much about either way—but it will expect something in return. And Republicans will give it to him, because they’re perfectly willing to trade in their principles if it results in the enactment of their policies.
There are really only two possibilities: Republicans did not speak out about Bannon because they agree with him, or because they think they can control him and the hateful movement he has cultivated and empowered. Either way, they will not speak out when Bannon and his movement come for you.