If the Trump White House is to be believed, Steve Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council is not a demotion. It’s more like a minor reshuffling prompted by the fact that Bannon has successfully “de-operationalized” the NSC. Nothing to see here, folks! The New York Times tells a somewhat different story, reporting that Bannon so dreaded the prospect of losing his NSC perch that he threatened to quit if the seat got yanked out from under him. Either way, for now at least, President Trump’s chief strategist is sitting tight and making it seem as though this is all no big deal. For the foreseeable future, Bannon will focus on crafting a winning political message for the president.
The problem with that plan is that Bannon has proven almost unbelievably bad at scoring political victories for Trump—so bad, in fact, that now might be the ideal time for him to quit. To preserve his reputation as a media mastermind, he’d do well to quit the Trump White House and write a tell-all memoir about how he was stabbed in the back by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. If he doesn’t do that soon, he is going to go down in history as an incompetent boob who squandered a rare opportunity to remake American politics.
While most modern presidents have enjoyed a luxurious honeymoon period, the number of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s job performance greatly outnumbers those who give him a thumbs-up. That’s not entirely Bannon’s fault. But it’s not not his fault either.
Depending on who you listen to, Bannon is either a crypto-fascist, a megalomaniac, a Gingrich-esque quirky autodidact, a warrior for Christendom, or some combination of the above. In his own mind, Bannon represents an alternative to small-government conservative orthodoxy. His goal is to transform the Republican Party into a champion of economic nationalism, deficit spending, and working-class populism. There’s more to his worldview, to be sure, including a belief that we now find ourselves in a titanic civilizational struggle between Christendom and Islam. But back on our planet, Bannon’s priorities are more prosaic: to grow the constituency for immigration restriction and a more strategic approach to trade; to sell Republicans, and ideally some labor-aligned Democrats, on a big, deficit-financed infrastructure package; and to reposition the GOP as the defender of working-class interests.
Bannon hasn’t just failed to make progress on any of these goals. He’s moved them further out of reach.
Consider that he took the lead on pushing through a hastily drafted executive order on immigration that led to weeks of hostile news coverage and that energized the opposition to Trump. Perhaps it was Bannon’s intention to inflame the resistance, in the hope that the antics of over-the-top left-wingers would polarize the country and leave Trump with the bigger chunk of the electorate. Things haven’t panned out that way, alas. Had Bannon moved more judiciously, it’s at least possible that he’d have won more allies. Instead, it seems far more likely that Trump’s Bannon-inspired immigration rhetoric has turned off more voters than it’s won over. Given that immigration restriction is the cause that fueled Trump’s rise and that won him the Republican presidential nomination, this is less than ideal.
There’s been no meaningful progress on Trump’s trade agenda either, thanks largely to the fact that Robert Lighthizer—the president’s nominee for U.S. trade representative and by far the most impressive free-trade skeptic in Trump’s orbit—hasn’t been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. You’d almost get the impression that crafting better trade deals isn’t a priority for the Trump White House. If getting Lighthizer confirmed isn’t Bannon’s job, whose job is it?
Then there is the small matter of the American Health Care Act, which President Trump embraced as a test of his political influence. Steve Bannon was charged with corralling the House Freedom Caucus into voting for the wildly unpopular bill. He did so by presenting its members with an ultimatum: Vote for the bill or the president will be really, really mad at you. In the aftermath of Bannon the enforcer’s persuasion campaign, the House Freedom Caucus helped kill the American Health Care Act, and they’ve suffered zero consequences as a result. Will Trump now back primary challengers who’ll pick off the members of the House Freedom Caucus one by one? Almost certainly not. Most elected Republicans are more popular than Trump with their own constituencies, and it’s not clear that Trump’s political operation—led by Bannon—is capable of getting its act together enough to do any damage.
This is leaving aside the fact that the AHCA wasn’t designed to win over the working class. It was essentially a massive tax cut for the rich paid for by a massive reduction in federal spending on medical care for working- and middle-class households. Whether that’s a good idea or a bad one, it’s a bit of stretch to describe it as populist.
What about Bannon’s vision of using an expensive infrastructure stimulus to win over the toiling masses? The idea here was that Trump’s massive popularity would cow conservative Republicans in Congress into submission, leaving them no choice but to give up on their dreams of shrinking the deficit. Alas, this strategy can’t work if Trump is even less popular than the congressional GOP. Similarly, congressional Democrats see no need to help Trump, because they correctly assume Republicans will take all the blame for everything that goes wrong under a Trump presidency. Clever though he might be, Bannon has yet to identify any wedge issues that can divide the Democratic coalition and grow Trump’s.
Far from the evil genius invoked in various breathless magazine profiles, Bannon has proven hapless and flat-footed. His dreams of spearheading a bold challenge to America’s neoliberal globalist elite have been dashed, and he keeps losing ground to establishment favorites like Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster, who might not be world-changing visionaries but do know how to get things done. Bannon is right to believe the GOP needs to be more responsive to its working-class base and that there is a case for rethinking the party’s approach to immigration and trade. Yet he seems to have no clue as to how to realize his grand ambitions.