On Friday, newly-ousted White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon spoke with Peter Boyer of The Weekly Standard about what comes next — what to expect from the Trump administration, and what to expect from him as he heads back to his perch atop Breitbart News. Unsurprisingly, Bannon set himself up as the great populist champion, castigated Trump for surrounding himself with supposed globalists, and suggested that his ouster represented the end of the Trump presidency.
“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” said Bannon. “We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else. And there’ll be all kinds of fights, and there’ll be good days and bad days, but that presidency is over.”
This is a rather puzzling statement, considering the nationalist populist Trump presidency of Bannon’s dreams never materialized. The only big win for the nationalist populists was the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Other than that, Trump’s policies have been either down-the-line conservative (the selection of Justice Gorsuch and cutbacks in regulations), fully in line with a bipartisan foreign policy consensus (action in Syria, threats against North Korea), or establishmentarian (maintenance of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Obamacare revision but not repeal). Trump has spoken in Bannon-esque terms regarding, for example, the travel ban and Charlottesville, but he hasn’t pushed a lot of nationalist populist agenda items.
But in order to stay relevant, Bannon must set himself up as the grand poobah of populism, the defender of the philosophy against Trump himself. He’ll turn himself into Trump’s rival for Trump’s own base. That’s how Breitbart’s playing it today at the site, immediately upon Bannon’s return to running the place:
Bannon won’t go straight at Trump. That would be foolish. Instead, he’ll pretend to be Trump’s ally in fighting the swamp from the outside. That’s already how Bannon is playing it. According to Boyer, Bannon says that Trump gave him the go-ahead to attack the Republican establishment: “I said, ‘look, I’ll focus on going after the establishment.’ He said, ‘good, I need that.’ I said, ‘look, I’ll always be here covering for you.’”
That means that Bannon will immediately go after a bunch of his old enemies, according to The New York Times (and as I predicted earlier today): Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, plus Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Already he’s characterizing Trump’s presidency as hijacked by those who would “try to moderate him … His natural tendency — and I think you saw it this week on Charlottesville — his actual default position is the position of his base, the position that got him elected. I think you’re going to see a lot of constraints on that.”
So Bannon will pretend that Trump’s foibles are really just Trump being misled by others.
Until, that is, Bannon finds a convenient way to turn on Trump himself.
Here’s the truth nonetheless: for as much as Bannon is an egomaniac with delusions of grandeur and an abusive jerk personally, he did represent perhaps Trump’s last remaining right-leaning advisor on immigration and regulatory reform. Trump will likely move left on policy in the near future. The difference is that now Bannon and Breitbart have an interest in slapping Trump — or at least his advisors — around, rather than ignoring such heresies.