The Death of Trumpism
There's a nasty cold snap hitting the East Coast, but at least its impact will be mitigated by the heat generated when Donald Trump set Steve Bannon on fire.
Bannon, as you may remember, is the guy who took over Breitbart News after Andrew Breitbart died and turned it into a mouthpiece for economic nationalism with a disturbing streak of sympathy for the racist alt-right. He also turned it into the de facto house organ for the Trump campaign and was brought into the administration as a top political advisor to the president.
But then a muckraking gossip columnist named Michael Wolff was apparently given broad access to the Trump administration and produced a book about it. (Every other administration brings in Bob Woodward. This one brings in a gossip columnist.) The early excerpts from the book make for suspiciously sensational reading. Wolff has a reputation for dubious accuracy, and when all the characters, scenes, and dialogue in a book seem like they're right out of a movie, you should take them with a grain of salt. But the book leans heavily on Bannon's perspective, and he is quoted making a number of sharp criticisms of Trump's inner circle as well as feeding the narrative about the Trump team's "collusion" with Russia.
Hence Trump's ritual immolation of Bannon. Here is the statement issued on the president's behalf:
Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind. Steve was a staffer who worked for me after I had already won the nomination by defeating seventeen candidates, often described as the most talented field ever assembled in the Republican party.
Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look. Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country. Yet Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans. Steve doesn’t represent my base—he’s only in it for himself.
Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well. Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books.
We have many great Republican members of Congress and candidates who are very supportive of the Make America Great Again agenda. Like me, they love the United States of America and are helping to finally take our country back and build it up, rather than simply seeking to burn it all down.
I've been following politics for a long time, and I have never seen such a thorough torching of a former political associate.
If there were any question about a contest between Trump and Bannon over who influences his voter base, it's pretty much over before it began. Breitbart is now considering dumping Bannon, and the Mercers—a family of politically active billionaires who have long funded Bannon's projects—turned against him.
But this isn't just the end for Bannon. It's the end for Trumpism.
Since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, the big question has been whether he is an isolated phenomenon or the herald of a movement that will transform the Republican Party and the political right at their ideological roots. The role of Bannon was central to that question.
Donald Trump is not by any means an intellectual. His political views are a grab bag of his own prejudices, his emotional reactions, some unchallenged assumptions about crime and trade that he seems to have set in stone in 1978, and—as in his crusade against regulations—his pet peeves as a businessman. It was Steve Bannon who offered to give the Trump phenomenon an ideological meaning and foundation. He attempted to connect it to an ideology of nationalism, both in foreign policy and in economics. Bannon also tried to turn this ideological impulse into an electoral movement, recruiting and backing primary challengers in an attempt to replace the "Republican establishment" with Trump-like insurgents.
This effort has been failing for a while now. The people Bannon tried to insert into the administration to represent his nationalist outlook have largely been purged, especially in foreign policy positions. Electorally, Bannon not only engineered Roy Moore's disastrous candidacy but also saw another of his early recruits become a spectacular embarrassment.
In 2016, Bannon's Breitbart gave extensive positive coverage to Paul Nehlen, who was mounting a primary challenge to Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, with a brash "outsider" style clearly inspired by Trump. But recently Breitbart had to declare Nehlen persona non grata after he engaged in openly anti-Semitic rants and came out in support of white nationalists. It turns out that picking candidates based only on their appeal to angry populism is a recipe for disaster.
Trump's fatwa against Bannon merely puts the nails in the coffin of this failing ideological and electoral movement. I remain concerned about Trump's impact on the Republican Party and the stylistic imitators he may inspire on both sides of American politics. But he now looks more likely to be just a single disruptive personality, not the figurehead for a new ideological movement.
Note that after blaming Bannon for losing the Republican Senate seat in Alabama, Trump pointedly sides with the Republican establishment: "We have many great Republican members of Congress and candidates who are very supportive of the Make America Great Again agenda." What struck me even more is that Trump makes it clear that he is not sharing his political victory with anyone else. Notice how he sneers, "Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn't as easy as I make it look." In his view, Bannon is a pretender trying to steal his glory. We should all know by now that Trump is a narcissist who views his successes as solely his, as the special result of what he imagines to be his unique talent. He is not willing to share them with a partner or a movement.
So there will be only Trump, not Trumpism.