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Bannon Firing Proves Trump is Winging It

In the wake of Stephen Bannon’s firing, it has become almost inconceivable that President Trump can avoid a one-term fate. This isn’t because he sacked Bannon but because of what that action tells us about his leadership. In celebrating Bannon’s dismissal, The Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial: “Trump can’t govern with a Breitbart coalition. Does he see that?” True enough. But he also can’t govern without the Breitbart constituency—his core constituency—in his coalition. The bigger question is: Does he see that?

It’s beginning to appear that Trump doesn’t see much of anything with precision or clarity when it comes to the fundamental question of how to govern based on how he campaigned. He is merely a battery of impulses, devoid of any philosophical coherence or intellectual consistency.

Indeed, it’s difficult to recall any president of recent memory who was so clearly winging it in the Oval Office. Think of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both of whom made huge mistakes that cost them the White House. But both knew precisely what they wanted to accomplish and how to go about accomplishing it. The result was that both accomplished big things. Ronald Reagan propelled himself into governing mode from campaign mode as if he had shot himself out of a cannon. Even Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, who stumbled into one-term diminishment, demonstrated more leadership coherence than the current White House occupant.

Trump’s political challenge on Inauguration Day was simple but difficult. He had to galvanize his political base and build from there to fashion a governing coalition that could give propulsion to his agenda. Further, that agenda had to give a majority of Americans a sense that the economy was sound and growing, that unnecessary foreign wars would be avoided, that domestic tranquility would prevail, that the mass immigration of recent years would be curtailed, that the health care mess would be fixed, and that infrastructure needs would be addressed.

He has made little or no progress on any of it. And now, with Bannon banished from the White House, the president even seems to be taking a cavalier attitude toward his core constituency, America’s white working class, beset by sluggish economic growth, the hollowing out of America’s industrial base, unfair competitive practices by U.S. trading partners, unchecked immigration, the opioid crisis, and a general malaise that accompanies a growing sense of decline.

Trump became president because he busted out of the deadlock crisis that had gripped America for years, with both parties rigidly clinging to shopworn nostrums that fewer and fewer Americans believed in but which precluded any fresh or original thinking on the part of the party establishments. Consider some of the elements of conventional wisdom that he smashed during the campaign.

Immigration: Conventional thinking was that a “comprehensive” solution could emerge as soon as officials convinced voters that they would, at some point soon, secure the border, and then the 11 million illegals in the country could be granted some form of amnesty. After all, according to this view, polls indicated solid support for granting illegals a path to citizenship or at least legal residence. Thus the issue was considered particularly hazardous to Republicans. But Trump demonstrated that voter concerns about the magnitude of immigration—both legal and illegal—were more widespread and intense than the political establishment wanted to believe. He transformed the dynamics of the issue.

Foreign Policy: Trump railed against George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, the ongoing and seemingly pointless war in Afghanistan, Barack Obama’s actions to help overthrow Libya’s President Muammar Qaddafi, and the previous administration’s insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave office even though his toughest enemies, ISIS and al-Nusra, were also our enemies. He sought to sooth the tensions then gaining momentum between the United States and Russia, and he did so in the face of widespread hostility from most of the foreign policy establishment. In all this he signaled that, as president, he would formulate an entirely new grand strategy designed to align U.S. policy with U.S. power and avoid foreign wars with little connection to U.S. vital interests.

Trade: Trump took on the establishment view that globalized free trade provided an automatic benefit to the U.S. economy and U.S. workers, even when big trading partners, particularly China, imposed non-tariff trade barriers that slammed America’s waning industrial core and the country’s working classes. Here again he demonstrated a strong body of political sentiment that had been ignored or brushed aside by the country’s economic and financial elites.

The important point about these issues is that they all cut across partisan lines. That’s what allowed Trump to forge a nontraditional coalition that provided him a slim margin of victory—but only in the Electoral College. His challenge was to turn this electoral coalition into a governing one.

He has failed. While he moved quickly on the immigration issue, he did so in such a ham-handed way that any prospect for momentum was lost before it could begin. On foreign policy he has belied his own campaign rhetoric with his bombing of Syrian military targets, his support for Saudi Arabia’s nasty war in Yemen, his growing military presence in Syria, his embrace of NATO membership for Montenegro, his consideration of troop augmentations in Afghanistan, and his threat to consider military involvement in Venezuela’s internal affairs. On trade, it must be said, he has sought to move in the direction of his campaign rhetoric, though with limited results thus far.

In the meantime, he suffered a tremendous defeat with the failure of congressional Republicans to make good on their vow to end and replace the Affordable Care Act. His tax-overhaul initiative is far behind the kind of calendar schedule needed for smooth success (by this point in 1981 Reagan had secured both his big tax package and an even more controversial spending-reduction program). And Trump’s infrastructure program must be seen as residing currently in Nowheresville.

What we see in these defeats and stalled initiatives is an incapacity on the part of the president to nudge and herd legislators, to mold voter sentiment into waves of political energy, to fashion a dialectic of political action, or to offer a coherent vision of the state of the country and where he wishes to take it. Everything is ad hoc. No major action seems related to any other action. In a job that calls for a political chess master, Trump displays hardly sufficient skills and attentiveness for a game of political checkers. 

And now Stephen Bannon is gone. The rustic and controversial White House strategist represented Trump’s most direct and compelling tie to his political base, the people who flocked to his rallies during the campaign, who kept him alive when his political fortunes waned, who thrilled to his anti-establishment message, and who awarded him the states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. As the Journal says, Trump can’t govern only with this electoral base. But if his support among these people wanes or dissipates, he will have no base from which to build—and no prospect for successful governance.

It’s telling, but not surprising, that Trump couldn’t manage his White House staff in such a way as to maintain a secure place on the team for the man most responsible for charting his path to the White House. This isn’t to say that Bannon should have been given outsized influence within West Wing councils, merely that his voice needed to be heard and his connection to Trump’s core constituency respected.

But that’s not the way Trump operates—another sign of a man who, over his head at the top of the global power structure, is winging it.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century [1], is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.

34 Comments (Open | Close)

34 Comments To "Bannon Firing Proves Trump is Winging It"

#1 Comment By bacon On August 20, 2017 @ 8:55 pm

Most of what I’ve read about the Trump loyalists is that they recognize he has limitations (which he seems not to recognize), but they are so sick of an establishment that doesn’t serve them, indeed doesn’t seem to pay them any attention at all, that they value him as a wrecking ball. The more the establishment is outraged by Trump the better they like him, results be damned. They weren’t getting anything anyway, as they see it, so what are they losing?

A wrecking ball is what they’ve got and so have the rest of us. Unless he starts a nuclear war, not out of the question, we’ll get thru his tenure. But unless we address the divisions in our society that produced him, we may still fail as a country.

#2 Comment By Blackboxwine On August 20, 2017 @ 9:10 pm

“It’s beginning to appear that Trump doesn’t see much of anything with precision or clarity when it comes to the fundamental question of how to govern based on how he campaigned. He is merely a battery of impulses, devoid of any philosophical coherence or intellectual consistency.”

Beginning?

Says a lot about your own blinders, when over 50% of the country could see it months ago.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 20, 2017 @ 10:12 pm

Two days ago Steve Bannon told Peter Boyer of The Weekly Standard:

“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon said Friday, shortly after confirming his departure. “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.”… [Bannon] says, Trump encouraged him to take on 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.’”

Steve Bannon remains loyal to President Trump and remains the quintessential Trumpist. By virtue of his working outside of the White House at Breitbart Bannon is once again in a position to talk directly and unimpeded to the Trumpian base.

Republican and Democratic opponents of the President who have been obstructing implementation of the President’s campaign agenda – and this includes the mainstream media — have no clear notion of what awaits them from Steve Bannon and from a Trumpian base taking many its cues from Bannon.

The establishment globalists who have come to predominate in the White House may come to regret Steve Bannon’s departure. After all, inside the White House Bannon could be somewhat controlled. But now that Bannon is outside the White House again the globalists will have no mechanisms by which to silence him. Steve Bannon outside the White House is in a position to organize and to energize a critical sector of the Trumpian base – an angry base that is just spoiling for a fight against those politicians and media now blocking implementation of the President’s agenda.

#4 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On August 20, 2017 @ 11:55 pm

each will continue to wring their hands and gnash their teeth… well what I mean is, they will tell disenfranchised, working class, rust belt, blue collar Americans (in swing states) to reject establishment (which is itself identity) politics and… yada, yada, yada. they both make millions (the 45ht POTUS IS NOT A billionaire), and as noted by @bacon the only really interesting “question” is, will Trump be the second POTUS (and first GOP) to “go nuclear”?

#5 Comment By Adriana I Pena On August 21, 2017 @ 12:25 am

“Trump doesn’t see much of anything with precision or clarity when it comes to the fundamental question of how to govern based on how he campaigned. He is merely a battery of impulses, devoid of any philosophical coherence or intellectual consistency.”

Oh, you noticed?

#6 Comment By WorkingClass On August 21, 2017 @ 12:28 am

Bannon: “The Trump Presidency That We Fought For Is Over”

[2]

I think he’s right. Trump was never even able to form a government. Incompetent? Yes. But also opposed by ALL of our political institutions. Candidate Trump was more naive than insincere. He said he would pursue detente with Russia. But the congress voted almost unanimously to block Trump from negotiating with Moscow. Trump will do as he is told or he will not finish his term. I hope he stays but I have no expectation that he will drain the swamp. The swamp won.

Bannon says he can do more damage from outside. I hope he’s right again. If not Trump then who will lead the sixty million deplorables. Right now its Bannon.

#7 Comment By Whine Merchant On August 21, 2017 @ 2:17 am

Kurst G comments: “Republican and Democratic opponents of the President who have been obstructing implementation of the President’s campaign agenda – and this includes the mainstream media — have no clear notion of what awaits them from Steve Bannon and from a Trumpian base taking many its cues from Bannon.”

Trump has no ‘agenda’, for opponents to obstruct, just a carousel of whims, slogans, and fallacies. The departure of his very own Karl Rove may briefly arouse the angry faction of what is left of his ‘base’, but Kurt’s prophesy is only the self-comforting fantasy of people who believed that a moment would last forever.
Maybe he will try to look Modern Presidential when he rails about Afghanistan – what will those supporters think then about his “America First’ isolationist campaign promises?

#8 Comment By polistra On August 21, 2017 @ 3:29 am

I really hoped he would be a “wrecking ball”, but unfortunately he’s not even that. Judged by actual results, he’s simply a continuation of Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama.

All the stuff he campaigned on is completely absent or jumbled since he took office, but he is NOT jumbled or random when it comes to adding more wars. He’s firm and coherent in that direction. New war every week, like clockwork.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 21, 2017 @ 5:50 am

The President is not a traditional politician. He has no long stream of connections or network that assist in marshaling other Presidents.

He is a complete outsider. Had he taken seriously that the opposition to his presidency, I think he would in a stronger position to create a coalition all his own. But he believed otherwise.

Most likely he would be fighting for his agenda as opposed to fighting these sideline skirmishes that his opponents love because it protects their own agendas.

He should have embraced being an outsider.

#10 Comment By Jon S On August 21, 2017 @ 7:01 am

The fact that Donald Trump never put forward a replacement plan for Obamacare tells you everything you need to know. He was a birther. He is his base. Joe 6-pack sitting in front of Fox News taking being manipulated into false beliefs for the benefit of the Republican establishment.

The Republicans let Fox News get away from them.

#11 Comment By grumpy realist On August 21, 2017 @ 8:29 am

To those who are enamored of Trump as wrecking ball:

It’s much easier to destroy an establishment than to build it up. Do you really want to see the US degrade into the equivalent of Lebanon with its continual, low-grade civil wars?

And if so, why?

#12 Comment By philbq On August 21, 2017 @ 8:35 am

LBJ had a great line about keeping a controversial advisor:” I would rather have him in the tent pissing out than out of the tent pissing in.” Think Bannon.

#13 Comment By Dan Green On August 21, 2017 @ 10:29 am

I always hark back to the election. Trump ran off the stage all the GOP darlings and prime choice Jeb Bush. Hillary was informed by the DNC just don’t rock the boat your a shoe in . Well Hillary got her marching papers, Jeb didn’t have a chance with his last name. Trump is President and Bernie Sanders is very popular. Both these political parties need to look in the mirror. Trump is both of their faults. Who is the left offering up so the prior ruling class gets back in control. Haven’t read or heard a clue.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 21, 2017 @ 11:43 am

Well, the Presidency only ever has been in living memory, the CEO who serves at the pleasure of and for the power of the Deep State, not the hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans with whom their elite interests now seldom if ever coincide.

#15 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 21, 2017 @ 12:43 pm

Paul Bond (of The Hollywood Reporter) says that Breitbart News Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow provided some more context to the remark that Bannon made to The Weekly Standard’s Peter Boyer that “the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” Marlow explained that Bannon is not “anti-Trump,” but is “very passionate about [Trump’s] agenda. There was no vitriol or bitterness in his mood…I think he meant that Trump’s agenda is off course, relative to his message,” Marlow continued. “Repealing Obamacare, building a wall, limited military engagement, these are all off track. I think it was a metaphor for the things that are way off track.” Marlow brushed aside reports of White House infighting as “largely media hype,” but he did say that it’s not surprising that Bannon “disagreed with lots of people. He’s a visionary. He sees the political landscape and the U.S. in a unique way that doesn’t fit with the establishment, so it’s no surprise he butted heads. He’s truly original.”

#16 Comment By Wick Allison On August 21, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

“…by this point in 1981 Reagan had secured both his big tax package and an even more controversial spending-reduction program.”

With a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, no less.

#17 Comment By collin On August 21, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

When was Trump not winging it? He tweets and sends out messages but we have no ideas what are his primary goals. And most entering Presidents Post-Reagan, get to achieve one or two big things their first two years with complete administration focus on them. (Clinton/Budget Deficits, Bush/Iraq War, Obama/Healthcare.) He threw a bunch things at Congress and his administration and low & behold they fail. Take for instance trade deals, they are extremely tough to renegotiate because their is an interest group that is hurt by changes. (ie if NAFTA ended the farmers in Iowa and inner city working class would be hit HARD!!) Additionally, his more populist cabinet members were just as chaotic in style.

Why has the Trump Administration ended up with Goldman Sachs and Generals?
1) Both G&G don’t look to take Trump’s spotlight from him. That seems to Trump’s breaking point which you can not take the media attention for yourself.
2) Both G&G understand the issues beyond Trump’s understanding or willingness to understand. I suspect Trump going with this modest Afghanistan proposal because he cant offer anything else. (And Bannon’s idea was dangerous as well)

#18 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On August 21, 2017 @ 1:47 pm

I agree with 95% of this. And I like the idea of Steve Bannon (not necessarily his idea*s*, which are sometimes too untethered for my taste). But in partial defense of Trump, I think Bannon seriously hurt his standing in the White House by seeking a position on the National Security Council. When that fell through and Bannon had to leave the NSC, he was badly wounded in Trump’s eyes. The wound was self-inflicted.

I hope Bannon can now forcibly advance issues of nationalism.

#19 Comment By Bunduck On August 21, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

Fran Macadam
“Blah blah blah, Deep State, Blah blah blah”

Excuse for everything. Toddler in chief needs to be coddled.

#20 Comment By John Gruskos On August 21, 2017 @ 3:57 pm

America needs the America First immigration, foreign policy and trade platform.

If Trump is waffling, that just means we need to compensate by electing a better congress in 2018, and perhaps a better president in 2020.

The America First platform was able to win upset victories despite a massive funding disadvantage – for instance, Dave Brat, Donald Trump, the immigration referendums in Montana and Oregon.

If the middle class Breitbart base flexed their financial muscle like the big donors routinely do, if thousands of American nationalists each gave $2,700 dollars each to every America First candidate like Corey Stewart and Paul Nehlen, we can successfully elect a nationalist government.

We must prevent a cultural Marxist globalists tyranny enforced by Antifa street thugs. No expense is too great.

#21 Comment By Wes On August 21, 2017 @ 5:13 pm

This temporary holding pattern known as Trump is ok by me. Adding troops in Afghanistan, if that’s what tonight’s announcement reveals, would be the biggest incremental negative so far.

#22 Comment By VikingLS On August 21, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

“It’s much easier to destroy an establishment than to build it up. Do you really want to see the US degrade into the equivalent of Lebanon with its continual, low-grade civil wars?”

As if that’s the only possible outcome?

Try again.

#23 Comment By FiveString On August 21, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

David Duke is still thrilled. Trump’s Charlottesville waffling proved he didn’t want to lose that support.

#24 Comment By Sandra On August 21, 2017 @ 7:24 pm

“But unless we address the divisions in our society that produced him, we may still fail as a country.”

I think Bacon is exactly right. So much focus on Trump and not enough on the divisions that produced him. This is all good for the establishment.

#25 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 21, 2017 @ 7:28 pm

“It’s much easier to destroy an establishment than to build it up. ”

I won’t buy into any contentions of being enamored. But I certainly supported and do support te initial agenda.

As for te ease of destroying the establishment

1. i don’t think the idea is to destroy the establishment and if you hadn’t noticed the Pres. hasn’t don much to destroy it.

2. I am not sure you have noticed, but the establishment pushback has been substantial, they have manage to rebut any shaving of their agenda.

We haven’t gone back to business s usual and tat’s good.

#26 Comment By Mark Oliver On August 21, 2017 @ 9:25 pm

Trump will throw in the towel and blame everyone else but himself. He can’t get results and as soon as he realises that his image is taking a knock he will quit. It’s just a matter of time for him to see that.

The whole thing is an ego trip for him.

Kiwi outsider looking in.

#27 Comment By Tyro On August 21, 2017 @ 10:25 pm

Well, the Presidency only ever has been in living memory, the CEO who serves at the pleasure of and for the power of the Deep State, not the hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans with whom their elite interests now seldom if ever coincide.

It’s so cute to see so many conservatives discovering that change occurs in small increments and the ship of state can only be turned very slowly.

One of the things that helps move the policy needle every so slightly in the preferred direction is having a fully staffed executive branch… something Trump hasn’t bothered to do.

#28 Comment By peachtree strasse On August 21, 2017 @ 11:15 pm

@John Gruskos : “If Trump is waffling, that just means we need to compensate by electing a better congress in 2018, and perhaps a better president in 2020.”

Right on! I never get tired of kicking out Establishment Republicans, whether they always seemed unwholesome, like Eric Cantor, or whether they seemed OK and then were turned into pod-people, like the Deep State has done to Donald Trump. Anyways, just keep kicking them out and electing new ones seems to be our only choice.

#29 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 22, 2017 @ 12:06 am

Bannon was dumped from influence because he was outgunned by the War Party he opposed. Americans do love them their wars. Or at least the ones who control the country with their money after the elections are over.

#30 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 22, 2017 @ 12:10 am

History is outspoken that leaders who find themselves in trouble, can almost always rescue themselves by foreign warmaking.

#31 Comment By Hyperion On August 22, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

RM wrote: He risks having no base from which to build, no prospect for governance.

Risks?
Did RM just fall off the turnip truck?

#32 Comment By Michelle On August 23, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

It’s beginning to appear that Trump doesn’t see much of anything with precision or clarity when it comes to the fundamental question of how to govern based on how he campaigned. He is merely a battery of impulses, devoid of any philosophical coherence or intellectual consistency.

Just beginning? Where have you been for the past couple of years or the past few decades for that matter? Trump is the quintessential BS artist and has never met a promise he could keep. To place your hopes on a serial adulterer, a bankruptcy king, and a “businessman” who made a habit of screwing over his small business contractors and customers, was to place your hopes on a big bag of nothing. That he’s running his presidency the way he’s run his entire life has surprised nobody who actually paid attention to who and what Trump is. Sorry you got fooled.

#33 Comment By mw On August 25, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

“It’s beginning to appear that Trump doesn’t see much of anything with precision or clarity … a battery of impulses, devoid of any philosophical coherence or intellectual consistency.”

Many commenters have focused on this succinct summary. Might the same words summarize the modern Republican party? Are voters disappointed in their elected officials, constantly moving farther and farther to the right (i.e. now conservatives are defending swastika-waving white supremacists as ‘culture warriors’) because they have no clear agenda or philisophical coherence besides tribal identity? This would explain why each new round of ultra-ultra conservatives becomes RINOs to the next voting cycle. Is it even possible to hold together a coalition that promotes Christianity while denouncing the poor as ‘takers’? That relies on working class white Americans but fights against minimum wage increases and unions? That claims the mantle of fiscal responsibility while demanding tax cuts for the phenomenally wealthy? That demands you defend a toupee-wearing billionaire New Yorker who literally has gold-plated toilets?

#34 Comment By Judith Sylvester On August 27, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

“It’s beginning to appear…”

No point in requoting Michelle’s post, it’s quite true.

It was obvious from Trump’s response to any question he was asked during the campaign that he had never thought about the issue before the moment, and wasn’t even capable of sustained thought during the moment. Head shake.