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, is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.