Alt-right leader Steve Bannon has taken over in the Trump White House
February 3, 2017 12:00 AM
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon
By Shirley Anne Warshaw
Jockeying for power is in full bloom in the Trump White House, with Steve Bannon the undisputed winner to date. He cleverly insisted on the title “chief strategist” and “senior counselor,” placing him a notch above others and allowing him to be the final voice that President Donald J. Trump hears on virtually every issue.
While the chief of staff traditionally sits in with the president on every meeting, Mr. Bannon has inserted himself into this role as well. Even the powerful Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief strategist, and David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s chief strategist, drew tighter boundaries. Mr. Bannon has no boundaries and is active in every facet of the Trump decision-making structure.
To date, it is Mr. Bannon’s “platform of the alt-right,” a term he coined, that has driven the Trump agenda, from the ban on Muslims entering the United States, to the absence of mentioning Jews in the presidential Holocaust remembrance, to the building of the wall on the Mexican border. Mr. Bannon’s anti-immigration, anti-global, anti-pluralism platform has dominated Mr. Trump’s executive orders. Where are the policy proposals from other wings of the White House staff addressing housing, transportation or economic policy?
Mr. Bannon also has enabled Mr. Trump’s basest instincts. When the president complained that the media underestimated the size of the crowd at his inauguration and overestimated the crowd demonstrating against his policies, he called the National Park Service, which had taken photos of both, to protest. The photos were taken by a camera atop the Washington Monument, which surely was not biased, and showed that the gathering of demonstrators was much larger.
When Mr. Trump worried that staff of the Environmental Protection Agency might say negative things about him, he ordered a freeze on public comments. Mr. Bannon’s fingerprints were all over both reactions. They were right out of the Bannon playbook at Breitbart News — obfuscate the truth, deny reality and deflect attention from more important events. Last week, Mr. Bannon even was named to the principals committee of the National Security Council, while the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were reduced to as-needed attendees.
Mr. Trump’s Wall Street advisers, who control the economic agenda — including Dina Powell, a former managing director of Goldman Sachs, and Gary Cohn, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs — have been unable to move forward the campaign’s signature infrastructure plan. Marc Short, who oversees congressional relations, can’t get Mr. Trump to focus on a replacement for Obamacare. But neither Ms. Powell nor Mr. Cohn nor Mr. Short are Bannon people. Issues important to Bannon are being addressed while others remain on the back burner.
Mr. Bannon’s closest ally on the staff, Stephen Miller, co-wrote the inaugural address and inserted Bannon-Miller values. The two of them control the message, which also is articulated by their similarly empowered colleague, Kelleyanne Conway.
To further his agenda, Mr. Bannon put together the White House Strategic Development Group of a dozen staffers to define, as The Wall Street Journal noted, the administration’s “long-term policy priorities.” The group, which includes Sebastian Gorka and Julia Hahn of Breitbart, reports to Mr. Bannon and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. Whether Mr. Kushner can withstand Mr. Bannon’s sleight of hand is yet to be determined, but Mr. Bannon likely will prevail. Mr. Kushner so far has been either unwilling or unable to control Mr. Bannon.
One of Mr. Bannon’s most successful recommendations to Mr. Trump was to embrace now-Vice President Mike Pence in order to engage Republican evangelicals, many of whom share alt-right convictions. Putting Mr. Pence at the center of the pro-life march last week placed the Trump administration squarely behind the movement and deflected attention from other domestic programs. No longer was replacing Obamacare or a mega-billion-dollar national infrastructure program at the center of the public debate.
Mr. Bannon’s control over decision-making is helping to drive the White House staff into open warfare as each faction tries to stake a claim on policy management. Each is seeking allies outside of the White House, further dividing spheres of influence.
These factions represent fiscal demands from the Republican leadership channeled through White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, Mr. Bannon’s call to nationalism, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s promotion of the military-industrial complex and financial and business interests seeking tax cuts, regulatory relief and free trade (regardless of Mr. Trump’s make-it-in-America rhetoric). This is not to mention Mr. Pence’s anti-gay, anti-choice, faith-based social agenda. Finding common ground is difficult; prioritization is impossible.
There are no Trump loyalists in the mix who have toiled by the president’s side for years through triumph and tribulation to build a political brand. Hope Hicks, who joined the campaign as press secretary in 2015, is the closest Mr. Trump has to a diehard follower in the White House, aside from the president’s family. Ms. Hicks is a former model who worked for Jared and Ivanka Kushner and later joined the campaign at their encouragement.
This administration bears no similarity to those of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, each of whom had loyal followers who had moved with them from the governor’s mansion to the White House. These White House staffs were devoted to their bosses, whose principles they had long admired and whose friendship they cherished.
In contrast, Mr. Trump’s White House is a collection of strangers with no common bond and no personal ties to the man at the top, nor to each other. Perhaps the only two who have a longer-than-five-minute relationship are Mr. Bannon and Ms. Conway.
Still, at this point, there’s no doubt who has taken control. No one makes a recommendation to Mr. Trump that Mr. Bannon doesn’t weigh in on. He’s like Richard Nixon’s Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Kissinger wrapped into one. And look what happened to Nixon.
Shirley Anne Warshaw is a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College.
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