After being dismissed from his job, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon called it the end of an era—for the country, not just his career. “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” he said. It’s the kind of self-aggrandizing comment to a reporter that contributed to his departure from the White House. It’s also probably wrong. Trump’s conduct of the presidency so far has reflected his own predispositions more than it has Bannon’s influence, and so the strategist’s departure is unlikely to change it as dramatically as he expects.
Trump didn’t campaign on standard Republican views. In contrast to other GOP politicians, he was more hostile to foreign trade, skeptical of overseas interventions, opposed to immigration, supportive of entitlements, and enthusiastic about infrastructure spending. These views attracted a different kind of voting coalition than Republicans usually assemble: He lost whites with college degrees but gained whites without degrees. Bannon functioned at the White House as the chief ideologist for this brand of populist nationalism.
Now Bannon is suggesting the nationalists lost ground because the “Republican establishment” has reasserted itself, Congress is balking at Trump’s program, and the White House is full of Wall Streeters. The truth is Trump’s nationalist instincts long predate his Bannon collaboration and never really developed much beyond instincts while the two worked together.
As a result, Trump hasn’t done much to translate those instincts into policy. Trump didn’t end up officially designating China a currency manipulator, as he’d promised, or starting the trade war that Bannon favors. He authorized air strikes in Syria and is sending more troops to Afghanistan. The big, beautiful wall on our southern border? Not one mile has been built. No big infrastructure program is under way either.
Bannon has returned to Breitbart.com, his nationalist-right website, which will echo his view that Trump would be moving from triumph to triumph if not for the weaklings in Congress, or the “deep state,” or the “globalists,” or the media. But it isn’t “Obama holdovers” or the “Republican establishment” who are keeping Bannon’s goals from being realized. President Trump has never directed anyone to come up with an infrastructure bill. He hired people for key economic posts who value global supply chains rather than seek to unwind them. He chose his own advisers and chose to listen to them on Afghanistan.
Congressional Republicans are more responsible for the party’s failure on health care than Trump is. As he’s pointed out, they had seven years to reach a consensus on how to replace Obamacare. But this was not a matter of Congress refusing to follow Trump’s direction: He didn’t give them much to follow. Should Republicans have moved to change Medicaid more rapidly or left the program alone? There were lawmakers on each side, and no clear signal from Trump. Members of Congress who talked about health policy with him came away convinced he neither knew about it nor cared to learn.
If Trump is unlikely to succeed as a champion of nationalism, he cannot embrace run-of-the-mill Republicanism instead. The working-class voters who backed him didn’t sign up for that agenda. It’s a dilemma that confronts not just Trump but his Republican allies: If old-line conservatism isn’t working and the new nationalism is half-baked, what should they try instead?
That confusion is playing out in various ways. In Alabama, many of Trump’s nationalist fans are fighting to kick out Luther Strange, the Republican appointed to Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat, in a special election. They see him as an Establishment sellout. But their favored candidate lost, coming in third in the first round of voting. And since Strange has been a loyal supporter of Trump, the president is returning the favor.
Trump won’t become a moderate Republican who pleases the country’s top chief executive officers just because Bannon is no longer by his side. His personality will continue to drive his White House. No chief of staff will keep him from erupting in anger when he doesn’t get the respect he thinks he deserves. While Bannon contributed to executive-branch backbiting, it’s Trump who set the tone. A president who pours scorn on his attorney general in public while keeping him in his job is going to leave everyone who works for him guessing about where they stand.
This MO has left Trump unpopular and isolated. He can’t even get those CEOs to serve on his advisory boards, an informal presidential power. What he can still do is express himself. Criticizing his enemies—in the press, in the opposition, even in his own party—is a much larger part of his conception of his job than it was for his predecessors. He seems to enjoy it, and the consternation it causes, immensely. He’ll stay commenter-in-chief. He proved it at a rancorous Phoenix rally. The speech can’t have gone well with Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly. But there’s a limit to how long he’ll listen to advisers who want him to work to find new supporters beyond his base. If they persist, he’ll find other advisers—or maybe just give Bannon a call.