What Now For Bannon?

Imagining he can more effectively pull strings from outside the White House is classic Bannon hubris.
08/20/2017 09:31 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2017

Last week, I wrote a piece for HuffPost titled “U.S. vs. North Korea: the Winner? China,” pointing out that it made no sense for the U.S. to give up on trade issues with China in the hope of a grand bargain in which China would help leash North Korea.

A nuclear exchange with North Korea was being prevented by the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, I wrote, not because Beijing was doing any heavy lifting on our behalf. On the contrary, I suggested:

China is playing a complex game (far more deftly than Trump) in which its security interests require no fundamental change in the geo-political status quo on the Korean peninsula – no war and no regime change in the North – and its economic interests call for keeping at bay any serious American retaliation against the Chinese system of economic mercantilism that is doing serious harm to the U.S. economy.

Apparently, the piece was read at the White House, and I got an email from an aide saying that Mr. Steven Bannon would like to invite me in to discuss the issue further. I told the aide that I was on vacation but would be happy to speak by phone. An hour later, Bannon called.

This produced the now famous interview in The American Prospect that led to Bannon’s ouster as Donald Trump’s chief political strategist.

Bannon, still unrepentant, has put out the word that he will continue the struggle to save Donald Trump from himself and his corporate allies, from Bannon’s perch back at Breitbart.com. But this raises several questions.

In the Trump White House, there is only one Trump and advisers do not get to upstage the president.

As Bannon made clear in his interview with me, he has had a grand strategy of connecting nativism and white nationalism to policies of economic nationalism that would actually deliver benefits to the stressed working class – serious public infrastructure outlays to create jobs; taxing the rich to pay for these investments; get tough with China to bring home jobs; renegotiate NAFTA and other trade deals.

Trump, alas, bought the first part of the strategy ― get in bed with the far right and trash immigrants. But on the second part ― actually delivering something for workers beyond hateful rhetoric ― Bannon was trumped by Trump’s corporate allies and the rest of the Republican party.

That, apparently, was why he was reaching out to me, on the somewhat bizarre premise that having the co-editor of a left liberal magazine, The American Prospect, would somehow increase his leverage at the White House. (“Hey, guys, Bob Kuttner agrees with me.” You can imagine how that would work out.)

Now Bannon is out. In his usual grandiosity, he imagines that from his perch back at Breitbart, he can both coach Trump and kick Trump.

Breitbart has proclaimed war against the Trump administration. Bannon, who contradicts himself from day to day, told The Weekly Standard that “The Trump Presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.”

But he also told other media outlets that he would be working hard to save the Trump presidency. Apparently, he thinks he can play the role with Trump of both nice cop and bad cop. Breitbart will continue to kick Trump as a sellout, while Bannon will continue his role as grand strategist, but outside the White House in midnight phone calls.

This is classic Bannon hubris ― the same grandiosity that led Trump to oust him. In the Trump White House, there is only one Trump and advisers do not get to upstage the president, even less to disparage his blustering on North Korea.

You don’t get to both kick a president and advise him.

With Bannon out and Trump continuing to lose support from Republican and corporate leaders in the aftermath of his appalling comments about the racist rampage at Charlottesville, this president is at a fateful crossroads. Does he continue to double down on his alliance with the racist far right, or does he pull back and begin to restore relations with what passes for a mainstream Republican party?

Even Trump must appreciate how isolated he is. Trump doesn’t like pressure, but he has to pick his poison. Would he rather be pressured by Breitbart and neo-Nazis to stay the course on his incipient fascism, or by corporate America and the Republican Party to pull back?

Bannon was the architect of how to use nativism as an economic strategy. Bannon is now out. Trump is left to his own devices. This was a weird week. It’s no risk to predict that things will only get weirder.

And though the story for several days was Bannon, let’s not forget that the real story is Trump. His administration is imploding. The only question is when and how it will end.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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