Steve Bannon may have vacated the premises, but it appears Breitbartism is alive and well in the Trump White House.
Over the past two days, Axios—a scoopy news site whose reporters are among the best-sourced in Trumpworld—has published two inside-the-West-Wing stories that portray a president who has fully internalized Breitbart’s framing of national politics in America today.
On Sunday, Axios reported on a recent Oval Office meeting between President Trump and a gaggle of top aides—including economic adviser Gary Cohn, then-chief-strategist Steve Bannon, two trade advisers, and newly installed chief of staff John Kelly. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the administration’s plans to investigate Chinese theft of American intellectual property—but the conversation reportedly devolved into a presidential venting session.
Trump, addressing Kelly, said, "John, you haven't been in a trade discussion before, so I want to share with you my views. For the last six months, this same group of geniuses comes in here all the time and I tell them, 'Tariffs. I want tariffs.' And what do they do? They bring me IP. I can't put a tariff on IP." …
Trump made sure the meeting ended with no confusion as to what he wanted.
"John, let me tell you why they didn't bring me any tariffs," he said. "I know there are some people in the room right now that are upset. I know there are some globalists in the room right now. And they don't want them, John, they don't want the tariffs. But I'm telling you, I want tariffs."
Then, in a Monday morning story about the fate of Rex Tillerson, Axios reported that Trump is getting “more and more fed up” with his secretary of state. Why? “Rex just doesn’t get it,” Trump is quoted as saying. “He’s totally establishment in his thinking.”
In both cases, Trump’s dissatisfaction with some of his top aides is expressed in distinctly Breitbartian terms. The advisers whom the president believes are failing to advance his trade agenda are not inept or insufficiently obedient, they are “globalists”; the secretary of state is struggling not because he lacks competence, or because he fundamentally differs with Trump on key foreign-policy questions, but because he is too “establishment.” This may sound like somewhat benign language, but spend some time on the Breitbart homepage, you’ll realize these terms are among its strongest epithets.
In Breitbart’s view of American politics, the most important conflicts are not necessarily between left and right, but between globalists and nationalists; elitists and populists; insiders and outsiders. Sometimes the villains in its coverage are unauthorized immigrants and radical jihadists—but just as often, they are the political and media elite who are selling out the little guy (read: the average Breitbart reader) in order to hoard power and pursue a self-sustaining agenda. This is the worldview that Bannon brought with him to the White House, and as my colleague Rosie Gray has reported, it’s the attitude that Breitbart will likely double down on now that he’s back at the helm.
As National Review editor Rich Lowry recently pointed out, the Breitbart ethos is also reflected in the president’s style and temperament:
Trump’s sensibility is highly unusual for a politician—let alone for the leader of the free world—but very familiar from the internet or social media. As his news conference showed, his level of argument is at the level of a good Breitbart blogger, or of a Twitter egg of yore. He would absolutely kill it in the comments section of a right-wing website or trolling a journalist.
Trump knows some things; covers the weaknesses of his case with sheer aggression; doesn't care about consistency or common sense; wants to play to the base rather than reach the persuadable middle; and feels liberated from any standards of respectability.
But, of course, it’s one thing for a bomb-throwing website to play the part of the scrappy populist gatecrashers taking on entrenched establishment interests; it’s quite another for the sitting president of the United States to see himself that way.
Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Trump’s Breitbartian posture is the apparent impotence it exposes. After all, those “globalists” Trump reportedly complained about in the Oval Office work for him—if they’re not following his orders, why doesn’t he just fire them? No matter how many drain-the-swamp chants he leads at raucous rallies, the reality remains that Trump is many orders of magnitude more powerful than anyone in the so-called “establishment” that he derides. He could change a great many things; instead, he seems to prefer to complain about them.
I have written before about Trump’s lifelong revenge march against the sneering Manhattan elites who have long treated him with disdain. Sitting inside the Oval Office doesn’t appear to have changed how he thinks. He behaves—even from behind the Resolute Desk—like he’s stuck outside with his face pressed up against the window, free to voice his resentment, but unable to act.