Bannon's Exit Leaves Trump Untethered

As the president cuts ties with establishment staffers, and forces out his populist firebrand, what’s left of Trumpism other than white identity politics?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Steve Bannon, the enigmatic but influential strategist who joined Donald Trump’s campaign at a low ebb, helped coax a win in the 2016 election from it, and then won acclaim and hatred as Trump’s eminence grise, is leaving the White House.

It is the latest in a string of senior departures from a White House that—like the Republican Party itself—was split between establishment Republicans and populist outsiders. But Bannon’s exit, following on the heels of those other departures, leaves Trump largely untethered from the Republican Party—and the president’s ideology, never especially defined on most issues, even more up for grabs.

In a statement Friday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve's last day. We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.” The New York Times had reported that Trump had told aides he was going to remove Bannon. Rumors of Bannon’s demise have bubbled up repeatedly over Trump’s seven months in office, but each time they proved to be wrong—or at least premature.

When Trump entered the White House, following an upset victory over Hillary Clinton, he sought to create a team that would blend the traditional Republican Party establishment, which had reluctantly embraced him after he won the GOP nomination, with the outsider group that had helped him rise on a wave of populism, noninterventionism, and white identity politics. From the traditional wing, Trump brought White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer. From the populist far-right, he brought Bannon, along with Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions. He rounded his team out with a motley bunch of relatives, business hangers-on, and ex-military officials.

The mix proved unstable, with endless infighting between White House factions. Priebus and Spicer finally left in July, clearing out the GOP establishment. Bannon’s departure, along with the reassignment of two influential Bannon-aligned members of the National Security Council, clears out the populists. And it leaves Trump’s White House with attenuated ties to the two leading factions of the Republican Party.

As with many denizens of the eclectic Trump West Wing, Bannon made an unlikely ascent. His appointment as chief strategist in the White House came after a revolving set of careers—often somewhat successful, but usually on the fringes—that he had tried before landing at Breitbart, the conservative media outlet that became Trump’s de facto palace media. He joined the Trump campaign in August 2016, at a time when hardly anyone (including insiders) gave Trump a chance. When the entertainer managed to pull off a win in November, Bannon was credited as a strategic genius who had seen the power of an appeal to nationalism—and especially white nationalism, rechristened as the “alt-right.”

Bannon’s tenure was rocky from the start. His job was to be chief strategist, but the Trump presidency has never managed to maintain an effective or consistent strategy, or to get much of anything done. (Most of that blame falls on the president, who has a short attention span and limited policy chops.) Bannon clashed fiercely with the establishment wing under Priebus, but also with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior adviser. Perhaps most unforgivably in Trump’s eyes, he got a great deal of credit for the administration’s moves, including an unforgettable Saturday Night Live sketch in which Bannon, as the Grim Reaper, infantilized the president.

In April, Trump said, “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn't know Steve. I’m my own strategist.”

More recently, Trump was reported by multiple outlets to be livid about a book by the journalist Joshua Green that focused on Bannon’s role in powering the Trump campaign. He was also suspected by some White House figures, probably correctly, of leaking to the press. Then Bannon offered a series of surprising interviews over the last week—the most surprising of them to Robert Kuttner of the liberal journal The American Prospect, in which he openly disparaged Trump’s North Korea strategy, saying no military option was viable, and dismissed the alt-right’s influence and size.

That was apparently enough to end Bannon’s term in the White House. The president himself has proven extremely reluctant to fire anyone, often preferring to publicly disparage them and to try to push them to resign without actually pulling the trigger. Bannon’s demise may have a lot to do with recently installed White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former Marine general who has sought to instill greater control over the West Wing. Kelly also insisted that Trump dismiss Anthony Scaramucci, the communications director who was installed over the objections of both Priebus and Bannon, helped push Priebus out, and was fired within 10 days.

With Bannon gone, Trump no longer has much connection to either the GOP establishment—he only recently became a Republican, and has little adherence to its traditional platform—or to the upstart faction that drove his win. Since his implicit endorsement of some white nationalism on Tuesday, he has taken criticism from Republicans unequalled since the October release of a video in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. The Bannon firing is unlikely to sit well with Breitbart, and Joel Pollak, an editor there, tweeted “#WAR” in response. Bannon himself, with a sharp tongue and being media savvy, could also make for an unpleasant enemy on the outside.

The question is what will remain of Trumpism, never a well-defined concept. His remaining rump of advisers includes Miller, who straddles both camps; Kelly, a career military man whose political views are little known; National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, another nonpolitical figure who seems more interventionist than Bannon was; people like Gary Cohn, a lifelong Democrat who advises Trump on economic policy; and family members like Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who have no experience in politics. In fact, few members of Trump’s inside team now have anything in the way of experience or ideology.

The one view that seems likely to persist, even without Bannon around, is Trump’s embrace of the politics of white resentment and racially divisive rhetoric. In a sense, Trump is right that Bannon was a newcomer: Trump has flirted with racism for decades. He first made headlines when the Justice Department prosecuted him for trying to keep black tenants out of Trump Organization apartments. He later called for the execution of the Central Park Five, who were eventually exonerated.

Trump’s peculiar statement on Tuesday, endorsing some forms of white identity politics and white pride, while trying to separate them from neo-Nazis and white nationalism, was among his clearest and most cogent statements so far. And while Bannon said he was “proud” of the comments, they came with Bannon already on the outs. Those comments from the president created a major split with the business establishment, which he had leaned on to deliver manufacturing jobs—along with white identity politics, the core of his pitch for the presidency. With Bannon gone, the GOP establishment out, and the business community treating Trump as toxic, white identity politics might be the only remaining strongly held view that Trump has.

Of course, it’s unclear whether that matters. Kelly has proven that he can help push out staffers he dislikes, but he has also had little luck in reining in the president, who has horrified advisers with comments on North Korea and Charlottesville in the last week alone. He is now left with a team of advisers with few ideological commitments and less political experience. Pushing Priebus out seems to have done little to arrest Trump’s slide into chaos. Will Bannon’s ouster really change things any more? Commentary about Trump has tended to obsess over who his staffers are, but the important fact remains who the president is. That hasn’t changed.