Stephen K. Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s embattled chief strategist and his most controversial adviser, has been the latest senior White House official to be ousted from the Trump administration amidst another major shake up. Almost immediately he has returned to Breitbart, the far-right news outlet, where he had been the editor-in-chief prior to joining the Trump administration. Bannon’s clashes with other members of the administration (often made public by himself) and Trump’s son-in-law and top White House adviser, Jared Kushner, reportedly paved the way for his firing. His departure marked the fourth senior official in five weeks to leave the Trump administration after Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer in July and Michael Flynn in February.
The appointment of Bannon, the right wing media entrepreneur with a very distinct worldview, to a top position in Trump administration in November 2016 was widely perceived as a bad sign, especially by a large number of Americans who may have been willing to give the President-elect the benefit of the doubt. Bannon’s inclusion meant having an alt-right crusader in the White House and the first of realisations that as President, Trump wasn’t going to try and build a broader support base. NPR puts it well: “Bannon’s fingerprints are everywhere, from Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine to the dark vision laid out in his inaugural address.” So now that he’s gone, does that portend a good sign for the White House?
The Bannon effect
To be sure, it is a milestone for the Trump administration which he has influenced in profound ways. Since the time Bannon became the CEO of the Trump campaign in August 2016, he consistently echoed Trump’s populist, nativist and anti-globalist passions and as his Chief Strategist, encouraged him to stay true to his promises to his white nationalist support base. Most recently Trump’s comments on Charlottesville violence, citing moral equivalence between the white supremacists and their detractors, disappointed his aides and party members and left much of America indignant and furious but reportedly found the resonance and support of Bannon.
In his short-lived political career, Bannon helped architect the isolationist and anti-immigrant policies of the new administration, including the US’s pull out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris climate accord. His towering contribution was the controversial travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which was eventually blocked by the courts (a much-scaled down version has been recently let through), along with the suspension of US’s refugee programs. His was a powerful voice that had Trump’s ear against the many others who would have preferred for him as President to behave more conventionally and in a manner less alienating to the majority of Americans and the world.
This clear initial influence of Bannon on Trump attracted attention in the form of appearance on the February cover of Time magazine and his famous portrayal in an SNL sketch as the dark skeleton behind the scenes — the real in-charge at the White House. Such an open blindsiding did not please Trump and Bannon was partially reined in. From a lower profile, Bannon continued to try and steer the administration’s trade and economic policy left along the lines of his economic, America-first nationalism, and against others whom he saw as the ‘establishment’ and the ‘globalists’. This is where his efforts ran into direct conflict with several members of the administration including Kushner, whom Bannon saw as too obligated to business and New York elite opinion, and the National Economic Policy Council advisor, Gary Cohn. Bannon’s suggestions for infrastructure spending, tougher trade policy with China and increasing the tax on the wealthy were ignored or waylaid by the Trump administration, which generally carried along the conventional Republican path, when it came to economics. Bannon was thus increasingly perceived by other White House officials as a mischief maker, committed to pushing his ideological agenda over working for the success of the overall administration.
Losing the whisperer
With Bannon gone, Trump has lost an adviser deeply committed to operationalising the agenda of white nationalism — someone who, as Vox frames it, “cared about policy details and lower-level personnel appointments, rather than just presidential tweets or statements.” While that is anything but unwelcome, political analysts feel that Bannon’s exit is unlikely to alter the Trump administration in high-profile ways. Bannon had been unsuccessful as it is, in pushing his economic nationalism. On immigration policy, fellow hardliners Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller are still going to be around. On race-related controversies, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that his own instincts are quite similar to that of his former Chief Strategist’s. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman recounted Kushner once saying — ‘Bannon plays to my father-in-law’s worst instincts’. She, however, added that Trump will likely listen more to himself and probably appoint a replacement soon. “There was a Steve Bannon before Steve Bannon … There has always been someone playing to Trump’s darker impulses. Before Bannon there was Roger Stone and before that Roy Cohn,” she said on NYT’s The Daily podcast.