Tell Us, Mr. Bannon -- Just What Is Trumpism?

Tell Us, Mr. Bannon -- Just What Is Trumpism?
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Days after Steven Bannon’s blustery, accusatory interview on “60 Minutes,” in which he warned the apostates blocking President Trump’s agenda that he’s coming after them, Trump confirmed it -- there is no such thing as Trumpism. In recent weeks he’s assured Democrats he backs legalizing the Dreamers, affirmed a commitment to foreign aid in front of the United Nations, and said he’s adding troops in Afghanistan. Will Trump now accept “better” terms he wants in the Paris climate accord?

Too bad for Bannon, because none of this is remotely the fault of his favorite punching bags, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, just Trump himself.

Bannon’s new self-described role as “wingman” growling from outside instead of inside the White House -- where as chief strategist he fought openly against the “globalist” forces he believed included Trump’s family members -- isn’t going very well. Trump keeps screwing things up for the Breitbart News commander. After getting fired last month he lamented to the Weekly Standard that “the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” But upon reflection, Bannon realized that lame duck talk diminishes his own power, so he’s in overdrive fighting for scraps of a policy vision the president embraces spasmodically.

Bannon says he’s enjoying having “my hands back on my weapons,” but he’s outside looking in at a West Wing filled with elites from Goldman Sachs -- the very definition of “the swamp” that Bannon is always frothing about. There, a president is spending political donations on legal fees while his staffers go deep in debt with mounting lawyer bills, visitor logs are kept secret so voters have no idea who is permitted into the Oval Office to influence the president, and a kleptocracy thrives where Trump and his children continue to be enriched by business connected to foreign governments, including the Chinese. Cabinet secretaries are using government planes for private use and private planes for government work -- violations that would have sparked endless Breitbart bonfires under President Obama.

In reality, however, there was little left of Trumpism to trumpet even before Bannon was fired. He’s got the travel ban (or at least a modified version of it), and maybe the promised withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement; Bannon will claim credit if Trump pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal -- but that’s about it. On trade and immigration, the president has retreated from Bannon’s barricade-crashing proposals and has not withdrawn from NAFTA, not imposed tariffs on Chinese steel imports, has three times backed off threats over funding for a border wall and now come out in favor of what Bannon calls “amnesty.”

Yet Bannon has declared war, promising to take out incumbent Republican senators who aren’t sufficiently loyal to the president. Targets are guilty of insufficient fealty to Trump himself, not to an agenda once thought of as Trumpism. With the backing of loyal mega-donor  Robert Mercer, the Bannon forces are targeting Sen. Jeff Flake, and potentially Sens. Bob Corker and Roger Wicker as well. GOP leaders are incensed over the millions more they will spend protecting those lawmakers, money that could be spent trying to knock off Democrats.  Currently Bannon is working to elect Roy Moore to replace sitting Sen. Luther Strange in the Alabama Senate race. Trump has endorsed Strange, also backed by McConnell. Bannon is backing the more Trumpian candidate and, well, Trump is not.

Bannon, ironically, purports to be interested in protecting GOP majorities in Congress. Before he could imagine Trump giving away the store on DACA to Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Bannon declared in his “60 Minutes” interview that preserving President Obama’s executive order would cause a GOP civil war. He expects Dreamers to run out their permits and “self-deport,” because “amnesty is non-negotiable.” He also said, “I’m worried about losing the House now because of this,” adding that his fear is “in February and March it will be a civil war inside the Republican Party.”

But if civil war in the GOP isn’t Bannon’s aim, it's hard to know what is. He blames everything on Ryan and McConnell.  “They do not want Donald Trump’s populist economic agenda to be implemented. It’s very obvious. It’s obvious as night follows day,” he told Charlie Rose.

In the name of Trumpism, Bannon swallows heavy doses of denial. After all, when Trump threatened to withdraw from NAFTA, the president’s kids and other aides made calls to the Canadian government and arranged for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call Trump and talk him off the ledge. It wasn’t Ryan or McConnell. Trump’s approval ratings remain low, Bannon said, “because he hasn’t -- we haven’t gotten the wall built.” Earth to Steve: Trump has signaled to Congress the wall is a joke.

In the wake of the DACA debacle, Breitbart called the president “Amnesty Don,” yet Bannon himself has stayed sheepishly silent. Ann Coulter, author of “In Trump We Trust,” tweeted: “Looks like Bannon got it wrong. That shadowy force trying to nullify the 2016 election ... is @realDonaldTrump.” Rep. Steve King told the Associated Press the president was destroying his support by betraying his campaign promise, and that his base is “irreparable, disillusioned beyond repair.” King added, “No promise is credible.”

Sam Nunberg, a close Bannonite, conceded:  “The reality is sinking in that the Trump administration is on the precipice of turning into an establishment presidency.”

But Bannon isn’t just breaking plates at Breitbart, he’s building his own brand. Last week, like any other dime-a-dozen elitist, Bannon attended an investor conference in Hong Kong. He told the exclusive gathering he speaks to Trump every two-to-three days, despite White House denials that the president has spoken more than once with Bannon since he left. Before Trump disappointed him on DACA, Nunberg had hailed Bannon’s increased influence with Trump.  “I think Steve leaves and a week later he [Trump] pardons Arpaio and they suspend DACA. I don’t think there was any coincidence there,” Nunberg told BuzzFeed.  

Bannon remains fixated on the threat China poses to the United States, has grimly predicted we will be at war with that nation within five-to-10 years over its buildup of military installations in the South China Sea, and said we’re already “at economic war” with China. Yet his domestic bark in this regard doesn’t seem to be the same as his overseas-investor-conference bite. Once there, the New York Times described Bannon as “more subdued about the purported Chinese threat.” The Wall Street Journal reported he described Trump’s great respect for President Xi and prospects for trade, but that “the U.S. needs to play a stronger role in changing the system in China, an attendee recalled.” It’s a far cry from a trade war on steel.

Perhaps over time, Bannonism will go the way of Trumpism.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. She is also host of "No Labels Radio" on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel.

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