Like so many others on the Right, Steve Bannon thought he could ride the tiger. Instead, he and his allies have become the latest road kill in this shambolic presidency. Just another Friday in August.
While it’s tempting to see Bannon’s fall as an inflection point, the reality is that his departure does nothing to change the fundamental nature of this presidency, which continues to be shaped by Donald Trump’s erratic character and impulsivity
Ironically, though, Bannon’s firing comes just days after what may have been Peak Bannon: Trump’s full-throated embrace of much of the Alt Right agenda. In his final days, Bannon openly relished the escalation of a racially-charged culture war: “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it,” told The New York Times. Trump agreed, channeling Bannon as he tweeted support for maintaining monuments to Confederate heroes.
So Bannon’s firing creates a new dynamic on the Right, with an uncertain outcome, especially as it comes in the midst of other cracks in Trump’s shrinking base.
Trump’s loss of support from the GOP mainstream, including members of the business community and congressional Republicans, was damaging enough, but a break with the Bannon-Breitbart wing could lead to bitter divisions within the hardest of the hard core wing of the president’s base.
Last year, Trump beat the establishment, but he relied on the populist, nativist movement that Bannon had cultivated for him. Simply put, he can’t afford to lose the base that elected him in the first place.
Bannon has already declared that he going to “war” with the forces he believes have stymied Trump’s populist agenda. With Bannon back at the helm, expect Breitbart and its allies to attack against “the Democrats, globalists, generals, bankers, and hawks,” who now dominate the White House and are plotting to undermine and the populist/nativist movement.
Already, they are warning that Trump’s presidency is in danger of being derailed by RINOS (Republicans in name Only). Within minutes of his firing, a headline on the Breitbart website declared: “With Steve Bannon Gone, Donald Trump Risks Becoming Arnold Schwarzenegger 2.0,” a reference to the action star turned liberal-leaning governor of California.
"Bannon won’t go straight at Trump,” observers Ben Shapiro (himself a former Breitbart staffer). “That would be foolish. Instead, he’ll pretend to be Trump’s ally in fighting the swamp from the outside.” That means that “Bannon will pretend that Trump’s foibles are really just Trump being misled by others. Until, that is, Bannon finds a convenient way to turn on Trump himself."
But Bannon may also find that he is reaping what he has sowed. For the last year, he imagined that he could control, shape, and use Donald Trump. (In that sense, he was much like Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and Mitch McConnell.) But he helped create something else: a cult of personality that may be immune to the attacks he is about to launch.
Bannon and others helped create the persona of Trump as the great leader and perpetual victim – a man who’s every falsehood, slur, blunder, and fraud had to be rationalized and defended at any cost. For months, it has been obvious that Trump cannot be controlled (even by himself) and is not going to pivot to anything remotely presidential. It has been obvious that his ignorance and indifference to policy runs deep; that he is a man without any deep principles and little loyalty to even his closest allies. But despite all that, his base continues to rally to him and will likely continue to do so.
Voters who swallowed the multiple indignities of the last year are unlikely to break with him because Bannon thinks that Gary Cohn is a globalist.
But do not expect a more modulated or moderate Trump. Instead expect the president to attempt to insulate himself against Bannonite attacks by throwing out even more red meat for his base, and escalating the culture wars that Bannon has done so much to foment.
In other words, don’t expect much to change. Bannon may have helped write the ill-fated travel ban, but it was Trump who denounced “Mexican racists,” and called for a Muslim ban. It was Trump, not Bannon who rode to prominence by spreading Birther conspiracy theories. It was Trump, not Bannon, who retweeted white supremacists and refused to distance himself from white nationalists during the campaign; Trump, not Bannon, who attacked a Mexican-American judge, demeaned women, and mocked a disabled reporter.
Firing Steve Bannon doesn’t fix what is wrong with this presidency. The cancer at the heart of this White House isn’t the staff. It’s the man in the Oval Office and he is not changing.