My latest in Sunday's New York Daily News:
The increasingly nasty breakup between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon could mark the first genuine rupture in the Trumpist ranks, but so far the civil war on the right has been decidedly one-sided.
Bannon has been abandoned by many of his populist-nationalist media allies, who scurried to establish their fealty to the regime. Perhaps worse for Bannon, he has alienated his dark money patrons, the Mercers, a breach that may cost him his job at Breitbart.
In his romantic self-regard, Bannon is likely to think of himself as the Robespierre of this Trumpian revolution, who was ultimately destroyed by the forces he helped release. But Bannon is reaping what he has sowed.
For the last year, he imagined that he could control, shape and use Donald Trump as an empty vessel to fill with his poisonous worldview (he even at one point described him as an "imperfect vessel" for the political upheaval he had long been envisioning). 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.
In retrospect, it's extraordinary how tone-deaf Bannon was. He helped create a pro-Trump media ecosystem that demanded loyalty, not ideological consistency. But in the process he also helped create something else: a cult of personality that may be immune to the attacks he might now hope to launch.
A study by the Columbia Journalism Review documented the impact of a "right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart" that had "developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world." In a remarkably short period of time, the study found, Breitbart had become "the center of a distinct right-wing media ecosystem…"
Bannon used that ecosystem to build up the persona of Trump as the great leader and perpetual victim — a man whose 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 even to his closest allies. But despite all that, his base continues to rally around 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 economic adviser Gary Cohn is a globalist or Ivanka Trump is as "dumb as a brick."
But Bannon's fundamental sin was worse than hubris or even his attacks on the President's family members. His cardinal and potentially deadly sin was appearing to validate the Russia investigation, and doing so in direct and lurid terms. For Trump and his acolytes, this may be the ultimate apostasy, because they understand that the probe poses a direct, existential challenge to his presidency.
Over the last year, Trump and his loyalists have done everything possible to undermine, obstruct, deny and discredit that investigation, deriding it as a hoax and a witch hunt. But in Michael Wolff's new book, "Fire and Fury," here is the President's own chief strategist, the CEO of his campaign, the man who seemed to be the President's id, lending legitimacy to the investigation. Even worse, Bannon used words like "treasonous" and "unpatriotic" to describe the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians. "They're sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five."
Raising the stakes, Bannon also suggested that Trump could be ensnared by investigations into "money laundering," a direct shot at the President's family, his business, and perhaps some of his deepest financial secrets.
"This is all about money laundering," Bannon is quoted saying. "Mueller chose [prosecutor Andrew] Weissmann first" to join his staff "and he is a money-laundering guy. Their path to f--king Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner ... It's as plain as a hair on your face."
Trump World's response is wholly predictable: Bannon must not merely be excommunicated, he must be discredited and destroyed. Most of the right-wing media was on the case almost immediately. Trump's own response, which was unhinged even by his standards — issuing cease-and-desist threats against both Bannon and Wolff's book — suggests that Bannon had crossed some invisible and deeply sensitive red line. (Reports that Bannon is considering suing Trump for defamation for saying that he had "lost his mind" also suggest the breach is irreparable.)
Trump's obsessive and heavy-handed reaction to Wolff's book seems only to have super-charged the publicity and hype behind it, guaranteeing that it will be a blockbuster, if not someday a binge-watchable mini-series.
All of this is welcomed in some circles of the GOP, who hope that Bannon's fall from grace will put an end to his guerilla war against the GOP establishment. His endorsement, once eagerly sought by insurgents, is now toxic, and many of his candidates are already soiling themselves in their eagerness to repudiate the man they had regarded as their patron.
To be sure, Bannon was already a force in decline, discredited by the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama and sidelined by Trump's newfound alliances with a congressional establishment that delivered him his first major win on taxes. As Republicans gathered at the White House for their celebration, vying with one another in feats of sycophancy, Bannon was very much already the odd man out.
But Bannon is unlikely to simply vanish. He fancies himself a deep, strategic thinker, but the reality is that he is a nihilist who so reviles the system that made him rich and powerful, he embraces arson for the sake of arson. And even a mortally wounded Bannon can continue to do serious damage because he retains a visceral connection to Trump's shrinking base and understands Trump's points of vulnerability.
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.
So here is the danger for Trump: A campaign suffused with populism and that promised to focus on the "forgotten man" has within the space of less than a year morphed into a Gilded Age presidency, whose tone seems to be set by folks like Stephen Mnuchin rather than blue-collar voters from Michigan.
So far, Trump effectively has used cultural wedge issues - criticism of NFL players who knelt during the National Anthem, transparently ridiculous attempts to keep the "war on Christmas" alive and attacks on immigrants — to provide cover for an emerging plutocracy. At least some of his success in pulling off that sleight of hand was due to the support provided by the conservative media that was, until recently, in the Bannon orbit.
Bannon thinks he knows what buttons to push. As a White House aide, he cheered on Trump's embrace of much of the alt-right agenda. In his final days on the payroll, Bannon openly relished the escalation of a racially-charged culture war in the wake of violent and openly neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville.
"Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can't get enough of it," he told The New York Times. Trump agreed, channeling Bannon as he tweeted support for maintaining monuments to Confederate heroes.
But cultural wedge issues can only take you so far. For months, Bannon and Breitbart have been warning that Trump's presidency was in danger of being derailed by RINOS (Republicans in Name Only). Within minutes of his firing back in August, 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.
The threat that Bannon poses is his ability to plant seeds of doubt not merely about Trump's faux populism, but also about the seamy underbelly of Trump's kleptocratic self-dealing, corruption and recklessness. This has hardly been a state secret, but Trump has been spared exposure and criticism from his right flank.
Other optimists suggest that the divorce from Bannon might be a positive step toward normalizing and focusing Trump by separating him from the more deplorable elements of his coalition.
But 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 hollow core, erratic character and impulsivity.
Even though Bannon's quotes may be the juiciest elements of the Wolff's book, he is not the only insider quoted in the book, which vividly confirms a lot of other well-sourced reporting about this clown-car presidency.
As malign an influence as Bannon was, it seems naïve to now expect a more modulated or moderate Trump. Instead, we can expect Trump 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 rapists," and Trump who called for a Muslim ban. It was Trump, not Bannon, who rose from reality TV stardom to political prominence and power 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.
Divorcing 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.
Sykes, a former conservative talk show host, is author of "How the Right Lost Its Mind."