Stephen Bannon: Barbarian at the gate

Stephen Bannon will remain the most potent voice of the voters who put Donald Trump into the White House and a strong advocate of the ‘America First’ agenda, steeling the President for more battles to come within the Administration and with Congress.

“I can fight better on the outside. I can’t fight too many Democrats on the inside like I can on the outside.”

Stephen Bannon, 18 August 2017

Stephen Bannon’s departure from the White House last week put me very much in mind of then President Lyndon B Johnson’s characteristically pithy comment on whether i t was better to have FBI chief J Edgar Hoover inside or outside “the tent”. In the case of Mr Bannon, things may not be quite as clearcut as they were with Mr Hoover.

Kelly's rules

On the face of it, this should be a good thing for both the Trump Administration per se and for greater cohesion with Republican ranks in Washington as a whole. As the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher has noted:

“Mr Bannon's firing will be seen as a win for chief of staff John Kelly, whose attempts to instil discipline in the White House will get a boost without the free-wheeling Mr Bannon roaming the hallways.”

Indeed, it would be fair to say, in retrospect at least, that Mr Bannon's denouement was on the cards from the moment Reince Priebus, a Bannon ally, was replaced as Chief of Staff by Mr Kelly. And his interview last week with The American Prospect was undoubtedly, as I suspect he calculated at the time, the final nail in his coffin — as well as a marker for what we should expect from here on from Bannon the barbarian, speaking through the media’s various portals.

All this being said, discipline among White House staffers almost certainly will improve if, as is very likely the case, the extremely well informed New York Times is correct in saying:

“Mr. Bannon favored a culture similar to the one Mr. Trump brought with him from the business world to the White House — a flat structure with blurred lines of responsibility and competing power centers. And early on Mr. Bannon benefited from that structure, sitting at the top, free to slip unvetted materials to the president without a gatekeeper to get past.”

Style, not substance

But we should be careful not to overestimate Mr Bannon’s influence on policy. His several powerful enemies in the White House — notably Presidential Advisors Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, National Security Advisor H R McMaster, Deputy NSA Dinah Powell and Chair of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn — do seem culpable on this count in wanting it both ways. On the one hand (and again to quote The New York Times), they paint Mr Bannon as an:

“…evil genius who pushed the president to make some of his more audacious decisions…[whose] has removed one of the biggest impediments to stability inside the White House”.

On the other hand, they:

“…long argued that [Mr Bannon] inflated his importance in White House debates and took more than his fair share of credit in plotting Mr. Trump’s victory”.

The reality is probably somewhere in between these two characterisations.

What is clearer, however, is that Mr Bannon’s demise was in no way because of ideological differences between him and Mr Trump. As Mr Zurcher puts it:

“Border security, aggressive trade protectionism, immigration reform and a certain kind of cultural nostalgia — all were themes that Mr Trump ran on from the start, which Mr Bannon only sharpened and focused. They're also issues Mr Trump has pushed in recent weeks, even as Mr Bannon has been increasingly marginalised.”

Still in the President's ear

As Mr Bannon himself has made clear, these are themes he will be co ntinuing to pursue now from outside the Administration. Given Mr Trump’s own support for them and his seeming addiction to cable TV and nationalist blogs, it does seem likely therefore that the former Chief Strategist will continue to wield at least some influence over the President. After all, as the BBC’s Nick Bryant has noted:

“…he arguably remains the most influential figure on the insurgent right, a constituency that Donald Trump is reliant upon for a second term in the White House”.

Furthermore (for the time being at least), Mr Bannon is not totally without allies inside the White House.

Economic nationalism is far from over...

Perhaps most notably, trade guru Peter Navarro will continu e to carry the protectionist/anti-China torch (and he may become more influential if Mr Cohn, one of the strongest proponents of free trade in the Trump Administration, moves on to succeed Janet Yellen as Chair of the Federal Reserve next year). He will undoubt edly enjoy at least some common ground with the USTR Robert Lighthizer, an avid supporter of unilateral action under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, as well as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

...but will take second place to tax for now

For the time being, however, it does appear likely that — the ongoing NAFTA renegotiation aside — direct con frontations with third countries over trade will remain on hold as the Administration looks to prioritise working with Republicans on the Hill to push through tax reform (simultaneously putting onto a backburner for now controversial steel import tariffs). However, I think Mr Bannon is right to forecast that anything which does get passed into law is likely to amount to little more than conventional (and almost certainly modest relative to Mr Trump’s campaign pledges) tax cuts. And even this will not be straightforward given the strong divergence of views within the Party over debt (with the debt ceiling and budget reconciliation also needing to be addressed by the end of September).

Nevertheless, I remain firmly of the view that, not least to shore up his base, Mr Trump will push protectionism strongly next year, especially on fronts (such as the recently launched Section 301 investigation against China) where he can expect at least some support from Congress.

The new neocons?

Where I think Mr Bannon is likely to be less successful in bringing his ‘America First’ agenda to bear is on foreign policy. As I argued in a paper entitled ‘The New Neocons and the Middle East’ published jointly by Global Policy a nd Arab Digest in April (which will be updated shortly to reflect developments over the past four months), the triumvirate of Messrs Kushner and McMaster plus Defence Secretary James Mattis (to which I think we should now add Mr Kelly) looks in many respects like the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz triumvirate which was so dominant in the foreign policy thinking of George W Bush’s Administration post-9/11. This said, let me be clear that I am not forecasting US invasions of third countries (eg Venezuela!) or eve n an imminent preemptive strike against North Korea. But I do think that the Pentagon is now very likely to get its way (strongly opposed by Mr Bannon) over the US military presence in Afghanistan (on which we should learn more tonight when Mr Trump announces a new “South Asia’ policy); and we do need to watch developments around US/Iran relations very closely ind eed.

Could Ivanka Trump somehow persuade her father to go into reverse on the Paris climate change agreement? I frankly doubt it. But it may be that she can quietly dissuade him from cutting US funding for climate change-related programmes entirely.

The bottom line

In conclusion, I again turn to Anthony Zurcher who, for me, summed up the most important point about Mr Bannon’s demise as follows:

“Trump was Trump before Mr Bannon came on the scene, however. And as the rollercoaster ride that was politics [last] week indicates, the president isn't changing anytime soon”.

Thus, although we may overestimate Mr Bannon’s influence over Mr Trump from time to time, it is likely that the President will continue to draw strength from the support of someone who was, until last week, undoubtedly his most kindred spirit inside the Administration. And I can only wish Mr Kelly luck in dealing with the biggest source of indiscipline in the White House.

Alastair Newton

Photo credit: Getty Images. The photo was taken during President Trump's first phone conversation with President Vladimir Putin. Of the six top aides (including Mr Bannon) in the room with the President, only Vice President Mike Pence is still with the Administration.

Comments (2)
No. 1-2

Thanks very much indeed. I was a little concerned that I would promptly be made to look silly by Trump not going with the Pentagon on Afghanistan last night! But he did - even if he was sufficiently vague on specifics (eg troop numbers) to give himself some wiggle room should he opt to revert to the Bannon view.


Insightful article about Bannon and the continuing upheaval in the White House. Well done.