Monday, January 30, 2017

Listen: Stephen Bannon is not going to end the world.

So a lot of people are afraid of Stephen Bannon.  That makes some sense: Bannon is an amoral nationalist (arguably cryptofascist) race-baiter with no respect for dissent or institutional norms, and he's got way too much influence over President Trump.  But while people are going to get hurt, it's not as bad as it might seem.

Bannon, current political strategist to the White House and the former editor of Breitbart News (more on Breitbart soon), was recently placed on the National Security Council. And since this happened at the same time the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were removed from the NSC -- you would ordinarily expect the chief intelligence officer and highest-ranking military officer to be on the NSC -- that makes this move seem even more radical.  Nor does it end there: according to Foreign Policy and Politico (but really, according to anyone with a pulse who's been near the White House), Bannon has a leather-lunged voice when it comes to influencing policy on the domestic side, too.

Bannon and senior presidential adviser Stephen Miller helped lay the political and ideological foundations for Trump’s rise before Trump came on the scene. Breitbart was instrumental in promoting the idea that establishment Republican lawmakers had betrayed American workers on issues like immigration and trade, a theme Trump rode to victory in November.
They’ve been responsible for setting an “action plan” for Trump’s first weeks in the White House, developing executive orders and memoranda, and deciding when Trump would sign each new document, according to people familiar with the process.
Bannon's level of no-holds-barred contrarian nationalism is so extreme that it's barely in touch with reality, putting the scrofulous adviser right in the same plane of existence as his conspiracy-theorist boss.  Urging Trump on to ever-more-Trumpian heights of bare-knuckled bruising, he's shaped so much of the current White House stances that Trump has begun publicly following the man's lead; only a few days after Bannon snarled at the New York Times that the media was the "opposition party" and that it should "keep its mouth shut" after daring to criticize the winner of the presidential race, Trump himself began adopting the formula in his tweets.

But for Trump, that's also the problem.  Trump has no sense of norms or respect for dissent, and Bannon has only reinforced these worst qualities.  But norms and respect are not just decent, they're also useful.  To wit, from Foreign Policy:
This is looking very much like the Bannon Regency. It was Bannon and his sidekick Stephen Miller, a young former aide to senator-turned-attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, who, according to the Wall Street Journal, wrote Trump’s kick-them-in-the-teeth inaugural address. And it was the two Steves who, according to CNN, ran the rollout of the immigration executive order on Friday afternoon, doing an end run around the normal interagency process and overruling the Department of Homeland Security to insist that the entry ban apply to hundreds of thousands of permanent residents who happened to hail from one of the seven banned Muslim countries.
After my post urging you to donate to the ACLU (who raised $20 million over the weekend, when they usually raise $3 million a year) and my post with clippings about the results of the Muslim ban, hopefully I don't need to review why the whole thing was an unmitigated disaster.  It was not just immoral, it was also incompetent.  And here's the thing: Bannon and Trump aren't going to change.  People don't really change, but they especially don't change if they scorn disagreement and refuse to accept blame.  So stuff like this is going to happen again and again.

As I mentioned yesterday, Trump's numbers are historically abysmal for a new president.  He will hate that.  Trump has shown that he is intensely driven by metrics: polling in the primary, crowd sizes, television audiences, etc.  It is possible that he will ignore them or pretend they're not real for a while, but even he can only sustain so much denial.  Eventually, he's going to look for someone to blame... and in that instance, everyone else with pull in the White House is going to rightfully point at Bannon.  Maggie Haberman of the New York Times has pointed out that this has been a consistent and reliable pattern.  It happened with campaign staff, who were fired, with Press Secretary Spicer, who was yelled at, with National Security Adviser Flynn, who has been pushed to the periphery in the past week.

Eventually, Trump is going to make a change.  And Bannon is an obvious target to get muscled out by ambitious and more conventionally villainous Reince Priebus or Jared Kushner.

There are other possibilities.  Maybe Bannon will see this coming, and adapt to survive -- bring in a voice of moderation that he can control (although that seems hard to imagine).  Or maybe Trump won't mind bad numbers, if he can be successfully convinced that they're fake (although his constant obsessions seems to belie such sangfroid).  Or maybe they'll staff up and figure things out enough that they actually start doing a good job (although see the previous point about people not changing).

Now the usual caveats apply: whatever happens, a lot of people will pay with their lives and liberty for the reckless and casual evil of these sorts of people.  I'm not minimizing that.  But one way or another, I think Bannon's influence won't long reign supreme.

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