The Book of Bannon
Washington is having another media meltdown, this time over the public divorce between Donald Trump and former aide Stephen Bannon over a new book on President Trump’s first months in office. Our reading is that the book tells us what everyone already knew, and the falling out could help the Trump Presidency and Republicans.
The book is by Michael Wolff, which means it arrives with large factual caveats. Mr. Wolff has a history of combining anecdotes that are true with sweeping assertions that include no substantiation and are often merely his personal conclusions. The media know this, but Mr. Wolff’s quotes and stories reinforce the contempt they have for Mr. Trump so the tales are too good to ignore or try to disprove.
Most striking, despite the juicy quotes, is how little new the book reveals. Everyone knew Mr. Trump was surprised to win the election, that he then tried to run the White House like he had his family business with rival factions and little discipline, and that the place was a chaotic mess until John Kelly arrived as chief of staff. We also knew that Mr. Trump knew almost nothing about government or policy, that he reads very little, and that he is a narcissist obsessed with his critics. Any sentient voter knew this on Election Day.
The book is told mainly from Mr. Bannon’s point of view, and the Breitbart impresario is portrayed as thinking Mr. Trump is as much a dolt as Democrats think he is. He dislikes the Trump family, especially son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was a rival for influence.
The book also makes clear that Mr. Bannon was a leading cause of the pre-Kelly White House chaos. He and the press corps have a relationship of mutual loathing but co-dependency. They use each other, and the media love to promote Mr. Bannon because he is a talkative source and a destructive political force inside the Republican Party.
The press is also playing up Mr. Bannon’s claims, which he doesn’t deny, that Don Jr.’s meeting with Russians in June 2016 was “treasonous” and that Don Jr. and Mr. Kushner will be cashiered for money laundering. So the same reporters who think Mr. Bannon is a xenophobe and bigot now view him as a legal authority. There’s that co-dependency thing again.
The surprise is that Mr. Trump kept Mr. Bannon around as long as he did, and the reason is probably what LBJ said about keeping J. Edgar Hoover micturating inside the tent. But Mr. Bannon fed Mr. Trump’s political paranoia and his worst policy instincts such as tearing up Nafta. Mr. Bannon resembles Pat Buchanan, a protectionist predecessor to Mr. Trump, in being at heart an American declinist. He rails against the present in favor of a more idyllic past. Recall the “American carnage” of the Trump inaugural.
He also tried to conjure a grand theory of Trumpism that isn’t possible. The Trump appeal is a cult of personality that combines sometimes destructive populist passions for restricting trade and immigration with healthier instincts to revive the private economy and restore American strength in the world. For all of his demagoguery, Mr. Trump is no declinist.
The President finally fired Mr. Bannon after Mr. Kelly came aboard and Mr. Bannon defied the new chief by attacking his colleagues in an unapproved interview. The White House has since become a saner place, notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s Twitter effusions.
The Trump-Bannon divorce is therefore a political relief. The President’s worst mistakes have come from heeding Mr. Bannon’s desire to blow up the status quo first and pick up the pieces later—think of the travel ban. The President’s successes have come when he has bursts of discipline while pursuing the more conventional conservative agenda on judges, tax reform, regulation and foreign policy.
If Mr. Bannon’s assaults on his former boss marginalize Mr. Bannon as a player in Republican politics, as they certainly should, so much the better for the 2018 elections and the rest of the Trump Presidency.
Appeared in the January 5, 2018, print edition.