I have viewed President Trump as bridging the divide in the Republicans party between its establishment and populist-nationalist wings. Trump attempted to play that role in 2017. For example, he supported the establishment candidate in the Alabama Senate primary, but then bucked the establishment by backing the populist candidate in the general election even after that candidate found himself in severe difficulty.
Trump also bridged the gap in the realm of foreign policy. For example, he took a restrained position regarding Syria, limiting our engagement there largely to fighting ISIS as the nationalists desire. However, he bucked the nationalists by upping our presence in Afghanistan in a victory for the internationalists.
I figured that Trump would continue to play this bridging role to some extent in 2018. But after today’s finalizing of the Trump-Bannon divorce, I wonder whether the role has become obsolete. That is, I wonder whether the populist wing, as an entity independent of Trump, will collapse as a force during Trump’s presidency.
Steve Bannon is its champion. At the beginning of the Trump administration, he was its representative in the administration. Trump’s “bridging” function consisted largely of mediating disputes between Bannon and his enemies in the White House.
After Bannon’s departure, he set out his stall as an independent power broker. Bannon scored a victory in that capacity when Roy Moore defeated Sen. Luther Strange, whom Trump supported. However, Moore’s ignominious defeat in the general election gave Bannon a black eye.
Through it all, Trump and Bannon remained on decent terms, at least outwardly. The president’s conciliatory statement about Bannon that appears in this post reflected the formal state of their relationship.
But Bannon’s attack on members of Trump’s family put an end to that relationship. Bannon can no longer be the bad cop (or the good one, depending on one’s ideology) in Trump World. He’s off the Trump beat.
The question becomes whether there now will be a meaningful populist-nationalist wing in the GOP that is at all independent of Trump’s policy preferences. I suspect there won’t be, not during the Trump presidency. For unless Bannon can remain viable notwithstanding the enmity of Trump — or unless someone becomes a new, more effective Bannon — the populist-nationalist wing now will be whatever Trump finds expedient to say it is.
I don’t see Bannon surviving the wrath of Trump. It was Trump who galvanized the populist-nationalist wing, not Bannon. Members of that wing are too heavily invested in Trump to tilt towards Bannon in a war, even though Bannon has become the more pure champion of populist-nationalist causes. When it’s purity vs. power, bet on power almost every time.
I’m neither a fan of Bannon nor a populist-nationalist in the Bannon-Trump sense. However, I will regret the loss of Bannon’s wing as an influence on the president, if that’s what is in store.
The absence of that independent wing would leave too much influence in the hands of the New Yorkers and the Generals. The New Yorkers — Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Gary Cohn — don’t seem conservative. The Generals — Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis — seem mostly indifferent to large swaths of conservatism.
I don’t think this will matter much on high profile issues. Trump probably will sort through them without being unduly swayed. However, there’s plenty of under the radar stuff that Trump simply doesn’t have the time or the temperament to sort through.
Last year, these matters might have produced a stalemate between the two factions for Trump to mediate. This year, they likely will be resolved by the New Yorkers or the Generals with no mediation required.