As far as breakups go, the split between President Trump and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was epic.
In the span of a few hours, Trump’s tweets taunting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un over which world leader possessed the bigger nuclear button seemed as long ago as the Korean War.
“When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind," Trump said in a statement about Bannon on Wednesday, repealing and replacing the old assurances that the Breitbart chief’s departure from the White House was a mutual decision.
It is quite a departure to go from Trump’s brain to losing one’s mind. Regardless of whether you endorse Trump’s assessment of the man’s faculties, you do have to wonder what Bannon was thinking.
The conventional wisdom was that Bannon could become a more skillful engineer of the Trump train after leaving the White House station. If that was the goal, it seems Bannon may have lost the plot.
Bannon appears to be a major source for a new book that makes many disparaging claims about the president for whom he once worked. He is quoted on the record saying that the Trump Tower meeting assembled by Donald Trump Jr. and attended by Jared Kushner was “treason,” which sounds more like the Resistance than MAGA.
Superficially, it is the kind of shot Bannon has long taken at members of rival Trump World factions. But Kushner is not just a senior adviser to the president. He is Trump’s son-in-law, married to favorite child Ivanka Trump, and like Donald Jr., a member of the family. Kushner’s portfolio may be diminished, but he is not going anywhere anytime soon.
As Michael Corleone admonished Fredo, “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.”
Not only did Bannon defy this by using the “t-word” in relation to Kushner and Donald Jr., he lent Trump’s enemies a talking point in support of the claim there was collusion with Russia, the centerpiece of a scandal that actively endangers the Trump presidency.
It is difficult to think of something more calculated to blow up the Trump-Bannon relationship if one tried.
Bannon has always been different from political advisers like Valerie Jarrett, Karl Rove, or James Carville. They were personally invested in the presidents they served, having risen through the ranks alongside them. Bannon clearly saw Trump as a vehicle for his populist-nationalist take on conservatism. Like most veterans of the campaign, his pre-existing relationship with Trump was relatively brief.
Trump’s estrangement from the people who would put policy meat on his populist bones, figures like Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is bad news for those who wanted “Trumpism” to be more than a barroom diatribe about Chinese depredations and American decline. So, to a lesser extent, is the fact that so many of the people who attached a set of ideas to Trump’s presidency — the columnist Ann Coulter, Silicon Valley titan Peter Thiel, American Affairs editor Julius Krein — have cooled to him, if not abandoned him outright.
Bannon’s role inside and outside the White House was to be a populist-nationalist agent of influence with Trump. But he has pushed Trump further into the arms of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and the dreaded Republican establishment.
Insurgent candidates in the Republican primaries next year will also be less inclined to wear a Bannon endorsement as a badge of honor if it means alienating Trump.
The immigration deal that may yet emerge from negotiations over what to do about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will need populist voices to help shape it and then to sell it, a task this rift has made harder.
As important as it is to have someone fill in the blanks and translate Trump’s impulses into a coherent governing agenda, the president has a point when he characteristically takes credit for himself. He started winning before Bannon joined the campaign. Roy Moore and Paul Nehlen have been unable to replicate Trump’s electoral success, the false start of the Alabama Republican primary notwithstanding.
Let Trump Be Trump is how Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie titled their account of the tumultuous Trump campaign. The phrase has a precedent inside Ronald Reagan’s team, when conservative true believers, frustrated by the direction of his campaigns or his administration would cry, “Let Reagan be Reagan!”
A disenchanted conservative columnist at one point quipped that maybe it was time to let someone else be Reagan.
Bannon is about to discover that letting someone else be Trump will not work, even if he wants to audition for the job himself.