When news broke this afternoon that White House Senior Advisor Stephen Bannon had resigned, traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange erupted in cheers. The chaos inside the White House revealed so vividly in President Trump’s disconcerting response to last weekend’s riots in Charlottesville had markets gyrating this week. But, it’s not certain that Brannon’s departure will end it.
Bannon’s resignation came after a remarkably candid phone call with a reporter from the left-leaning American Prospect, in which he repeated short-lived White House Communications Director Anthony Scarammucci’s mistake of failing to secure an agreement that the conversation was off the record. In the call, Bannon savaged colleagues by name, contradicted the President’s statements on North Korea, and boasted that he was removing a State Department staffer he found irksome — something he was not empowered to do. It was hardly likely that Bannon could survive it. But, his departure was a long time coming.
The image of Steve Bannon that emerged early in the Trump administration as a Svengali-like figure pulling the strings of the President was wrong. There was never a “President Bannon,” as some derisively claimed. This was always, for better or worse, Donald Trump’s show. Steve Bannon and Donald Trump forged a partnership because they were so similar in outlook, says Bret Stevens of the New York Times. “Both understood showmanship: slogans, narrative, put-downs and especially conflict,” Stevens wrote. “They knew the value of rage and outrage alike — the first as fuel for a movement; the second as the indispensable foil for that movement.”
But, Bannon is a figure as complex as he is polarizing. His knowledge of history is vast. He’s far more firmly anchored in policy details and ideology than most within the White House. In many ways, he has long been out of step with the Republican Party mainstream, something he and Trump shared. Bannon wanted to push economic policy left on trade and taxes. He championed protectionist policies and higher taxes on the wealthy. He pushed for spending on infrastructure, arguing that government should lead the way in creating jobs.
Bannon has long been the intellectual force behind the alt-right as editor of Bretbart News. It should not be surprising that Bannon, who spent years breeding deep hostility towards the Washington establishment might find it hard to fit within it. Bannon had grander designs for a global populist movement of nationalism and dismantling of globalization that he saw Trump as a vehicle to implement. But, there was little appetite for it among other Trump advisors or Congress.
It turns out that Bannon and Trump’s brand of populist nationalism translates poorly into actual policy. Bannon’s first major policy foray, President Trump’s executive order banning entry into the U.S. from Muslim countries was a disaster. Brash promises to repeal Obamacare resulted in a legislative train wreck. Of the Trump campaign promises Bannon kept a list of on the wall of his office, few ever were checked off.
Bannon clashed frequently with the President’s other advisors, specifically his daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jarred Kushner, and their ally Gary Cohen, the former Goldman Sachs banker who leads the White House Economic Counsel. To Brannon and his allies, collectively known as “the globalists,” a catch-all pejorative Bannon applies to elite, even-tempered, pro-immigration, pro-free trade opponents of the alt-right.
Bannon dug his hole deeper, when he masterminded a failed campaign to oust H.R. McMaster, the retired General who succeeded Michael Flynn as chair of the National Security Counsel. That did not sit well with the new chief of staff Gen. John Kelly, an ally of McMaster’s.
But, perhaps Bannon’s biggest sin was allowing his image to outshine the President’s. A series of “power behind the throne” magazine profiles irritated the President, opening a rift that never fully healed. The American Prospect incident only served to confirm to his detractors within the West Wing that Bannon was too eager to court the press as a means of bolstering his own image and to leak damaging information on his internal rivals.
The loss of Bannon removes some of the ideological fire from the Trump Administration. It might calm some of the infighting too. No one else in the White House was as dedicated to the President’s agenda at such a granular level as Bannon. With Bannon’s departure, the ideological keeper of the flame passes to Stephen Miller, the pugnacious White House advisor and youngest member of Trump’s staff and Sebastian Gorka, the far-right isolationist foreign policy advisor rumored to be next on Kelly’s hit list. While Miller is said to have a good relationship with the President, he’s unlikely to be able to go toe “toe-to-toe with “the globalists” in the same way Bannon was.
The White House agenda has been adrift for a while now, consumed by repeated crises, many of them self-inflicted. Bannon’s departure is unlikely to change that. So much of it comes from the top. But, without Bannon fighting “the globalists” tooth and nail, the White House may amble in a more conventional policy direction. Whether the removal of Bannon helps Chief of Staff Kelly build a more smoothly functioning West Wing remains to be seen. Ultimately, the buck stops with the President.