Can someone reacquaint President Donald Trump with Steve Bannon, his ideologist whom the president now professes barely to know?
Trump’s jaw-dropping public distancing from Bannon is the latest twist in a struggle that is astonishing even by the standards of a White House that deserves its own Chris Buckley novel.
For Bannon, the internal fight with the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is going about as well as could be expected, which is to say it couldn’t be going much worse.
No one can know for sure how this ends. Perhaps it’s all papered over, or maybe Bannon keeps his head down to fight another day. But it’s hard to see how Kushner doesn’t prevail in one form or other, together with the faction including his wife, Ivanka Trump; the influential economic adviser and former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn; and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell.
Who says bipartisanship is dead? With the exception of Dina Powell — a nonideological Republican — this group is all Democrats who have marinated for decades in the financial and social elite of Manhattan.
Their ascendancy would potentially represent Trumpism’s Thermidor. If Jared and Ivanka end up running the joint, it’d be hard to overstate the turnabout from last year’s campaign.
A candidacy whose supporters reviled so-called RINOs may produce a White House run by people who aren’t even RINOs. A populist revolt that disdained people who allegedly spend too much time at Georgetown cocktail parties may result in a White House run by people who have spent too much time at New York cocktail parties. The biggest middle finger the mainstream media has received in modern American politics may empower people who care deeply about what’s written about them in The New Yorker and Vogue.
For his part, Gary Cohn could have been the totem of everything Donald Trump was running against in 2016. To put it in Jacksonian terms, it would be like Andrew Jackson inveighing against the Second Bank of the United States and then handing his domestic-policy portfolio over to its president, Nicholas Biddle.
How did we get here? Bannon is saddled with the failed first travel ban, and (fairly or not) the rocky first several months that have seen Trump’s numbers sink while the Republican Congress spins its wheels.
Bannon hasn’t sought out self-glorifying media when presumably gobs of it were on offer, yet he has been hurt by the narrative, driven by the press and used against him by internal enemies, that he is Trump’s Svengali.
None of this is endearing to President Trump. He doesn’t like attention-hounds besides himself, and wants victories and popularity. As for Jared and Ivanka, they must worry that the family patriarch is being ill-served in ways that may hobble his presidency and damage their brand. So a shake-up looms.
If Bannon goes, it could be a sign that everything is up for grabs. President Trump could begin to react to political pressures from the world of Jared and Ivanka that so far haven’t affected him.
Trump’s views on immigration, climate change, abortion and policing are socially embarrassing, sometimes even in Republican elite circles, let alone in liberal ones. All of them would potentially be subject to softening or reversal in a White House that cares too much about “polite opinion.”
The weakness of Trumpism in Washington is that it doesn’t have a congressional wing and it represents only a faction within the White House, and apparently not even the dominant one. Perhaps Trump’s genuine, if inchoate, populism and Vice President Mike Pence’s conservatism would be enough for the administration’s basic orientation to survive any constellation of White House aides.
Certainly, there are all sorts of ways to try to moderate Trump’s image while still staying true to a tempered version of his populism. But a sensible recalibration would seem out of character, and it’s not the next chapter Buckley would write.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.