Friday, January 5, 2018

Loose Bannon, Part II: The Rift that Keeps on Giving

When Trump fired his chief strategist in August, we wrote a post entitled "Loose Bannon," which reflected on the potential dangers of firing the person who thinks he got you elected President of the United States. Not among our predictions was a veritable fusillade of quotes calculated to torpedo Trump's White House. (Our) Steve follows up...

Many Republicans are eager to dismiss Steve Bannon’s scorched-earth on-the-record assault on the Trump White House in Michael Wolff’s shocking new book, Fire and Fury, as merely the bitter ravings of a delusional pirate tossed overboard to save the vessel. Indeed, top Republicans are downright gleeful that the crazy man behind Roy Moore has been publicly shunned, seemingly once and for all, by Donald Trump. And if Bannon is cast adrift from his perch at Breitbart, then perhaps Republicans are right to assume that Bannon will fade into irrelevance. 

In the BTRTN post we wrote immediately after Trump fired Bannon in August, we offered this slight variation on an age old truth: Hold your friends close, hold your enemies closer, and hold psychopaths long enough and tightly enough so that someone can tie them up in a straight jacket.” If you are going to take someone down, figure out how to finish the job. The walking wounded can seek retribution.

Democrats can fling sticks and stones at Donald Trump. The news industry’s efforts to bring Trump to task have been all but neutered by natural audience selection. Robert Mueller may someday be ready to take Trump down through an orderly constitutional process.  But there is one guy who can damage Donald Trump’s standing with his ferociously loyal base, and that guy just pulled his rip cord.

It remains to be seen whether there are truly game-changing implications in the declaration of independence Steve Bannon launches in Fire and Fury. But a pissing contest about the rightful ownership of the Trump base is the last thing the Donald anticipated or needs at this juncture. There is so much kharma instantly coming around on this one that John Lennon would need an entire album to cover it.

For starters, the Bannon canon relayed by Wolff is the natural endpoint of a mythic narrative that there is a “Republican Party.” Ever since the early days of the primaries, it has been clear that today’s Republican Party is a loose confederacy of political philosophies that only converged on the core belief that Barack Obama is the devil and that Hillary Clinton is worse. The clans that comprised the party brought startlingly different belief systems to the task of defeating Clinton. The Tea Party is anti-Federal government; an estranged rural bloc wildly resents the entrenched “establishment,” which encompasses Republicans and Democrats from the Beltway to Wall Street; Christian conservatives narrowly focus on social issues and Supreme Court appointments; fiscal Republicans merely seek far more conservative economic policies, advocating free trade and deficit reduction; and traditional Republican centrists are occasionally sighted, usually riding on unicorns.

Donald Trump was merely the empty vessel into which each group could pour its hopes, hates, aspirations, and venom. He gave voice to multiple octaves of rage.

The inability of Republicans to govern reflects their own fractured belief system. After the inauguration, Republicans rapidly discovered that they had no commonly held approach to replacing Obamacare, no unified approach to immigration reform, no overarching foreign policy, and their only legislative achievement was a tax bill that bore no relation to its original objectives of simplification and relief for the middle class.

For the past year, we have watched as Donald Trump’s support has eroded to a hardened, impenetrable kernel of zealous and uncompromising acolytes. In these columns, we at BTRTN have repeatedly documented how impervious this group has been to criticism of Donald Trump. Trump’s base has been an inert, non-responsive dead zone of blind conviction.

Other than Donald Trump himself, the person most responsible for the unflinching certainty of Trump’s base is Steve Bannon. Bannon provided the thought leadership for the most central themes of populist appeal: nationalism, and rage against the establishment. While he may physically appear disheveled, slovenly, and unappealing, he has a real charisma, is an excellent communicator, and is actually capable of casting a comprehensive strategic and philosophical vision.

The Mercer family – Breitbart’s ATM – is furious at Bannon for his outrageous indiscretion in the Wolff book. But as long as Bannon retains his post at Breitbart and the communications might of its reach, he is capable of speed-balling his own alt-right philosophy and cleverly veiled anti-Trump rhetoric directly into the veins of the Trump base. Republican legislators fear Bannon for very good reason: if they are found wanting in their commitment to the cause, Bannon will find a “true believer” to contest them in the next primary.

Given his zeal, his anger, and his megaphone, the possibilities implicit in Bannon’s rebellion are wide-ranging and spell nothing but trouble for Donald Trump.

First and foremost, Steve Bannon has just legitimized Robert Mueller’s investigation far more profoundly than anyone in Washington short of Trump himself ever could have done. As Trump and his loyalists stonewall behind the contention that the entire Mueller probe is a baseless, biased, politically motivated “witch hunt,” Bannon has just declared that the President’s son and son-in-law engaged in “treasonous” behavior. In this juicy quote, Bannon has actually gone farther than the most liberal constitutional scholars, who define “treason” solely in military terms.

In so doing, Bannon has created a breach that could prove hard to reconcile with the enraged Trump. The Donald wasted no time in responding, saying that when Bannon lost his job at the White House, he also “lost his mind.” If Bannon had indeed just declared war, Trump’s riposte signaled that the battle had been joined. When Trump  predictably rattles his litigious sword at Bannon, the author, and the publisher, he is only hyping book sales. The only relevant battleground on which such a war will be fought is for the hearts and minds of Trump’s base.

On radio programming yesterday, an apparently contrite Bannon attempted to re-assert his fealty to Trump, but let’s be real. The book hadn’t even gone on sale yet! When Wolff’s chronicle goes platinum, Bannon will have no choice but to own his quotes. Wolff, apparently, has tapes. How deliciously Nixonian! There are just too many ironies in this fire.

All this Bannon fodder can be traced back to a simple truth: Bannon and Trump have been in a ferocious competition to take credit for Trump’s victory. Both absolutely crave that credit, and both are furious that the other appears to have taken more than their just share. Perhaps at only a subconscious level, Steve Bannon knows that his best hope of proving that he deserves credit for Donald Trump’s rise is to ensure that without Bannon, Trump falls.

Bannon has pointed his saber directly at the soft underbelly of Trump’s bravado: his blood ties to his family members. Bannon has shrewdly opted to not attack Trump personally – which would be rejected by the base – but rather to eviscerate son Donald and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Bannon is quoted as saying that “They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” which sure sounds like an accusation that the younger Trump is guilty of something. Bannon seethed with resentment at Kushner’s condescending manner and at the fact that the children sought Bannon’s ouster.  In the accusation of treason, Bannon seems to be doing his best to shift Mueller’s klieg lights directly on Kushner. This, in turn, would force Trump’s hand, with only his choices being to pardon Kushner and risk triggering an impeachment process, or abandoning his family by letting Kushner face the music alone.

Perhaps the most startling quote was Bannon's signal that Trump himself is already mortally wounded. Wolff quotes Bannon as having said, “They’re sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five hurricane.” For all intents and purposes, Bannon is saying that the Trump presidency will not survive the Mueller investigation. It is reminiscent of the scene in Titanic when captain gasps that the ship cannot possibly sink, and the ship’s architect pronounces, “She is made of iron, sir. I assure you, she can and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.”  The message to the base has to be a shocking insurrection against Donald Trump’s relentless dismissal of the Mueller probe.

Ah, the Mueller investigation. Perhaps the simplest explanation of all is that Bannon, seeing the handwriting on the wall, is ingratiating himself to Special Counsel Mueller. If you think Flynn had a story to tell, Bannon may well be telegraphing, then come talk to the big dog.

Yes, all of this has Donald Trump publicly announcing that Bannon is “losing his mind.” Those who have observed Donald Trump over a very long period of time have noted his pattern of psychological projection: he often accuses adversaries of the very thing he seems to feel most vulnerable about himself. When major news outlets chronicled Trump’s serial deceitfulness, Trump labeled those organizations “fake news.” Perhaps Trump’s characterization of Bannon’s mental state is yet another instance of psychological projection, as Wolff’s book is chock full of quotes from White House staffers who comment graphically on the eroding state of Trump’s mental faculties.

The Wolff book and the internecine battle with Bannon are exploding as the calendar flips into the year of what surely will be the most consequential mid-term elections in American history. That day of reckoning is a mere ten months away… a time frame that is both a lifetime and a heartbeat in Presidential politics. Many things can and will happen… but there is already a well-formed core narrative in place that just became a great deal harder for Donald Trump. He will increasingly find himself running against a two-front war against energized Democrats and Bannonized Republicans. Very likely, the latter will be highly critical of the administration’s failure to capitalize on Republican legislative majorities to turn the “Trump agenda” into law.

Steve Bannon has demonstrated a keen preference for candidates who are driven by ideological purity rather than doing what needs to be done to win. As such, they tend to be rhetorical firebrands with the political half-life of plutonium. They are extremists who frighten the centrists. They tend to lose, but they will go down swinging. The bad news for Donald Trump is that as often as not, they will be swinging at him.

Hell hath no fury like a political consultant scorned. That Steve Bannon would allow himself to be quoted so freely, so viciously, and with such vitriolic hyperbole can hardly be considered a mere lapse of judgment. As James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming so eloquently put it, “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.”

Perhaps Trump’s base will turn on Bannon, and he will become a mere footnote or curio, that unhinged man on the street corner with the sign that the apocalypse is coming. But even if a small percentage of Trump’s base actually believes that Bannon was the power behind the throne all along, it could be devastating. At this point, a mere five percentage point decline in Trump’s approval rating could turn it from merely low to flat-lining and uninhabitable for human life. And the collapse of the base is what will send rank and file Republicans racing for the exits.

Live by Bannon, die by Bannon.

Instant kharma’s going to get you, Donald. Maybe this time it wasn’t such a great idea to scream, “You’re fired.”

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