If you shake up a nascent administration too much, does it suffer long-term consequences? In humans, that sort of thing can result in severe brain damage and developmental complications. Can administrations suffer analogous issues?
What happens when an administrative shakeup actually ends up getting rid of the brains of the operation? Of all the members of Trump’s inner circle, it is Stephen Bannon who most aggressively pursued a coherent (and abhorrent) ideology. He had a world view and he stuck to it, bringing in a host of supporters like Stephen Miller and moving the administration towards key policy objectives like the travel ban. If there was any intellectual bedrock to Trump’s agenda, it came from Bannon.
His firing comes after weeks of reports that his position was being challenged on all fronts: from Kushner, who despises him, to Scaramucci, who famously insulted him, to Kelly, who seems to have been the hangman in this episode. Whether Bannon’s firing was precipitated by the controversy over Trump’s response to the crisis in Charlottesville, or whether that simply provided convenient cover, is unclear. Bannon’s Scaramucci-esque call to the co-editor of The American Prospect may have had something to do with it.
Bannon’s departure — there are conflicting reports as to whether he was fired, or quit himself — leaves an ideological vacuum in the White House. It’s possible that this vacuum will be filled by some sort of more moderate, globalist view of a Kushner persuasion, or perhaps a security-centric model directed by Kelly and McMaster. Or some combination of the two.
Since these world views, and Bannon’s, have been in constant conflict in the White House already, it seems likely that at least one will win out. This is not to say that the right-wing populism that Bannon espoused is dead: Stephen Miller remains in office and, presumably, influential. But Bannon’s departure obviously weakens that faction.
But who does it strengthen? Kushner, who has been urging Trump to fire Bannon for months? Kelly, who was obviously intimately involved in Bannon’s ouster, going by the White House’s official press release? Both, of course, but certainly one more than the other. Will the Kushner-Kelly alliance fray now that their common enemy has been defeated?
Lots of questions. Still, almost any possible scenario is better than a White House that has embraced Bannon’s white nationalist brand with destructive, if fitful, enthusiasm.
One possible outcome, however, is not like the others. I’ve assumed up to this point that the ideological vacuum in the White House actually will be filled. But there are a couple reasons to suspect that it won’t be. And if Trump as we know him — mercurial, lazy, mean-spirited, egoistic, generally incompetent — were also allowed to act as he naturally would without ideological guidance, we may all suffer for it.
My fear of this eventuality is driven by the unique nature of the Trump-Bannon relationship. Their affinity for each other was different than Trump’s connection with others in his administration. Kushner is his son-in-law, so that’s obvious. The president’s fixation with military men explains his liking for people like Kelly and McMaster.
But Bannon wasn’t like any of those people. Bannon was a media executive, like Trump, and they seemed to share some basic understandings of the world. No one else has been able to get into Trump’s head, and stay there, like Bannon has. Though he arrived late in the campaign, the former Breitbart head has been able to decisively influence Trump time after time. That special relationship has come to an end, but it’s important to remember that it was special.
It’s important because that kind of relationship may not be replicable. The people remaining in the White House — people like Kushner, Kelly, Pence, Miller, and McMaster— simply may not have the clout or charisma to guide the president in the way that Bannon was able to, however briefly.
That leaves us with the possibility of an ideologically unmoored Trump, with less guidance, and less powerful advisors. And if no single advisor or group of advisors is able to command the same influence that Bannon had, the White House may actually become more unstable, not less. Bannon was the source of constant conflict among the innercircle, but his departure may spark another battle that no one is strong enough to win.
Without a clear guiding set of principles, Trump’s already significant flaws would be amplified. His short attention span, his flip-flopping, and his superficiality would take on even greater influence in policy. He would fail to make consistent and predictable choices across a range of issues. Weaker advisors would be playing catchup and doing cleanup.
The potential for further conflict within the Trump administration is further exacerbated by the fact that it was Bannon himself that brought much of the alt-right into Trump’s arms. Already, there are some rumours and r eports that hardcore Bannonites are looking to rebel. It’s unclear how likely that possibility is, or even what it would look like, but it’s probably a big part of what made Trump so reluctant to fire his chief strategist.
The removal of Bannon means that the prize of the president’s ear is up for grabs. But if no one can talk to Trump the way Bannon did, the shakeup may just keep on shaking.
Image: “Sad Boy Stephen,” by Sophie Paas-Lang