How Steve Bannon Walked Away a Winner

As the resident populist commentator, I actually welcome the departure of Steve Bannon from the White House, and am not at all surprised by it. Months ago, I came to the conclusion that Bannon would be more effective on the outside — where he doesn’t have to worry about keeping a low profile just to appease the president’s ego, or watch his back in the midst of all the palace intrigue. For the past year, Bannon has cleverly used his association with Trump to build his brand — through magazine covers, books, and documentary profiles like the one done by Frontline. He now enjoys international fame, and his publication Breitbart is set to become the premier voice in Republican politics, while old standbys National Review, the Weekly Standard and even Fox News will continue to fade, which is the price they pay for making the wrong bet. Reporters from all over the world will look to Breitbart for reactions to everything the Trump administration does going forward. Does Bannon approve or disapprove of the latest policy decision? Does Bannon believe the president is staying true to his promises? On top of this, his enemies no longer can scapegoat him for any failures of the Trump administration. Bannon personally could not be in a better strategic position than if he had carefully planned it.

No one should be surprised by Bannon’s departure. On several occasions, Trump has signaled his displeasure with Bannon receiving so much credit for his victory. During his last press conference, Trump (once again) pointed out that Bannon joined his campaign late, and only after he had defeated seventeen Republican primary opponents — many of whom were considered the best and the brightest the party had to offer. Of course, the president conveniently ignores that it was Bannon who built a large, receptive audience for Trump, given his stances on immigration, trade and foreign intervention. It was Breitbart that enthusiastically backed his candidacy when more mainstream conservative publications were publishing “Against Trump” symposiums and Fox News was trying desperately to convince their audience that Marco Rubio was the future of the Republican Party. Nevertheless, it was clear that the media portraying Bannon as The Brain and Trump as The Performer was simply too much for the president to bear. Trump is a proud man, and the thought that Bannon would also receive the credit for any future successes must have been intolerable.

The main argument against Bannon leaving the White House is that he no longer has the president’s ear; that a populist voice is no longer a part of the West Wing conversations. But this assumes that the only way to be heard by the president is to have an office next door to him -– a rather silly assumption given today’s communications environment. Trump is known to seek opinions from people outside the administration. He scrupulously monitors social media, cable news, and the opinion pages. It is safe to assume that the president and his staff will be keeping a very close eye on Breitbart and Bannon. Moreover, if reports are correct and Breitbart is planning on expanding to include a television network, the populist message will have a greater reach and influence than having Bannon merely arguing with other presidential advisers at the White House.

Another argument opposing Bannon’s departure is that giving Trump’s enemies another coveted scalp will only embolden them. But is it possible to embolden them more than they already are? I think not. Taking a scalp here and there or hysterically warning that the second coming of Hitler is upon us does not address the cause of the rise of populism: the ruling class has failed the people. For decades, Americans were told that free trade and mass immigration were going to lead to a more prosperous America where everyone would be better off – the idea that ‘a rising tide will lift all boats.’ The global war on terror was going to make us safer – let’s fight them over there instead of here, remember? Calling people stupid, racist or deplorable was not an effective tactic in 2016, and it is still ineffective.  After the latest attack on Trump fails – mass resignations and repudiations – then even playing the Nazi card will be shown as ineffective.

Here is the bottom line: if Trump deeply believes in his America First agenda, he will pursue it irrespective of whether Bannon has an office in the West Wing. If Trump never believed in the agenda anyway, then Bannon being there was not going to make a difference.