For Americans who know little or nothing about Stephen Bannon other than his depiction on Saturday Night Live as the grim reaper, or that his mien makes for seedy-looking news photos, the news that he has jumped from or was pushed out of his job as White House chief strategist might seem reassuring. And for the moment at least, you have to assume his “globalist” opponents in Donald Trump’s circle of advisers are indulging in an early happy hour to celebrate his imminent departure.
But for the administration as a whole, Bannon could be much more of a problem on the loose than ensconced in the middle of a Team of Rivals. Lyndon Johnson once famously said of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” That is likely true of Steve Bannon as well.
We do not know what, if any, inhibiting effect Bannon has had from inside the tent — er, the White House — on his former subordinates at Breitbart News when the administration did something the so-called “economic nationalists” did not like. But whatever the restraints were, they’re probably gone now. Breitbart hasn’t reacted much yet to the news of their former chair’s defenestration other than linking to a New York Times account that flatly reports Bannon left of his own accord and on his own timetable (resigning on August 7, effective today). But there is this one interesting note at Breitbart News from a sidebar to the main story:
Shortly before confirmation of Bannon’s departure, 20 grassroots conservative leaders issued a letter praising President Donald Trump while emphasizing that they took comfort that Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway were assisting Trump in weathering “unfair attacks” and keeping President Trump’s agenda “front and center.” The leaders wrote, “While others may come and go in the White House, we feel sure that with Steve and Kellyanne at your side, you will always hear the voices of those of us who have supported you through thick and thin, despite the efforts by some to ‘manage’ you and your message.”
Guess one of those voices is going to be raised from a distance now, perhaps loudly. Here’s what sources close to Bannon have told Axios:
Bannon has felt liberated since it became clear he was being pushed out, according to friends. He’s told associates he has a “killing machine” in Breitbart News, and it’s possible he returns to lead their editorial operation.
A source familiar with Breitbart’s operations told me they would go “thermonuclear” against “globalists” that Bannon and his friends believe are ruining the Trump administration, and by extension, America.
An alienated Breitbart News could serve as a signal to other “populist” and/or “alt-right” elements of the Trump coalition that it’s time to fight for Daddy’s ear and perhaps get his attention with some tough love now and then. At a time when Trump could really use covering fire from those supporters who have no problem with — or may even be excited about — the president’s neo-Confederate sentiments about what happened last weekend in Charlottesville, it’s inconvenient to have Bannon and his allies reconsidering their loyalties.
And the worst could definitely be yet to come. Let’s say the House Freedom Caucus (allies of Bannon’s intermittently throughout the policy debates of 2017) decides in September to create a crisis over the debt-limit increase or an omnibus-appropriations bill, demanding domestic-spending cuts or money for the Wall or the defunding of Planned Parenthood. The White House would probably be inclined to stick with the House and Senate
GOP leadership in snuffing out such a dangerous threat. The odds of Breitbart News and its allies joining the conservative insurgents is now very, very high. And the peril of a rebellious base will only increase as the business wing of the GOP in the White House and the Treasury Department shape a tax bill. Bannon’s advice to season a tax bill with a higher rate on top earners could become the basis of a populist holy war if he’s not constrained by White House team-solidarity rules.
The biggest question is whether Bannon and Breitbart will maintain their loyalty to Trump himself through thick and thin. One school of thought is that the alliance is over:
“If there’s any confusion out there, let me clear it up: I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America,” Bannon told Bloomberg News Friday in his first public comments after his departure was announced.
Similarly, Axios’s Jonathan Swan thinks Bannon’s guns will be trained everywhere other than the Oval Office:
Bob Mercer and Steve Bannon had a five hour meeting Wednesday to plot out next steps, said a source with knowledge of the meeting.
They plotted strategy going forward — both political and media strategy. The meeting was at Mercer’s estate on Long Island. Mercer had dinner the next night at Bedminster with President Trump and a small group of donors. The source said Mercer and Bannon “remain strong supporters of President Trump’s and his agenda.”
The most ambivalent statement of all came from Bannon himself in an interview with the Weekly Standard:
“The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon said Friday, shortly after confirming his departure. “We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else. And there’ll be all kinds of fights, and there’ll be good days and bad days, but that presidency is over.”
Whatever’s next for Bannon will begin happening very soon:
All in all, the Trump political milieu many have acquired the last thing it needs right now: more turbulence.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect recent developments.