Was the firing of Steve Bannon just another effort to distract us?

 

Donald Trump has had a couple of awful weeks, all self-inflicted wounds. By Friday, his presidency seemed to be spiraling out of control in the aftermath of his morally obtuse defense of the actions of white supremacists and Nazis at Charlottesville. Prominent business leaders moved to separate themselves from his administration. Republican elected officials openly criticized his remarks. Even some members of the White House staff seemed stunned by his comments. The image of General John Kelly, his new chief of staff, squirming and looking incredibly uncomfortable at Trump’s press conference, may have said even more than the torrent of editorials and press criticism that rained down on the President.

At this moment, however, the story dominating the headlines is the firing of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.  Depending on your perspective, Bannon had been Trump’s puppet master, the architect of the Administration’s right-wing nationalist agenda, a shameless self-promoter, the brains behind Trump’s bluster, or some combination of the above.  Many conservatives have seen him as their man in the White House while liberals have almost universally regarded him as an evil Svengali and have called for his removal from Day One of the Trump Presidency.

Rumors have been swirling for days if not weeks that Bannon would soon be forced out.  After all, he kept getting the kind of praise and attention that Trump can’t stand to see anyone else receiving.  Kelly’s appointment, intended to bring order to the chaos of the White House, suggested that there wouldn’t be room for both of them.  According to press coverage, Kelly pushed Trump to get rid of Bannon.

Amidst the celebrations, including the gloating, about Bannon’s firing, a critical question remains however: what exactly has changed?

Trump has not retracted, modified or disavowed his position on “both sides” being responsible for the violence in Charlottesville.  He continues to show no appreciation of the historical significance of the Nazis, the KKK or the fact that the Civil War was fought primarily to determine whether slavery would continue to exist.  He still sees “good people” among those marching in Charlottesville with guns, clubs and symbols of hatred and bigotry.  He continues to show more concern for the fate of Confederate statues than the welfare of American citizens.

The President still has his twitter account.  He is still a narcissist with little or no impulse control.  He still resists being briefed on world issues. His relationship with Congress continues to worsen just as a series of critical issues–raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget, trying to reform the tax system–have fast approaching deadlines with no clear path to resolution.

And in case you had forgotten in the most recent avalanche of news, Trump still has Robert Mueller investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether his campaign knew about and collaborated with the Russians, and, perhaps more ominously for the President, what financial relationships Trump has had with Russians.

Let’s also remember that Kim Jong-un still has nuclear weapons, ISIS is still in Syria and Iraq, and this country’s longest war still rages in Afghanistan.  All of these hot spots pose major challenges to the Preident regardless of where Steve Bannon is.

Bannon certainly encouraged Trump to always cater to a base that responds positively to calls for a wall between the United States and Mexico, that cheers his Muslim ban, and that sleeps better at night believing that there is no place in the US military for transgender Americans and no sympathy for members of the LBGQT community.  Every indication we have so far is that Trump really didn’t need convincing to adopt those positions.  Don’t expect a kinder and gentler Trump now that Bannon has left the White House.

To what extent Bannon is really gone is not all that clear either.  Do you remember when Corey Lewandowski was fired as the head of Trump’s presidential campaign?  He continues to talk regularly with Trump, is seen  wandering the halls of the White House and has made a lot of money promising his clients special access to the President.  Does anyone really believe that things will be any different with Bannon?

At the end of the day, Bannon’s departure from the White House is more smoke than fire.  There will not be a new Trump as a result.  Moreover, Bannon will feel even less constrained back at Breitbart to advocate for his extreme views and attack anyone whom he sees as an obstacle, including prominent Republicans.  And just as Trump was incapable of criticizing the racists and anti-Semites who marched in Charlottesville, he will continue to treat Bannon as a kindred soul, a “good person” who happens to be spewing hate.

 

Writing about Donald Trump

 

The President is both the problem and the distraction. Thousands of words are written about him every day but it’s hard to determine what significance, if any, they have. We are caught between the Scylla of paying too much attention to every word he utters and the Charybdis of treating his unhinged behavior as normal.

When future historians look back at the times we are currently living through, they will not need to say that there were no voices raised in protest.  Nor will they think that no one warned of the dangers Trump posed to the American constitutional system and to the norms keeping politics within fairly reasonable boundaries over the years up to 2016.

They will instead have the daunting challenge of figuring out why so many Americans were unmoved by the warnings. Historians will ask why large groups of citizens were willing to take a leap into a totally unfamiliar future based on Trump’s unreliable promises and his appeals to the worst in human nature.

There are some clues already available.  We were a deeply divided, indeed polarized, country even before Trump announced his campaign for president.  Now it appears that we don’t even agree on  facts because we rely on different information sources with little or no overlap.  His attacks on the media and on “fake news” are likely to diminish our ability to find common political ground long after he has departed the public arena.

Moreover, there seems to be an enormous gap in this country about how to define self-interest, a concept that has been central to political analysis throughout history.  Critics of Hillary Clinton’s campaign slammed her for not having an economic message that reached out to working class whites  left behind by the global economy.  However, numerous studies have argued that many of those voters are less moved by economic interests than by social issues, especially coded or symbolic ones.  Trump supporters continue to respond to his call to build a wall and to ban Muslims from entering the United States even as coal and manufacturing jobs show no sign of returning.

I regularly read some of the smartest and most thoughtful columnists working today.  While Trump has certainly provided them with a steady stream of materials to write about, many must feel as if they are trapped in an endless loop where nothing changes despite their best efforts.  We are living in an Age of Sisyphus where the rock keeps rolling back down the hill.

The New York Times’ David Brooks recently wrote a column entitled “Getting Trump Out of My Brain.” His goal was “to spend less time thinking about Trump the soap opera and more time on questions that surround the Trump phenomena and this moment of history.”  It’s a challenge that a lot of smart presidential observers are struggling with and achieving only limited success.  It may be, however, the crucial question to pursue.

Trump’s most recent rant threatening North Korea with unprecedented “fire and fury” illustrates the challenge.  The cynic might view his bellicose language as just another instance of his lack of impulse control or, alternatively, as a deviously clever way to distract everyone from the Russia investigation.  And while we have been cautioned on numerous occasions to not take his words literally, what if Kim Jong-un does?

We may be too deep into our current situation to be able to make much sense of it.  The search for historical precedents for his presidency has provided neither insight nor comfort.  We do know that his campaign struck an emotional chord with many Americans and that some percentage of those continue to enthusiastically support him.

One report which underscores that reality is a poll showing that over 50% of Republicans would agree to cancel the 2020 Presidential Election if Trump claimed that the results would be rigged against him.  Even if you don’t believe that a nuclear war with North Korea is imminent, you should be terrified that so many of your fellow citizens have that opinion.

I have neither the audience nor the skill of Tom Friedman,  E.J. Dionne, Trudy Rubin or Michael Gerson.  In offering commentary on the Trump presidency, I am searching for the words to help me understand the Trump phenomenon as well as to express my concerns and even my outrage at what is happening to our country.  At times, friends have thanked me for putting their thoughts into words and for reminding them that they are not alone.  I am grateful for that feedback, but have not figured out how to expand my reach beyond the choir.

And, like Sisyphus, I sometimes feel like I am writing the same column over and over again with only the words rearranged.  Beating your head into a wall is not a productive political exercise, but neither is standing idly by as the political system is hijacked.