Last week, President Trump ousted his White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Bannon was widely perceived as a divisive figure – a self-promoting rabid political attack dog dedicated to “winning” at all costs; a fellow who declared the website he used to run, Breitbart, a forum for the “alt-right.” To put it mildly, Bannon wasn’t well-liked. For months, he had been living on borrowed time at the White House and was marginalized by Trump in favor of now-chief of staff John Kelly, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and senior advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, among others.
Trump was never an ideologue or a pragmatist. He was – and is – a bundle of attitudes. Americans are either attracted to those attitudes or repelled by them.
Bannon’s firing caused a bit of a firestorm on the right, particularly after Bannon stated that “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” He meant that Trump’s allegiance to “nationalist populism” was over – that Trump was now surrounded by Democrats and generals.
But here’s the truth: Trump’s nationalist-populist presidency never truly began. Trump was hailed by his allies as a transformative figure, the leader of a new kind of movement centered not around conservatism but around pragmatism. According to Bannon, this meant trillion-dollar infrastructure packages and hardcore tariffs; it meant pulling out of Afghanistan and raising taxes on the rich. It also meant a border wall. Bannon was one of a cadre of would-be philosophers attempting to cobble Trumpism into something coherent.
But none of those things were happening before Bannon left. Trump was never an ideologue or a pragmatist. He was – and is – a bundle of attitudes. Americans are either attracted to those attitudes or repelled by them. They include the need to punch back as hard as possible at perceived enemies; an unwillingness to study issues in any sort of depth, because experts are merely eggheads; a focus on imaging, particularly as it pertains to him personally; and a knee-jerk animus against those who would insult institutions. All of this makes the Trump administration confused and confusing.
It also means that the best conservative hopes for a Trump administration lie not in the cheerleading of sites like Breitbart, or the manipulations of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but with Democrats. If Democrats were smart, they’d see that Trump has already been alienated by conservatives and “nationalist populists” – that he’s in search of an emotional home. They’d begin cultivating him; they’d push him to sign broad bipartisan legislation.
But, like Trump, the Democratic Party is more of a collections of attitudes than policies. And its primary attitude is animus for Trump personally. That means it’ll forgo any gain in order to slap Trump. So in order to drive Trump’s approval ratings lower, Democrats will continue to avoid working with him like he’s the plague.
What comes next? The most probable answer: not much. That’s not because of Bannon or the Democrats. It’s because of Trump. When it comes to governing, ideology matters; philosophy matters. Attitude only matters when it comes to getting elected. President Trump is finding that out day by day. So are some of his most ardent and passionate ideological supporters.