The announcement of the ‘resignation’ of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon represents the culmination of a process which began with the equally forced ‘resignation’ of President Trump’s first National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn.
Individuals who were close to Donald Trump during his successful election campaign and who largely framed its terms – people like Bannon and Flynn – have been picked off one by one.
Taking their place is a strange coalition of former generals and former businessmen of essentially conventional Republican conservative views, which is cemented around three former generals who between them now have the levers of powers in their hands: General Kelly, the President’s new Chief of Staff, General H.R. McMaster, his National Security Adviser, and General Mattis, the Secretary of Defense.
In the case of Bannon, it is his clear that his ousting was insisted on by General Kelly, who is continuing to tighten his control of the White House.
Bannon’s removal – not coincidentally – has come at the same time that General H.R. McMaster is completing his purge of the remaining Flynn hold-overs on the staff of the National Security Council.
Bannon’s removal does not just remove from the White House a cunning political strategist. It also removes the one senior official in the Trump administration who had any pretensions to be an ideologist and an intellectual.
In saying I should say that I for one do not rate Bannon as an ideologist and intellectual too highly. Whilst there can be no doubt of Bannon’s media and campaigning skills, his ideological positions seem to me a mishmash of ideas – some more leftist than rightist – rather than a coherent platform. I also happen to think that his actual influence on the President has been hugely exaggerated.
Since the inauguration I have not seen much evidence either of Bannon’s supposed influence on the President or of his famed political skills.
Bannon is sometimes credited as being the author of the President’s two travel ban Executive Orders. I am sure this wrong. The Executive Orders clearly originate with the wishes of the President himself. If Bannon did have any role in them – which is possible – it would have been secondary to the President’s own. I would add that in that case Bannon must take some of the blame for the disastrously incompetent execution of the first of these two Executive Orders, which set the scene for the legal challenges that followed.
The only occasion where it did seem to me that Bannon exercised real influence was in shaping the text of the speech the President delivered during his recent trip to Poland.
I have already made known my views of this speech. I think it was badly judged – managing to annoy both the Germans and the Russians at the same time – mistaken in many of its points, and the President has derived no political benefit from it.
However it is the closest thing to an ideological statement the President has made since he took office, and Bannon is widely believed – probably rightly – to have written it.
As for Bannon’s alleged political skills, he has completely failed to shield the President from the Russiagate scandal and appears to me to have done little or nothing to hold the President’s electoral base together, with Bannon having been almost invisible since the inauguration.
In view of Bannon’s ineffectiveness since the inauguration I doubt that his removal will make any difference to the Trump administration’s policies or to the support the President still has from his electoral base, most of whose members are unlikely to know much about Bannon anyway.
It is in a completely different respect – one wholly independent of President Trump’s success or failure as President – that the events of the last few weeks give cause for serious concern.
The events of the last year highlight the extent to which the US is in deep political crisis.
The US’s core electorate is becoming increasingly alienated from its political class; elements of the security services are openly operating independently of political control, and are working in alliance with sections of the Congress and the media – both now also widely despised – to bring down a constitutionally elected President, who they in turn despise.
All this is happening at the same time that there is growing criticism of the economic institutions of the US government, which since the 2008 financial crisis have seemed to side with a wealthy and unprincipled minority against the interests of the majority.
The only institution of the US state that still seems to be functioning as normal, and which appears to have retained a measure of public respect and support, is the military, which politically speaking seems increasingly to be calling the shots.
It is striking that the only officials President Trump can nominate to senior positions who do not immediately run into bitter opposition have been – apart from General Flynn, who was a special case – senior soldiers.
Now the military in the persons of Kelly, McMaster and Mattis find themselves at the heart of the US government to an extent that has never been true before in US history, even during the Presidencies of former military men like Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant or Dwight Eisenhower.
The last time that happened in a major Western nation – that the civilian institutions of the state had become so dysfunctional that the military as the only functioning institution left ended up dominating the nation’s government and deciding the nation’s policies – was in Germany in the lead up to the First World War.
Time will show what the results will be this time, but the German example is hardly a reassuring one.