Politics & Policy

A Profound Tension Point for Conservatives

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (Reuters: Carlos Barria)
The need of the hour, for many, is for bomb-throwing retort.

News that Steve Bannon is the latest casualty in the palace intrigue inside the Trump White House dominated the news cycle last Friday and throughout the weekend. The news came off of what many believe (this author included) was the worst week yet for the Trump administration, and that week followed what many believe (this author included) had previously been the worst week yet for the Trump administration. Whether one is in that resolute camp that cannot and will not find fault with anything out of Donald Trump, or in the camp determined to oppose Trump at all opportunities, or in the camp I am in, which has wanted so badly to get behind the policy agenda of the administration, only to be flustered by the president himself time and time again, no one can objectively claim these last two weeks have been good for Trump’s presidency. 

When approval ratings are cratering to historic lows and the lack of legislative accomplishments begins to pile up, heads generally roll. The last month has produced a virtual implosion of the legacy Trumpian team (a few campaign survivors are still standing), and this implosion reached its crescendo on Friday afternoon with the removal of the notorious Bannon. He has vowed to go to war against the “globalists” in the White House, against the “Republican establishment,” and against the “West Wing Democrats.” From his own Breitbart media platform, he will surely be waging the same provocative and nationalistic war that has defined his ideology and public brand for some time. Indeed, within minutes of Bannon’s removal, Breitbart editor Joel Pollak tweeted out the single-word cryptic message “#WAR.” And Bannon himself reiterated his intentions over the weekend in several press snippets.   

The “sides” in this pending battle are by no means black and white, and are essentially a stellar projection of the tension point sitting smack dab in the middle of all conservatism. It would be far simpler if the Sean Hannitys and Ann Coulters of the world were right – that on one hand are the true conservatives (Bannon and his ilk) and on the other a moderate if not leftist compromising group of “globalists” and establishment foes (Gary Cohn, Jared Kushner, etc.). But President Trump had nationalistic intuitions long before there was a Steve Bannon. And Bannon himself has made it abundantly clear that he rejects the traditional battle lines, with his primary agenda being a “re-drawing of the electoral map” driven by a “populist agenda” that includes such conservative heresies as a trillion-dollar stimulus, substantial tax increases on high earners, and an economic isolation of Asian trading partners to freeze out China’s ascendancy and drive American manufacturing. These may be good ideas (they are not), they may be bad ideas (they are), but they are most certainly not conservative ideas. 

Economic nationalism complicates the allure of binary side-picking as the rhetoric and even foundational impulses of so many modern economic nationalists can sound and feel “conservative,” yet are anything but by any discerning understanding of the movement. The reality is that today’s economic nationalists in and out of the Trump administration have become the surrogates for “conservatives” for one reason: their loud, provocative, and often attractive opposition to the media, to political correctness, and yes, to a do-nothing Congress. It is their style, not their substance, that has bestowed upon them affection from the conservative community. It is their sizzle, not their steak. 

I fully suspect that many advisers to the president will be effective in implementing Trump’s agenda. But from Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs president and current head of the National Economic Council, to a half-dozen others, President Trump has a group of people around him whose own conservative bona fides are, well, non-existent. And yet, their policy gravitas, legislative lifting, congressional diplomacy, and business acumen are the sorely missing ingredients necessary for actual accomplishment, and are highly likely to help forge some victories for this president going forward. 

I believe we now know two things about President Trump’s core base of loyalists, loosely estimated to be 35 percent of the country: (1) There is nothing President Trump can do to turn them off; and (2) they will not be satisfied with seeing the needle of their agenda positively moved – the style must be compatible with their own personality. Gary Cohn and Jared Kushner could pass 70 percent of Trump’s agenda tomorrow, but if it is not accompanied by tweets, blogs, and bomb-throwing aimed at traditional norms and conventions, their efforts will not suffice. As many conservatives (Shapiro, Goldberg, French) have been writing for months, the Trumpist base is happy to be defined by its opposition to the media, to Hillary, etc. Things such as achievement and accomplishment are sidebars. And worse than that, positive agenda achievement lacking in bombastic style is heretical. This will be the tension we face in a Bannon-less White House. 

One can sympathize with these impulses to a point. The cultural Left has gotten away with kicking our side in the teeth for too long.

Economic nationalists have achieved a temporary takeover of conservatism because they possess the style, temperament, anger, and edge that is most appealing to too many on the right at this moment. In a lot of ways, the media created the Bannon wing’s popularity. The hypocrisy of the Left and its complete disregard for the standard rules of engagement have created a reactionary movement that feels no compulsion to respond to slight and slander with etiquette and argument. This has become the dividing line in conservatism. Ideological conservatives have limited appeal if their style is marked by civility and reasoned discourse. The need of the hour, for many, is for bomb-throwing retort. 

One can sympathize with these impulses to a point. The cultural Left has gotten away with kicking our side in the teeth for too long, and we are not engaged in a fair contest. But as this administration considers how to repair the mess that has become of its agenda, conservatives will have to decide if progress or style are more meaningful. Would the Bannon/Coulter/Hannity types actually bemoan a legislative victory if it comes from the hands of Gary Cohn and Paul Ryan? If so, would that not validate the accusation that their real beef with the establishment has never been policy or ideology, but rather style and temperament? 

This administration has never claimed to be driven by a particular or definable ideology or worldview. Somehow, many on the right have held this up as a positive, as if incoherence and inconsistency were somehow virtues. Ineffectiveness, though, is even less tolerable than incoherence. Thus far, the Trump administration has been plagued by all of the above. The post-Bannon phase of the Trumpian White House is not likely to see a resurgence in coherence or consistency, if for no other reason than the temperament of the president. But if General Kelly succeeds in creating an effective staff of counselors, advisers, and policymakers, and if the grown-ups in the White House generate significant accomplishments towards this president’s agenda, who exactly will be celebrating? The answer to that question reveals the dividing line in conservatism today. 


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