Hey, anything big happen while I was gone?
Making the click-through worth your while: A couple of tough questions about what, exactly, Steve Bannon brought to the White House; why proud Southerners need a unifying symbol beyond the Confederate Flag; and Great Britain encounters a snag in the Brexit process.
The Bannon-less White House
Does President Trump have advisors or merely scapegoats-in-waiting?
As the first week of the Trump administration without senior presidential advisor Steve Bannon begins, it seems fair to ask what the White House is actually going to lose with his departure. The media loved the narrative that Bannon was somehow Trump’s Svengali or Rasputin, whispering in Trump’s ear and steering him toward some sinister nationalist agenda, or the notion that he was the unique conduit for the non-traditional Republican alt-right philosophy into the White House. The mythology and imagery around Bannon is vivid and dramatic, but reality tells a different story.
Are there really a lot of Trump supporters ready to abandon the president because Bannon is out? In other words, did 2016-era Breitbart.com make Trump, or did Trump make 2016-era Breitbart.com? (Note Breitbart.com’s traffic numbers took some suspiciously sudden drops after the election, even compared to other sites having post-election traffic slumps.) Did Bannon’s arrival in August 2016 really change the trajectory of the Trump presidential campaign, or was the election cake baked at that point? It is hard to believe that if Bannon had remained at Breitbart.com instead of joining the campaign, Trump would have lost the election.
As many people have pointed out in the past few days, once in the White House, Bannon didn’t get his way much at all. He was removed from the National Security Council in April. The White House is still fighting to get money for border wall construction. The executive order on immigration restrictions was partially struck down in court, and is awaiting a hearing at the Supreme Court. Bannon’s idea for a tax hike on the highest earners never went anywhere, and his other big idea on taxes, a Border Adjustment Tax on imports, was rejected by Congressional Republicans — and that was an idea that Paul Ryan liked!
Breitbart.com launched an extensive effort attempting to drive out National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Bannon is out, and McMaster remains. Bannon advised against firing FBI Director James Comey. Tonight the president will address our military efforts in Afghanistan, and is expected to go in the opposite direction of what Bannon wanted. If American foreign policy is more isolationist under Trump than Obama, then it is only nominally so, at least so far. There have been some slight changes on trade policy around the edges, but “the U.S. trade deficit with China is up more than 6 percent this year.” Bannon famously hates Wall Street traders and bankers, but they’re riding high and the booming stock market is one of Trump’s biggest accomplishments he likes to brag about.
Bannon had a seat at the table, and a voice in the biggest debates in the White House. But he rarely won those debates, particularly when squaring off against Jared Kushner or Ivanka Trump . . . suggesting that the White House in the months to come will not be too different from the decisions in the White House of the past few months.
What Do You Do When Hate Groups Decide to Adopt One of Your Symbols?
Every time I write about the Confederate flag or “Confederaphilia,” a few readers respond that I just don’t understand, that I can’t understand because I’m not a native Southerner, that I should keep my Yankee mouth shut, etcetera.
Assume for a moment that there are people who want to express pride in their Southern heritage or honor their ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, and who do not want to endorse racism or slavery.
What do you do when a hate group suddenly decides to adopt one of your preferred symbols? Over the years, white supremacist groups have adopted several symbols that aren’t immediately connected to racism, such as Celtic crosses (crosses in circles), Thor’s hammer, and the number 88. Wiser anti-hate groups, like the Anti-Defamation League, are quick to point out that none of these symbols are, by themselves, indications of support for hate groups, and advises everyone to examine their contexts closely to avoid false accusations. Nonetheless, hearing this can be a little unnerving for fans of Celtic Christian art, the Marvel comics superhero, or NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. There’s a deliberate desire on the part of hate groups to take seemingly innocuous symbols and turn them into secret signals of belief, only recognized by other members of the club.
If you’re really into waving the Confederate flag and don’t want to endorse white supremacy or racism, you have an increasingly serious problem, because even if you’re the least racist person in the world, a lot of openly racist people have embraced that flag as their symbol. At some point, non-racist proud Southerners may need to let that symbol of regional pride go and adopt another one.
And then there was this display in Charlottesville:
That’s a Nazi flag. Once that appeared, no one could plausibly argue that the gathering in Charlottesville was aimed at preserving history or battling political correctness run amok. Everyone who marched alongside that Nazi flag was endorsing what the swastika represents. If you disagree with that statement, try to imagine a scenario where you would willingly march alongside a Nazi flag.
This is why it’s so outrageous to hear the president of the United States insisting that the clash in Charlottesville “had some very fine people on both sides.”
No, it didn’t. Once you’re marching alongside the Nazi flag, you’re not a good person anymore.
If those Confederate statues are to remain standing, it will require a better argument than what we have now. Charlottesville demonstrated that keeping the statues is important to American Nazis. (Non-metaphorical Nazis! The term has been so overused in overwrought political arguments it’s hard to grasp that we’re talking about actual, Seig-Heil-ing, Nazi-saluting, goose-stepping morons!) If American Nazis want those statues to keep standing, that’s a really strong argument to take them down. If those statues have become a rallying point and symbol for those who disagree with nearly all of America’s values – the rule of law, equality in the eyes of the law, pluralism, the right to vote, the right to free speech – then they have no place in public squares, public parks and courthouses, etcetera.
There seems to be this insistence that to denounce the marchers in Charlottesville is to somehow endorse the violence of the “Antifa” movement, as if this is binary, and we must approve of one side of this fight. This is ridiculous. Life often gives us two bad choices. Think of the Eastern front in World War II, the Iran-Iraq War, or the choice between tanking your season or losing the highest-round draft pick.
The marchers in Charlottesville chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” It’s hard to believe Donald Trump is an anti-Semite; few anti-Semites are at peace with their daughter converting to Judaism and marrying a Jew. But why did that chant and the Charlottesville neo-Nazis not seem to anger him? Trump is a man who is capable of lashing out at Megyn Kelly, Mika Bryzenski, or John McCain with ferocious fury; why did he not bring a comparable fury at those who marched alongside the banner of the Fuhrer? Is it that he simply can’t get that angry at people who aren’t insulting him personally, but merely insulting America’s ideals? Or is it as simple as he thinks many of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and elsewhere voted for him, and he fears losing their support?
In the latter half of last week, America’s political press debated whether Charlottesville represented a tipping point for the Trump presidency or point of no return. One thing is clear for anyone who wants to morally or politically remain aligned with this presidency: If Trump can foul up a moment that required him to simply denounce people marching under the Nazi flag, then he is capable of fouling up anything.
The View of Brexit from Ireland
As you can gather, last week was a terrific week to be paying only intermittent attention to the news back in the United States. In Ireland, the big news – beside the womens’ international rugby championship – was the United Kingdom’s continued efforts to manage the “Brexit” process, and how it would affect the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Irish press sees Brexit as foolish and unmanageable, but in between all the sneering, there was something of a point that separating from the European Union creates a big question for how you adjust when a long, busy, heavily-trafficked, and largely unsecured border between two EU countries becomes a border between an EU-country and a non-EU one. There’s peace in Northern Ireland now, but Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland) Leo Varadkar expressed worries that a “hard” border might increase tensions again.
Until Brexit, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., operated under the same trade rules; right now, moving people and goods across the border involves minimal hassle. The British government wants to try to keep the changes to a minimum: “No border posts after Brexit and future customs arrangements whereby 80 percent of businesses involved in cross-border trade would be exempt all any new tariffs.”
The mostly pro-EU Irish (or at least their newspaper columnists) point out that this is a desire to keep the good part of trade with EU countries and ditch the bad parts.
ADDENDA: Last week was a good week to be away, and instead of dealing with accusations of racism, counter-accusations, and rage, to be contemplating sights like this one at the Cliffs of Moher . . .
Of course, thanks to the odd scheduling of this last family vacation, in just ten days, I head back across the Atlantic for the National Review cruise. I’ll see some of you there.