A political grim reaper who appealed to Trump’s worst instincts

Steve Bannon leaves behind an increasingly lonely president in a chaotic White House

With the departure of Steve Bannon on Friday the court of Donald Trump lost its rumpled chief ideologue. Mr Bannon was a man who prized his image as a political grim reaper and his role policing a chaotic White House's adherence to the nationalist promises that Mr Trump rode to win power.

"Darkness is good," Mr Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter soon after last November's election. "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power," adding: "I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors."

But those rushing to see signs of the normalisation of Mr Trump’s presidency in Friday’s exit may – again – be grasping at straws.

Mr Bannon’s strength was in his power to give Mr Trump’s instincts a political framework. Yet even as he leaves, some of those instincts remain firmly entrenched in an Oval Office into which an increasingly lonely president strides each day.


Tipping point

People inside the White House insist that the tipping point for Mr Bannon came this week with the furore surrounding the president's reaction to the white nationalist-fuelled violence in Charlottesville. In particular John Kelly, the former marine general brought in last month to instil discipline as White House chief of staff, was furious, they say, after an ad hoc and combative press conference on Tuesday at which Mr Trump again put neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan on the same moral plane as anti-racist counter-protesters.

The reaction to that press conference within the White House also illustrated the stark divisions between senior staff. Some, like Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council and a patron of a Jewish community centre at Kent State University, found themselves agonising over the president's performance. Mr Bannon, by all accounts, cheered the president on.

Markets surged on news of Mr Bannon's exit on Friday after having the day before taken fright at rumours that Mr Cohn, his chief rival on economic policy, was poised to resign. Those rumours swirled on Thursday as Mr Bannon was quoted as hankering after an economic war with China.

Economic nationalist

But Mr Bannon was not the only economic nationalist in Mr Trump’s White House and those concerns should not disappear with the strategist’s exit. The ideology is virtually an instinct for Mr Trump, who has railed against US trade policy since the 1990s, and often seems at his most comfortable describing his plans to take on China or rip up trade agreements.

"This is just the beginning," the president said on Monday as he ordered an investigation into China's intellectual property practices that could eventually lead to Washington's imposing unilateral tariffs on Beijing.

Still playing a role on trade policy in the White House is Peter Navarro, a long-time China hawk and one of Mr Bannon's closest allies in his battles with pro-business moderates on trade. Mr Navarro did not immediately respond to inquiries from the Financial Times on Friday about his plans.

"The whole notion that there's going to be some change in how [Mr Trump] governs and what he says – the notion that John Kelly was going to have some sort of impact – that all went out the window at [Tuesday's] press conference," said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University. "He's a leader who's not concerned about being isolated."

‘America First’ motto

Mr Bannon's exit is a victory for the security and foreign policy professionals in the Trump administration and in particular for HR McMaster, the former general who heads the National Security Council.

Mr Bannon championed Mr Trump’s “America First” motto, seeking to reorientate US foreign policy away from support for longstanding allies in favour of a more self-serving and aggressive but less interventionist global stance, regularly causing a stir both behind scenes and in public.

His pursuit of his own foreign policy agenda regularly undercut efforts at the Pentagon and state department as well as at the White House.

He reserved particular criticism for Pentagon proposals to boost troop numbers in Afghanistan. His hardline view on China also saw him attempt to relegate North Korea – which many frame as the top foreign policy issue facing the administration – and to oust Susan Thornton, the respected career diplomat on whom Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, counts to lead Asia policy.

But conservative commentator James Carafano at the Heritage Foundation, who knows Mr Bannon and helped with the Trump transition, said determining foreign policy was likely to remain just as fiery in his absence.

“Steve’s very expressive and forceful and that made for lively discussions but I’m not so sure that’s going to end – these are all very self-confident people who aren’t afraid of being blunt and honest,” he said of the top foreign policy officials left in the administration. “Steve’s overall vision of foreign policy was never really driving the administration. The president is the decider-in-chief and delegator-in-chief.”

Ultra-conservative members

In Congress, Mr Bannon's departure is likely to be greeted with concern by the small group of ultra-conservative members who make up the party's right flank and worry that other members of the administration, such as Mr Cohn, Mr Trump's daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are closet Democrats who will push liberal policy.

Yet even many Republican lawmakers viewed Mr Bannon as a kind of bogeyman who appealed to Mr Trump’s worst instincts and advocating that the president take anti-Republican establishment stances.

While Mr Bannon’s departure may give some Republican lawmakers hope that the administration will begin to tow the Republican party line on such issues, it is unlikely that those legislators will see Mr Bannon’s departure as a complete reset for the administration.

Over the course of the past few days, at least a dozen Republican lawmakers have clearly demonstrated by their comments that they would rather have Mike Pence, the vice-president, as commander-in-chief in place of Mr Trump, noted Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian.

“There really is a feeling: can the party – can the GOP – survive to 2018 with Donald Trump as their leader?” Mr Brinkley said.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017