In his first major decisions President-Elect Donald Trump named Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff and Stephen Bannon to be ”chief strategist and senior counsel.” The Trump transition staff was at some pains to say the two would be “equal partners” but the laws of political physics usually do not operate that way. Ordinarily the Chief of Staff is primus inter pares although most administrations prefer to suggest that no one but the President has preeminence in its operations.
Priebus is an excellent (and relieving) choice. He is very bright but low key and a master of detail. He is an experienced pilot to guide Trump through the waters of Washington. Priebus has the confidence of the Republicans in Congress and, more importantly, of Trump himself. After Trump’s nomination he came to Trump essentially as a stranger of whom Trump had been suspicious. He worked masterfully to merge the Republican National Committee voter efforts with the Trump campaign. The usual political experts sneered at the Republican efforts, especially compared to the vaunted Democratic “ground game.” We all know how that turned out.
The heavy and generally outraged publicity has been about Bannon though. An “anti-Semitic white supremacist” goes the trope. Bannon is a former Naval officer with a Harvard MBA. He worked as an investment banker and movie producer before becoming Chairman of Breitbart.com.
The website is political incorrectness on steroids. The Wall Street Journal says Breitbart “has taken aim at establishment GOP figures and is identified with the ‘alt. right,’ a movement that promotes nativism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity.” Those most offended by this, however, seem to include those who promote identity politics for every other racial, ethnic and gender group.
That all whites benefit from “white privilege” is dogma of the modern Democratic Party. To challenge it is not just politically incorrect, but will give rise to allegations of racism. Poor and working-poor whites do not feel privileged. Democrats will not recover from their defeat if they chill any discussion of that fact, let alone do anything about it.
Still, the Breitbart headlines are very provocative stuff. I was not familiar with Bannon or Breitbart but have done a little research. The inflammatory articles are written by others and the headlines seem intentionally designed to draw eyeballs to the website. On the basis of them Bannon is also labeled an anti-Semite by his detractors. Alan Dershowitz is not persuaded and says it is unfair to call Bannon an anti-Semite.
The allegation appears to be based on an article published on Breitbart entitled “Bill Kristol, Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.” It was written a Jewish writer who maintains Kristol is a traitor for attempting to stop the only party standing between the Jews and their annihilation in Israel. The accusers would seem to have read only the title and not the article.
Bannon is a provocateur who worked on Trump’s message to sell him. He will not be equal to Priebus who is the man to watch. Bannon will have a lot to say about Trump’s message, not what actually happens.
Trump will not be the first President to have campaign themes, which continue into his Presidency, that are at variance with his actions while in office.
Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, pursuing a Southern strategy, collecting the electoral votes formerly belonging to Southern Democrats and assembling the Silent Majority in the rest of the country. In 1969 incoming Attorney General John Mitchell told horrified Washington reporters – then, as now, primarily liberal Democrats – “Watch what we do. Not what we say.”
The Nixon Justice Department took the public position that it was not its role to push social change and opposed forced school busing to achieve school desegregation. Nixon made two highly publicized, controversial and unsuccessful attempts to nominate Southerners to the Supreme Court before he nominated Harry Blackman. In 1968 70% of black children were still attending segregated schools. By 1972, this percentage had decreased to 8%. Enrollment of black children in desegregated schools rose from 186,000 in 1969 to 3 million in 1970.
While using rhetoric to hold together his coalition of the South and the Silent Majority, Nixon integrated Southern schools, signed civil rights bills, created the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), signed the Earned Income Tax Credit (reverse income tax), imposed price controls, engaged in détente with Russia and went to China.
I do not suggest that Trump is as smart as Nixon, but, if he has good people around him, he can be as successful as Nixon was (before Watergate). Trump has said in so many words that his statements need not precisely conform to his actions. In his book, “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump calls one of his rhetorical tools “truthful hyperbole.” He both defends and praises it as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” As a candidate, Trump made “huge” use of this technique
Sen. Ted Cruz raised the most salient fact about Trump when he said Trump had “New York values.” This was not intended as a compliment since it was said during a televised debate among Republican Presidential candidates. The moment was compelling. Trump uncharacteristically adroitly fended of the attack by suggesting Cruz was disrespecting the First Responders who responded so heroically on 9-11. Cruz, likewise uncharacteristically, was dumbstruck and only meekly seconded the courage of the police and firemen. He should have responded sharply, “You know very well I’m not talking about those brave men and women. I’m talking about the media and financial elites of midtown Manhattan and Wall Street, among whom you have lived and worked all your adult life.”
Cruz was right in the first place. Trump has lived and worked in Manhattan all his life. He has been a liberal pro-choice Democrat. He may not be that but he is no conservative Republican either. He says what he thinks needs to be said to close the deal. The likely truth is that Trump has no firm political principles we can rely on him to follow during his presidency. He’s fundamentally pragmatic.
Trump’s recent hedging on Obamacare and The Wall and prosecuting Hillary are all examples of the reality we will find in the execution of his Presidency as opposed to the “truthful hyperbole” sales pitch.
Note the howling of Trump’s detractors as he modifies statements they hated in the first instance. There are those who find grounds for outrage in any Trump statement even when he is backing off a statement they found offensive. The Trump supporters are not upset. They never expected Trump to accomplish what he promised. They just like what he did promise and hope he will work in that direction.
Priebus and Bannon will make an interesting team, but the frustration and blessing of American politics remains that neither your greatest hopes nor greatest fears will be realized.