Trump vs. Bannon

What does the epic feud between these two former allies mean for the administration?

Stephen Bannon and Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room
(Image credit: The Associated Press)

The new year isn't off to a great start for President Trump. He spent the first working day of 2018 projectile-tweeting his pent-up holiday bile, insisting that his nuclear button (ahem) is bigger than Kim Jong Un's, threatening to cut off aid to Palestine and Pakistan, ludicrously claiming credit for a banner year in airline passenger safety, suggesting that former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin should go to jail, and absurdly arguing that DACA activists would side with him against Democrats.

Never before has anyone ever been so destructively busy doing absolutely nothing.

Then yesterday morning, New York published an explosive excerpt from a forthcoming book by journalist Michael Wolff detailing the unbelievable, chaotic dysfunction inside the Trump campaign, the transition, and then the White House. He alleges that basically everyone on the campaign had wanted and expected to lose so they could get lucrative cable TV gigs, that Trump didn't even know who former Republican House Speaker John Boehner was, and that the leader of the free world is frequently in bed watching TV "with a cheeseburger" by 6:30 p.m.

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There were 15 nuggets in that article that would have dominated any news cycle. But the one that apparently sent the president into one of his whinging tantrums came from a separate Guardian story about the book, in which Stephen Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, called the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Russian emissaries dangling damaging dirt on Hillary Clinton "treasonous" and "unpatriotic." Bannon also apparently believes that the Russia investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is going to nail the Trump family to the wall for money laundering. "The Kushner s--t is greasy," Bannon told Wolff in his characteristically vulgar style.

Bannon's unexpected betrayal provoked a swift riposte from the president, who put out a four-paragraph response that began, "Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind," and resorted to the damage control tactic of referring to the president's former campaign director and chief adviser as a "staffer" who is "only in it for himself." Despite containing Trump bingo words like "false" and "phony," the statement included sentences far too complex to have been drafted by the president himself, a man whose own advisers apparently described him to Wolff as "no more than semi-literate."

It is not unusual for outgoing advisers and Cabinet officials to criticize the president. But the messy, public divorce between Trump and Bannon unfolded in real time yesterday and contained a level of animosity that was remarkable even for this administration. The mutual meltdown led to a lot of winners-and-losers speculation about what will happen next.

Yet asking which of these loathsome creatures will come out on top is beside the point. For all the juicy tidbits in yesterday's news about a White House in total disarray and a president who is regarded by even his inner circle as unfit, the Trump-Bannon spat is unlikely to have a major impact on the trajectory of this administration. The president's unpopularity and the GOP's impending electoral doom are both due in large part to the never-ending cascade of venom, backbiting, pettiness, and divisiveness emanating from the most incompetent White House in American history. The person who oversees and stokes and is mostly responsible for this unsightly pandemonium is the president himself, at this point a total basket case.

Bannon, who by all accounts treated his time in the White House like he was a particularly noxious contestant on Survivor, had as much to do with that nastiness as anyone not named Trump. But it wasn't his fault that the president can't go 20 minutes without talking his way into a crisis. And Trump ignored the one piece of Bannonist policy advice that might have paid real dividends: to pair his nativist ethnonationalism with an expansion of the social welfare state rather than throwing his lot in with the granny-starvers in Congress. Instead, Trump is simultaneously tied to both nativist cruelty and the GOP's determination to service the party's wealthy donors at the expense of everyone else. Off-putting and bizarre behavior plus detested policy makes for an unpopular president, none of which has a single thing to do with Breitbart.

The cold reality for both Bannon and Trump is this: These two small, unprepared, and cosmically fortunate men were, by a series of unlikely events, granted the kind of sweeping power that most politicos spend their entire lives daydreaming about. Instead of diligently working to use that power in the public interest, they have lit it all on fire and rolled around in the ashes for nothing other than the opportunity to stab each other in the back. In the space of a year, Bannon has burbled his way out of the White House and retreated back to his Breitbart hole in disgrace. President Trump has tweeted and outraged and provoked his way to galactic unpopularity even as the economy soars. His toxicity, combined with the Vichy Republican monomania to debate and occasionally pass hated legislation, may hand both branches of Congress back to the Democrats in November.

Who will win this battle of poisonous, narcissistic old men? Are they really even on the outs, or this is all a show? Honestly, who cares? They are both shameless ghouls who destroy everything they touch, neither of them has learned a damn thing, and none of us will have a moment's peace until they are as far away from the White House as possible.

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