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Bannon with Abandon

If you weren’t watching the continuous Florida storm coverage on all the cable news channels on Sunday evening, you might have caught former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s interview with the Columbia Broadcast System’s “60 Minutes” program. We didn’t, as we were out enjoying the perfect weather we’ve been having around here lately, but of course we couldn’t avoid reading and hearing all of it on Monday.
Even after being fired or having resigned in order to better serve President Donald Trump from the outside, depending on which version of events you prefer, Bannon still has a knack for making news. He was a controversial figure as the “chief executive officer” of Trump’s campaign, even more so in his administration post, and got enough media attention that Trump was reportedly miffed about. To Trump’s most ardent supporters Bannon was considered the keeper of the nationalist and isolationist and populist and protectionist faith that was going to make America great again, and to Trump’s most strident critics on both the left and right he was the authoritarian and alt-right quintessence of everything they hated about Trump.
His exit from the White House and his return to his previous gig of running the Breitbart.com internet news site was a big story before all the storms started, and even with the floods still rising in Florida his first on-air interview took up a full half of “60 Minutes.” He took full advantage of the opportunity to generate another days of news, of course, offering several opinions that will surely outrage Trump’s most strident critics on both the left and the right, which will surely gratify Trump’s most ardent supporters, but Trump himself also came in for some notable criticism.
Bannon said that Trump’s decision to fire Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey was “the biggest mistake in modern political history,” so of course that got the most media attention. This does not strike us as much of an overstatement, especially by Bannon standards, and we note that he also said “worst political mistake ever” was too bombastic even for him, but it was still some criticism from Trump’s most ardent supporter that Trump’s most strident critics relished. Bannon explained that Comey’s firing was a mistake because it inevitably led to the appointment of special counsel James Mueller, who’s now conducting far more thorough investigation of “Russia” than the one Trump effectively stopped Comey from pursuing, so he’s implicitly conceding he expects that to turn out even worse than Watergate or the Monica Lewinsky business or the many other worst modern political mistakes.
Bannon also pledged to be Trump’s “wing-man,” though, so maybe he’s just trying to give some good advice about exposing oneself to enemy fire. In the rest of the interview he remained fiercely loyal to Trump’s agenda, at least the nationalist and isolationist and populist and protectionist parts of it, and he vowed the mighty wrath of Breitbart.com and Bannon’s own media clout, and potentially the backing of his billionaire backers, against any Trump administration officials or any sorts of Republicans who won’t pledge their loyalty to whatever Trump might want to do at any given moment.
Even such a veteran interviewer as Charlie Rose seemed quite taken aback by it, which allowed Bannon to make specific threats and name specific names, and clearly explain his master plan to burn down the Republican party and raise a new nationalist and populist and all that party from the ashes. He dismissed the entirety of Republican party’s pre-Trump foreign policy and defense experts as “idiots” he “holds in contempt, total and complete contempt,” threatened primary challenges to any congressmen deemed unloyalw to Trump, cited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan as people he’d like to get rid of, and accused the broader Republican “establishment” of “trying to nullify the election.” He also defined loyalty to Trump by “the Billy Bush day” standard, which means who was still loyally defending Trump when the entire nation heard the soon-to-be-president bragging on audiotape about how he could grab women by the wherever because he’s a star, and that’s a pretty high standard.
He also said he hoped all those “dreamers” who are suddenly the national sob story will be forced to “self-deport,” and we’re sure that Trump’s most ardent admirers loved every part of it, but we’re not sure what Trump made of it. Bannon also took aim at several Trump administration officials for publicly criticizing the president’s response to the violence that occurred during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying they should quit if they’re not entirely on board with whatever the president says at any given moment, but good look finding replacements who can meet that very high standard. He further took aim at senior White House advisor and jack-of-all-trades Jared Kushner, a Manhattanite and longtime Democratic donor and suspected globalist who frequently clashed with Bannon on such matters as nationalism and populism and the wisdom of firing Comey, but Kushner is also Trump’s son-in-law and we notice that he’s still working at the White House while Bannon isn’t, so that will likely play better with Trump’s most ardent supporters than Trump himself.
Bannon and his Breitbart.com and their billionaire backers have a limited influence in the grand scheme of things, but it’s enough to further fracture an already fractuous Republican party. There are a lot of Republican districts where Bannon’s efforts would only bolster a Republican incumbent’s chances in a primary, but there are others where the combined efforts of Bannon and Trump could find some true believer to knock off an office-holder who might otherwise have impeccable conservative credentials but doesn’t meet that “Billy Bush day” standard. In some cases this would lead to the election of some sane-by-Democratic-standards challenger, and maybe in enough cases to affect Democratic majorities in Congress that wouldn’t go along with any part of the Trump agenda now matter how far left might veer, but Bannon and other ardent Trump supporters can be consoled that at least we’d be done with that darned Republican establishment.
Both Trump and the “establishment” along with the rest of the country have recently survived two horrific hurricanes, though, and we expect most of us will survive the likes of Bannon as well.

— Bud Norman

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McMastering Trumpian Foreign Policy

According some segments of the conservative media, one of those “deep state” “establishment” “globalist” types threatening President Donald Trump is his own national security advisor. Highly decorated combat veteran and former three star Army general H.R. McMaster stands accused of various heresies against the “nationalist” and “populist” and “alt-right” strains of conservatism, and it’s a more consequential story that the rest of all the palace intrigue that’s been going on at the White House.
McMaster is well-regarded by some other segments of the conservative media as one of the administration grown-ups needed to restrain Trump’s worst tendencies, and enjoys the begrudging respect of the Democrats on Capitol Hill, but such establishmentarian respect is all the more reason for the burn-it-down sorts of conservatives to revile him. They’re livid that he renewed a national security clearance for President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, persuaded Trump to sign off on a statement that Iran has thus far been in compliance with a deal struck with Obama regarding its nuclear weapons program, once worked at a British think-tank partly funded by the hated progressive billionaire George Soros, and has generally been an impediment to the isolationist and Russia-friendly bomb-all-the-Muslims-and-take-their-oil foreign policy they prefer.
Worse yet, McMaster seems to have gained influence in the administration since former four-star Marine general John Kelly took over as chief staff. Kelly has a reputation as someone who doesn’t suffer fools and idiots lightly, so his first order of business was to get rid of a White House communications officer who had proved spectacularly incompetent after a week on the job, and his second was to help McMaster defenestrate three members of the national security council. Each were allies of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and if you’ve been binge-watching the Trump show you should already know that he’s the administration’s true keeper of the “nationalist” and “populist” and “alt-right” faith.
Bannon had already lost his seat on the council after bi-partisan complaints that he had no qualifications whatsoever for the job, and his ideological ally Mike Flynn had resigned the national security advisor post in record time after it was revealed he had lied about about his dealings with Russia and talk about all sorts of other foreign intrigues started to surface, and for the moment the Bannonite vision seems to be fading. The former four-star Marine general James Mattis is still Secretary of Defense, and despite his “Mad Dog” nickname he’s also considered one of the restraining grown-ups that the establishment Republicans praise and the Democrats begrudgingly respect.
Not that you’d notice, but Rex Tillerson is still the titular Secretary of State, and the former top Exxon boss has surprisingly proved a stalwart defender of the post-war global order. You can’t help but have noticed United Nations ambassador Nikki Halley after her fine work winning an international agreement to impose sanctions on North Korea for its recent belligerence, but you might not recall she’s also often stood in opposition to a Bannonite foreign policy. With so many foreign policy positions still unfilled, largely due to the administration;s failure to find nominees with the requisite credentials who haven’t publicly expressed previous doubts about Trump’s foreign policy campaign rhetoric, Trump is pretty much stuck with the establishment he promised to burn down.
Hence the recent assault on McMaster in certain segments of the conservative media. One of the most vociferous critics has been BreitbartNews.com, which was formerly run by Bannon as a self-described “platform for the alt-right,” and others are the internet conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Michael Cernovich, but several of the talk radio hosts and more mainstream conservative outlets such as the Daily Caller have also been piling on, as has the Jerusalem Post’s usually reliable Caroline Glick. They all combine for a relatively small and already-on-board audience, but that audience does include Trump, so it will be interesting to see what effect they have.
Meanwhile pretty much all the mainstream press and certain segments of the conservative media will argue that McMaster is one of the much-needed grownups in the administration, and we’ll go right ahead and pile on ourselves. We’re no fans of Rice, but security clearances have always been granted as a routine courtesy to past national security advisors, and we’d like to see that tradition continue to benefit McMaster some day, and we can’t see what damage she’s likely to do at this point. That deal Obama struck with Iran was every bit as awful as Trump said it was back on the campaign trail, but if the Iranians are shrewd enough to be complying at this point then denying it would only undermine our nation’s credibility when Trump at long last gets around to his promised so-great-your-head-will-spin re-negotiation. Except for the fact some money came from the admittedly noxious Soros, there’s nothing we can find in any of the stories about that British think-tank that make us think worse of McMaster.
As much as we respect the formidable Ms. Glick there’s nothing we can find in McMaster’s history that suggests he’s insufficiently committed to America’s alliance with Israel, and even if he’s not a bomb-all-Muslims-and-take-their-oil kind of guy we figure that’s because he has better ideas about how to deal with the problems that certain segments of the Islamic world undeniably pose. According to all sorts of leaks he was one of the people who pressured Trump into belatedly affirming America’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and otherwise counseled the same unfriendly posture toward Russia’s expansionist ambitions that the Republican party had maintained since the dawn of the Cold War, but that’s fine by us.
Trump has thus far publicly “tweeted” his support for McMaster, but there are leaks that he’s privately fuming to friends that he wishes Flynn was still on the job, and on the campaign trail he boasted that he knows more the generals, adding his usual “believe me,” and he hates to disappoint the loyal fans who listen to Jones and Cernovich and the radio talkers. Getting rid of McMaster would surely fuel all the mainstream media talk about the “Russia” thing, but the fans won’t believe a word of that anyway, and Trump has proved entirely unpredictable about everything, so we’ll not venture any guesses how McMaster comes out at the end of this story.
We hope he’ll come out ahead, though, and will at least get his security clearance approved by the next Democratic administration’s national security advisor. During the first Iraq War Captain McMaster led nine American tanks into battle against 28 Iraqi Revolutionary Guard tanks and won by a score of 28-to-zero, was a fellow at the Hoover Institute while rising to his three-star general rank through a series of challenging commands, and despite such establishment credentials he strikes us a very serious man. Trump’s bone spurs prevented him from serving heroically, alas, and he later said his personal Vietnam was avoiding venereal disease on the New York City dating scene of the ’70s, and all his campaign rhetoric about NATO’s obsolescence and Russia’s moral equivalence with the United States and taking the Muslim’s oil struck us as similarly unserious, so we think he could us some establishmentarian grown-ups around him.
That will disappoint the fans, but they’ll surely get over it, and we think that for now they’re outnumbered by the liberals and certain segments of the conservatives and pretty much everybody else.

— Bud Norman

Tweeting and Twisting the GOP

The internecine Republican feuding has lately become more complicated. It’s still the same old story of the establishment versus the insurgents, the squishy moderates versus the principled conservatives, and the real Republicans versus the Republicans In Name Only, but the days it’s hard to tell who’s on which side. At this point in the plot President Donald Trump is “tweeting” threats against the House of Representative’s “Freedom Caucus,” so all the old labels of establishment and insurgent and principled and squishy no longer make any sense, and who the real Republicans are is very much up for debate.
As a relatively recent Republican Trump won the party’s nomination with a plurality of primary and caucus votes by running as an outsider and populist renegade hellbent on burning down the hated GOP establishment, as exemplified by party chairman Reince Priebus and House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, but following his improbable win of the electoral vote he seem surprised to find that he suddenly was the establishment. After running on grandiose promises of repealing Obamacare within days of taking office and replacing it with coverage for everyone at and lower costs and so beautiful it would make your head spin, Trump made Priebus his White House Chief of Staff and turned to Ryan McConnell to make good on his word, then went off to golf at his fabulous Mar-a-Lago resort, as populists do.
That was fine with the plurality of the party that now defines Republicanism as obeisance to Trump, and when it all went down in flames many of them were eager to blame Priebus and Ryan and McConnell and the rest of the hated establishment who had hoodwinked the naive Trump, even if he had also been elected because of his boasts of being both anti-establishment and the savviest deal-maker ever, and there was plenty of blame to be spread around the whole party. Some of those squishy moderates who somehow survived the past six years of insurgent anti-establishment primary purges bucked the party line on the bill because they were cowed by its 17 percent approval rating and all the looming sob stories from the 24 million people expected to lose health care coverage the first three years of premium hikes that were also forecast. More votes were lost from the “Freedom Caucus,” the same insurgent populists who had gained office by running on the original “Tea Party” wave of dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment, as they objected to the bill because it didn’t fully repeal Obamacare and replaced it with something that retained too many of the taxes and regulations and outrageous infringements of free market principles and individual liberty that the entirety of the party had claimed to be against from the get-go.
Trump took to “Twitter” to blame the “Freedom Caucus” members and threaten them with primary challenges by more obeisant Republicans if they didn’t come around. “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” Trump “tweeted,” adding with similar eloquence that “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” Later “tweets” mentioned individual members by name, with similar political intimidation repeated, which leaves us wondering what the Republican establishment but not doubting that it’s likely to be burned down.
The “tweets” don’t seem likely to settle the matter, though, as the “Freedom Caucus” members defiantly “tweeted” back in Trump’s own blustery style. Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie responded with a snarky “#Swampcare polls 17%. Sad!” Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia “tweeted” a simple “Stockholm Syndrome?” to suggest that Trump was now stuck with the hated establishment label. None appeared to be at all intimidated, and we can’t see why they should be. It’s easy to resist a populist movement that’s polling 17 percent in the polls, which is truly is sad, Trump’s numbers are hovering around 40 at a time when a president should be getting a honeymoon bump, and most of those “Freedom Caucus” members won their districts by bigger margins than Trump. Some of them really believe what they ran on, too, and can more persuasively argue why they voted against the bill Trump backed than Trump can argue for it.
To the extent that they can’t “tweet” the argument, conservative media ranging from the rabble-rousing radio talkers to the old eggheaded and think-tanky ink-and-paper publications will make it for them. Given that Trump’s remaining support won’t listen to any media that isn’t explicitly conservative, that’s a problem. Some of the conservative media are by now obeisant to Trump, but given their past full-throated supported for the “Freedom Caucus” and its anti-establishment stand they’re going to have some tricky talking to do. There are still enough Democrats hanging around Congress that Trump will need pretty much Republican vote to “get on the team, & fast,” which will be hard to do with a party that prides itself on its rugged individualism and stubborn independence and despite a certain reverence for order and tradition has lately come to regard any sort of establishment as needing to be burned down.
All of which leaves the Republicans with a whole lot of soul-searching about what their party really stands for. Given the current state of the Democratic Party, the country desperately needs the Republicans to get on with it.

— Bud Norman

A House Divided Against Itself

These are the times that try a Republican’s soul. There’s still no telling how such a crazy election year as this will turn out, but at this late date in the process the polls aren’t hopeful for the presidential prospects of the Grand Old Party, and the intra-party fighting is already underway.
Republicans started this election cycle with solid if not-quite-veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, a number of Republican governors and state legislatures and county commissions and city councils not seen since the Roaring ’20s, not to mention a strong field of successful governors and legislators and business leaders vying for the presidential nomination, and were destined to face the most deservedly unpopular Democratic nominee of our lifetimes, but at this dire moment in this crazy election we seem to have blown it. The erstwhile party of family values and free market capitalism and keeping the international bad guys at bay chose to nominate a twice-divorced casino-and-strip-club mogul whose latest wife is an illegal immigrant nudie model, whose casinos and strip clubs have gone bankrupt and whose vodka brands and minor-league football teams and ill-timed mortgage companies and scam real estate schools have gone under, and who now insists he can force Apple to make its products in America and sell them for a hundred grand or so a pop, and seems to have a strange attraction to the Russkies’ suddenly revanchist dictator and insouciance toward other international bad guys.
Apparently much of his appeal to the plurality of the party who nominated him was his tough talk about taking it to those darned Republican politicians that the party had previously put into office in such formidable numbers, and yet failed to make America sufficiently great again, so it’s not surprising that as the nominee’s poll numbers are lately tanking as the result of latest predictable scandals the “establishment” he vowed to destroy is taking the opportunity to fight back. Speaker of that Republican-majority House Paul Ryan has announced that he’s no longer defending the party’s presidential nominee and is instead focused on retaining those Congressional and state and county and local majorities, four of the party’s last five presidential nominees are also withholding their support, 36 statewide and Congressional Republican office-holders have called on their nominee to step down, another ten have withdrawn their support but stop short of calling for his withdrawal, and another 18are ¬†offering pointed criticism of the nominee’s recently revealed and widely-panned boasts about being able to grab random women by the whatever, among his other recent problems. Meanwhile the party’s big business wing is withholding contributions, such formerly definitive non-talk-radio conservative media as The National Review and The Weekly Standard and The Central Standard Times remain as critical of the nominee as ever, and even the most reliably conservative publications in the daily and monthly press are refusing for the first time in their history to offer a Republican endorsement, with Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson leading the Republican by five-to-zero among the nation’s top 50 circulation newspapers, and the poll numbers among the college-educatated suburban-dwelling sorts of Republicans, especially the distaff portion, are almost as horrible.
Which is likely to result that in that most deservedly unpopular Democrat nominee of our lifetimes becoming president, but as she might put it, what difference, at this point, does it make? At this particular moment in this crazy election year the more pertinent question is which faction of the party should survive the recriminations, and there’s no telling how that might play out.
Should Republican nominee Donald J. Trump somehow survive this moment and become president, we’ve no doubt he’ll be so awful that all those fancy-schmantzy establishment types and such less well-healed and well-credentialed NeverTrump folks as ourselves will be vindicated, for whatever slight consolation that might be worth. In the seemingly more likely event that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton becomes the most deservedly unpopular newly-inaugurated president ever we’re also sure that she’ll be so awful that Trump fans will be able to make an argument he couldn’t have possibly been worse, but there will still be an at least equally plausible argument that any other Republican name you might have picked out of a hat would have prevented that calamity, and at this glum point in this crazy election we expect to spend the next four years fighting that intra-party battle. We know which side we’ll be ¬†on, at least, but we won’t relish the fight, and would much prefer to be fighting the Democrats as we would in a less crazy year.

— Bud Norman