Decades before Donald Trump vanquished Hillary Clinton, Pat Buchanan heralded the themes that would put Trump in the White House. Yet despite all that lead time, Trump’s victory was still in one sense premature. In the interval between Buchanan’s presidential bids in the 1990’s and Trump’s victory last November, the Republican Party paid little heed to calls for immigration control, economic nationalism, or an America First foreign policy. As a result, today there are woefully few staffers from previous GOP administrations or key congressional offices who have both the experience in government and the dedication to his goals to make Trump’s agenda successful.
This brute fact accounts for the otherwise curious composition of the Trump White House for its first eight months. The President chose the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, as his chief of staff. Steve Bannon, a man with as little experience in government as Trump himself, was the President’s chief strategist. Between them, Trump could draw upon both experience and philosophical commitment. (Stephen Miller, a former staffer to Sen. Jeff Sessions, is a rare figure who combines both qualities as the President’s senior advisor for policy.) The presence in the White House of Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, added something of the perspective of the New York social and financial world to the mix, an element that might have helped the President outflank his critics in their own circles.
That was the hope, anyway. But blood really is thicker than water: Ivanka and Jared remain; Priebus and Bannon are out. In their place is retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, who saw Bannon out the door soon after taking over from Priebus as chief of staff. Between Kelly and H.R. McMaster, the Army general who serves as national security advisor, the military brass is better represented in the White House than Trump’s right-wing base is.
No wonder that Bannon said, on the day of his departure, “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” He told The Weekly Standard’s Peter Boyer, “We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else.”
Trump has complained of being undermined by what he has called the “Deep State,” consisting of the permanent, unelected bureaucracy that runs the federal government day to day and the equally unaccountable “intelligence community” that is not above leaking secrets to embarrass a president it despises. Yet Trump seems to have entrusted himself to another kind of deep state, namely the military establishment and Wall Street financial interests of the sort represented by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn. Some of Trump’s most outspoken supporters see in this a sure sign of reversion to the kinds of policies that George W. Bush’s administration might have pursued. Within the White House, Bannon had been one of the most vocal opponents of sending more troops to Afghanistan, a policy favored by McMaster. Now that Bannon is gone, an Afghan buildup has been announced.
Yet if Bannon was a dove of sorts where Afghanistan was concerned, he is a hawk toward Iran. Bannon told The National Interest’s Curt Mills that he had asked John Bolton to prepare a memo for Trump on how to scrap the Iran deal. When Bannon was unable to get Bolton’s memo past Kelly, he asked Bolton to publish it on National Review’s website, hoping it would come to the President’s attention via Twitter, bypassing Kelly. For realists hoping to keep America out of further counterproductive engagements in the Islamic world, whether campaigns against Bashar al-Assad or Iran or yet another offensive in Afghanistan, the optimal mix of White House personnel included Bannon and McMaster alike. Bannon was the antidote to the conventional thinking of the Pentagon princes; they were the antidote to his ideological exuberance.
Even when Bannon was in place, there was little sign of economic nationalism making headway. He was a force for keeping the President’s attention focused on immigration and border security—a task that has now fallen to Stephen Miller, seemingly alone. The President himself is the most important variable where domestic policy is concerned, however. And his tweets and public statements continue to underscore a commitment to controlling immigration and revising U.S. trade policy. Yet it takes more than tweets to move the ship of state, and so far the biggest domestic-policy push attempted by the Trump administration has been the disastrous effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare. The President’s heart may be in the right place; but he needs personnel who can serve as his hands and nerves.