Bannonism lives on in the White House
Steve Bannon may be out as a senior White House adviser, but Bannonism - if that's what it can properly be called - is still firmly entrenched in the White House.
Donald Trump, in a series of tweets on Thursday, bashed his Republican opponents and the media and defended Confederate Civil War monuments - the cause for which white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched last weekend.
The president appears to be forcing exactly the kind of fight with progressive groups that Mr Bannon, in an interview with Robert Kuttner, the co-founder of the progressive liberal magazine The American Prospect, said he welcomed.
Perhaps Bannon could hear the executioner sharpening his axe - but he was remarkably candid.
"The longer they talk about identity politics, I got 'em," Mr Bannon said. "I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."
On Tuesday and again on Thursday the president made a decided effort to shift the debate from one about the acceptability of white nationalism - a gentle way of describing the racists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners who marched with torches and fought with counter-demonstrators last weekend - and onto more stable footing.
A recent Marist poll shows that a majority of Americans support (62%) allowing "statues honouring the leaders of the Confederacy" to "remain as historical symbols".
While the survey question was a bit loaded (the other option was to remove them "because they are offensive to some people"), the bottom line is clear.
While Americans overwhelming reject racism and white supremacists, a debate over weather-worn statues cuts much more in Mr Trump's favour.
Liberals will point out that the "historical" nature of the statues includes that they were largely erected in the early 20th Century, when southern states were codifying government-sanctioned segregation; that some of these "beautiful" statues, in Mr Trump's words, are accompanied by exceedingly racist text; and that local governments, reflecting the will of their residents, are the ones opting to remove the statues.
That is all well and good, but if that debate also means Democrats abandon bread-and-butter economic issues, Mr Bannon's side will welcome the exchange.
- Why the fuss over Confederate statues?
- A White House meltdown in the making
- America - diminished and dismissed
More than an issue of race, Mr Trump set up his defence of the statues as an attempt to protect a way of life under attack.
"You are changing history and culture," the president said on Tuesday.
And in his tweet on Thursday: "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart."
With his "ripped apart" imagery, Mr Trump is playing into the anxiety of Americans - explicitly about the anxiety over cultural change, but those sentiments go hand-in-hand with the financial uncertainty and upheaval that has wracked the nation since the Great Recession of 2008.
That was a central theme of Mr Trump's winning presidential campaign, an appeal to lower-middle- and middle-class voters who, even if they weren't personally devastated by the economic freefall and slow rebound over the preceding eight years, could see the chasm from where they stood.
"These are men and women who are, in the main, still working, still attending church, still members of functioning families, but who often live in communities where neighbours, relatives, friends and children have been caught up in disordered lives," was how New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall describes them.
"The worry that this disorder has become contagious - that decent working or middle class lives can unravel quickly - stalks many voters, particularly in communities where jobs, industries and a whole way of life have slowly receded, the culminating effect of which can feel like a sudden blow."
Mr Trump railed against change - a return to when America was "great". And the statue debate, as he's constructing it, snugly fits that theme.
In his interview, Mr Bannon dismissed what he called "ethnonationalists" as a "collection of clowns", but that view seems more an attempt to put his liberal interviewer at ease.
Elsewhere, Mr Bannon has boasted that Breitbart, the publication he used to head, was a "platform for the alt-right" - the anodyne term for the collection of white nationalist groups that have seen a resurgence in power and numbers as Mr Trump campaign gathered strength.
Mr Bannon needs nationalists of all stripes - white, economic, even left-leaning populists and anti-trade liberals like Kuttner - for the new political order he hopes to build that will be willing to wage an economic war against China.
"To me the economic war with China is everything," Mr Bannon said. "And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we're five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we'll never be able to recover."
Standing between himself and a successful prosecution of this showdown are global elites, including establishment politicians, the mainstream media, financial conglomerates and even Trump administration officials like Goldman Sachs executive turned White House economic advisor Gary Cohn.
If these themes sound familiar, it's because they were interwoven into Mr Trump's presidential campaign, particularly after Mr Bannon joined the team in August 2016. They were also a central focus of Mr Trump's combative inaugural address in January.
If one squints the right way, all of Mr Trump's recent actions can be seen as part of this overarching strategy. There's the non-stop battles with the "fake news" mainstream press. The seemingly unnecessary fights with members of his own party, including Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. And the recent announced administration probe of Chinese intellectual property practices, with promises of more trade actions to come.
Squint another way, of course, and Mr Trump's strategy devolves into the fits and starts of a chief executive who reacts to perceived slights and counter-punches whenever he feels disparaged. The embrace of the Confederate statues is a response to liberal criticism of his handling of the Charlottesville unrest. The feuds with Republicans are because they won't do his bidding. The media-bashing is because reporters aren't treating him with appropriate respect.
"I think the president enjoys a scrap with the press," says Ron Christie, a former adviser to President George W Bush. "I think he believes this is about him and the press and how he's going to beat the press. What he doesn't recognise is that the importance of being the president of the United States is to unify the country, to bring people together and to heal divisive wounds."
As Nancy Cook and Josh Dawsey write in Politico, Mr Trump's behaviour can be boiled down to a collection of anger triggers.
"White House officials and informal advisers say the triggers for his temper are if he thinks someone is lying to him, if he's caught by surprise, if someone criticises him, or if someone stops him from trying to do something or seeks to control him," they write.
If Mr Trump's actions are part of a larger strategy, and not a fit of pique, there is also the question of whether it's correct to attribute this to Mr Bannon at all.
While he appears more than willing to take credit for the strategy, the larger themes of the Trump "movement" - border security, aggressive trade protectionism, immigration reform and a certain kind of cultural nostalgia - were well in place before his arrival, as Mr Trump himself likes to point out.
Mr Bannon may have given ideological focus to what was a flailing Trump campaign last August, but the raw material was all Trump's. And this week - as always - the man at the lectern, the man with his finger on the Twitter trigger, is the president.
The "Make America Great Again" slogan isn't Bannonism. It's Trumpism. But whatever you call it, that strain of politics is woven into the fabric of this presidency.