In the wake of the events in Charlottesville and the president’s reaction, some activists, including conservatives, are renewing their focus on removing Steve Bannon from the White House. Their reasons are familiar by now: He represents the “nationalist” wing of the administration most closely tied to this weekend’s violence and once bragged that his Breitbart.com was the “platform for the alt-right.” It seems like an easy call, but Maggie Haberman at the New York Times is offering a note of caution.
Is there really anyone who thinks that Trump is a benevolent character, or even a blank slate, who only says bigoted things because Bannon is whispering them in his ear? If so, well, yeah. Bannon may reinforce the president’s long-established bigotry, but he’s hardly unique in that regard. Trump will always have people who can do that, in the White House or not.
The bigger problem is Trump’s susceptibility to flattery and, as Greg Sargent suggested in an excellent piece before Trump’s ugly remarks, his inability to see beyond himself. I’d add his thin skin, too. The president’s attraction to the fringiest of the fringe is beyond any ideological sympathy carefully molded by an adviser in the shadows. He rather openly prizes their adulation on Twitter and at rallies (one was just scheduled in Arizona for next week). By the same token, his lashing back in their defense is likely as much a (warped idea of) self-defense as it is a real attempt to lend support the Confederacy or the Klan or Nazism.
So that’s all going to be in play, Bannon or not.
Why, then, should Bannon be fired?
Because even a dumpster fire can be more or less contained, and having Bannon there encouraging bigotry almost certainly makes containment more difficult. The chief strategist was “thrilled with the remarks” roiling the nation at the moment, a friend of Bannon told Politico.
Because White House symbolism matters, too, and Bannon (whatever his private beliefs) has richly earned his place as a symbol of the mainstreaming of white supremacy hate groups.
Most of all, because when the president isn’t remotely qualified for his job and shows no sign of learning the necessary skills, it’s important to have a highly professional staff and not a clownish group of equally unqualified hangers-on.
That’s what I’ve been saying from the get-go, and that’s why I said getting rid of Bannon was the first test of whether John Kelly was going to be an adequate White House chief of staff.
And that’s why getting rid of Bannon isn’t enough. Jared Kushner has to go as well. He may not be a bigot (although the only visible effect of that are the frequent leaks to the press in which he and the president’s daughter have ineffectively opposed whatever crazy thing the president has done), but he’s simply not a governing professional. That doesn’t magically change by giving him a fancy title -- senior adviser to the president -- and a wide portfolio of supposed major initiatives, from modernizing the federal government to bringing peace to the Middle East. In a White House desperate for people who actually know how the government works, that’s a fireable offense.
Still, dropping Bannon and Kushner is not enough to make this White House the “fine-tuned machine” that Trump bragged about before replacing his chief of staff, national security adviser, communications director (two or three times), press secretary and others. But it will help contain the chaos and the damage that it can cause.
It’s also still the case that the US Congress, especially Republican senators, have a tremendous amount of leverage they could use if they wanted to. Technically, of course, the US Congress doesn’t have to appropriate any money at all for the White House staff. But even without threatening that drastic step, senators can -- and should -- threaten to shut down confirmation of some Trump executive branch nominees until he un-beclowns the White House staff.
Granted, hiring new qualified professionals may prove rather difficult for an administration with the reputation and (lack of) popularity of this one. But removing Bannon and Kushner (and some additional lower-level unqualified folks) would be addition by subtraction, even if they are replaced by empty desks.
By Jonathan Bernstein
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.