The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 35 – This week:
- Lesson from Alabama: Trump’s endorsement matters.
- Steve Bannon is out; he left a permanent mark on American politics
- Charlottesville fallout.
White House turnover: Steve Bannon is out. Take it as one more reminder that the Trump administration burns hot and bright. The departure of so many top administration figures from the beginning — Mike Flynn, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, and Steve Bannon — is unusual this early, and obviously reflects a certain degree of tumult in the administration. But the more recent departures might actually reflect a shift to a more orderly White House.
Trump’s new chief of staff, retired Gen. John Kelly, has clearly been given latitude by the president to impose some degree of order amid the chaos. This obviously explained the departure of Scaramucci, who arguably outshone Trump himself in terms of flamboyancy and outrage.
Bannon’s departure is different from the others in that he played such a large role in Trump’s electoral success (and in fact his bragging about this might have cost him Trump’s trust, but it’s true). Trump embraced the populist-nationalist message that Bannon had honed and market-tested through journalism, attempting (with success) to shift the conservative movement away from the dogmatism and ideological purity for which it had seemed destined as recently as 2014, and toward positions with a more robust appeal to lower-income workers. This was perfect for Trump, whose ideology is fuzzy but who had been experimenting with many such ideas (including trade skepticism) since at least 2012.
Bannon’s Breitbart news site was thus the perfect vehicle to rally for Trumpism. And although no one believed a Republican could succeed with the Democratic-leaning voters that Bannon’s philosophy targeted, Trump did exactly that. Bannon may be out of the White House already, but he has left an enduring mark on American politics that will remain extremely controversial. Although Bannon has denied any desire to give aid or comfort to white nationalists, the Bannon-esque ideology appeals to the fringes. The victory of an economic nationalist message has obviously emboldened not just the desirable low-income worker and the trade skeptic, but also elements on the far Right that are overtly racist and even violent in their aims. A charitable reading of this suggests that this was bound to happen with the right mixture of traditional conservatism and Democratic-sounding economic ideas. A less charitable reading, backed up by Bannon’s stated commitment to appeal to the “alt-right,” hints at something more sinister.
Kelly’s job is not an easy, even if Trump trusts him absolutely. That’s because some of Trump’s image problems, such as those associated with his response to the situation in Charlottesville, cannot be fixed with a simple change of personnel. Trump had been given a speech to deliver that probably wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows — it was his impromptu addition of a few words seemingly parceling out the blame equally between Nazis and (also violent) leftists for the death and injuries that occurred there, which created all of the controversy.
And this just goes with the territory. Trump’s true intentions can only be guessed at, but the fact that Trump will be Trump is an absolute and immutable fact. He himself cannot be replaced, and he relishes the chance to pop off in whatever way the media will find outrageous.
Still Trump’s GOP: The stunning result in last Tuesday’s Alabama Republican primary demonstrates one thing: President Trump’s endorsement still goes a long way with Republican voters.
Appointed Sen. Luther Strange, R, had been struggling in the polls, and seemed destined for a close finish for second place. He needed to edge out Rep. Mo Brooks, R, in order to make the September runoff against the all-along-certain first-place finisher, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore (of Ten Commandments fame).
In the end, Trump’s late and full-throated endorsement — which included a big minute-long robo-call on Strange’s behalf — propelled Strange to an unexpectedly strong 33 percent finish. That put him 13 points ahead of Brooks and only 6 points behind Moore.
The difference between the result and the late polls suggests that Trump’s backing really did have an effect on primary voters’ thinking. And in all likelihood, Brooks’ attacks on Trump from during the 2016 primary did not help his cause.
Strange had the Washington party establishment behind him. Not only did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s SuperPAC throw millions into the race, but the NRSC also threatened to blacklist campaign consultants and vendors working with Brooks. Even though Strange had never won an election, and was in fact appointed in a process that many Alabamians viewed as tainted by the corruption of former Gov. Robert Bentley, he was treated as a full-fledged incumbent. And his opponents were treated as party pariahs.
It will be the same going forward to the runoff, of course. According to one of the late polls (which, in fairness, underestimated Strange in round one), Moore begins that race with a substantial but not insurmountable 45 to 34 percent lead.
Strange’s chances of placing first are probably better in a head-to-head with Moore than they were in round one. Moore is a well-known and controversial figure in the state. But Moore has a strong religious Right base and can’t be counted out, especially starting with a lead. And it’s hard to like the chances of any incumbent who gets only 33 percent in Round One. If Brooks’ voters already chose against the establishment favorite, what are the odds they will cross over in the second round to a candidate they viewed as ethically compromised in the first?
One factor likely to help Strange: Brooks, who savaged Strange over ethics issues throughout the first round, is staying neutral in the runoff. He plans to run for re-election to his House seat.
Utah-3: Another bit of election news, less surprising: Provo Mayor John Curtis, R, won his primary for the seat of retired Rep. Jason Chaffetz. His election on November 7 is about as close to a sure thing as you’ll see in politics.
Virginia: The Charlottesville tragedy is a wide-ranging political event, involving not only the one death and 20 injuries, but also the fact that a historic college town like this one would become the locus for neo-Nazi protestors, plus Trump’s poorly received response to the events.
From a cold-blooded political perspective, the fear among Republicans in the Old Dominion is that the events of the weekend before last will dramatically change the turnout equation. Republican nominee Ed Gillespie has been trailing only in the single digits against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, but Trump’s high-profile involvement in a major piece of Virginia news like this one could energize the Left. Gillespie has taken a nuanced, almost Cuomo-esque position on the issue of removing Confederate statues: He is personally opposed to removing them, but local communities should make the decision for themselves. In today’s Virginia, dominated by D.C. suburbs that don’t share much love for the Old South, this may not be a politically helpful position to take.
Virginia is one of those states where Trump did not do especially well, losing by five points where Mitt Romney had lost by only four. To be sure, a different electorate tends to turn out in governors’ races, but to the extent that Charlottesville affects the race, it’s probably not to Gillespie’s benefit.