Yesterday, President-elect Donald J. Trump announced his first staff appointments since his election victory, appointing Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff, and appointing Stephen Bannon as his Chief Strategist. These two were both thought to be strongly in the running for a position in the Trump administration and therefore their appointment is not much of a surprise, however, that Trump chose them to fulfil these roles does suggest a fair bit about the direction that his Presidency will take.
Throughout the election campaign, Trump spoke of his disdain for Washington insiders, and pledged that he would ‘drain the swamp’ of special interests and D.C. insiders. However, the appointment of Reince Priebus to such a key position flies straight in the face of this. Priebus is arguably the ultimate Washington (or at least GOP) insider. He has been chair of the RNC since 2011, and previously was RNC general counsel and chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, with his work for the GOP in Wisconsin meaning he has strong connections with the likes of Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Given Trump’s rhetoric around ‘draining the swamp’ of political insiders, you would have thought that the selection of Priebus to such a key role would have provoked anger amongst some of Trump’s most keen supporters — and you would be correct. However, the selection of Priebus could well have done a fair amount the placate those parts of the GOP who are extremely wary about the prospect of a Trump Presidency, given the extreme rhetoric that characterised his campaign. The feeling amongst moderate Republicans may well be that Priebus will add some moderation into Trump’s thinking, whilst his excellent relationships with Congressional leadership should help the Trump administration get their legislation through Congress — as long as it isn’t too extreme that is. Some have likened his role to that of Andy Card who served as White House Chief of Staff for five years during the George W. Bush administration.
Whilst he will have disappointed some of his most keen supporters with the hiring of party insider Priebus as Chief of Staff, Trump then hired the opposite for the role of Chief Strategist: Steve Bannon. Bannon is the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, the conservative news website, which aligns with the extreme ‘alt-right’ in much of its coverage. The appointment of Bannon is likely to worry much of the Republican establishment as he is an avowed enemy of Paul Ryan, and has led a campaign through Breitbart to unseat him as Speaker of the House. In addition, and very worryingly, he has long been criticised for pandering to white supremacism and the ‘alt-right’.
Media coverage of Bannon’s appointment has variously described him as being along the lines of a ‘right-wing provocateur’, and ‘anti-establishment populist’. Whilst these descriptions are both true, they don’t go far enough by any means. Following news of the appointment, John Weaver tweeted, “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America.” Weaver is an experienced Republican strategist who held key roles on John Kasich campaign for the Presidency, and on John McCain’s campaigns in 2000 and 2008, so not simply a diehard liberal with a trivial complaint — Bannon genuinely is an extreme right-winger. This is why his appointment to Trump’s White House team has got people so worried.
Many people (in particular many Republicans) have brushed off the appointment of Bannon, and suggested that as Priebus technically holds the number one role on the White House staff, Bannon won’t hold much influence over policy. However, this is likely to be wrong. To go back to the comparison of Priebus with Andy Card, at the same time that Card was Chief of Staff, Karl Rove served as ‘Senior Advisor to the President’. This role was effectively the same as the Chief Strategist role which Bannon now fills. Everyone knows that although Card served as Bush’s gatekeeper, it was Karl Rove who had significantly more influence on the policy direction of the Bush administration. Although the appointment of Priebus and Bannon was accompanied by a description of the two as ‘equals’, don’t be surprised if Bannon has considerably more influence on policy direction than Priebus, with Priebus included more for his links with Congressional Republicans (which can help get Trump’s policy through Congress) than anything else.
Ultimately, the appointment of both Priebus and Bannon looks to be an attempt by Trump to straddle the divide between the Republican establishment and the populist wave which took him into the White House. This balancing act was evident this weekend as Trump alternated between tweeting about the constructive conversations that he’d had with GOP elders like John Kasich and Mitt Romney, and railing against the election coverage of the New York Times.
What side of the dividing line his policy will fall on is perhaps more uncertain.
However, the fact that he has chosen to appoint Bannon to a White House position at all, suggests that despite the more moderate notes which he has been trying to hit in recent days, Trump intends to pursue at least some of the right-wing populist policies which took him into the White House, perhaps even some of the most extreme ones. The appointment of Bannon should worry everyone, the world over.