How to make sense of Trump v Trumpism

The struggle between the Bannon and Kushner factions is about more than dynasty
 
PROXIMITY to power does not make Washington, DC, a kindly place. Like medieval peasants watching knights joust, the yokels and churls of the political village—lobbyists, consultants or (hold your nose) journalists—may nod and gawp at the mighty, but their hope is to see one grandee thwack another into the mud.

These are, therefore, heady times in the nation’s capital. Two powerful men, Stephen Bannon, chief strategist to President Donald Trump, and Jared Kushner, a senior adviser, have been jousting for weeks, exchanging sword-swipes and lance-blows via leaks and briefings in the press. Still more blissfully for spectators, Mr Kushner is the president’s son-in-law: the boyish, dashing heir to a family of property tycoons and Democratic donors, and husband to Mr Trump’s daughter and trusted counsellor, Ivanka. His rival, Mr Bannon, is older and angrier: a grizzled champion of America First nationalism.

This White House tourney is usually presented as a clash of partisan ideology or as a human melodrama. Some complaints from the Kushner camp certainly ring with dynastic alarm. The ultimate argument against Mr Bannon, one unnamed source told the Washington Post, is that his hardline, fire-up-the-faithful brand of politics “isn’t making ‘Dad’ look good”. For their part, Bannonites inside government and their cheerleaders in the conservative media like to paint Mr Kushner as a closet liberal, undercutting Mr Trump’s historic populist victory. Their ire also takes in Ivanka, as well as Gary Cohn, the president’s national economics adviser, and Dina Powell, a deputy national security adviser, both of them veterans of Goldman Sachs, a bank (to complicate matters, Mr Bannon also once worked for Goldman Sachs, but more recently earned notoriety as the rumpled, combative boss of Breitbart, a hard-right news outlet).

When briefing against the Kushner faction, the Bannon camp uses such slurs as “the Democrats”, “the New Yorkers” or “the globalists”. Mr Kushner and his elegantly tailored friends are charged with being squeamish about immigration, too eager to see America play global policeman in Syria and peacemaker in the Middle East, and willing to give a hearing to Democratic experts on such subjects as health policy or climate change. Bannonites, Democrats and pundits have mocked Mr Kushner for the range of his responsibilities. The president’s son-in-law is charged with overseeing everything from Middle East peace to relations with Canada, Mexico and China, and reorganising the federal government using lessons from business.

But to cast these fights as a clash between left and right, or even as palace intrigues, is to miss the whole story. The semi-public combat between Mr Bannon and Mr Kushner rests on an argument about something much larger: namely, the purpose of Mr Trump’s presidency itself.

For Mr Bannon, the point of winning the 2016 election was to advance a cause, which history may in time call Trumpism. A former naval officer from a blue-collar family in Virginia, he spent years studying theories of how societies collapse. He has made several lurid, doomy films alleging that working families have been sold out by rootless, corrupt elites, who stood by and profited as immigrants flooded in. Other works lamented the collapse of Judaeo-Christian values in the American heartland. Mr Bannon saw before many others on the hard right that Mr Trump might not be a conventional conservative, but still “intuitively” grasped the power of economic populism. On joining the government as the president’s ideologue-in-chief, Mr Bannon pasted specific promises made in Trump campaign speeches on the walls of his West Wing office. Those promises cover everything from border security to global trade and an assault on regulations and the federal agencies that write them, through what Mr Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state”.

Addressing conservatives in February, the strategist assured them that, whenever establishment types try to lure Mr Trump away from that radical agenda, “He’s like: ‘No, I promised the American people this, and this is the plan we’re going to execute on’.”
 
During the election Mr Bannon bonded with Mr Kushner in their shared contempt for professional campaign consultants. To hear Mr Kushner describe it, the Trump campaign resembled a disruptive startup, full of tech whizzes with “nontraditional” backgrounds outside politics. Addressing New York business bosses in December, Mr Kushner explained how the campaign exposed him to the anger of Americans who feel ignored by their government. He realised that he lived in a “bubble” of elite opinions about such subjects as immigration or the environment.

“I like Steve, but...”
 
However, Mr Kushner differs in at least one important way from Mr Bannon. He acts as if the last election was a victory for a man called Trump, not a movement called Trumpism. Shortly after the election Mr Kushner told Forbes magazine that his father-in-law transcends party labels, with policies offering “a blend of what works, and eliminating what doesn’t work.”

Both men entered the White House rooting for Mr Trump to prove critics wrong. But if Mr Trump prospers by breaking every campaign promise, Mr Bannon’s nationalist cause will have been betrayed. The strategist has survived until now by telling Mr Trump he can help him keep those pledges, shoring up his most loyal bases of support. Yet over time, history suggests that seeking to bind Mr Trump with his own words is a losing gambit.

The logic of Mr Kushner’s family first pragmatism is simpler: Americans will thank Mr Trump if his policies improve their lives. For now both men offer the president possible paths to success. At some point their visions will prove incompatible—hence recent rumours, fuelled by Mr Trump, that Mr Bannon may be sacked. The prize being fought over is the president’s legacy. That is a contest not everyone can survive.

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