Just seven months into the job, Donald Trump’s term in the White House already seems to have hit a dead end. Unable to push through any major legislation and no longer on speaking terms with the Senate Majority Leader, the president has been left isolated and increasingly irate. Able to rely on only a handful of close advisers, friends and family, Trump is sorely lacking any sort of clear vision or plan. It has left him doing what he does best: bullying people into doing what he wants.
Trump may not want to admit it, but intellectuals and academics have been a mainstay of Republican administrations since Richard Nixon, and the role they play in helping to form clear strategies is a vitally important one.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard professor and right-wing Democrat, was influential as a counsellor to Nixon during the president’s first year in charge, whilst Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan both also benefitted from close ties to the conservative intelligentsia. Ford famously hired Robert Goldwin as his “intellectual-in-residence”, tasking the political scientist with the job of organising dinners and seminars involving many of the right’s best and brightest minds. This not only helped Ford craft his own coherent strategy but also allowed Goldwin to articulate the president’s ideas to those men and women in the upper echelons of American academia. The professor’s job was two-fold, and incredibly important.
Even George W. Bush - often painted as a bumbling idiot but surprisingly smart - understood the importance of using bright intellectual minds to formulate policy through the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives. He clearly learnt from his father, whose apathy towards conservative thinkers would prove to be a costly mistake, denying him the opportunity to run for a second term.
For nearly a year, Steve Bannon acted as Trump’s closest intellectual adviser, despite being a far from traditional figure lacking concrete relationships with the main conservative think tanks. The executive chairman of Breitbart News represented Trump's link to his supporter base, helping to create and articulate a relatively coherent list of policies and aims. The populist firebrand was the president’s main “ideas man”, helping to reach out to those conservative thinkers who, from the early days of Trump’s campaign, had shown an interest in what was being espoused by the billionaire businessman.
It’s somewhat ironic that the quintessential anti-establishment figure would perform such a traditional role in the least establishment-friendly White House in living memory, but that’s exactly what Bannon did. He may have lacked a PhD and a job in academia but the former Goldman Sachs investment banker gave a sense of purpose and vision to a president severely lacking in either.
Bluster and bravado can only get you so far, as Trump is now finding out.
With Bannon out of the door and back at Breitbart, who is to be Trump’s new ideas man? As was once again on show this week, the president continues to be a Jekyll and Hyde character that an increasing number of Americans are finding hard to stomach. One minute (as was the case when he announced an increase in military support to Afghanistan), Trump is parroting the advice given to him by his top military advisers; the next, he’s blasting the “crooked media” for their “deceptions”.
As much as some of his supporters might enjoy Trump’s frequent outbursts, no president can govern on anger alone. At some point, they’ve got to do what they were put in the White House to achieve - namely push through policies that matter to voters. The worry for those sympathetic to Trump is that Bannon’s dismissal has left the president clueless and directionless, the captain of a sinking ship who has no interest in learning how the controls work. He seems content to continue shouting as the waves drag him under.
Of course, this is not to say that Bannon was the perfect adviser, nor an entirely convincing intellectual-in-residence, but he did help create an academic understanding of what can loosely be termed “Trumpism”. Now that he has gone, can anyone say with any certainty what it is that Trump stands for, or how he is going to be able to bring about the change that his support base so desperately craves? He clearly enjoys running the show on his own terms, but he lacks the intellectual rigour and political know-how to govern effectively.
What Bannon’s removal does do is present Trump with an opportunity to heal the broken relationship between himself and the Republican establishment. He and Mitch McConnell are said to be no longer talking to one another, whilst Paul Ryan has become increasingly critical of Trump’s behaviour in recent weeks, leaving the president resorting to threats in an attempt to achieve any sort of legislative wins.
Whoever Trump brings in to replace Bannon, he needs to make sure it is someone with which senior Republicans can work effectively. As long as his relationship with the Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House of Representatives remains so fraught, he has no hope of driving through the few policies on which he has staked his political reputation.
A more traditional, establishment-friendly conservative thinker could help repair the damage done by the president, but such an appointment risks alienating his base by straying too far away from the hard-right populist rhetoric that put him in the White House. Nonetheless, it’s clearly the sensible and politically savvy thing to do, but Trump has never been either of those things.
So, if that isn’t a viable option, where does it leave him? Trump could, and, at this stage, most likely will, continue down his favoured path of indignation and fury, blasting his opponents for obstructing the “will of the people” whilst remaining blissfully unaware of his own shortcomings.
Or, he could once again recruit from the populist right in an attempt to shore up his supporter base. This would please his main backers but would do little to increase Republican confidence heading into next year’s midterms. Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters aren’t going anywhere, but moderate GOP voters are certainly starting to tire of the president’s antics. Without them, he’s doomed next time around.
Who - if anyone - Trump chooses to replace Bannon will hint at what the next three years could have in store for America’s increasingly beleaguered leader. With seven months on the clock, Trump has achieved little of note, leaving him increasingly alone in a White House he is struggling to control. His term in office still has a long way to go, but we could be starting to witness the beginnings of the end.