Jonathan Bernstein: B annon’s chaos had no place at White House

August 20, 2017

The most important thing to know about Steve Bannon, the departing White House “chief strategist,” is that he was an amateur. And just as Richard Neustadt tells us that the presidency is no place for amateurs, the same is true for White House senior staffers. The most important thing to know about Donald Trump’s first staff is that the actor — and activist — Kal Penn, who was part of yet another advisory group which collapsed on Friday, has more White House experience than Bannon and the following people combined:

- Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

- Former communications directors Anthony Scaramucci and Mike Dubke.

- Current communications director Hope Hicks.

- Former and current press secretaries Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

- Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, whatever it is they do.

In fact, leave out the press secretaries and Penn had more White House experience than they had in combined experience in any position in government.

That was a formula for disaster that was perfectly predictable. As far as what type of amateur Bannon was? He’s best thought of not in terms of whatever goals he might have, but in terms of the means he embraced.

He’s an amateur Newt Gingrich.

But where Gingrich’s operating principle was to blow up specific government institutions in order to achieve some harebrained future utopia, Bannon seems to believe in blowing up the whole nation.

Gingrich, alas, was very good at destruction; the House still suffers from his legacy. Bannon? Much less so. The “administrative state” hasn’t been “deconstructed,” whatever that was supposed to mean. Sure, the Republicans who made it into executive branch departments and agencies are shifting policies, perhaps in the direction Bannon may want, but that’s just normal functioning of government in a system of separated institutions sharing powers. The government continues to govern.

It’s almost certainly true that Bannon made things worse by encouraging Trump’s worst impulses. But no one thinks those impulses weren’t there in the first place, or that Trump was any good at impulse control even in the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, Bannon will almost certainly remain on Trump’s speed-dial and continue to be a destructive influence on him.

Still, it’s better to have as many amateurs out of the White House as possible, and as many of those who have Bannon’s destructive influence out of the White House. The truth is that the Gingrich/Bannon idea of destroying government to create something else just doesn’t work. All it does is to weaken democracy and the nation.

Like Gingrich, Bannon’s greatest real achievement was claiming credit for a shocking surprise of an election result which he did little to actually produce. Like Gingrich, Bannon will stick around forever because there will always be people who want to ascribe electoral wins to the genius of some operative, no matter how firmly they demonstrate that they had no such brilliance. So we’re stuck with him, and his destructive impulses, for some time to come. But he’s a lot safer outside of the White House.

Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University.

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