How Trump is 'leading from behind' chief strategist Steve Bannon
© Getty

As President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPatagonia files suit against Trump cuts to Utah monuments Former Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report Eighth Franken accuser comes forward as Dems call for resignation MORE entered into military operations in Libya in 2011, one of his advisors used the phrase “lead from behind” to describe the American approach.  At the time, critics charged that such an approach was fundamentally flawed because it gives others permission to lead.

After watching the horrific white-nationalist, neo-nazi terrorist acts unfold in Charlottesville, Va., one probably could use this same phrase to describe President Donald Trump’s approach to this crisis: Trump is “leading from behind”… from behind White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.  

ADVERTISEMENT
And Trump’s “leading from behind” approach has had a horrific effect. People like neo-nazis, white nationalists, and modern secessionists are taking the permission and are leading our country in a direction that, I fear, is putting our Republic at risk.

As we continue to watch President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE lead from behind Bannon, we have gained two critical insights into the internal power dynamics of the Trump White House:

  1. Steve Bannon’s worldview ascended in the midst of this crisis — as reflected through Trump’s first statement; and
  2. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s influence remains, at best, in its nascency — as reflected through Donald Trump’s follow-up statement a full two days later — and arguably is already waning given Trump’s press conference on Wednesday.  

Much has been written about the imminent demise of Steve Bannon.  And, yet, he has survived. I have believed that Bannon will only be fired if he ends up “hanging himself,” making his presence fundamentally untenable for the president. After all, he presents a deep risk to the Trump presidency if outside the White House. The only other circumstance in which I believed Steve Bannon would leave is if he can be assured that his policies and worldview will live on.

That is, at least, until I read about Bannon’s phone call with Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect.    

There are a few notable points from this interview. First, it was with the American Prospect, a liberal media outlet and outside of Bannon’s usual media milieu. Second, the phone call included a lay down of Bannon’s perspective on everything that is happening — from ethno-nationalism (“it’s losers”), to Trump’s nuclear saber-rattling (“no military solution — they got us”), to economic war with China (“[it’s] everything”). And third, it was supposedly an “off-the-record” conversation that Bannon, a longtime player in the media, surely knew would be published.  

These features of this remarkable phone call tell us three things:

  1. Bannon is reaching out to the left and highlighting ideological alignment — perhaps for his next gig?
  2. Bannon is putting “on-the-record” his views on big, controversial topics — perhaps for his legacy?  And
  3. He surely knew the conversation would get out there — perhaps seeking an ally from the left by giving Kuttner the scoop? (Just look at the liberal-leaning Slate Magazine’s reaction: “Steve Bannon gives an interview that makes him look suspiciously sane.”)

Trump certainly knows the deep damage that Bannon and his cadre can do to the Trump presidency — it’s all the support he has at this point.

So, perhaps one of Trump’s goals at the Wednesday press conference was to provide himself cover with “Bannon evangelists” on the outside so that he can let Bannon go without losing their support.  

Ann Coulter’s reaction following the Trump presser may show the effect that Trump was going for:

The big takeaway here is that it doesn’t matter if Trump fires Bannon soon. He may have sufficiently ensured that his worldview is not going anywhere — regardless of what Generals Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster want. Bannon and his allies have gotten Trump to fully commit to the “Bannon base” at this point — completely limiting his ability to broaden his support. 

So perhaps it is time for these three general officers, with stellar reputations, to resign. If not, they too will be “leading from behind” — because staying on will give Donald Trump permission to continue along his destructive path.

Moreover, the likelihood that Bannon’s worldview lives on only increases when one considers the broader political context. President Trump has no major legislative achievements and failed to repeal and replace ObamaCare. He only has a total political loser (debt ceiling) and political Hail Mary’s (tax reform and infrastructure spending) from here on out. Sad!  

The safe bet is that the debt ceiling is raised and none of these other legislative actions are achieved. Democrats and key Republicans have demonstrated an unwillingness to work with Trump. Why would that change at this point?  

So, with Trump backed into this corner, what’s his next move? It’s simple really: Continue to portray Democrats as obstructionists; incite all out warfare within the GOP; and deliver more “Bannon-ism” to rally the troops.  

Trump’s latest campaign ad says as much — labeling all who are opposing his agenda as “enemies.”  

You think 2017 was bad. You haven’t seen anything yet. Just wait for 2018. Next year will be an election season in which the GOP theme will be “every man for himself,” including Donald Trump.

So, what does this all mean?

The GOP, as we know it, is dead. And our Republic is at risk. We remain a fragile country. The sacred social compact that provides the juice for our democratic Republic to work is fraying and beginning to spark.  

Sadly, more scenes like Charlottesville will occur because Trump has set out a nefarious trap in our fragile society. By continuing to condemn violence “on both sides,” this may actually incite new violence.

Those on the far left are enraged about what happened at Charlottesville and now, with the president establishing a moral equivalency between the anti-fascist victims and the white-nationalist aggressors, this may be enough to incite leftist groups to strike back. When one perceives the system is rigged against you — a notion further validated by the person who holds the highest office in the land — that may be all that is needed to move an individual, or a group, to retaliate violently. Then Trump will say “I told you so.”  

Tell me how this ends. I fear the response.

The removal of Bannon does not change any of the risks to our the country. Trump “leading from behind” has permitted uncontrollable, negative forces to be unleashed into our society.

Some will say that there have been many other times in our history when our Republic was at much greater risk. I will concede that point. However, there is a fundamental difference between those times and now.

Sadly, today, we don’t have the leadership to see us through.

Alex Gallo served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee. He is a West Point graduate, a combat veteran, and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. His work has been published by The Washington Post, National Review, The Huffington Post, The Hill, and Foreign Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @AlexGalloUSA.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.