The Insurgency and the Establishment: Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and the Battle for the Soul of the White House.

Posted on December 2, 2016 by

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Even though the long and bitter election campaign is over, the country remains more divided than ever before. Polling shows that ideological and political partisanship is high.

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This stark division is also reflected within the Republican Party. In many ways, Trump’s victory was a refutation of the power of the well-oiled (and well-funded) Republican political machine by an insurgent candidate outside of the establishment. The indignant cries of those in the “Never Trump” movement, including several prominent Republicans like the Bush family and Mitt Romneywere all for naught. While Republicans openly opposed to Trump already suffered an embarrassing loss, they are now in an unenviable position—  they can hunker down, remain quiet, and hope their disloyalty to the party is forgotten. On the other hand, they can swallow their pride and jostle for a position in Trump’s presidency. 

Now, as Trump selects the members of his future administration, this deep ideological division within the Republican Party still remains, and is most exemplified in the contrasting picks of Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.

Reince Priebus vs. Steve Bannon

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Trump, in a simultaneous announcement, picked Reince Priebus as his chief of staff and Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor. While Bannon was also considered for the same position, his choice of Priebus does indicate, to an extent, a willingness to work with the establishment. Priebus has been the chairman of the Republican National Committee since 2011. Before that, he was chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party. While never an elected official, he had a history of being a loyal Republican operative and was well-liked by the party.

A chief of staff is responsible for hiring and supervising much of the White House staff. In Priebus’s case, his many years within the establishment and close ties with Republicans indicate that with his oversight, the Trump team will hire experienced Republicans who would not have been out of place in a hypothetical Jeb Bush presidency. Priebus might also be able to smooth over tensions with many Republicans who tacitly or openly disapproved of Trump. Perhaps most importantly, it will be his job to make sure that Trump sees the big picture and that “…the urgent does not drive out the important.”

Despite the apparent sense of stability that Reince Priebus gives to this new administration, the appointment of Steve Bannon throws that view into disarray. Bannon’s appointment was announced at the same time as Priebus’s, suggesting an equivalence of power in their positions. Steve Bannon has run the far-right news website Breitbart for years and openly attacked establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan. The choice of Bannon signals an acceptance of views that are conspiracy-mongering, racist, sexist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic, to name a few. This grassroots fringe movement was also unified in its support of Trump. Steve Bannon has openly declared that “[Breitbart] is the platform of the alt-right.”  The original founder of the site, Andrew Breitbart, was said to despise racism. However, under Bannon’s direction, the website has openly embraced white nationalism by providing a space for it, though Bannon denies this.

“Look, are there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right? Maybe,” he says. “Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe. Right? Maybe some people are attracted to the alt-right that are homophobes, right? But that’s just like, there are certain elements of the progressive left and the hard left that attract certain elements.”

– Steve Bannon, in an interview with Mother Jones

Trump’s dual picks of Priebus and Bannon suggest that there may be two rival centers of power in his administration. As the New York Times pointed out, Trump’s decision to structure his administration this way is not without precedent. The simultaneous announcement and competing lines of authority are consistent with Mr. Trump’s management style in his businesses and in his campaign: creating rival power structures beneath him and encouraging them to battle it out.” 

Trump’s leadership style has always been divisive and this may affect his political appointments.

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Source: Chris Keane / Randall Hill / Reuters / Scott Olson / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Priebus can mollify the worried Republican establishment, who saw their party thrown into chaos and upheaval during the campaign. On the other hand, Bannon’s appointment is a major win for the alt-right, a group that openly attacked establishment Republicans and espouses views considered unpalatable in the mainstream. While Bannon and Priebus have both pledged to work together, some Republican commentators, like David Frum, suggest that the split is irreconcilable and will result in a third party.

It remains to be seen how this will play out once Trump takes office, but this potentially split administration reflects a divided Republican Party, on top of a country that is already politically fractured.

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