There is a famous, multipurpose Jewish story about a servant who brought his king rotten fish from the market, for which he was given the option of either eating the fish, getting lashed a hundred times or paying a heavy fine. He couldn’t quite finish the fish, begged for the lashes to stop when they reached 60 and ended up having to pay the entire fine. This, in a nutshell, is where Donald Trump found himself on Friday night following the publication of his decision to dismiss his strategic adviser, Steve Bannon.
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Trump just spent an entire week on the wrong side of racial politics in America, aggravating everyone on earth who doesn’t belong to the hard-core nucleus of his electoral base. His reactions to the violence in Charlottesville were rash, petulant and patently racist, but they did not rupture Trump’s ties to most of his core white voters, who either approved of his statements or could at least tolerate them. By firing their hero Bannon, however, Trump is chopping off his last solid branch of popular support. He risks being cast adrift, without an electoral leg to stand on.
Bannon’s removal could have made much more sense if it had occurred in conjunction, for example, with the dismissal of former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and his replacement by former Marines General John Kelly, less than three weeks ago. It could have been presented then as a dramatic realignment of Trump’s presidency and an abandonment of his romance with the kind of ultra-nationalist isolationism identified with Bannon. But after Trump’s half-hearted condemnation of the Charlottesville terror attack, his decision to vouch for some “fine people” marching among the Nazis and his obtuse regret over the removal of Confederate statues, Bannon’s departure will only accentuate the fact that Trump’s management style is even shakier than his substantive positions. Bannon’s critics will gloat over his ignominious sacking, but the dismissal won’t bring back any of the support that the president has lost in recent weeks.
No matter how they’ll be coated, Trump’s reasons for getting rid of Bannon seem more personal than political anyway, more an issue of Trump’s ego rather than a considered calibration of the White House staff. From the outset, Trump resented the implication that Bannon was the architect of his November 2016 electoral victory, which he ascribes mainly to himself. That original grudge fueled Trump’s growing annoyance with Bannon’s independent popularity, his constant Machiavellian efforts to undermine so-called globalists, moderates and White House interventionists, from Jared Kushner to HR McMaster, his far too cozy ties to the press, and possibly his opposition to Trump’s belligerent posture on North Korea, which he vented in his interview this week to the leftist American Prospect. That interview was initially seen as a possible cause for Bannon’s removal but it is likelier to have been a result of Bannon’s knowledge that his fate was already sealed.
Bannon’s removal will be seen as a victory for Kelly, who wanted him to leave along with Priebus and Anthony Scaramucci in the previous White House purge. It will alleviate internal pressures on McMaster, Kushner and the entire establishment wing of the Trump presidency. It might convince a few of the Republicans who had been willing to break with Trump over his handling of Charlottesville to wait a bit before making the divorce final. It will satisfy many American Jews, who viewed Bannon with distrust and saw him as a promoter of the kind of white nationalism they fear. It might disappoint some American Jewish ultra-conservatives, though they were wary of Bannon’s isolationism as well.
Bannon’s fans, those that have made Breitbart News so popular, will feel betrayed and hell hath no fury like radical right-wingers who feel scorned, and worse, that they’ve been played. Some of them will turn on Trump directly, others will direct their rage at the “globalists” who will now be portrayed as having taken over the White House. This is bad news for Jews, because the latent anti-Semites on the right will now be able to openly point fingers at Kushner and Ivanka Trump as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump’s main economic adviser Gary Cohn. They’ll just recite these names over and over again, and everyone will get the message.
What won’t change, unless miracles happen, is the trajectory of Trump’s perilous presidency, which has more to do with the significant flaws in character, personality and emotional stability, and less with his roster of advisers, which he replaces at a pace most people change their bed sheets anyway. Trump’s worst enemy is himself, and no White House shuffle can change that. Bannon’s departure, in fact, means that everyone’s favorite bogeyman won’t be there to obscure the inconvenient truth that the fish, to get back to our opening parable, is rotten from the very top.