WASHINGTON - The announcement of Donald Trump’s first two appointments to the White House on Sunday elicited a classic double take. At first, when the networks only reported that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus would be White House Chief of Staff, politicians and pundits sighed in collective relief and sounded the all clear. This proves that Trump is going to be a more conventional president than previously expected, and that he would work closely with the Republican Congress. A short while later, it turned out that Trump was also appointing his controversial campaign director and former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon as his “chief strategist” – whatever that means – setting off full throttle, five-bell alarms. This proves that Trump is out of control and that, as presidents go, he will be a pyromaniac.
Both could be true. Since his election, Trump has been dancing in several weddings at once, speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He is the firebrand outsider and the billionaire insider. He is the intolerant rabble-rouser who incites against rivals on Twitter, but also the sober politician who understands that it’s time to stop the shenanigans and get down to the serious business of running America. In short, he is Dr. Priebus and Mr. Bannon, all at the same time.
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Some of Trump’s acquaintances from the business world say this is the way he runs his affairs – letting his aides and advisers fight it out in front of him before making up his mind. Others claim it’s only natural for Trump to want to keep the people who gave him his stupendous victory by his side, because if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Then there is the version that the seemingly contradictory appointments reflect Trump’s shock and confusion at winning the election in the first place. And then there’s the master plan theory, by which Trump will try to be all things to all people, so that everyone stays happy. And then there is the truth, which is that no one really knows.
Trump was indeed all over the place in his interview on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night. He’ll can Obamacare, but not so much. He’ll build a wall with Mexico, but it could also be a fence. He’s not as enthusiastic as he was about appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton, who, along with Bill, are “good people” after all. Trump assures minorities they have nothing to worry about, save perhaps for the three million illegal immigrants he plans to deport overnight. He says the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage is the end of the line as far as he’s concerned, but Roe v. Wade, for some reason, is open to change.
Trump’s advisers complained Monday about the fact the media was ignoring all this and focusing only on Bannon. But Trump should be the first to know that rage and bad news that create social media storms easily trump staid, run-of-the-mill good news. Thus, Bannon grabbed all the headlines and his appointment sparked rage that seemed to be growing exponentially, while Priebus gradually faded into the background. The fact that Priebus is an establishment type with close ties to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who he knows from their days in the Wisconsin GOP – and who can renew the collaboration between the White House and Congress that disappeared during Obama’s tenure – could not compete with the astonishment and revulsion sparked by the appointment of Bannon, widely seen as a symbol of the dark and unseemly underbelly of Trump’s campaign. Very few news editors will prefer the headline “Trump acting responsibly” over “Trump brings racism to White House.”
As CEO of Breitbart, Bannon was portrayed as one of the godfathers of the radical alt-right movement, which includes prominent racist and anti-Semitic elements. Under his management, Breitbart became the vehicle for the most lurid slurs against Obama and center stage for anti-immigration and white supremacist ideologies. The site was accused once or twice of publishing anti-Semitic stories, a claim it denied, but it certainly promoted conspiracy theories that seemed to be lifted from the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” about an international cabal of mysterious financiers out to take over the world. This theme also cropped up in Trump’s speeches during the latter part of his election campaign.
Bannon was also tarred as anti-Semitic by his former wife, who claimed during their divorce proceedings that he didn’t like Jews and refused to send his children to a private school that had too many Jews – lest they become whiny brats, just like them.
Bannon’s appointment sparked howls of protest across the political spectrum, including from some Republicans who recall that he had vowed to destroy the GOP establishment and liquidate Ryan’s political career. But the reaction was probably strongest in the American Jewish community, already reeling from anti-Semitic expressions by Trump and his campaign, as well as what seemed to be a spike in anti-Semitic incidents throughout the United States. The appointment of a white supremacist anti-Semite to the White House seemed to confirm their worst fears about the tone and direction of Trump’s White House. It is the stuff of which Jewish nightmares are made.
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Of course, Bannon was part and parcel of Trump’s campaign staff and is said to have masterminded the tactics that turned the race in Trump’s favor. And Trump’s denials notwithstanding, Bannon’s anti-immigrant, anti-minority and anti-Jewish profile was repeatedly reflected in the campaign’s own rhetoric and in its refusal to completely disown the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups that came out in support of Trump. So even if Trump intends to play both sides of the fence, Bannon is firmly ensconced in at least one of them. This is what the American people elected, and this is what America and the rest of the world will have to live with over the next four years. God help us all.