For a frantic few days last week, palace intrigue consumed Trump’s White House, pitting trusted advisors against one another in a stand-off that threatened to end the brief, D.C. career of Trump’s fiery popularizer, Stephen Bannon.
Tensions have since eased, after what must have been an uncomfortable sit-down between Bannon and his chief rival, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
But the pecking order has clearly changed. Bannon has lost his seat on the National Security Council, while his personal policy shop was cast into oblivion (seriously, the White House claims it never existed). Meanwhile, Kushner has been given an impossibly-broad list of tasks to oversee, including brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, streamlining the federal bureaucracy, and solving the opioid crisis.
The big question, however, is whether this is about personality, politics, or something else. It’s possible that Kushner’s rise signals a shift from Bannon’s ferocious anti-establishment populism. But that’s not the only interpretation. This shift in power could also be about family loyalty, given that Kushner is hardly an exemplar of insider Washington.
What’s more, there’s an underappreciated risk in all this. Bannon has a powerful vision of his own and strong connection with Breitbart, which he could potentially use against Trump if he feels slighted. That might not amount to much, compared to the full communications resources at Trump’s command, but Breitbart has become a powerful player in the right-wing media landscape, and Trump is surely not eager to see himself painted as a candidate who promised to drain the swamp and ended up getting mired in it.
Trump the insider
One way to make sense of all the White Housing scuffling is to think of it as an ideological battle between the populists who shaped candidate Trump and the insiders at the president’s ear.
As a shorthand, it’s the “swamp drains you” theory of the Trump presidency.
Here’s the basic issue: D.C. belongs to insiders. By definition, they have a near-monopoly on D.C. experience, so new presidents eager to navigate the federal bureaucracy need to rely on guidance from those in the know.
But this guidance is bound to reflect conventional, inside-the-beltway wisdom — after all, it’s being offered by insiders. So day by day, decision by decision, Trump has to make this choice: side with the outsiders who speak for his base or the insiders who know how to get things done.
And increasingly, he seems to be choosing the insider lane.
Take his military strike against Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria. It was widely, if sometimes cautiously supported among leaders in D.C.. But it infuriated many of Trump’s hard-line populist supporters, who saw it as a betrayal of his “America first” rhetoric — not to mention his belated denunciation of the Iraq war, and his fierce attacks on Hillary Clinton’s long record of support for military engagement.
On trade too, Trump seems to have let go his fervid campaign pledges to levy tariffs on close trading partners like China and Mexico. And that may well reflect the preferences of his new economic team, which includes a host of staunch free traders, desperate to keep Trump from threatening the global economic order.
Or look at shifts in personnel. When Trump came to D.C., he nominated a controversial outsider to run the National Security Council, namely Michael Flynn (now notorious for his meetings with the Russian ambassador, his resignation, and his efforts to get immunity).
But Flynn’s replacement, H.R. McMaster, is very much a creature of the establishment, a widely-respected active-duty military officer who seems to be slowly consolidating his power, including winning a long battle to finally remove one of his Flynn’s hand-picked deputies from her post.
Trump the nepotist
There is one major problem with this theory that the shakings in D.C. reflect Trump’s slow shift towards more orthodox positions. Kushner, the man who seems to be accumulating the most power inside the White House, is hardly a conventional figure.
He is just a different kind of outsider — at least as unfamiliar with D.C. as Bannon, but without any clear ideological agenda (Kushnerdabbled in Democratic politics until quite recently.)
Over time, Kushner may well prove himself competent, exceptional even, but for now his real virtue seems to be his perceived loyalty to Trump, made taut by the filial bond.
And this theory, too, has its corroborating evidence. Ivanka Trump, Kushner’s wife and Trump’s daughter, has also taken on a broader advising role, complete with a new office in the West Wing.
So in this telling, the reason Kushner’s stock is on the rise has nothing to do with Trump’s slow embrace of the establishment. To the contrary, it’s a kind of extreme retrenchment. Faced with the morass of D.C., Trump may have decided that the best way to pursue his “America first” platform is by putting family first in the White House.
Trump the vulnerable
If the sparks fly again, and Bannon is ultimately forced out of the White House in disgrace or defiance, it’s possible Trump will come to regret it.
While at Breitbart, Bannon helped to open the divide in the Republican Party that Trump ultimately walked through: the divide between traditional small-government conservativsm and Trump’s “America first” populism. (And Breitbart is no trivial media player. On social media, in particular, Breitbart seeds its messages very effectively.)
So if Bannon feels spurned, he has a powerful apparatus he can use to fight back.
Of course, there are a lot of assumptions involved here: Bannon leaves, Bannon is bitter, Bannon returns to Breitbart, Bannon has Breitbart train its sights on Trump.
But given Bannon’s commitment to the populist cause, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. And if he does end up on the outs with his current boss, he could try to vilify Trump as the betrayer-in-chief, the apostate who promised to be a voice for the people and quickly become another D.C. insider.
Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz