That which cannot go on forever, won't.
The Trump administration has turned a corner, we are told. The appointment of the no-nonsense, anti-ideological General John Kelly to replace Reince Priebus as Trump’s chief of staff has imposed order on an administration prone to chaos. The president’s party in control of Congress has not allowed Donald Trump to indulge his worst excesses unchecked, nor have the courts. As Charles Krauthammer wrote in a column last week, American institutions ranging from the military, to law enforcement, to even the Boy Scouts have resisted the corrupting influence of a president with no use for republican norms. “Trump is a systemic stress test,” he wrote. “The results are good, thus far.”
The operative phrase there is “so far,” and even that’s a generous verdict.
For all the talk of the discipline forced upon the president and his more impetuous staffers by Kelly, Washington has not been liberated from all-consuming White House feuds spilling out into the public square. The latest and undoubtedly not the last of those squabbles is the ongoing turf war between the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster.
The dings and dents in those “guardrails” of democracy, whose structural integrity Krauthammer and others found reassuring, are evident if only because of the terrain on which this battle is being fought. The conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, a blogger American political observers are compelled to follow by virtue of his inexplicably high-level sources, is leading the charge against McMaster. The primary line of attack on the general has been to question his commitment to the integrity and independence of the state of Israel. Though the criticism is not invalid, it is all too precious coming from someone who chose to illustrate his critique with inarguably anti-Semitic propaganda.
A slightly more sophisticated assault on McMaster along these lines is being pursued by the bloggers at Breitbart, an organization Bannon led until last year. Among its “most popular” headlines from within the last 48 hours: “McMaster Worked at Think Tank Backed by Soros-Funded Group that Helped Obama Sell Iran Nuclear Deal,” “Liberal Anti-Trump Media Matters Goes All In for Embattled Gen. McMaster,” and “Top McMaster Ally Bill Kristol Plotting to Primary, Oust Trump: Must ‘Take One Shot’ at Removing POTUS.”
Honest policy disagreements partially motivate the consternation of the Bannon wing, in particular, the Bannon wing’s desire to see the U.S. extricate itself from Afghanistan immediately. It is also rooted, however, in antipathy toward McMaster for purging their like-minded compatriots from the National Security Council. The Daily Beast reported that former NSC members Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Col. Derek Harvey were Bannon loyalists first, and their ouster is a terrible sign for the nationalist wing of the GOP’s influence. “[I]f one crossed Cohen-Watnick in a staff meeting,” the report read, “a punishing leak to Cernovich would often quickly follow.”
Cohen-Watnick’s role in the humiliation of Rep. Devin Nunes and his alleged ties to a conspiracy theorist who deserves none of the legitimacy the political press bestows upon him should have resulted in his ouster a long time ago. The fact that the Bannon wing is mounting a counterattack against the forces sanity within this White House—an attack so effective that the president felt compelled to respond to them over the weekend—speaks to the parlous nature of this moment.
The real test of America’s civic “guardrails” will not come for many months, presuming Donald Trump is persuaded by his advisors and Republicans in Congress not to seek the dissolution of the special counsel probe into his campaign. If Trump makes a run at Robert Mueller and, by necessity, his Justice Department, all bets will be off. Even if he doesn’t, there could be a substantial crisis brewing.
Mueller’s probe has impaneled a grand jury to investigate the Trump campaign, and it is almost guaranteed to turn into a fishing expedition. That’s what grand juries do; it’s their prerogative, as determined by the Supreme Court. The investigation into alleged criminal wrongdoing by former Trump NSA Gen. Mike Flynn has expanded to include investigations into Trump’s personal finances and decades-old business practices. This is a president with skeletons in his closet. For goodness sake, Trump tapped a convicted felon with Mafia ties to serve as his senior advisor on a real estate venture. This grand jury is unlikely to emerge from a deep-dive into the Trump vault empty handed.
How President Trump responds when the Mueller probe does release its findings will test the tensile strength of America’s civic tapestry, but that is many months away. That’s plenty of time for repeated assaults on those “guardrails” to take their toll.
Just 200 days into the Trump presidency, a variety of previously underappreciated norms may be gone for good. The president has surrounded himself with family, testing to the brink anti-nepotism guidelines. He (or his campaign) have established an online “news network” for the benefit of more credulous supporters. The Trump presidency and the Trump Organization’s business interests overlap in discomfiting ways. Trump has made war on his intelligence services and his justice department, set military policy, and attacked media outlets and individual personalities and reporters; and all from behind a Twitter account.
Trump’s defenders will say, with reason, that some of these precedents are not entirely his own. In fact, when it comes to Trump’s provocative communications strategy, he is merely following in Barack Obama’s footsteps. That’s correct; precedents beget precedents. A bad one yields a worse one. There is no American Cincinnatus on the horizon who seeks to assume the presidency with the chief aim of curbing its influence. The next president will assume a presidency armed with these new standards of conduct and ready to make new ones. And there are many precedents Trump has yet to set.
Those who laud the Trump administration for its newfound stability are damning with faint praise. Everything is relative, and the volatility that has typified this White House so far renders that assessment suspect. It’s a testament to our collective exhaustion that so many seem eager to declare that our deliverance from the uncertainty wrought by an unorthodox president and his unconventional administration has finally arrived.
America’s Stress Test Isn’t Over
Must-Reads from Magazine
How far–how low–do religious leaders end up going when they decide that, in public life, the end justify any means? Consider the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr. For the Liberty University president, the end was the advancement of social conservatism. The means: Donald Trump.
Falwell endorsed Trump for the GOP nomination ahead of the Iowa Caucuses last year, and soon he emerged as one of the New Yorker’s most ardent evangelical backers. Trump’s dissolute personal life didn’t make him an ideal avatar for the evangelical cause. Nor did his transparently opportunistic change of heart on social issues such as abortion. But Falwell reminded his flock that Trump was running for president, not “pastor-in-chief.”
In a March 2016 interview with a Liberty campus newspaper, he even compared the Donald with David. Hadn’t David, though an adulterer and a murderer, found favor with God? (Yes, who can forget that marvelous Psalm, in which the king cries out to the Lord, “I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness. I’ve had great relationships and developed even greater relationships with ministers”?)
Judging by his Twitter and TV blitz over the weekend, Falwell has kept the Trumpian faith through the first eight months of the Trump administration. Trump’s response to Charlottesville, Falwell tweeted, had been “bold” and “truthful.” He added: “So proud of @realdonaldtrump.” Note that Falwell’s praise came after the president suggested that there had been “very fine people” among the Nazis, Klansmen, and neo-Confederates who marched in Charlottesville.
Pressed by ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday to identify these very fine people, Falwell descended to absurdity: “I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statutes, I don’t know. But he had inside information that I didn’t.” And more: “He saw videos of who was there. I think he was talking about what he had seen, information he had that I don’t have.” The president gets into trouble, Falwell concluded, “because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct; he says what’s in his heart.”
By now, these are familiar tropes of the Trumpian mind.
If the president says something untrue or absurd, it must be because he has secret knowledge about the matter at hand (in this case, about the supposedly innocent subjective views of people who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us”).
If Trump undermines presidential norms, if his careless rhetoric inflames rather than calms the nation in a moment of crisis, get over it. He isn’t PC–as if the political incorrectness of a statement guarantees that it is also true or worthwhile.
If you object to Trump’s lack of personal grace, his narcissism, his refusal to disavow support from the basest elements of his base, well, he isn’t the pope–again as if only pastors of souls are expected to possess grace, selflessness, and moral discernment.
It didn’t have to be like this for Falwell. One of the great blessings of believing in a loving and personal God is that it liberates one from the populist impulses of the moment. As Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention noted in his contribution to National Review’s “Against Trump” issue, “Trump can win only in the sort of celebrity-focused mobocracy … in which sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power combined with promises of ‘winning’ for the masses. Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant.”
Moore might have added self-degrading.
Podcast: What to expect in a post-Bannon world
The first COMMENTARY podcast of the week finds us—me, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman—wondering at the grandiose plans of Steve Bannon after the White House. A new news channel! War in the Republican party! Etc! All this leads into speculation about 2020, because why not, and why Joe Biden might be the guy to challenge Trump. And then we descend into more crushing morosity as we contemplate whether our divisions nationally are just too large to heal. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Sobriety in September.
August is traditionally the silly season in American politics and journalism, and this August is living up to the sobriquet.
Apparently, not even celestial mechanics is exempt from the necessity to be politically correct. To wit, there’s an article in The Atlantic complaining about Monday’s solar eclipse. The author says that not enough black people live along the path of totality. While it’s true that the northwest and high plains states at the start of the eclipse have very low black populations, that’s not true of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina at the end of the path.
Horses are in the same category as celestial mechanics. The mascot of the University of Southern California has been for decades a white Arabian horse named Traveler. The current horse is the ninth to bear the name, and he charges across the field every time the team makes a touchdown, ridden by someone dressed up as a Trojan. The problem? The horse’s name is Traveler.
So what, all but serious Civil War history buffs might well ask? But that was, almost, the name of General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller. Traveller rests in peace near the grave of his master at what is still called, I think, Washington and Lee University. Up the road, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, is buried at Virginia Military Institute, although his mounted hide can be seen in a glass case. Stonewall Jackson was a lousy horseman, by the way, and Little Sorrel was a placid creature almost guaranteed not to throw him.
Speaking of horses, the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans, inexplicably left standing, was defaced with graffiti calling for it to be torn down. I hadn’t realized that she fought for the South.
And speaking of General Lee, the statue of Lee in the chapel of Duke University will be removed. However, the statue of George Washington Duke—Confederate sailor, slave owner, and tobacco magnate in whose factories worked poorly paid black labor—will surely not be. His son gave Trinity College $40 million in 1924, and it was promptly renamed Duke University in the old man’s memory.
Oh, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which “temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” has been defaced with four-letter graffiti.
To paraphrase Shelley, when the silly season comes, can Labor Day be far behind? I hope not.
An imitation mastermind exits a make-believe position
The fact that Steve Bannon, ousted from his senior role at the Trump White House, was its “chief strategist” in the first place is testimony to how accidental this presidency was and is. Who would hire for such a job a person whose first serious involvement in American political life had come only a few years earlier when he found himself running a right-wing media website due to a tragic accident—and whose entire involvement in actual political events was limited to three late months on the Trump campaign? This is the sort of thing that, in a normal universe, might get someone a deputy assistant to the president post as a reward—not a personal fiefdom inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Bannon is the greatest genius since Picasso. The fact is, Picasso had had art lessons before his Blue Period. Bannon took a central role in the White House with a knowledge base about the practical workings of politics gleaned entirely from books and newspapers. Trump the real-estate guy wouldn’t ever have hired a project manager who’d never so much as built a Lego tower before. In effect, that’s what he did with Bannon.
To be fair, no one really knows what a “strategist” is. The word’s common use can, I believe, be attributed to my friend Bill Kristol, who decided to call himself a “Republican strategist” when he had left the first Bush White House and was being sought to give good quote about the condition of the GOP in 1993 and 1994. From Bill’s clever innovation, a fancy-sounding title for a non-existent title perfect for a TV chyron became a national sensation.
Now the question is, what will the departure of this made-for-TV job mean for the Trump White House? My guess is: Not very much. Stephen Miller, who may be 30 years younger than Bannon but has about five times the political experience, is still in there fighting for what is essentially the Bannon worldview. Trump’s entirely personal decision to lean toward the alt-Right in the past week is an indication that the conservative fear he might move leftward is ridiculous. Trump is gonna dance with the one who brung him here; he thinks he owes those guys.
So basically what I’m saying is: The Bannon subplot is over. Time for the rise of a new White House figure to serve the subject of the next “he’s the real president” newsmagazine cover story.
A long time coming.
The horrific series of events in Barcelona is yet another macabre example of what is starting to feel like Europe’s new normal. This is the era of frequent, low-tech, mass casualty Jihadist attacks, in which any ideologically driven fanatic can jump in a van or pick up a knife and inflict carnage on the streets of our cities. The former head of Mi5, Lord Evans, has predicted that the battle against this form of terrorism is likely to last for a generation.
Yet there is a certain added grotesque irony to the attacks in Barcelona. This current wave of Islamist terrorism, the so-called leaderless Jihad, has its origins in Spain. When that van sped through Barcelona’s iconic Las Rambles, plowing down innocent pedestrians, the latest incarnation of Jihadism was coming home to roost.
This kind of terrorism, increasingly familiar across Europe, was, in fact, masterminded by a Spaniard. A veteran Jihadist called Abu Musab al-Suri. Formerly part of al-Qaeda, he is understood to have parted with Osama Bin Laden. In 2005, he published what would turn out to be a hugely significant text: “the Global Islamic Resistance Call.” It would be some years before western countries would feel the full effect of the strategy outlined in this document, but it is precisely the tactics developed by al-Suri that have gone on to form the basis of Islamic State strategy and the strategy for the IS inspired attacks that we are now seeing in the West.
Abu Musab al-Suri has had a decades’ long involvement in modern Jihadism, and particularly with Islamist terrorism in Spain. The Spanish authorities have wanted al-Suri since 2003, for his role in establishing the country’s first al-Qaeda cell in the mid-1990s. However, Al Suri’s role in terrorism in Spain goes back to well before this. Spain also wants al-Suri in connection to the 1985 Madrid bombing by the Islamic Jihad Organization, in which a restaurant frequented by US servicemen was blown up leaving 18 people dead. But it is also believed that he may have had a connection to the far more devastating 2004 Madrid train bombing, which killed 191 people.
Al-Suri’s jihadism took him to several conflict zones, including Afghanistan. But his most significant role has been as an ideological mastermind. During the 1990s he spent a stint living in London. From there he was editor of al-Ansar, one of the most important Jihadist magazines the time. His writings would also later be published in al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. It has even been suggested that al-Suri was ideologically connected to the 7/7 bombings, given that his writings had specifically encouraged the targeting of the London Underground.
By 2005, however, it seems that al-Suri had become disillusioned with al-Qaeda’s strategy. Its rigid, top-down structure and highly-organized, sophisticated attacks had brought about neither the desired awakening among Muslims nor the Islamist revolution the Jihadists had hoped for. In 2005, al-Suri released his “Global Islamic Resistance Call” onto the internet. Envisaging a leaderless Jihad, in which individuals or small cells would form their own organic and independent plots, they would avoid detection by not linking to a large structured network and instead used the internet to spread ideology and tactics. Crucially, al-Suri’s Jihadist manifesto stresses the importance of ultimately capturing territory to establish an Islamic state. This obscure Spanish extremist had set in motion events that would bring about the wave of terrorism being suffered today.
Al-Qaeda had hoped to function as a vanguard for triggering a much larger Islamist insurgency. But it was the rise of Islamic State in Syria that would eventually turbo charge the vision laid out by al-Suri. Between 2014 and 2016, Islamic State’s prolific spokesman, Mohammed Adnani put out a series of messages to Muslims living in the West, increasingly calling on them not to travel to the Middle East, but to instead carry out attacks in the West using whatever they had available to them; a knife, a car, poison, even a rock if need be. And Adnani told adherents in the West not to wait for instructions, but to take their own initiative and to target civilians. Like al-Suri, IS believe that through attacking civilians in the West, they can eventually bring about a clash in Europe that will rally European Muslims behind them.
In Barcelona, as with the recent vehicular attacks in London and Paris, we are witnessing the adherents of this strategy attempting to get their deranged, but terribly dangerous, plan off the ground. And in a chillingly ironic way, via al-Suri, it is a strategy that traces some of its origins back to Spain. European authorities are now engaged in struggle of trying to prevent any more of al-Suri’s vision from coming to fruition. But as the former head of Mi5 has warned us, it is a generational task we now face, and there can be little doubt that Europe is now caught up amid a new era of Jihad.