Guest Opinion: The next president’s whisperer

Chicago Tribune
Dec. 17
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With just a week or so under his belt as president-elect, Donald Trump has spoken in public briefly, given a few interviews and bashed out some colorful tweets. Americans still processing his stunning victory will have to wait a bit longer to get a full sense of the next president’s priorities.

But already there’s this: Trump has named Stephen Bannon, 62, his White House chief strategist.

Bannon, the political equivalent of a shock jock, was little known until he became Trump’s campaign chief executive in August. He is a conservative media impresario whose resume includes Georgetown, Harvard, the Pentagon and Goldman Sachs. He’s now the executive chairman of Breitbart News, whose popular website dabbles in the swamp lands of the far right. A lot of bigoted ugliness swims out there in the so-called alt-right, and Bannon has let it fester on Breitbart.com.

Trump won as a populist insurgent who used bullying and intemperate language to fan his message. The strategy worked but also helped divide the country. Appointing Bannon as consigliere is not a good step toward unity. It agitates the not-my-president slice of the American populace. And it confuses Americans who are trying to give the president-elect a fresh start — but who also need to see evidence that Trump will abide his promise to be “president for all Americans.”

When Trump takes office, Bannon will play the role David Axelrod played for the nation’s last novice president. His will be the whisper in President Trump’s ear. His work product won’t be what the White House proposes or what Congress passes. His work product will be what the president does. What the president says. What message the president projects to the country and the world.

We get what Trump is trying to do by appointing Bannon. The president-elect made two major picks early this week: He also chose Reince Priebus to be chief of staff, the Oval Office gatekeeper. Priebus, head of the Republican Party, was a shrewd selection. Someone in the White House needs political experience to guide Trump’s agenda through Washington’s thicket. Priebus is perfectly positioned to be the hour-by-hour liaison to his friend and fellow Wisconsinite, House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Priebus is nobody’s bomb thrower. He’s a member of the Normal Club. But that also pegs him as an establishment guy, making Trump vulnerable to accusations of being a sell-out. So to assuage the anti-establishment crowd, here comes Bannon, whose website was one of Trump’s most vocal cheerleaders.

The problem is that Bannon, who will sit at the right hand of a president, also works as a conduit to hate and intolerance. Bannon has said Breitbart is “the platform for the alt-right.” Yet the “alt-right” is a repellent, nationalist political movement that breeds racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny. The alt-right miasma “opposes feminism, diversity, gay rights, globalism, gun control and civil rights,” according to Baruch College professor Thomas Main, who is writing a book on the movement. At the fringes of the alt-right is where you find American neo-Nazis and the Klan, two groups evidently thrilled by Trump’s victory.

On the issue of Trump’s presidency, we want to remain patient as well as vigilant. Presidents get fresh starts and wide latitude to set their agendas. Bannon helped Trump get elected, which makes him more clever than the Democratic operatives who backed Hillary Clinton, the losing presidential candidate. Maybe his primary White House role is to be a sop to supporters and that’s all.

But Trump voters aren’t the only Americans anxiously waiting for positive signals from the new administration. While Trump will never placate Democrats, there’s another crucial group we’ll call America’s middle third who need to be assuaged. Many of them didn’t vote for Trump but they may make the biggest difference in the success of his presidency: They’ll either be won over or will bolt to the opposition. Like every president, Trump will calibrate many of his actions according to how far he can go without losing them.

That’s always a tough balance. In today’s America it’s especially tough. By adding someone as notorious as Bannon to his team, the new president has more than sent the wrong signal. He also has risked alienating the vast swath of Americans who will determine whether his presidency succeeds or fails. And he’s done it well before even taking the oath of office.