It has become commonplace to suggest that, whatever policy positions or leadership priorities he’s pursuing at any given moment, Donald Trump possesses no overarching political ideology of his own. His administration, the thinking goes, is fashioned around his volatile temperament and his ever-shifting array of advisers. His beliefs are as fleeting as his late-night tweets, and as subject to sudden shifts in direction.
But decades before Twitter existed, Trump was spending his not-so-hard-earned money to promote a range of strong—and surprisingly consistent—political positions. In September 1987, he shelled out $94,801 to buy full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. Addressed “to the American People,” the ad harshly depicted the nation’s so-called allies as deadbeats and freeloaders. “Make Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others pay for the protection we extend as allies,” Trump demanded. “Let’s help our farmers, our sick, our homeless … end our huge deficits, reduce our taxes, and let America’s economy grow unencumbered by the cost of defending those who can easily afford to pay us for the defense of their freedom.” He concluded with a rhetorical flourish that foreshadowed his now-famous campaign slogan: “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.”
A salient detail about the ad—besides the way it perfectly aligns with Trump’s current screw-you stance toward NATO—is that it actually hurt Trump’s bottom line. “Japanese wealth was a key to the marketing of his luxury condominiums and his casinos in Atlantic City,” John O’Donnell, the former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, writes in his tell-all memoir, Trumped! “The damage to our efforts to promote Trump Plaza in the Far East was incalculable.” Trump, it would seem, cared more about promoting his political opinions than protecting his bank account.
Two years later, Trump again paid tens of thousands of dollars to make his knee-jerk opinions more widely known, this time weighing in on the infamous Central Park jogger case with a call to “bring back the death penalty” for its five suspects. (Despite the eventual exoneration of all five young men—four black, one Latino—after the real attacker belatedly confessed, Trump remains convinced they were guilty.) “What has happened to law and order,” Trump asked in his rambling, emotional ad, “to the neighborhood cop we all trusted to safeguard our homes and families, the cop who had the power under the law to help us in times of danger, keep us safe from those who would prey on innocent lives to fulfill some distorted inner need.” There was no question mark. But here, too, Trump suggested that America was being “laughed at”—this time by domestic foes.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from these seminal moments in the evolutionary prehistory of @realDonaldTrump, it’s that the president does, in fact, have a relatively constant and unswerving matrix of political beliefs. His ideology combines a distaste for multilateral constraints on American military and economic might with a stark vision of a white-majority social order in near-terminal decline. Trump has not only held these convictions for decades, he is deeply passionate about them. And perhaps most disconcertingly, he shares them with Steve Bannon, his White House chief strategist and an apostle of authoritarian political disruption for its own sake.
In the years before joining Trump’s presidential campaign, Bannon—a noted Islamophobe, war enthusiast, and self-described “economic nationalist”—had successfully transformed Breitbart News into a daily “must read” for America’s most virulently racist and frightened white citizens. Bannon grew up in a family of Irish Catholic Democrats who were swayed by Richard Nixon’s platform of law-and-order Republicanism when he was a teen. Together, Trump and Bannon successfully cribbed several big themes from Nixon’s campaign playbook. In his RNC acceptance speech—one of many Trump star turns crafted under Bannon’s influence—the newly anointed nominee proudly declared himself “the law and order candidate,” and promised that America under his rule “will also be a country of law and order.”
The speech may have benefited from Bannon’s guidance, but it was completely aligned with the nostalgic, racist outlook of Donald Trump circa 1989. Back then, Trump was Travis Bickle with an inheritance, a profiteer of Manhattan’s post-“white flight” real estate crater, gliding around in the backseat of his silver Cadillac limo, nursing some internal Taxi Driver monologue about how “a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” But instead of attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate, as Bickle does, Trump became president of the United States.
Some White House Kremlinologists foresee a breach between Trump and Bannon, given each man’s outsize ego and unquenchable ambition. But such forecasts badly misread the true depths of the Trump-Bannon alliance. For starters, the various forces rooting for Trump to banish Bannon from his inner circle tend to misrepresent the intimacy and duration of their relationship, as if it dates back only to last August, when Bannon ascended to the role of chief executive officer for the Trump campaign.
The reality is closer to years. In August 2015, McKay Coppins at Buzzfeed published a shocking piece, in which three Breitbart employees and a conservative communications operative who’d worked closely with the site alleged that Trump had “provided undisclosed financial backing to the outlet in exchange for glowing coverage.” The communications operative claimed a staffer had seen documentation of the “pay for play” relationship—a charge Bannon denies. A year later, The Daily Beast reported that Bannon had joked to a friend in an email that he had secretly served as Trump’s hidden “campaign manager.” Friends and colleagues subsequently told The New York Times that Bannon had “quietly advised Mr. Trump throughout his campaign.”
You can hear just how Bannon communicated that advice in the one-on-one interviews he conducted with Trump on Breitbart’s radio show on SiriusXM. In more than two hours of conversation, from November 2015 to June 2016, an oddly deferential and courtly Bannon deployed an arsenal of leading questions, shameless flattery, and subtle prodding to ingratiate himself with his future boss. He complimented Trump on the size of his rallies, reminded him of just how early on he had recognized Trump’s political potential, and laughed unctuously at Trump’s boasts, like his promise to have billionaire “corporate raider” Carl Icahn renegotiate America’s trading partnership with China. But when Trump began to sound too populist in his complaints about super PACs, Bannon gently steered him toward a defense of Citizens United, posing Socratic questions about the First Amendment and political donations. Bannon also gave Trump openings by floating batshit hypotheticals, asking whether climate change or “radical Islam” represents the bigger existential threat. (Spoiler alert: Trump chose radical Islam.) Small wonder that, in several unguarded moments during the campaign, Bannon alternately called Trump “an imperfect vessel” and “a blunt instrument”; like all adepts at court politics, he understands that each obsequious audience with his king is crudely transactional. But that doesn’t make those audiences any less genuine, or any less ideologically driven.
For Trump, too, there is no going back, and nowhere else to turn. As we’ve been informed by Politico, the president finds himself delegating detail-oriented questions that bore or flummox him “to his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, or House Speaker Paul Ryan.” If Bannon was a hidden but essential figure during much of Trump’s campaign, he is now merely essential, responsible for so many key staffing choices and convoluted procedural decisions that he becomes more difficult to replace with each passing week.
As a result, Bannon’s inner circle of trusted underlings is fast morphing into Trump’s ideology squadron. Julia Hahn, one of Breitbart’s most vocal Paul Ryan critics, joined the White House right after the inauguration, as did Breitbart’s national security editor, Sebastian Gorka. Even if Bannon were somehow to be cashiered, the White House is now so deeply stocked with Bannonites—including senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Bannon has singled out as the movement’s central ideological enforcer—that Bannonism will remain integral to Trumpism no matter what happens to Bannon himself.
Bannon, a former Navy officer obsessed with military and political discipline—he has described his vision of political power as “Leninist”—has found an improbable kindred spirit in a wastrel Fauntleroy president who can’t make it to the end of his own intelligence briefings. But that’s the beauty of ideological alliances: They make enthusiastic partners out of strange bedfellows. For Bannon, and for the rest of us, the ideological baggage is now loaded in the imperfect vessel; the blunt instrument is being wielded. The good courtier summed it up best, characterizing just how close the ideological bond is between Trump and his innermost circle of advisers. “There’s no daylight between us,” Bannon said, “and there’s really no daylight with the president.”