Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey because he was leading an investigation into Trump’s Russia connection, whatever that may or may not be. But even as Trump essentially admitted this was the reason in a TV interview, the Trump Administration made one ridiculous excuse after another. First Trump passed the buck to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But when Rosenstein passed the buck back, Trump trolled the world and said Comey was fired because of his mistreatment of Hillary Clinton.
It’s a pitiful naivety that would allow anyone to believe anything Donald Trump says, particularly about this case. What the whole episode really proves, though, is that the rumors of Steve Bannon’s demise were greatly exaggerated. The decision to fire Comey may have been Trump’s, but Bannon’s fingerprints and the fingerprints of the alt-right are all over it.
At Breitbart, the fascist-lite publication formerly run by Bannon, reaction to Trump’s dismissal of Comey was jubilant. Readers viewed this as Trump following through on his promise to drain the swamp. No mention on the site has been made of Trump’s previous praise for Comey. The possibility that Comey was fired for investigation Trump is not entertained, but if it were it’d probably be even more celebrated.
While the Trump team scrambles for an excuse that will stick, others have simply told the media to go fuck itself. Longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone tweeted, “What Comey did to Hillary was disgraceful. I’m glad Trump fired him over it.” Russian diplomat Sergey Lavrov, who visited the White House the next day, responded, “He was fired? You’re kidding,” before dismissively walking out. Both responses seethe with contempt for anyone who asks questions. It’s Trump’s dictatorship now and he doesn’t have to explain anything.
He’ll spin it by saying he didn’t want taxpayer dollars wasted on fake news, but eventually Trump may just go ahead and admit, openly and unambiguously, that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. The sarcastic responses of Stone and Lavrov already say as much, and rub it in to boot. Steve Bannon is that level of brazen. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who are both widely despised by the alt-right, are not.
Trump appointed his children to high-level posts solely because they are loyal to him. Not one of the Trump children has demonstrated any special aptitude for policy, diplomacy, or even business. But after money, Trump values loyalty above everything. If he decides he’s going to go Steve Bannon’s way, the kids will fall in line. Dissention is career suicide; outside the Trump universe they have no potential.
As he alienates more of the establishment and continues to sink in the polls, Trump’s political survival will come to rest ever more strongly on the far-right, nationalist base radicalized by outlets like Bannon’s Breitbart. For them, democracy is an enemy to be stamped out. They don’t fear Trump will undermine US democratic institutions or the system of checks and balances; they hope and pray he will. Firing Comey is the biggest step yet in that direction.
So-called principled conservatives will issue the occasional chiding of Trump and opine out loud that some of this is not OK. But the GOP is, at its core, a single-issue party. It wants to remove any and all forms of social responsibility – taxes, environmental regulations, labor standards, and so on – from corporations and the wealthy. Trump will always pursue that, so he’ll always have Republican support.
Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood producer, certainly has a radical pro-corporate agenda of his own. But he also has an apocalyptic vision of a civilization-altering conflagration between the Christian West and the Muslim East. This is what makes Bannon the most dangerous member of Trump’s counsel. He has the drive, the means, and the genuine belief, as well as a small army of rabid, armed zealots inculcated to his extreme worldview through Breitbart and other alt-right outlets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a fellow traveler in this crusade. Putin has supported far-right nationalists around the world, including France’s failed presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Some on the alt-right consider Putin “the leader of the free world right now.” He is a notorious abuser of journalists and, like Trump, uses his position over the Russian economy to enrich himself. Authoritarian Putin lands nicely in between Bannon the nationalist and Trump the crony capitalist.
At this point it barely matters if Trump actively colluded with Russia. His business ties there are far more interesting and have been relatively well known since long before the election. As George Carlin once observed, “You don’t need a formal conspiracy when interests converge… They know what’s good for them.” What’s good for Trump, Putin, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the $500 billion oil deal that was scuttled when President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea.
Trump trusts Bannon to help him maintain his connection to the so-called deplorables, the reactionaries who long for a white nationalist to conquer America’s dangerously equitable institutions. They will provide Trump a dependable political base while he takes authoritarian control and pilfers the public trust. Bannon may not have pulled the trigger on Comey, but the firing proves that it’s his model of government that is still the primary driver of Trump’s White House.