President-elect Donald Trump’s newly minted transition team announced Sunday that Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus will serve as White House chief of staff and Stephen Bannon, former chairman of Breitbart Media, has been named Trump’s senior counselor.
These early cabinet picks point to a balance of seasoned GOP politicians as well as fresh faces who will appeal to Trump’s populist voter base and give credence to his campaign promises to “drain the swamp” of Washington insiders.
Priebus and Trump have not always had such a close or amicable relationship. Back in April, Priebus and Trump were more foe than friend following a contentious Republican primary. Priebus was tasked with uniting a Republican party split on whether Trump be nominated at the GOP candidate. At the height of their differences, Trump said in an interview that Priebus “should be ashamed of himself” for being complicit in a nomination process that Trump felt was a rigged. For months Priebus occupied an awkward position that required him to choose between his own legacy within the GOP and the post-Trump future of the party.
In the end, Priebus chose to throw his weight behind Trump’s campaign, and helped to prepare the former reality TV star and businessman for the presidential debates against opponent Hillary Clinton. That decision now seems to have paid off, while the third figure in the Republican primary power struggle, Paul Ryan, has yet to find his footing in the new regime.
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Stephen Bannon is the more controversial choice by far, given that Breitbart Media is, in Bannon’s own words, “the platform for the alt-right.” Indeed, as CBS pointed out, Breitbart Media’s rise is parallel to that of the Tea Party, and at the time he took on a major role at Breitbart, Bannon was best known for a documentary on Sarah Palin. Since then, he pivoted Breitbart further into the territory of the fringe-right, a move that runs alongside Trump’s own political ascendency. By the time Trump appointed Bannon to the position of campaign CEO in August, the Washington Post noted that “it was the latest sign for white nationalists, once dismissed as fringe, that their worldview was gaining popularity and that the old Republican Party was coming to an end.”
Prior to inviting Bannon to join his campaign team, Trump had already raised eyebrows after being slow to denounce the support of open white supremacist David Duke. Critics called attention to advertisements and campaign rhetoric that borrowed imagery and wording frequently seen in anti-Semitic and white nationalist circles. Throughout his campaign, support by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, as well as Trump’s own remarks on groups from the Latinx community to Muslim-Americans, reinforced the impression of the now President-elect as a racist (though David Axelrod has a different opinion).
The senior counselor role Bannon will occupy has been previously held by Karl Rove during George W. Bush’s presidency and David Axelrod during Obama’s two terms, amongst others. It entails high-level work in the executive branch, and can extend to communications and speech writing. Rove proved just how powerful the position can be, and Axelrod is a great example of how White House aides can shape a presidency, for better or for worse in each instance. In appointing Bannon, Trump suggests that courting the alt-right voter base was not merely a campaign strategy, but will be an integral part of his presidential policy. Indeed, Trump said in an interview with 60 Minutes on Sunday that he plans to deport two to three million immigrants, in line with statements made on the campaign trail.
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What Preibus and Bannon have in common is that each comes to the White House with experience in reworking and updating organizations—the Republican Party, Breitbart Media— to better reflect their evolving constituencies and increase their relevance. In giving the two men high-level leadership roles, Trump has sidestepped the GOP’s debate over the future of the party and charted a clear course of his own devising, one akin to European far-right politics. Indeed, Trump’s transition has been marked by visits from the architect of the Brexit “Leave” movement.
While Trump lacks political experience, he has a businessman’s understanding of how crucial the C-Suite can be to defining an organization, even when that organization is the executive branch of the United States government. His choices send a strong message about Trump’s desire to harness the power of the core GOP while shaking up a conservative movement that Bannon himself has described as “boring.”