Steve Bannon was a unique administration figure in many ways, but in another, he was part of a long White House tradition.
For the past four decades, Republicans have viewed themselves as the party of ideas—and a crucial part of that self-perception has been having a person inside the White House to serve as a conduit to conservative thinkers. Ever since Richard Nixon, Republican presidents have installed a kind of resident intellectual who can help shape the president's vision, articulate that vision to conservative thinkers, and—importantly—warn the president of discontent from his key supporters in that conservative idea world.
Steve Bannon wasn't a traditional liaison to that world, but there's no question he served this function for the Trump administration, keeping it connected to at least a portion of a national ecosystem of conservative thinkers that has provided significant benefits for Republicans over the years. If he is not replaced wisely, that absence would not only represent a break from that tradition, but would create a worrisome gap for Trump as he tries to get Republicans, Congress and Americans on board for his agenda. Given this need, one of Trump's key challenges—and opportunities—will be figuring out just what kind of person should replace Bannon.
Trump may not like to think of it this way, but keeping intellectuals close remains crucial for Republican administrations. Conservative thinkers populate the think tanks that help Republican politicians develop and market policy; they offer platforms in the forms of magazines and op-ed columns to sell conservative ideas, and people willing to go on TV and radio to make conservative arguments. With conservatives generally unpopular on university campuses and in mainstream media organizations, this counterestablishment has long provided homes for conservative thinkers in the policy and political worlds, and gives Republican administrations a talent pool for filling policy jobs.
Democrats have had their resident intellectuals too—Franklin Roosevelt had his brain trust of academic appointees at the agencies, and John F. Kennedy brought in Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as a White House aide—but Republicans in recent decades have been more consistent in doing so. Going back to the late 1960s, Richard Nixon hired Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a neoconservative (at the time) Democrat who kept Nixon up to date—and often outraged—over the excesses of the New Left. It was Moynihan who told Nixon about the Black Panther fundraiser held at Leonard Bernstein's apartment, a tale deliciously recounted in Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic. He also told Nixon about threats from Students for a Democratic Society to his own family, threats that forced the Moynihans to evacuate their Cambridge home. In doing so, Moynihan highlighted Nixon's fears of the radical left and his belief in the "silent majority" of patriotic, non-protesting Americans. In a theme that might sound familiar today, Moynihan stressed to Nixon that the purveyors of culture were not on their side. "No one writes articles for us, much less books, plays, or folk songs," he argued.
In the years following Nixon, other Republican presidents found it easier to tap credentialed intellectuals from their own party. Gerald Ford hired the academic Robert Goldwin to bring in ideas from conservative thinkers, including James Q. Wilson, Thomas Sowell, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Edward Banfield, and especially Irving Kristol. Goldwin found Kristol so useful that he deemed him "the universal resource." Goldwin, labeled "Gerald Ford's ideas broker," had the benefit of having worked with White House chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, but he also was a legitimate Ph.D. and former professor with serious intellectual credibility. When he left the administration, Goldwin did not return to academia, but signed up with the American Enterprise Institute, a sign of the increasing primacy of think tanks over academia as a home for conservative-minded intellectuals.
Ronald Reagan may have benefited most from conservative intellectual support—in his run for the White House, as president, and in continuing to burnish his legacy. Professor Martin Anderson served as Reagan's intellectual and helped build a network of 500 other thinkers who backed Reagan, many of whom went to join the administration in policy positions. George H. W. Bush, in contrast, struggled on this front. A Bush transition official told the Washington Post, "Our people don't have agendas. They have mortgages," suggesting that conservative intellectuals were neither sought nor welcome. When the administration appeared to drift, lacking a coherent agenda, domestic policy staffer Jim Pinkerton tried to develop a series of policy initiatives, labeled the New Paradigm. But OMB Director Dick Darman dismissed Pinkerton's ideas, mocking the concept in a speech, calling it "neo-neo-ism" and joking, "Brother, can you paradigm?" For Bush, the failure to nurture the conservative intellectuals contributed to tepid conservative support in his failed reelection bid. His son did not repeat the mistake: George W. Bush courted the thinkers and writers on the right, with the help of strategist Karl Rove and his aide Pete Wehner, who maintained regular contact with conservative thought leaders via his Wehner-gram messages—blast emails to a carefully curated list—explaining the administration's thinking.
Up to this point, for good or for ill, Donald Trump has had Steve Bannon to serve in the closest approximation to this role. No one would argue that Bannon meets the definition of a traditional intellectual. He's neither a Ph.D. nor policy nerd, but more of a combative political operative with a far-reaching media entity in the form of Breitbart. But Bannon unquestionably has been an ideas person for Trump, articulating a wide-ranging vision of America in history and the Trump administration's role in attempting to right the ship. More than anyone else in the White House, it was Bannon who reached out to those conservatives sympathetic to Trump's agenda and explained the administration's approach. Chris Buskirk, editor of the online journal American Greatness, who was in frequent contact with Bannon in the White House, told me that Bannon served as a conduit of Trump's messages to supporters of the administration, telling them "what was going on and how to make the case for the administration." Bannon appears to have been less in contact with traditional think tank scholars than others who have served in his White House role, most likely for reasons that were mutual. Trump represented a direct challenge to the traditional conservative intellectual establishment in Washington, and many of those writers and intellectuals were the first to dig in as "never-Trumpers"—but outreach to those who did support Trump was clearly part of Bannon's mission.
Like many of his predecessors, Bannon read often and widely. As Buskirk told me, "Bannon is a huge reader. He read everything." The New York Times' Marc Tracy wrote a piece on Bannon's book club, noting that he saw Bannon in an airport with a copy of David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest." Others wrote of Bannon's affinity for William Strauss and Neil David Howe's semi-apocalyptic "The Fourth Turning." Bannon also brought in authors to have discussions in the White House, including Dinesh D'Souza, a pro-Trump former fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Hoover. One major difference between Bannon and his predecessors, though, is that he did not appear to be able to get his boss interested in his reading. Moynihan often recommended books to Nixon, and Rove even had a reading contest with Bush. Trump, in contrast, has made clear that he gets his information from other sources, specifically from cable TV. (Bannon's wide-ranging reading may even have contributed to his downfall in the White House. His damaging interview with liberal journalist Robert Kuttner came as a result of Bannon calling Kuttner after reading and liking a piece Kuttner had written in the American Prospect.) In Bannon's absence, it is unlikely that others in Trump's inner circle will be reading so widely across the ideological spectrum—or attempting that kind of outreach.
Trump likes to think of himself as the whole show—his own strategist, his own communications guru, his own political whisperer. And he's had some successes in those arenas. But this is one area in which Trump really does need the help: He doesn't have the patience, the background, or the interest to be able to articulate a consistent conservative-friendly vision and to get other conservatives on board. Bannon's absence means the White House lacks someone who can attempt to create a coherent narrative for the administration's efforts. A post-Bannon idea person adviser could attempt to articulate a larger coherent message, and at the same time galvanize supporters with outside media platforms to pass on the administration's messages and goals.
Who should Trump bring aboard? Nearly everyone in Washington hopes that such a successor would be a proponent of a different set of ideas than Bannon's; his ethno-nationalist vision did not appear to correspond to the mainstream or the ideological wing of either party. In seeking a Bannon replacement, one approach would be to look for a more traditional conservative thinker, which could help improve ties with the conservative intellectual establishment, as well as the House and Senate Republican leadership. If Trump is willing to go that direction, this could be a chance for the White House to patch up some of those troubled relations with traditional conservatives and tamp down the White House infighting. Finding such a person at this stage would be challenging, though: Intellectuals who operate on the basis of consistent ideas and principle might not want to join an administration in which any new statement from the president might send policy in an unexpected direction. Furthermore, the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the attendant presidential statements and non-statements make recruitment of someone from the more traditional conservative intellectual establishment even harder, given the risks to their reputations and relations with their conservative peers.
Furthermore, it is not at all clear that Trump would be interested in that kind of traditional conservative voice. Given these obstacles, Trump could seek a replacement with ties to the new populist right, to help protect himself from criticism from a Breitbart with Bannon back at the helm. This is certainly a realistic possibility: the Trump administration may have already lost most of the conservative intellectual establishment anyway, and a more populist conservative would be useful in connecting with what Trump sees as his base. Such a move would do little, however, to help the Trump administration build beyond its base, and it's likely that such a person would get embroiled in the same type of internecine White House conflicts that characterized Bannon's tenure.
Going forward, the administration could face some stark choices. If the president selects another Bannon to replace him, it could continue to encourage some of the administration's darker tendencies, which have added to some of the alarming messages coming from the administration. But not replacing him at all could further isolate the White House, making policy decisions appear to lack any coherence at all. Not filling the role would be a self-inflicted wound, while filling the role with the wrong person would be a missed opportunity. But finding the right person to serve as a White House intellectual, one with real credibility and a larger vision that Trump might listen to, could help chief of staff John Kelly in his effort to right a troubled administration, and provide an idea conduit both to and from a White House that manifestly needs one.